Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflection on Roy Stanton’s book

One of the most annoying things about Blake’s dying days (https://115journals.com/2021/02/11/learning-to-die-4-practicum/) was that he wouldn’t stop giving loud diatribes about how we had to change the world’s economy a.s.a.p. We had to pay each human being a living wage and not depend on capitalism to trickle one down. In other words, choose Bernie Sanders as a candidate. Elect Bernie Sanders. While we – his children and I, his ex-wife – were desperately trying to achieve a level of sanitation in his home that would avoid charges of elder abuse, he was reforming economics for future generations. He wasn’t wrong. He was just very distracting. His job, in our minds, was to leave, to end his unbearable pain and weekly emergencies when it overwhelmed him. But he was steadfast. If anyone ever comes back, reincarnated, it will be Blake. And maybe Bernie Sanders.

Blake was forming a new philosophy, a humanistic way to deal with our evolving world.

Roy Stanton describes the argument of his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: we have failed to manage global warming and capitalist civilization is already over. “But that humanity can survive and adapt if we accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths and work to nourish the variety and richness of our cultural heritage.” He goes on to clarify that learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispositions and fears, while learning to die as a civilization means letting go of a way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success and progress.(24 in e-book)

Blake and I were the first of our working class family to go to university. We became high school teachers. We had worked our butts off to get there, but we assumed life would be like that from now on. We would do better than our parents. We bought our starter house in our late twenties. I went back to teaching because we needed the money. For a few years, maybe 8, we had a comfortable life with a pool, a sail boat and long trips to Europe. When we split up, Blake still had the boat and the Corvette. As the economy ebbed and flowed, I gave up owning. I rent. I lease. I shop at Walmart. Blake left a house worth nearly a million and an old sail boat that I had to give away. I settled his debts and divided the remaining $400,000 among the 3 children. One of them settled her debts.

Yes, there is a disaffected class of those who slipped down. I am not one of the slipping disaffected set. I may have nothing but I have a pension. I am disaffected because I thought that morally and spiritually we were evolving. Then along came the U.S. election of 2016. The pandemic was more of a scientific failure until it changed into a contest between those who were caring and dying and those others. The latter are still advocating the moon is made of green cheese.

Stanton quotes German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “It is a characteristic of being human that human beings are presented with tasks too difficult for them without having the ability of avoiding them because of their difficulty.”

On a personal and less universally significant level, I once became allergic to almost every food and most of my environment. My condition baffled doctors and limited my life so that I became increasingly weak. I ended up having to have an oxygen tank for severe episodes. It became clear to me that I had to find my own way out. First I began walking around the block. I did that repeatedly until I could walk around two blocks. Then I adopted a macrobiotic diet. I had gained enough strength to be able to cook a pot of brown rice and steam vegetables like seaweed and kale, which I had not eaten previously. Once I was able to return to work, I continued walking for half of my lunch break and for several years I continued the macrobiotic way of eating. Very gradually, without ever having been diagnosed, my condition improved until I more or less back to normal. I remember clearly that when I first began walking, I felt that it was an unsolvable problem, which I had to solve.

Stanton outlines the evolution of the human race starting in Africa 200,000 years ago when average temperatures were 61 degrees F., 3.5 degrees F. lower than now and went even lower. At 135,000 years ago, average temperatures increased +5 F, leading Cromagnum humanoids to flee to more temperate regions. Fifty thousand to 10,000 years ago there was a cultural explosion in the Euphrates valley – cultivating, herding, as well as hunting and gathering went on in the villages, which grew into great cities like Uruk. This civilization ended with a 300-year drought. Five thousand years ago, a series of other civilizations – Greek, Roman, Tang, Mongolian and our own arose.

Human civilization thrived in the Halocene period, the most stable environment in the last 650,000 years. Carbon has ended it.

Because my early life was lived in remote hill country, it was still based mostly on biomass energy. We had no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing. We did have kerosene lamps, although we still remembered how to make tallow candles. We could hear the hoot of the steam engine across the woods and from time to time a gas-fueled vehicle appeared if the dirt roads were passable. As an adult, I got used to thinking my past was unusual until an immigrant pointed out to me, as he wired my cable, that it was like his own and many other immigrants’ who had come from the middle east.

Stanton considers the possible solutions to global warming that is cutting back carbon emissions. One of the problems of managing the electrical grid is that electricity has to be produced at the moment it is needed. In the week I am writing this, we have seen black outs in southern states, such as Texas, brought about by extremely cold temperatures and correspondingly high demands on the system. These were compounded by the fact that Texas has opted not to link to the federal grid to avoid federal regulations. The governor tried to convince us it was the entirely the failure of solar and wind power. In fact wind power here in Canada is not affected by cold because it’s engineered that way. Texas fired most of its power by natural gas anyway.

One by one, the author deals with possible strategies – sequestering carbon dioxide, nuclear fission, carbon tax, cap and trade, a sulfur blanket in the stratosphere. Grid managers are reluctant to go above 27% of production by wind and sun, since they are variable with the weather, complicating the other variable, demand. The other strategies are either too expensive, potentially harmful – burying nuclear waste, sulfur blanket, impossible to implement as one and in a timely manner. The problem requires the global community made possible by carbon energy to act as one, but economic fallout prevents action.

“The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. The problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is us.” (68)

Another post will follow, reflecting on the second half of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

See 115journals.com for previous posts sharing the title Learning to Die

Learning to Die #7: theorum

see 115journals.com for previous posts under title Learning to die

A psychopomp is a conductor of the soul of the dead and mythology pictures it/they as an animal or even a bird. In our hill community, Aunt Mae was a midwife for birth and death. When Georgia, my sister and I were small, we called it a ‘sick-pump’. Most of us still walked to the spring to get a pail of water on the farms, but we could imagine a sick-pump. Aunt Mae roared with laughter.

“I just want you to be ready, so you won’t be scared when you see your first dead person come back. Just treat them real polite and tell them to go to the light.”

“Are they ghosts?” Georgie whispered.

“No, no, girly. They’re just confused at first. Maybe don’t want to leave their people behind. The main thing is we have to keep loving those who pass. It comforts them and gets them pointed in the right direction.”

“What is heaven like?” Georgie.

“Oooh,” Mae sighed. “It’s just whatever you’d like it to be.” She was smiling to herself and her hands were raised to her mouth like prayer steeples.

“Is there hell?” Georgie asked.

“Only here. Only here on earth,” she sighed deeply. “In heaven, there is no judgement.”

“That’s not what the Bible says,” I said, not defensively, just curious.

“Can’t help what some ignorant old ancient wrote. Those old coots surely got a lot wrong. Not the part about Jesus’s love though,” and she was chortling again.

So your country community didn’t have a designated psychopomp? Probably didn’t have gowns with hoods either. You let those burdens fall on your minister/pastor/priest – whatever.

As a child, having no playmates, I explored the corners of the fields and the big rock piles that had been cleared from the hay field. I saw fairies there and small brown creatures in the woods, so I was not alarmed when the odd dead person turned up and sat in the rocking chair. For a while, when I was an adult, I could count on the family dead showing up at least once. Now they seem more likely to visit Georgia. One sat in the middle of her couch for two days, in December. Curiously, I was able to describe what she was wearing, although I hadn’t been there. She wanted to know who had killed her. And she wasn’t even a relative. Georgia had worked out who had done the deed, but she was too tactful to say. It seems as though eventually the departed one figured it out as well and simply vanished.

