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.

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: a personal reflection #2

See also: https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal-reflection-1/

Elena Ferrante didn’t write the Neopolitan Quartet. We don’t actually know who did. It is the subject of great speculation. One super sleuth, Claudio Gatti in 2016 followed the money and h concluded she is actually Anita Raja, a translator of German novels and until her retirement, head of a library. Her husband is a novelist, and according to Gatti could not afford the real estate they own. Like many of Ferrante’s readers, I am on her side. I know who she is in her heart and soul. I don’t need a name and picture or speculation that her husband actually does the writing.

The writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante believes that, having written a book, she has done her part. She doesn’t have to follow it out into the world and sell it. A good book will sell itself. She does depict Elenu Greco the narrator of the series going on book tours to whip up interest and using what reputation she can gain to establish herself in the literary world. Ferrante prefers like Lila Cerulli to stay hidden.

Ferrante begins the cycle when Elenu and Lila are in their sixties, which she calls ‘old’. Rino, LIla’s forty-year-old, ne’er-do-well son phones Elenu to tell her that Lila has vanished. Two weeks ago. Well, he thought she was just walking around Naples as she often did. Even at night? Well, yes. Elenu knows that Lila’s fondest wish throughout the ups and downs, whether poor or rich, Lila has always wanted to erase herself, to vanish without a trace. Eventually, Elenu gets Rino to look in Lila’s closet and dresser and desk to see what she has taken. Everything. Every last possession. Elenu advises Rino to pull himself together and look after himself. Then she sets out to write this four volume history of Lila’s life, which necessarily includes Elenu’s own.

In her earlier two books A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, she spoke of the old as young people often do, with scant respect and a reluctant growing understanding that they are actually just people. It is her more grownup self writing the Quartet.

In the game of Find the Lady, people assert that surely Ferrante has been married, had children, been divorced, lived in Naples, etc. because she writes about this things with insight. To that I could add she has also had psychotic episodes, which helped her write her earlier book Days of Abandonment, in which the deserted wife has unwittingly locked herself in her apartment with a dying dog and a very sick child. Some of that wavering of the edges of reality shows up as Delia in A Troubling Love tries to understand why her mother drowned. And Lila in My Brilliant Friend experiences times when reality loses its edges and she begins to lose herself.

I don’t necessarily believe she has been psychotic. Observing that condition is good enough. Having observed it, I could write about it. I certainly think that one way or another she has experienced abandonment.

Remember in my first reflection on the Neopolitan Quartet, the little family in the red Fiat that roamed around Europe for weeks. Four summers later, I found myself alone in the house under the hill, dipping frogs out of the pool filter basket. After all, my husband preferred a younger, blonder companion. It was a hide-the-knives situation. The teenagers transferred to an alternative school, dropped out and went to live with arty friends, worked in donut shops and back stage or enrolled in art school. I lost my mind, as well as a lot of weight, dyed my hair auburn and went on teaching next door to the cad who had left me. Tell me about abandonment.

I do grant children to Ferrante and abandonment.

As far as I’m concerned, she got me through November and early December in a Covid red zone. Whatever she wants in return! I will not try to hunt her down. Even if I could. I’m 84. She’s younger. I think. I think so because I already had children when oral contraceptives became available in the early 60’s. Elenu’s decision to use them at the beginning of her marriage strikes me as realistic and true for the writer. I would say Ferrante is a decade younger than I am. I say that not to track her down but as a way to understand her era.

So the main theme of the book is the friendship of these two women -Lila and Elenu, which starts in early childhood and ends with a wordless final act.

Who was the brilliant one, who was the leader, who moulded whom?

Initially, Elenu competed with Lila in elementary school. Not that she wanted to beat her scholastically or even tie. She was content to come #2. That was all she could aspire to. Then LIia’s shoemaker father took her out of school at the end of grade 5. Both girls had the same teacher, but despite Lila’s brilliance – she even wrote a story called The Blue Fairy, which later informed and inspired Elenu’s first novel – the teacher ignored her and campaigned instead for Elenu to go to middle school, even providing her text books. Eventually with such help, Elenu went to high school and then to university. As we saw in my previous response, Lila was able to tutor Elenu in Latin just by borrowing her text book briefly.

