Feminist Friends Forever: Met and Unmet.

Maxine Kumin died last week at age 88. In her typically thoughtful obituary, Margalit Fox highlights Kumin’s long life as a poet, teacher, mother, and friend.

Although I never met Kumin, I did correspond with her briefly when I edited an interview she had done with Diane Middlebrook about Anne Sexton in the early 1980s. Diane―who had been a friend of mine, though not at the time―was researching her biography of Sexton, and spent several hours with Kumin, discussing her relationship with Sexton. It was a famous friendship between two famous poets who met early in their careers.

In the late 1950s Ms. Kumin enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop, where Ms. Sexton was also a student. They became such close friends, and such close readers of each other’s work, that each installed a dedicated phone line in her house on which to call the other. When writing, they left the receivers of the hook; the moment one finished a poem she would whistle into the open line, and the other would come running to hear it, a system that proved a supremely effective forerunner of instant messaging.

KuminDWM

Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin at a meeting of the John Holmes workshop.

Sexton’s suicide in 1974 was shattering for Kumin, but she went on writing poetry, as well as essays, novels, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir.

Diane envied the friendship, and so did my friend Carolyn Heilbrun. Carolyn had admired Kumin for years and would have liked to write a book about her. Kumin demurred. Carolyn described her admiration for Kumin in “Unmet Friends,” an autobiographical meditation from The Last Gift of Time (1997).

For me Kumin has been a woman, vital to my sixties, whom I know in a way no biographer or friend can know her: she is her poems and essays, and what I choose to make of them. At its simplest level, she is what I might have wished to become but never could; her life seems to me a very heaven, intermingling animals and poetry.

During my brief email correspondence with Kumin, I learned that she and Carolyn had dinner together at some point in the Village. Carolyn, moreover, blurbed Kumin’s 2000 memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: “Here is a singular story of survival, an earthly miracle wrought by family devotion, gardens, horses and guts. A compelling read.” I was astonished to learn that Carolyn had finally met her unmet friend.

What we don’t know about our friends!

I (stupidly) did not save our emails, so I cannot recall exactly what Kumin told me about their encounter. Kumin did say, however, that she had been intimidated by Carolyn’s erudition. Since Carolyn had committed suicide not long after that meeting, I asked Kumin whether Carolyn seemed depressed. She said yes.

Toward the end of the obituary, Fox observes that Kumin’s work asks how, how “can one weather the losses life’s course makes inevitable?” For Kumin the answer “lay in the promise of continuity from generation to generation.” And in closing Fox quotes from a poem inspired by one of Kumin’s grandchildren.

So here is where Carolyn’s beliefs diverged dramatically from Kumin’s: Carolyn’s grandchildren, it would seem, did not help her deal with the kinds of losses she had to have felt when she decided to leave the world. Her fantasized identification with the poet ended there.

Are biological generations our only buffer against loss? Without children and grandchildren, I have come to think, or at least hope, that friends themselves―especially our younger friends―also offer that promise of continuity and solace. The value of friendship between women is one of feminism’s most precious gifts, even if in the heat of debate we sometimes forget just how precious it is.

Transitions

“It’s not the moves, it’s between the moves.” This was one of those offhand remarks that has stuck in my mind for at least twenty years. I remember the person who said it―an old friend (actually one of the oldest since we met in junior high) the artist Mimi Gross–but I can’t remember the context. Mimi always had a way with those deceptively simple life maxims and this one has proven true on many occasions. I’m between moves―literally―returning from Bogliasco, getting ready to leave for London―and with my writing. But more than the task of repacking what I just unpacked, I have to push myself to get myself going on the work front: to finish proofreading the first pages of my memoir and to begin work on my friendship project (aka my feminist friendship archive). I know I will enjoy the next installment of writing, just as I know I will love being in London again. And yet I’m not moving. I’m on the verge, peering over the edge.

sparrowYesterday morning I woke to hear the frantic cheeping of what turned out to be a tiny sparrow apparently glued to the windowsill outside my bedroom window. For the better part of an hour, I watched the tiny bird look down, hop around itself, ruffle its feathers, receive the visit of a fearless fellow sparrow who would pop in now and then―possibly to share a bit of food, and take off again, doing what comes naturally. But why did my bird stay put? (As always, in these musings, I do not hope for hope for any kind of expertise when it comes to flowers, animals, birds, or indeed anything in nature. I’m just interested in the metaphorical potential of what the outside world provides.) Why would this bird not take the plunge? Fear of heights? A bird? Nothing made sense. And yet ultimately, the sparrow vanished.