When people started dying of Covid, I felt their great sorrow and loneliness at being ‘abandoned’. The greater the number of the dead on any given day, the heavier the weight. As I extended my love to them, I knew that many thousands of others like me were doing the same psychopomp work and I could imagine the hosts of angels guiding them home.

I had been following the Auschwitz Memorial Site on Twitter and I began to understand that had happened then as well.

There is a whole theory of how to die, which Robert Thurman or the Tibetan Book of the Dead can teach you. I have read these, but, try as I may, I cannot memorize the stages you pass through: mirage, smokiness, fireflies in the sky, clear candle flame, clear moonlit sky, clear pitch darkness and the clear light of the clear predawn sky. (p. 42.Thurman. Tibetan The Book of the Dead.) I get discouraged. Then as I experience others dying, I know that unenlightened and miserably angry as they might have been at last glimpse, they sailed through to that clear light like Tibetan gurus.

I’m sure it is love that gets them there and I know that this love doesn’t have to be sitting at the death bed. It can emanate from someone thousands of miles away as Blake’s daughter’s did when he passed on.

My first requirement for my own good death is leaving in a timely fashion. I know lucid dreaming is possible. I have stopped a dream before and rearranged things, given myself a weapon or an ally, so I meditate on a lucid death. I very much do not want to stay making my survivors miserable and broke.

I believe a good death is also one with a certain amount of insight. Not still blaming mom and dad for everything. I believe we choose our path and so if my father wronged me terribly, I chose him knowing that possibility. One way or another he made me what I am and I do not want to regret that. Did I add to the world, make somebody’s life better by being here? Was my heart able to open to more than my immediate family? Has humanity taken even a tiny step forward because of some excellence I achieved, however momentarily? Did I create an individual self that demonstrated divinity? Did God see godness through me?

And, of course, can I let go of judgement of myself and others? A toddler trips and falls. No blame.

Next: a reflection of Roy Scranton’s book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Learning to Die #6: practicum

Miz Clara shopping in winter

Jazz the cat strode to the door that night to welcome the humans in. One was missing, the important one, but Jazz took that philosophically. Before these two came, the whole responsibility had fallen on her black and white shoulders and no amount of cuddling and purring or even kneading had helped.

The next day, they set up the automatic water feed and put out several large dishes of the best cat food. Hum! Might as well get started.

Colin and Julia had taken Clara to see several long term care facilities before Covid arrived. Clara nixed the whole plan. Now they went back to their favourite and began negotiations. The problem was bureaucracies move slow and chances were that Clara was about to released from hospital. It was hard to say. The hospital was too busy to call them. Once the astronomical price per month had been settled. The room had to be furnished by the patient and a doctor had to fill out a form. Okay, she was in a hospital. Lots of doctors there. But Julia and Colin couldn’t go in. They called and pleaded. They tackled smoking nurses outside. Finally, one of those rushed back out and grabbed the form. She had a captive doctor.

I had suggested that they rent a room in our favourite hotel in Bakersfield, The Padre. It was old and historical significant. The owner had once mounted a cannon of the roof aimed at City Hall. It was dark by the time, Clara was wheeled to the hospital door and pushed out to their waiting hands. Clara was wearing a hospital gown and disposable underwear. That was all. Nights are chilly there, despite the sunny days. Julia managed to fit more absorbent underwear and sweat pants over her feet, but to pull them up, Clara had to get out of the car and stand between it and the Covid tent. Ninety two, a dignified lady.

They retired to their lovely Padre room. Clara was in the same pain for which she had been admitted. Not a heart problem, her doctor told Colin. “What about the stomach bleed is that causing the pain?” “You’ll have to see a GI specialist,” said the doctor and hung up. But Julia had slept 10 hours by now. Once they were ready for bed, Julia asked Clara if it was okay if she slept with her. Having got further permission to embrace her, Julia put her hands on the painful place and began Chi Gong breathing – into the pain and then out, down and away. Clara gradually moaned less until hours later both of them fell asleep and slept for four hours.

Breakfast room service Covid style was a series of brown bags, more or less thrown at Colin. Clara’s appetite was good.

First, they had to take Clara to see her new home. “I want to go home,” she insisted. “You can’t be at home just now. Remember what a terrible time we had getting you out last time. It’s going to snow again. You can’t be over an hour away from hospitals, especially up a mountain in the winter. The road gets impassable,” said Julia.

After she had seen the place, which looks like a fancy hotel on the website, she nodded at the room and the said, “I want go home.” “We can’t look after you, Ma,” said Colin. “We’ll get somebody,” Clara said. “I tried that. Nobody will come up there in the winter.” “Well, I’ll just look after myself.” “Do you remember you fell? Do you remember how thin you got?” Julia chimed in. Clara shook her head as if she was dispelling a flight of gnats.

Clara sat for the admission test. There was a wing, C wing for the demented. Clara didn’t need it. “Was she ambulatory?” they asked. “Well, she can walk. She might need a walker to get to the dining hall,” Julia said. “Actually, we have to put her down as non-ambulatory for B wing.” “Okay,” said Julia, “but she still has to go to the dining hall for meals?” “Oh, yes.” They all pondered that.

Meanwhile Colin was trying to rent furniture – rent to buy – until he got word that it was more or less a scam. Having heard that, he phoned the Bear Mountain Club concierge. (Concierge! Yes, why not. There were a lot movie moguls’ vacation homes in BMC.) So Monsieur Le Concierge promised two men and a pickup truck for the next morning.

Colin was also liquidating some of Clara’s money for the down payment. Monthly rent was twice what a friend of mine was paying for his wife in Canada and she had failed the C wing test and spent her time confined to a wheel chair, the operative word being confined. But this long term care home, unlike most of the others had not managed to have a single case of Covid. (The others were still decimating the elderly population. One had recently lost 50% of its residents to B.1.1.7., the U.K. variant.)

Initially, we had decided no LTC home for Clara, but we were well past that by now. We had come to the conclusion that it was just a choice of death by any other name.

I was, however, gobsmacked to learn that Jazz the cat would be moving as well.

I was consulted long distance about the decision to go back up the mountain for the night. We had all studied the weather forecasts, including the radar maps, carefully. they seemed clear of snowfall and the roads would be plowed and cindered by now.

The evening was spent sedating Jazz, capturing her in a blanket and cutting her nails. Julia was extremely allergic to cat dander and had never touched Jazz previously. Oddly, Jazz would give Julia a long, slow eye blink even when Julia was vacuuming. We were reliably informed that meant Jazz liked her.

The other task, of course was to pack. Every item of clothes and linens had to be labeled with Clara’s name. It was like sending your kid to camp.

Julia slept with Clara again and the pain was bearable.

The furniture in her bedroom ended up in LTC room at a markedly different altitude. Colin and Julia were given leave to set the room up. But after that, they could not go there. Clara would have a Covid test and a Covid shot and be quarantined for three days. Before that happened, they all went out to lunch.

It didn’t go well. Or maybe it went very well.

Clara could no longer figure our how to use a phone so she didn’t have one. Anyway she refused to wear her hearing aids or couldn’t put them and kept losing them. When they had her brought down to the lobby of the fourth day, she claimed she hadn’t had dinner the night before when her lock down ended. Someone else said she had seen her eating in the dining hall. It was indisputable that her room was in a dreadful mess – Colin had got permission for a last visit. BUT NEVER AGAIN during Covid. And clearly, Clara had not been showered. So there had to a scene in an office.