Lila masters shoemaker skills and designs a unique pair that play more than a symbolic role, pivoting the plot at a crucial moment. At 16, Lila is engaged to a wealthy shopkeeper and becomes the beautiful, well-dressed envy of the neighborhood. All the young men are in love with her.

Elenu, at university in Pisa, continues on her ambitious path to get out of Naples, attaching herself to an academic family, as well as to social activists, one of whom teaches her to dress stylishly and takes her to Paris.

Lila is the first to have a child – Rino, who calls Elenu years later to say Lila is missing. Pregnant Lila has a very hard time sharing her body with this alien creature. In her Lila way, she immediately sets out to improve her new baby’s intelligence by inventing games to play with him. At this point, she has no need to work. Elenu’s first baby arrives far too early in her marriage for her liking. Pregnancy for her is no big deal but her daughter is a ‘difficult’ infant. She can’t latch on and she’s either hungry or colicky.

The best thing about my first pregnancy was that I was teaching next door to a girl’s rest room. The not best thing was that I was nauseated the entire time. Then my daughter proved to have the same problem as Elenu’s Dede, but less obliging grandmothers. Just before my mother died, she asked me if I remembered she had spent 5 weeks with me and the baby. I agreed and thanked her. In reality, she had spent 5 days and had to rush home to take delivery of a new freezer.

Because my family moved so much, I was never able to have such a long term friendship. When I started at McMaster University, I shared a single dorm room with a room-mate. My upper bunk was so high that I had to climb a five-step ladder and over a sturdy railing. There was so little space, we had to take turns getting dressed. We were totally unalike. She quit after first year. She had succeeded in getting her MRS. She was engaged to the head boy who graduated that year. I had a boyfriend from high school, the Italian-looking chap, but both of us were there to get degrees and escape our own poverty. The room-mate had nothing to teach me.

In the unbelievably bleak common room of West Wallingford – alias an old military barrack -I met a totally different sort of girl. It was only later I realized she had actually dropped down from 1968 into 1955. She was an orphan, the ward of her uncle, a Baptist minister as her father had been. We were there at a Baptist university and we had to study all about Paul and his letters: It is better to marry than to burn. My new friend Felicity preferred to burn, preferably with a good brandy. I attracted a serious young man studying for the ministry. He took me for dinner at a local greasy spoon and saved me from Refectory food. I thought at least I should look around when boyfriend had gone home as he did each day. But Felicity.. all the grad students were in love with Felicity. Thus we got lifts out to the Annex in Dundas where the science grads lived in squalor and intellectual ferment. It was fun to have a beer and argue about McCarthy and Communism, but to listen to Felicity laugh was pure joy. I can hear her still, running up the scale, and starting hilariously all over again. Her life had been shaped by tragedy and yet she was delighted by life and avid for experience. Once we got snowed in at the Annex and had to stay the night much to the horror of the prefect on night duty at the residence. But it wasn’t that kind of sleep over. Worn out by conversation, we all fell asleep where we were sitting. Well, the boys could cook spaghetti and talk nuclear physics but they smelled of pipe tobacco and wet wool. Some of Felicity’s other swains were more acceptable, the honorable this or that by now. There were weekends where she vanished, ostensibly to my home, for what were boozy, pleasure-filled escapes at a conveniently empty house or cottage. Felicity herself lives here in my city. As it turned out we both had one divorce, one girl and one boy. She established herself in her own specialty and edited a magazine. When I hear her being interviewed, she sounds very serious and respectable. I hear her laugh only in my head.

My Italian-looking boyfriend was very earnest. Felicity taught me not to be.

As young mothers, Elenu and Lila could count on each other to take in their children and mother them for months on end if necessary

Felicity and I haven’t kept in touch. Elenu and Lila do and call upon each other when in difficulty. They shape each other through both their similarities and their differences. Lila never leaves the neighborhood and Elenu, who does, actually goes back there to live. They were intertwined until almost the end. By writing this long story, Elenu is trying to figure out how much of her is actually Lila.

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: a personal reflection #1

If you hate knowing any details of a novel you have not yet read, you may hate this post. No real spoilers though.