So why am I stalled here neither completing the task at hand, nor proceeding to the next? Why am I stuck between the moves at the windowsill of my desk? After all, like the sparrow, I got myself where I am, it’s time to get myself going, get a move on, do what I know what to do. But I don’t seem to be moving.

My friend Carolyn Heilbrun, who like Mimi Gross, loved maxims as explanations for life’s difficult passages, would say on occasions like this, you have to wait for the well to fill up. So maybe, I’m not just stuck, I’m simply waiting.

One more Mimi-ism. This one I can date because the sentence is inscribed at the bottom of a woodcut she made in 1956. “Friends can last forever even if they don’t see each other―if they are friends.” That would be our case. We rarely see each other, but when we do, there is exactly that sense of something still in place―an affinity we call friendship. And if I were smart, I’d put that in my book.

Brooding

duck

One morning last week when I was walking around the reservoir in Central Park with a friend we came upon these two ducks. The sight stopped us in our tracks. It was slightly odd to see a duck on the jogging track, but this tableau was indeed quite strange since there were two ducks and a single, solitary egg looking abandoned on the other side of the fence quite unattended. What were the ducks doing there? Were they incubating, or, great word, brooding? Why was the egg being neglected?

Based on my cursory reaserch in Wikipedia it might be that the green-headed, yellow-beaked duck was a male–males being more colorful–and the speckled duck, the female. Was the putative mother duck sitting on other eggs? Were these two even a pair? Ducks, according to the same source, are “generally monogamous, though these bonds generally last a single year only.” If my friend and I were to return next week, would the duo still be sitting there?

Walking home I realized that when I heard or used the expression “sitting duck” I never actually pictured a duck. Now, there’s no way I will ever use the expression again without seeing that particular duck sitting on the jogging path.

So much for ducks.

Ever since I’ve returned from Italy, I’ve been brooding, incubating an idea, a useful idea, I hope, about what I’ve been calling my friendship project. Sitting in my my aerie (aka my study) at the Bogliasco Foundation, I suddenly saw that I had entangled two strands of thought that should have been kept separate, or at least distinguished from each other. One line of thought has to do with the elegiac friendship memoir, understanding how it works as a subgenre: a narrative that tells the story of the dead friend. This would complete the collection of my essays on autobiography that I hope to bring out in the near future. The other has to do with elaborating a memoir of my own that will entail revisiting, as it were, my particular dead friends. Naturally, there is overlap in theme but the two projects will be quite different. The academic essays will present an argument about “horizontal” relations between people of the same generation, as distinct from the “vertical” relations with parents. The dead friends book will be a mixed form in which I won’t argue, but rather try to recreate a person, a historical moment, and, above all, a complex set of confusing emotions.

But am I working on either of these projected books, writing any part of them, even though I’m still (for a few more weeks) on sabbatical? No, I’m still incubating my ideas, a euphemistic way of saying that I’m procrastinating.

I’m not ready to write because I’m brooding. I’ve come to recognize that my “dead friends” are not completely dead to me. They live in my dreams, where they talk to me, sometimes in disturbing ways, and the dreams change, even challenge my memory–but not only in dreams. In my waking life conversations, events, books, also change my memory, shift my vision of the friend, or bring back forgotten episodes from the past with their baggage of feeling.

For example. Monday I went to a beautiful memorial service for the feminist editor Mary Thom, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident.

I did not know Mary very well, but I did know her, certainly enough to know how much her motorcycle meant to her, to the shape of her life. When I learned of her death, I immediately recalled that Mary had served as the inspiration for a character that my friend the writer Carolyn Heilbrun had created as Amanda Cross, in one of her detective novels, Honest Doubt.