On the other hand, every visit showed a Clara who was walking those ‘long, dreary’ hallways and even going outside. She didn’t need the morphine anymore, although she could have used more attention to the incontinence aids. She was spitting mad some days, just sad on others, but she was able to go out for lunch and today she planned to have Colin take her to buy shoes.

Next to come – Learning to Die #7: theorem

Learning to Die #5: practicum

Clara on her 90th birthday, Jan. 2019


On Christmas Eve in 2020, my daughter, Julia and her husband, Colin,, found his mother, Clara, collapsed. She had not activated the alarm, which was hanging around her neck, They had taken her down the mountain to her doctor the day before because she was complaining of severe leg pain. The doctor ordered more blood tests. The urine test came to a sad end. Julia insisted that he prescribe Pantoprazole again to prevent stomach acid. Lack of it seemed to have already caused a bleeding ulcer. (For the past few years doctors had been reading a dire warning that this acid suppressors caused bone thinning. My own doctor, Dr. Joe, had scoffed, citing throat cancer, never mind stomach cancer. My sister cited Dr. Joe to her own doctor.) Clara was very unwell even then at the clinic, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t see even on her best days and was lying down on the examination table.

The obvious question -is she dying and if so, what choices should be made – did not come up.

On Christmas Eve, Julia got Clara washed and into clean nightwear in a fresh bed. It was then Clara started praying. In Tongues. Although the language was unclear, it was very clear that Clara was talking to God. Very vehemently. Very loudly. All night long, while they sat or lay beside her.

We had had a few family emergencies and always Clara would phone her prayer group, thousands, waiting for the word to start exhorting God. Julia and I didn’t necessarily believe in that kind of personal God. We were more Taoists. But you’ve heard that no one is an atheist in a fox hole. Now Julia told me on Face Time, “We never needed thousands. All we ever needed was Clara.”

In the morning, she asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

So they moved essentials from their place higher up Bear Mtn and settled in, dividing the night in two shifts. Julia who had had persistent insomnia for 9 years took the shift starting at 2:30 a.m., which was when she usually woke up. Colin sat up until then.

Christmas morning breakfast was oatmeal, not instant, bacon, soft scrambled eggs, toast and jam. Clara came to the table and put away some of each and a lot of oatmeal.

“Haven’t felt like cooking,” she said. “I was hungry.”

Indeed, she was a whole size smaller.

On the phone, I went nuts. “You can’t overfeed her,” I protested. You’ll do her harm.”

“She’s burping a little,” said Julia. “She’s sitting in her favourite chair.”

“The one that shot her onto the floor where she remained for 12 hours?” I querried.

“We told her not to use the lever. Anyway we’re here. I think she had a series of small strokes, but the clinics are closed for the holiday and the hospitals are full of Covid. I know what to do now. Keep her blood pressure down. I’ll watch the stool for blood and balance out the need for painkillers.”

“Is she in pain?”

“I think she will have some.”

Julia was an acupuncturist before she had to retire because of her health and she had worked with many elderly people and their primary care-givers.

Christmas got postponed in many family places. A Dallas great-grand-daughter was in hospital with an infection. And here in Toronto, we ate breakfast with a dizzying array of devices beaming in three other households. Usually we were at one long table farther north in snowy Barrie.

On the mountain, they had ordered Christmas dinner from a local, but closed to dining restaurant. They ate it a few days late with 25-year-old Leo up from L.A.

So they fell into a routine, Julia’s breakfast -donuts on Sunday- and yes, we know but last minute wishes and all that – and Colin’s dinners. Lunch was easy to pick up from the generous left overs or Clara had a bagel and cream cheese, The good food along with the acid suppressing meds began to clear up the GI bleed.

When a urinary bleed erupted and the clinics and drug stores were still closed, I said, “Cranberry juice.” Clara hated it. She was used to orange juice but two days later, that too was gone.

My Brussels’ brother, Rob, had had a memorable experience, finding our grandmother locked up in the bedroom of a farm house, where she was patiently stripping the wallpaper and saving it in rolls. First, he made a very angry call to his father, which brought about a quick move to a better Home. Secondly, it made him a lifelong guardian of old ladies, five in all. He put in indoor plumbing -yes, in Brussels in the 2010s, he installed water heaters, he bought roasted chicken at the Sunday market, he got them to the doctor, he bathed them, he found long term care rooms when persistent burglars targeted them. This last involved the mayor. (Oh, by the way, these ladies plunked down a plastic bag containing 350,000 Euros on the desk when they checked in.) And he saw to their burial or cremation. One of these adventures involved pre-dating a document, but that’s what I like about the Europeans … no problem.

Between us, we had lots of advice. Get a baby monitor. Get a commode. Here’s how to prevent falling out of bed.

Every morning after Julia helped Clara to shower and lather in moisturizer, they walked up and down the covered deck and wrapped in her duvet, Clara sat and looked at the mountains until she got cold. Mostly, she slept in bed or in that dangerous chair, waking up to call for tea or toast or ‘any more donuts’. When Colin sat in it, he said he felt like issuing commands.

Clara was getting better but they were exhausted. Colin changed his shifts to the afternoon. Because it was winter, even in California golf courses on mountains were not doing a thriving business. Leo came up occasionally to spell them off. But Leo like Colin was male and, unless Clara was more or less out of it, she was too modest and proud to let them help her in the bathroom.

Gradually the pain was coming back.

A very bad winter storm threatened. And threatened. Two feet of snow. Five in the Sierras. Farther north, I assured myself. Forecasts gave estimates according to altitude. They were at 5,500 ft. The other house up 2000 more. Colin made a run up for heavier outerwear and shovels. The pain got worse.

It was abdominal. It didn’t seem to be a bleed. Julia was too tired to think. Her shift was basically 2:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Later she learned that if she slept with Clara, her hands on the pain and did Chi Gong breathing, the pain diminished and they both slept 4 hours. But now it was too much and Clara said she had to go to hospital. She had done so before, but after many cardiac tests, the verdict was anxiety attack.

Moreover it was now snowing very hard.

Julia says, “Do you understand that if you are admitted to hospital, we may never see you again?” Damned Covid.

“Yes,” says Clara.

So the paramedics come from the fire hall. The EKG shows heart damage. It always does now, because she had a ‘silent’ heart attack some time that summer she and I had lived in two rooms above the Real Estate Hotel while she was moving up from Vegas.

The ambulance at the firehall can’t transport her because a truck has rolled on the mountain road and traffic is jammed – people fleeing just half an hour too late. It is arranged they will drive her in the Subaroo to the Y where an ambulance will be waiting. Another will wait at the I 5 to take her to Bakersfield. “No,” said Julia, “Santa Clarita. Henry Mayo.”

“Can’t do that mam. The I 5 south is blocked”

The medics load Clara into the front seat of the Subaroo. But no, where are her gloves. Colin sets out, driving around the slippery hairpin turns and along the edges of cliffs until, he comes to a full stop behind a line of cars. Julia gets out and begins to walk. The walking is through foot-dragging snow for a mile or more. She passes the truck on its side. A big delivery truck.There is a tarp over the cab. When she gets to the Y, she asks the CHP officer if he can communicate with the ambulance. “No,” is all he said

She calls Colin and between them, they go to each waiting car and tell them they need to pass to get a patient to an ambulance. They meet, walk back together, get back into the car and Colin pulls out into the even less passable left lane to begin the slow slip back up the hill to the Y.

While the off-loading is underway, Clara is heard to ask a medic how long he has worked at the job.

At Clara’s house, Julia and Colin sleep for ten hours.

This particular dying practice will continue briefly next time -long term care in the age of Covid- and then I will begin to write about the study of theory, including the psychopomp, Tibetan ideas and eventually Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropomycene

Learning to Die #4: practicum

Elizabeth, Justin and I

Elizabeth was ten years old when I was born; nevertheless, I regarded her as my contemporary. We had a satisfying relationship. She got on with her duties and was seldom ill. She had been there all my life. She helped me through the war. She was a soldier, herself. When she and I were young,…

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: personal reflection

Went to a post-op appointment with my surgeon, said, “I’m so grateful that you and the Trillium Hospital System were able to do the mastectomy so quickly despite Covid and give me a chance at a longer life.” He said, “Not if you don’t get this heart workup.” Hum! On the day, Oct 1 when…

BACK TO THE FUTURE: the stalled novel set in 2120

According to the news hound in my family, Peel County where I live in Mississauga, west of Toronto, Canada, had the longest lock down on the planet. I don’t know. I do know it was very long. It began when our premier told those over 70 not to leave home. Eventually I discovered that chewing…

My ex-husband Blake and his young second wife came to visit me after I had the carcinoid surgery. That was the week before my brother rescued me. I still couldn’t eat and I was too weak to get out of bed. They had come from our high school reunion. Blake and I were high school sweethearts. Presumably, she had registered as me, since I couldn’t. They brought me my key chain souvenir and showed me pictures of the old gang, the drama club. They were very much changed. Blake had the same lean physique – see above -. He was still diving at the yacht club to check the moorings in cold early May. She was just a year older than my daughter. Very kind of them. (What am I not saying? Well, at least, I was a very thin, if pallid 65.)

Some years later both of them were diagnosed with cancer. Both of my malignancies were no longer detectable. Then, suddenly, she was so ill that we were making last visits, and then she was gone. Blake’s stage 4 diagnosis didn’t worsen even then, although he nearly walked the legs off his shiba inu pup up and down Toronto’s river valleys. My sister folded him back into her family as she had me. “Should have stuck with the old girl,” she quipped.

Blake asked me to be his executor. Here’s a hot tip: no matter how much you want to make sure your own children don’t get cut out of the will, never agree to be an executor. I did. I know.

In the spring, Blake found himself too busy to answer our invitations. Too busy was blonde and young and hung around the yacht club. They were teaching disadvantaged teens to sail. Blake and I had lunch together or sometimes dinner that I cooked, so I could keep up. I had to drive him to make a will, dividing the estate into three parts, two for our adult children and one for his step-daughter.

In 2018, I had spent several months in southern California helping me daughter, who started out with stage 4 kidney cancer. The diagnosis changed weekly with every new test. Tuesday it was cancer. Thursday it was angiomyolipomas. Or was the kidney tumour something else? This involved two surgeons, one in Santa Clarita and one in Bakersfield, wandering surgical dates and, as it turned out, a brilliant pain specialist. (Never get an angiomyolipoma in your sciatic nerve. But if you have to get a tumour, at least, it’s not malignant.) I got home after three months in early January on the last night time flight, walked into my apartment, took off my shoes, went into the kitchen and broke my little toe. (Something else: never break a toe, even a small one, in winter.)

My son, who had not wanted to worry me before, phoned to say his father was in a bad way.

For the first week, I just called Blake. Anyway, he said, I couldn’t visit him because the house was a mess and Christy didn’t want visitors. I was well on the way through a whose-house-is-it sermon before I could stop myself. Finally, I limped to the car after getting him to agree to meet me at the door when I called to say I was there. I couldn’t see into any of the main floor rooms, nor the second-floor bedrooms as we two invalids climbed to the top, his lovely bedroom with a sunny balcony. Only it was no longer lovely. There was no sun. The windows were heavily curtained. The place smelled of very old dog, territorial cats, very ill master and the remains of several meals. He had a small frig and a microwave. “Christy brings up food when I call her,” he said. the en suite hadn’t been cleaned in maybe 5 years. The self-cleaning kitty litter was in there. (Never believe that marketing line.) When I started scooping out the smelly bits, he yelled angrily, “Don’t do that. You don’t know how. Christy will get mad.” I went to the door and stared at him. Had I taught high school for 30 years and was I now afraid of Christy? Or him, come to that? That was just the beginning of the fun.

The entire house was a hoarder’s delight and beyond dirty. The second floor office was jam-packed with Amazon packages still, packed packages. “Wait till you see the garage,” my son, Daniel whispered. We crept down past the dragon in the living room. (That’s where she slept, having decamped from a perfectly good second-floor bedroom. Too near Blake, I assumed. She had declared, “Old men disgust me.) Daniel opened the door to the garage.They had dealt with recycling by standing in the door way and flinging it. There was a foot of airspace near the ceiling.

When we started cleaning, Christy yelled we were only doing it to sell the house out from under her. I assured her, we were trying to avoid being charged with elder abuse. Blake thought it was funny when passers-by intervened when Christy cussed him out in the grocery store. I asked where the clean sheets were and she thudded back up the narrow stairs and flung a lump of rolled up cotton onto the bed. Later, I saw that was how she stored them in the linen cupboard.

It was obvious that Blake was at the stage where he needed home care, but that department wouldn’t even talk to Daniel or me, only to Blake, who couldn’t remember from one minute to the next that we were trying to get him a home hospital bed and a visiting nurse to monitor his pain and pain meds.

Just when I was getting a handle on dealing with dragon-Christy, she suddenly changed and began phoning me in hysterics because she couldn’t handle a new development. For some reason, she always did this while I was grocery shopping. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to tell her I couldn’t talk. I would huddle with my face against the cereal boxes shouting ‘quietly’ to get her to stop talking. My default advice was always, if you can’t handle it, call the para-medics. She did. Often. They would carry him in a chair down the winding stairs and take him to an emergency room. Hours later, she would Uber him home. Or he would be admitted over-night. Or she would Uber him to the hospital. Having done that once and been admitted for the foreseeable future, he demanded to check out against orders. She called Daniel who showed up in a car and found himself the getaway driver.

It was the pain and Blake’s howling response that got to her. No phone call necessary.

The getaway stay had been in Toronto Western. His home hospital was Mt. Sinai. But sometimes he got stretchered across University Avenue – winter or not – for more scans – or even to Toronto General.

I was gobsmacked by how his mind worked. He muttered that he was leaving an awful mess. Well I could see that -two defunct vacuum cleaners sat in his closet blocking the sliding doors. But no, not what he meant. Later I learned he hadn’t filed a tax return since 2015. Later I learned that he owed about $40,000 in tax. Later I learned that Miss Younger Blonde – who WAS NOT a gold-digger, thank you, had enjoyed $380,000 he had borrowed on the house.

My daughter decided to come from California and her two sons, one in Dallas and one in L.A. decided to come as well. It was intended to signal to Blake that he didn’t need to hang on in misery. Blake was home that week and able to go out for lunch. My grandsons sat with him and recorded the sad story of his evacuation from the Blitz to Canada. A whole boatload of children had been torpedoed earlier. I had fallen for that hook when I was 16 and I was quite sure I was not the last woman to do so. They looked at all his photos. When the three of them left, I was devastated.