567029What I remembered was an argument Carolyn and I had had over dinner (sushi, to be precise), soon after the book came out, about the number of times the word “fat” emerged in relation to the first-person narrator of Honest Doubt known as “Woody,” a newly created fictional private investigator. At one point Woody talks to Kate Fansler–Amanda Cross’s gorgeous, pencil thin detective in the other novels–about what being fat means to her, especially as a P.I. “I guess I really wanted her to understand how I felt about this fat stuff,” Woody says. And she goes on to explain her attitude: “Being fat’s been a lot of use to me. You can believe that. It’s gotten me confidences I’d never have had otherwise. But I don’t see why thin has to be a qualification for looking down on others, the way white used to be. I’ve made it a kind of crusade.”

When I read this passage I couldn’t help thinking that Woody sounded almost exactly like Carolyn, who often talked and wrote what it meant to be a fat woman. It was one of her topics. When we discussed the book over dinner, I asked Carolyn why, if she didn’t mind being fat (which she always said she didn’t), did she bring it into the novel so repeatedly? Mildly irritated by my literary faux pas (confusing author with narrator), Carolyn answered that Woody was not a self-portrayal (duh, though Carolyn, of course, would not have said duh) but a fictional character, and if I really had to know, modeled on Mary Thom because she wanted her new detective to get around on a motorcycle, and Mary happened to be fat. The conversation came back to me very clearly when I read the news in the Times.

Toward the end of the memorial, when many friends of Mary had shared their memories, a journalist, Betsy Wade, described having made a trip with Mary Thom, Carolyn, and another woman, to a rugged setting somewhere on the West coast. She said that Mary Thom and Heilbrun, as Wade referred to her, chose not to climb the mountain they had come to climb, but rather to stay put at the bottom, walking and talking for hours (probably about Gloria Steinem whose biography Carolyn was writing at the time). When the novel came out, Wade said, she asked Carolyn whether Mary Thom was the model for Woody. Heilbrun waved her off, saying she couldn’t explain the creative process. That sounded very Carolyn.

I had not expected to hear the anecdote and it brought back vividly the conversations Carolyn and I had every week, almost until her death. We sometimes quarreled, but we both always came back for more.

The story sent me back to the novel, which was published in fall 2000. Carolyn killed herself almost exactly three years later in fall 2003. The book is inscribed to me and signed: Amanda. The inscription evokes our friendship in ways that I confess I took somewhat for granted then. The anecdote told at the memorial had to do with Mary, but what I heard was all about Carolyn. It was amusing and rang true: I could see Carolyn preferring to talk intimately rather than indulge in needless exertion as part of a group effort. But the effect of the story on me was not that: it was to return me to the painful conundrum of those last years, and what, as a friend then I missed, even as I miss her now.

In Search of Lost Time: Checking A Memoirist’s Memory

Paris in January is not anyone’s dream vacation: skies are permanently gray and you have to carry an umbrella. It seems particularly ill timed unless you are there for les soldes, the fabulous sales (which I managed to miss). So why did I go to Paris right after New Year’s? As I embarked on the penultimate revision of the memoir, I wanted to see whether I could still feel what it was about the city that made me live there for six years when I was young—and then, with the passage of time, write about it. Did the place still resonate with me? Or had I made it all up?

I decided to make a pilgrimage to Le Foyer International des Etudiantes at 93 Boulevard St-Michel, where I lived during my first year in Paris. The Foyer was my belated introduction to dormitory life since I had lived (miserably) at home during my college years. Despite the fact that we had a 1 a.m. curfew, which meant you’d be locked out for the night if you missed it, the Foyer turned out to be a scene of freedom.

DORM-db

I was assigned a roommate, whom I call Monique in the memoir, and with whom I maintained a transatlantic friendship over the years. I often stayed in her apartment when I traveled back and forth to Paris after I had become a mere tourist and not a dug-in expat.

This January, I also stayed in the apartment, on a bed made up in the studio where she had written several books of art history. But it was not a reunion. My friend died of pancreatic cancer last year, and I slept in the room surrounded by her library, whose shelves were dotted with family photographs. The two rooms—our dorm room and her study—fused in my mind, as past filtered the present. Oddly, despite the decades that had passed, I felt reconnected to what we always called “l’année du foyer,” the year we lived together on Boulevard St-Michel, room 203, and never imagined being old.