Then he finally got a place in the hospice in Grace Hospital. Christy came in waving the power of attorney for health. What were they going to do to treat him? “No, no,” I said. They had to take her away to a private area to explain what a hospice is.

Daniel, the step-daughter, Christy and I took turns sitting with him. The three of us tried hard not to overlap with Christy. She shouted at the nurses and the porters and even the lunch ladies. There was another dying man behind the curtain, not to mention the kind patient carers who watched people die every day. Blake slept more and more until he was unconscious all the time. One day, I fled to corridor to cry and Daniel came out and put his arms around me. Up until his father got worse, Daniel had not spoken to me for years. Something I had said really annoyed his wife. Now I saw the boy I had known, for in his father’s angriest days, he had quietly tended to him.

I dealt with this phase more easily. I read Rumi poetry to Blake and recited the 23rd Psalm. Blake had pretended to be an atheist and I had told him he was in for a big surprise.

The last day was that same anguish. He had been moved to a single room. The four of us sat around his bed, reminiscing, even laughing and crying of course. The chaplain came. The on-duty doctor came. I had my marching orders from the head nurse. There was no mortuary there, so I had to notify the undertakers pronto. Blake took those last suspenseful breaths just before dinner. We sat silently crying..

When I stood up, I found I had forgotten how to walk. The step-daughter scooted around me to get the nurse. Once in the hall, I couldn’t remember how to use my phone. I leaned my weight against a wall and I heard myself report that Blake Durant had passed on at Grace Hospital. I had already signed the contract.

It couldn’t be true, I thought. It couldn’t be true that my Blake was dead, my other half even after all these years. The five-year-old on the ship in the middle of the Atlantic, watching the destroyer on the port side. The 18-year-old who rode a green Raleigh Racer and captured my heart.

When I got back to the room, the others were gone and not-Blake lay with a gaping jaw. And it wasn’t Blake and I couldn’t stay to keep him safe.

Two days later, St James Mortuary phoned to ask if I wanted Blake to be cremated in his hospital gown or some other clothes. I wish I could say I asked myself what Blake would say, but I didn’t. I died of shame and tearfully replied the gown would be fine.

That evening still in his blue gown, he made a flying visit through my sister’s living room. After that I kept seeing him back in his jeans and sweater, rushing to a physics lecture with an iPad. It seems as if he is going on to economics next semester. Bernie Sanders is going to need help with that living wage idea.

I will pass over the day I took possession of the house. Sufficient to say the police were involved. Christy went back to her own apartment, which Blake had paid for all those years and $27,000 in hand.

It took me a year and a half of aggravation to settle his estate. I paid myself an honorarium and my increased taxes took half of it.

Blake still sleeping

Learning to Die #3: practicum

Brother et moi on a bench in Bois Fort

One morning 3 years after I became a renter, I was sitting on the edge of the bed coming awake when I discovered 7 lumps in my left breast. Those days, I made it a habit to check once a month and I had done so a few weeks before. Now a little garden had bloomed, large lumps and small and at least one too small to be felt if it had not been sore.

My sister/landlady was ill prepared for my appearance in our kitchen.

We got me to the local walk-in clinic somehow “Oh, these are just cysts,” the doctor said while writing a script for a mammogram. “Don’t worry. Be calm.” I had no family doctor. He was far away near the house I had sold. I went to the local hospital for the mammogram. “Oh, these are cysts,” said the technician, “but lets do an ultrasound.” All she said after that was,”Humm.”

I more or less coerced the MD attached to my Tai Chi Club to take me on. He palpated the lumps and studied the pictures, “Probably cysts,” he said and referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon said,”Probably cysts.”, plunged a needle into the largest one and drew out an astonishing amount of fluid. Not content, he seized another needle and attacked the next biggest one. Same result. Number 3 didn’t co-operate, a little fluid, then nothing. “Probably mixed,” he muttered. “Well, we’ll have to go in and take a look but I’m 99% sure these are not malignant.” So I got a surgery date three weeks away. Terrified beyond words, I went about my days as usual, walking around our little lake every morning, tutoring high school students from Hong Kong looking to get ‘highest mark’ and cooking dinner. The mantra, “Probably cysts” was continuous in my head. It was the last thing the surgeon said as I blanked out and the first thing he said when he saw me post surgery. But I’ve sent some tissue for a biopsy.” I was making dinner two weeks later when he phoned. “We have to do the surgery again,” he said. “There were two small cancerous tumours.” I went mad. “But they’re out,” he kept yelling. “I took them out.” “Then why surgery?” I demanded. “We have to clear the margins. We have to see if it spread into the lymph nodes.”

I hated him. I hated every single person who had said, “Probably cysts”. Every movement for two weeks had hurt. Walking was like torture. The poor little left breast, half the size of its sister now, began burning all along the incision. I couldn’t stand to look at a knife. How was it possible knowing what I did now to let it be done all over again?

It got done. All over again. This time I didn’t have projectile vomiting. They had figured out a better anesthetic. The home visit nurse came back again to bind the even longer wound. And yes, 10 nodes under my arm had been invaded. Eventually, I consulted an oncologist and said yes to radiation and no to chemo. At my advanced age – 62 – chemo was protocol. The doctor said, “I would have made the same decision for myself.”

My mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 59. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 1969 when her lungs filled with fluid. My only previous experience was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, where early cancer treatment in Soviet Russia had been barbaric. I was assured that it was vastly improved now. Must have been true. She died in 1976. It took more than half that time to diagnose the primary site -the ovaries. Most of those 7 years, she was able to drive and enjoy being unable to work, although that was the interval when my own family began to travel for respite. It had been nerve-wracking from that first unreal October, 1969 when heavy snow hung on the still leafy trees and we were one and all pulled out of our classrooms because she was about to die. At the end, she went back to the hospital on Nov. 1,1976 and passed away on Nov. 11th very close to 11 a.m. “Am I going to die, Roy?” she asked our father on the first day. He dodged his head and toyed with his fedora, “Well, I guess we’re all going to die.” I wasn’t sure if he was a coward or a wise man. I sat beside her daily as did my sisters. She had a bright red mark below her lip, which looked like a ruby. After she fell into a coma, we talked to her, read to her, sang the best hymns and love songs, we listened to that awful pause after an exhalation. And waited. Then the ragged, snoring inhale.

I assumed I knew how cancer ended and I doubted I would have seven years to prepare for it.

In fact, the terror had begun to fade three years after that when I popped in to have a clinic doctor look at a bloodshot eye. Nothing of concern. But at me age -65- I need a colonoscopy. He had a thriving business behind scenes keeping people well tested. Okay, I thought and went to my own M.D. and signed up. Turned out my intestines were in an irritated state and cameras on long prods made them way more angry. “Yes,” said the doctor. “Something there. The nurse will give you the surgeon’s information.” Cue panic. Unfortunately, the bowel had now swollen and I could consume only clear fluids and liquid morphine. The surgeon couldn’t find a time slot with his A team. I could have the B team in the middle of the night, but I wouldn’t want the B team. He looked at me.” Oh, no, no,” I said on cue.

So I starved. I stayed in bed. I longed for morphine time and as soon as it came, I longed for the next morphine time. Then I walked into the kitchen one morning and saw on the tiny TV there, the first tower fall. It went on and on as I desperately tried to get hold of my Los Angeles children. I finally tracked down my grandson at his father’s. “Keep him home,” I yelled. “Don’t let him go out.” The next day I had a second colonoscopy, pre-surgery, doncha know. I lay on a stretcher watching ruined streets and replays of horror. I had the surgery on Sept. 20th and it was not a keyhole operation.”You’re lucky,” crowed the surgeon. “Carcinoid, very slow growing. It will come back in all likelihood. It will probably spread to your liver, but it won’t kill you. Very, very unusual. I’ve only ever had one other.” Very lucky. Very thin. Very weak. Very much in agony. Very convinced death would be a better outcome.

After a week of fasting out of sheer fear of further pain, my brother boarded a plane in Brussels and came to my side. He began with white rice and charmed me and made me laugh, stitches be damned. He moved me up to steamed fish. “You can have your lunch if you come down.” Next day, he took me out for lunch. I knew there was a reason I patiently fed him 2 oz. of milk while his other two little sisters adored him.


Learning to Die #2: practicum


We tremble, thinking we are about to dissolve
into nonexistence, but nonexistence
fears even more that it might be given human form.
Rumi trans. Coleman Barks

In the first post (see link above) called Learning to Die, I explained the choice of title, which I appropriated from Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and why I had used it. I mentioned the quotation from Simone Weil, who said a soldier’s future was to die. Then I considered how we civilians are having to live at present and how as a six-year-old I almost died.

In fact, 3 of the 4 children in my family unit wavered initially. The youngest, my brother arrived two months early after my mother fell down stairs. He weighed 4 lbs. 8 oz before preemie ICUs. Sent home to die, said Mom and handed me his bottle. My nearest sister, 6-years younger, nearly died of croup at 2 weeks. “The doctor said to feed her when she cried. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t live.” I tried to choke to death around the same age. My grandmother hauled me out into the cold mountain air, held me upside down and walloped me hard on the back. Whoa! And I was so enjoying that little flight. Away. Only my second sister seems to have had no early trauma, but made up for it later.

When I was six, my mother found me covered in blood on my bed and started screaming. This was different from the wailing she had been doing about my baby sister dying of croup. Which I had caused by bringing home my snotty-nosed friend to see my beloved new baby sister. Now I had been punished, but if something wasn’t done, she was going to lose both children at a blow. So my unconscious little body got shoved into the backseat of the Model A and my father set off in the pitch dark over the 35-mile gravel road back home to the Hill. He was crying and praying and cussing. He kept reaching behind to touch my body, but actually I was sitting beside him in the front seat. I was very cross and wanted badly to hurt him back. On the other hand, I had never seen him so upset. “Don’t die, Joycey, don’t die,” he begged. I hadn’t decided.

Aunt Mae’s house was back in under the mountain, on the old farm. Mae was waiting on the porch in a barn coat, her face grim. “What have you done now, boy?” she said as she took me into her arms. He started to explain. “You get your worthless hide outa here before I get the bullwhip,” she said. “Aunt Mae,” he pleaded, “can’t I even get a drink of water?” “You know where it is,” she said. “And I’ll need two more pailfuls for the boiler. Get them from the spring. Then make yourself scarce and don’t come back til I send you word.” “Will she live?” he said as he dumped the last pail in the stove. “She’ll live if God wills it and I believe He does. She is His child.” That was a hint, I thought hovering around the kerosene lamp in the wall bracket. She means I’m not his.

I began to come back into my pain-wracked body. I was in very hot, salty water in a round tin tub next the stove. The fire was roaring. I had a sort of tent of quilts over me, my head poking through a slit. Mae was busy topping up the hot water. “Tomorrow, we’ll do another sitz bath with herbs and flowers. That’s a German word, you know -sitz. Didn’t know I could speak German did you? It’ll come in handy when Hitler gets here.” And she burst into a cackle. “Don’t you worry your little head, the Lord Jesus is here and He loves us. He’s keeping out those Huns. That’s the old word from the old war. Huns. Now here, have some more of this milk and honey.” I swallowed it down. It was really sweet and it seemed to make me really sleepy. Next thing I knew I was wrapped in quilts and being carried into the bedroom. “Where’ll Grandpa sleep?” For My Aunt Mae Owen had married my widowed great grandfather Bolton. “That worthless piece is off to his camp again,” she said, as she turned down the lamp.

By morning, I could mostly stay in my body. It was tempting not to. Would serve them right. But I was lured back by strange and lovely scents Aunt Mae had rubbed into the sore places.

Two weeks later, my teacher was astonished to discover I could read all the first primer and add the 1s and 2s and 3s. I had also learned that it was possible to chose to live. Against the odds.

In March of 2020, a highly contagious and lethal pandemic began racing toward us from China. It wasn’t until it reached Italy that I began to see Covid-19 for what it was. When it got bad as it seemed to do in Italy’s old people, they were rendered unconscious and placed on ventilators. They died without regaining consciousness, isolated from loved ones, and prone. Sleeping on my stomach was a form of torture to me, but dying without love seemed the opposite of a good death. (I was wrong of course. Love doesn’t have to be personal or even corporeal.) The other choice was to be administered Sister Morphine to ease the pain of drowning in lung fluids, but still alone and isolated.

I dug out my will and added a handwritten codicil eschewing ventilation. I had it witnessed by the supers on duty in my building’s office. They were puzzled. Like Roy Scranton in Baghdad in 2003, I rehearsed this death every morning. I made masks of folded men’s hankies and hair elastics. I washed my hands as I sang Amazing Grace. I shopped for groceries at 7 a.m. or ordered them to be delivered. In short, my daily review of death scared me straight. Gradually, public health began to catch up with me and I bought masks. By now whole cathedrals in Italy were lined with coffins, not to mention ice rinks. Streams of hearses drove away from hospitals.

I owe a debt to Mrs. Cuomo who had two sons, Andrew, whose daily briefings as Governor of New York kept me calm, and Chris, who got Covid but continued to broadcast for CNN from his basement. Chris was very sick, but he didn’t have to go the ventilator route and he got mostly better.

I was offended in those early days by the reassurance that Covid was nothing to worry about except for the elderly. Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas announced that, being in his 70s, he was ready to die to keep the economy open for the younger population, as were a 100 other older people he had talked to. Like Lear, but without Lear’s irony, he implied that “Age is unnecessary”.

After an angst-ridden life, I had to sell in a down market and despite my education and profession, fell out of the home-owner, pool-owner, sailboat-owner class. But renter though I am, I am finally comfortable and more or less at peace. I’ll be damned if I’ll sacrifice these few remaining years, so the economy can flourish.

It’s a good idea to learn this lesson early. The desire to live does not diminish with age.

These days, I am asked -by friends on video call- when I will be vaccinated. I did a Toronto Star questionnaire, which said based on my age, almost 85, after Jan.1st and before May 21st. Good for a laugh. More seriously, I reply that it is irrelevant. I haven’t caught Covid in 11 months. If I were immunized, I couldn’t go anywhere anyway. Nothing is open. However, I will be there on the spot with my sleeve rolled up as soon as I get the word.

I chose almost 80 years ago to continue living a difficult life. I’d un-chose to save another life – I have refused a ventilator – but not so others can buy an Air Fryer or a Sleep Number bed.

Learning to Die: practicum continues next time with lessons in dying of cancer and old age.

Learning to Die

I have taken the title of this post from Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization. Anthropocene means the age of human kind. You can find the introduction and first chapter on-line.

Scranton begins by describing his entrance to Baghdad in 2003 as a private in the American army:
in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories and narrow ancient streets.
Shock and awe had destroyed the infrastructure, reduced governmental order to brutal tribalism and eventually destroyed the secular middle class, leaving gangsters, profiteers, fundamentalists and soldiers. An ancient civilization destroyed.

In spite of the advantages afforded Scranton by the U.S. military might and technical superiority, he knows there are any number of ways he could die each day. He quotes Simone Weil, “For a soldier death is the future.” So every morning as Scranton readies his Humvee for the road, he practices dying, imaging himself being blown up, shot, burned, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs and beheaded. Once he is ready, he can set forth without concern.

Two and a half years later, he is safely back Stateside until Hurricane Katrina. His unit begins training for riot control. “The grim future I saw in Baghdad had come home.”

Theoretically, I am not a soldier. I am an 84-year-and-10-month old woman in the middle of a Covid pandemic, more or less housebound for 11 months. (Aren’t we all soldiers as we engage this implacable foe?)

At the age of 6, I was brutally raped and would have chosen to die if not for Aunt Mae, who knew how to heal with love, dreadful herb tea, raspberry pie and reading. Catching the rapist was not an option. He was the family breadwinner.

I have just been watching season 3 of The Sinner on Netflix, in which the villain has been bent all out of shape by fear of death. This fear has led him to become a murderer. – looking death in the face and all that. Interesting plot device. I didn’t have that luxury. I had a baby sister.

In the end, there were 4 children in my unit and we all survived. That is we are all alive now in our old age. In the next generation, we were not so lucky. Two of my nephews are gone. Several daughters have had close calls with despair. There is a thriving generation of great grandchildren. My own are girls, Texans -good grief- who, I imagine will live to be as old as my sister and me – 2097(?) They are going to have to be soldiers to deal with that life on earth. Please keep them out of Houston at least.

I intend to write Learning to die #2 Practicum, #3 Theory, #4 in the Anthropocene

Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #2

This is the 4th reflection on Elena Ferrante’s 4 books including My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who leave and Those Who stay and The story of the Lost Child. See 115journals.com. The previous post was https://115journals.com/2020/12/30/ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-femalecrazy-1/

Like the word ‘Covid’, the word ‘woke’ is a new word that came to my attention only in 2020. Initially, it seemed to apply to those enlightened people who knew that systemic racism existed. Being woke about racism involved interacting with someone who was experiencing it. Well-to-do, older, white, male columnists who asserted that their country -say Canada – had no systemic racism weren’t in any position to make that judgement. In the 60s and 70s this process was called ‘consciousness raising’ and involved racism but also feminism. Elenu and Lila in Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet discuss women’s rights at evening gatherings of college students and faculty. It was new to Elenu as it was to me at that time. I began to recognize that it wasn’t my neurosis that made me unhappy, but real difficulties I was encountering as a woman.

In the 1950s, domineering fathers, who told you what you would do and beat you if you didn’t were not unusual in working classes. I had made it clear to my father that it was unacceptable. We were not that sort. We had risen above it. By definition, middle-classed men were more rational and less volatile. Please don’t think that worked.

Elenu and Lila had, from childhood, intended to climb out of their Naples’ neighborhood by writing a book and becoming wealthy like Louisa May Alcott. Lila was deprived of that route when her father took her out of school after grade 5 to help in his shoe repair shop. Elenu seemed doomed to the same fate, but a teacher interfered and more or less forced her parents to let her go on.

My father also felt that a girl didn’t need an education, but he waited until I was in grade 12 to begin nagging me to quit and become a secretary. Unfortunately, he had neglected to abuse me sufficiently to make me stupid, not that he was averse to abuse. My teachers, like Elenu’s, had regarded me as special and it never occurred to me that just being male made one more special. I didn’t run onto any significant male rival for first place until I was in grade 11. Not that I was terrifically smart, I just had a great study method.

Elenu was much the same, a grind, good at memorizing. The brilliant one was Lila.

When my early experience of childcare, with the isolation, drudgery and lack of mental stimulation drove me ‘whirly’, (https://115journals.com/2020/12/30/ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-femalecrazy-1/) I had no problem finding a teaching job. In 1962, all you needed was a pulse. I was trained and qualified to teach English, history and Latin. I was hired to teach history, commercial geography, and English in a different classroom for every single class. I pushed a chrome cart on wheels with my teaching materials on it through the crowded halls racing to get to the next class before the kids. After my toddlers were bathed and put to bed, I hunkered down to learn about Russia and its industrial opportunities. Eventually, one of the football players, late for class, took me down and the v.p., who had assigned my teaching spaces, failed to call me a taxi and otherwise treat my separated shoulder as serious. He got a new job in North Bay.

Elenu’s husband is a university professor like his father. He vanishes into his study once the girls are down where he is writing book. This composition actually outlasts the marriage. He sleeps there rather than wake up Elenu. When she turns ‘whirly’ her mother-in-law or her mother turns up to help out and admonish her for not supporting her man. Elenu finds a different way out.

I could never have taken Elenu’s way out. I was terribly in love. I bored fellow teachers by reciting my husband’s merits until one of them kindly advised me to stop. In fact, I had always outshone him scholastically and otherwise. I played the lead in yearly productions. He played the executioner and moved scenery. He got promoted before I did, but I got an assistant headship. True at one point, I went to ask why a flashy male outsider had been made head of department and I had not. I was told that I had small children and aging, ill parents. That principal went to teach in the Lakehead, far, far north. It was true that I amused staff lunch rooms with tales of this chap, creating gales of laughter. So at that point, I seemed to be somewhat ‘woke’.

By now my husband and I were teaching at the same school. Not getting promoted gave me a license to question policy in staff meetings. I was also ‘shop steward’. I was fearless and loud. My husband didn’t speak out much. He just very quietly subverted policies he disagreed with. He was the guy who did the timetable, so he had ‘power’. And he was a him. He never got called on the carpet. Eventually, I became department head. I could have held that position for the rest of my career, another 20 years, but 4 years later, I discovered my husband’s secret life and resigned my headship to go half-time and heal my soul.

Lila’s first marriage at 16 works out badly, so she leaves with her son and, ironically, takes Elenu’s route. When she ends up having to support herself and her child, she works at a sausage factory in brutal and exploitative conditions. Now it is the boss, not father or husband that keeps her in line. She finds the burgeoning union movement both useful and troubling. For a while, it’s hard to know who is beating her up, the antii-unionists or the brotherhood itself. Her genius breaks through more than once in the series and she is able to make herself wealthy and to manipulate the cammora bosses, her old enemies in the neighborhood.

Elenu becomes a writer of fiction and essays and as such takes on the same criminals, who are either in love with Lila or trying to destroy her. When Elenu leaves her husband her in-laws step in to ruin her publishing career. Her mother-in-law is the leader in this campaign. She has not evidently, joined the sisterhood. They fail.

There are decent men in the novels. Elenu’s husband reforms himself and becomes a helpful father although at some distance, for Elenu is back from the north and living in Naples. At university in Pisa, Elenu meets Franco, a wealthy, more worldly student who teaches her to dress fashionably and takes her to Paris. Some of the boys the girls grow up are also capable of empathy. Alfonso Caracci is notable as a friend of Elena’s in high school. He later works with Lila but despite their mutual affection, she uses him for revenge. His brother Stefano is Lila’s first husband. Enzo Scanno betrays his own brilliance during a classroom mathematics face-off with Lila, but, he too has to quit school to support his family. Later during Lila’s sausage factory days, he becomes her protector. A number of others don’t quite make the grade. Pasquale Peluso becomes an activist for a more just society, but runs afoul of the law. Antonio Cappucci, once Elena’s boyfriend, has a breakdown while serving his military stint and, unable to work for a living, becomes an enforcer for the cammara. Still he is someone Elena and Lila can rely on in a pinch. Others like Lila’s brother Rino follow their father’s generation educating their wives by fist.

There is a subset of male characters in Ferrante’s books who have secret lives. One of them is the cause of Olga’s breakdown in Days of Abandonment, published prior to the Neopolitan Quartet. He has been keeping a close secret for many years. Nino Sarratori, the son of train conductor/poet, and the love of both Lila and Elenu at different times, is one of these. Elenu suspects that he has never really broken off with his wife, but she does not end their love affair until Lila sends Antonio to enumerate his encylopedic transgressions.

Nino has had women running after him his whole life and uses his charm and their affection to raise himself in society. My math teacher husband was considered a very boring person by my family. He frequently actually fell asleep when he was with them. He pioneered the use of computers in schools, teaching the first programing courses when punch cards were used in a room-sized computer. Then personal computers began to show up, just not small enough yet to be easily transported. So evenings he went back to the school to work on the Wang computer. My family said he was working with Miss Wang and laughed merrily. Well, her name was not Wang. She was Ms Daughter-of-the-people-next door, young, blonde, living in her own place at the beach. Her brother was my son’s friend and went to our school. My husband was driving the Dodge RT home from her place one night when he got t-boned.

He hit me once early in our marriage. The kids were still small, so I figured okay, one free throw. After that he hit walls but he always repaired them. For two years before his secret life was revealed, I had become more and more anxious. Something was deeply wrong. I convinced him to go to a marriage counsellor. No nothing was wrong from his point of view, except perhaps I needed something stronger than Librium.

As news of his affair spread through the high school, older, ‘wiser’ male staff took me aside, talked about European men and wives with discretion. I shook my head. ‘He’s English,’ I said, ‘and I’m not one of those. I’m more the knife-sharpening kind.’ The children were 16 and 17. After he left, I didn’t commit suicide as they expected.

I got involved In his final illness, in March 2019, because I was his executor. Everything was a mess and he was past making rational decisions. He couldn’t understand that this was the end. To him the elephant in the room was whether he would be able to drive when he got out of hospital. I was sincerely glad that I was not and had never been as crazy as he said. I needed all my sanity to get through that ordeal.

In the end, Elanu has written a very long book -published in 4 parts- describing her brilliant friend and has a firm grip on reality. Lila has vanished, disappeared as she had longed to all her life, but, wherever she is, I am convinced that she is quietly leading a sane and contented life.

Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #1

Earlier in December, I had an episode lasting 36 hours, the name of which I have just learned: marginature. I found it near the end of Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante’s collection of letters and interviews. Or as Lila in My Brilliant Friend explains it – dissolving boundaries. I would not have described it her way. Nicola Lagioia uses marginature in one of her emailed interview questions to Ferrante.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, which the Italian woman, who chose it, uses to separate herself from her books. Only her family and her publishers know her to be the author. Thus all interviews are by email. https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal,

To quote Lagioia, At ‘crucial moments…the world comes unglued before Lila’s eyes, ..goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic, shapeless mass …without meaning’.

In my own case, I was suddenly struck by the idea that the universe was without meaning and whatever had brought it into being had done so without purpose. Indeed, was very likely sadistic. Not such a surprising conclusion on a short, dark day in the midst of an 8-week Covid lock-down as the leader of the free world tried to destroy democracy. I had suffered depression before and took medication to prevent it, but this was of another order altogether. It was way past suicidality.

Lila first reports that condition to Elenu, the narrator of My Brilliant Friend, on New Year’s Eve in Naples just as rival fireworks begin to break into gunfire.

Frantumaglia, the name of Ferrante’s book of letters, etc., is not an Italian word. It is a dialect word meaning a jumble of fragments. Ferrante’s mother used the word to describe emotional and mental suffering that had no obvious cause, a debris field of muddy filth, a ‘sense of loss’ as everything that seemed stable and anchoring slips into the debris. This feeling led Ferrante’s mother to leave the pot on the fire and wander out of the house, to sing tunelessly, to weep, to talk to herself. And it is just such frantumaglia out of which Ferrante draws her best writing, her most authentic narratives.

Readers of A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, two novels that preceded the Quartet, will see that Delia and Olga also suffer from this state of mind, a kind dissociation or a fugue state brought on in both cases by shock. I believe the same is true of The Lost Daughter, which has been loaded onto my iPad, but which I have yet to read. These titles, in fact, seem to be recurring themes in Ferrante’s work. The central story is of female friendship and the struggle to achieve that between mother and daughter.

I remember that I talked to my sister -on the phone – see Covid lock-down- first about my marginature, aka my depression deeper than death. It horrified her. She wouldn’t allow herself to go there and she didn’t want me to either. “I was always luckier than you,” she said, “I believed what Aunt Mae taught us.” Aunt Mae, who ‘saw’ the atomic bomb before August 1945′ taught that whatever happened was for the best. Death, even of large numbers, was no big deal. That line of reasoning was a bridge too far for me in that muddle. So I consulted my daughter on the other side of the continent. She knew depression better than most.

I had stopped keeping a journal by then, so I have no record of what we talked about, although I do know that she- Julia – told me that my 92-year-old friend, Clara, her mother-in-law was declining rapidly. I had modeled one of the characters in my book Hour of the Hawk on her. I loved Clara. Perhaps, having a concrete grief focused my mind. Julia, although she was my daughter, like the teenagers who were my students, had taught me to clarify my thinking. Over more than 30 years, we had worked on our relationship deliberately until we had forgiven each other.

In the first post I wrote about the Neopolitan Quartet, I speculated that Ferrante had children. Frantumaglia affirms that idea; she has daughters. Although she doesn’t say so, she has been divorced. One of her central issues is abandonment and she shows a keen understanding of a man who, out of the blue, betrays a woman by the revelation of a secret other life. She returned to Italy from years of living in Greece and says she no longer had responsibilities there. She has always taught and refers to teaching as her real job. I speculated in that first post that she had not been psychotic, but frantumaglia sounds as good as. She says it wipes out linear time, leading women into a vortex of dizzy suffering. Delia and Olga tell their stories in the midst of that whirling.

Why do women whirl?

My whirling in December 2020 doesn’t seem as if it was particularly female in its origin. From what I read on Twitter men have been whirling too. George Conway, for example. But I am familiar with that other kind. My attempt to be a housewife and mother of toddlers didn’t go well. It was the early 60s. I had got an education and spent 2-years in a career. The mythology of the time suggested forcefully that I should let hubby earn the dough and enjoy Mom and Tot classes, learn bridge and nurture babies. Hubby worked 3 jobs and we barely made ends meet. When we finally sat down to try to pull my fragments together, Hubby asked what would you do now if you could do anything.” “Put on my blue suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. I named the nearest high school. By bedtime, we had a plan, 1 job each and a carefully chosen nanny. My mother-in-law had always worked, so my husband thought it was the natural order of things. Unfortunately, it turned out that he also thought a job would cool down my craziness.