In 1974, driving a red Fiat rented in Brussels, our family of four paid a lightning visit to Naples because – how else could you see Pompei. We stayed at the Mediteranno Hotel, so the tiny brown leather ‘Travel Record’ tells me. (Nothing like the Rennaisance Mediteranno the Google shows me now.) On arrival from Rome, we ate. The lunch rush was over. The waiter had time to mess with my husband by pouring the wine from a height of two feet over Rick’s pant leg. Rick looked Italian, but spoke Canadian. He did not flinch at the macho showdown. We had Neopolitan pizza, the first thin crust pizza we had ever had, complete with a history lesson on the city’s invention of the dish. Stuffed to the gills, we then faced roast veal. Another macho contest. Later we wondered around and had the ice cream of Naples. The French starve you deliciously. The Italians over-feed you deliciously.

It was a time of unrest in the country. The economy had had a meltdown. Bombs were going off and we were in Cammora country. But how else could you see Pompei?

I had had a ‘classical’ education or at least the best one still available in Canadian high schools and universities in the 50’s. Greek had been cancelled the year before, but I studied Latin and Ancient History. We had already spent several days ‘seeing’ Rome and the Etruscan tombs of Cervetari and our next port of call would be Brindisi where we would take the ferry to Patras and spend several weeks in Greece, which had its own political upheaval but also Delphi.

I knew nothing about Naples when I started to read My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neopolitan novels. (The others are The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The first two books are set in a poor neighborhood in Naples. Somewhere in Italy, there is a movie set of the stradalone, complete with the 5 four-storey apartment buildings, the stores, the church and the garden. The first book was made into a series, which was not shown in North America, so far as I can tell.

It was a violent place. Fathers were violent to their wives and children. On his wedding night a previously pacific groom gives his wife her first beating. My home was violent, full of shrieking and yelling and whacks and thuds. But never to the face. How would that look? The men in the Naples neighborhood not only didn’t care, they took pride in dishing it out. However no child ever flew out of a second storey window in our house as they did from the shoemaker’s house in Naples. Nor did corpses pile up in front of the church or get discovered in the garden. That was a Cammora war. We had them in Hamilton, Ontario but lower-keyed. Bodies, usually singular, turned up in out of the way places if at all. Our town was in the hands of Papalia, whom I met whenever my father had to do an errand for him and needed the company of one or more of his charming girls to distract nosy cops.

The narrator of the books is Elenu Greco, the daughter of a porter at the city hall. The story that she tells seems so authentic that the reader wants to believe it is autobiographical. Her best friend is Lino Cerullo, whom Elenu called Lila, daughter of the shoemaker – see second-floor window above.

As it turned out my grandson named his first daughter Lila, never knowing that had been my mother’s name.

Elenu and Lila decide that they will write a great novel like their beloved Little Women, become rich and so escape their poverty. Their are a few weaknesses to this plan as anyone who has published a book knows. One of the greatest is that girls don’t need to be educated, so Lila’s father takes her out of the school after grade 5 and puts her to work in the shoe repair shop.

I worked at part-time jobs from the age of 15. (Lila was not yet 12.) My father was too busy working two jobs and freelance to take an interest in my choice of courses. I refused to study typing so that I couldn’t quit high school early to work in an office. He tried to make me take special commercial after grade 12. Too late. Like Elenu, I had teachers on my side and a certain amount of small town newspaper fame. He would have lost face if he had kept objecting and besides, one way or another, he wouldn’t be paying.

Who is the brilliant friend? Elenu means Lila, although, later, Lila describes Elenu that way. On her breaks from the shoe shop, Lila borrows Elenu’s Latin text and learns so fast that she is able to tutor Elenu. She makes a similar head start with Greek. She borrows 5 books a week from the library. She is entitled to only 1, so she takes books out in the names of her family members. She designs a remarkable shoe, which makes a fortune, just not for her.

Do I believe in such brilliance? I do. My younger grandson – the one without the Harvard degree, failed high school. He went to an L.A. arts school where he mastered sound engineering, but he couldn’t learn in class. We spent a hundreds on tutoring. After he flunked out, he got his high school diploma on-line. He took my Christmas money and bought a calculus text. Having barely passed middle school math – see tutoring – he went on to study advanced mathematics and now tutors college students on-line at 4 p.m. daily. He has a chess rating of 2100, last I heard, and just won first prize at a San Diego tournament.

The brilliant genes either skipped my generation or came from the other side – his paternal grandfather who had several PhDs. Like Elenu I had an intelligence founded on memory, grit and perseverance. Psychology 101 was an 8:30 a.m. hike across an icy campus, in the library theatre, the only place large enough for 170 of us. I observed from my extremely complete lecture notes that the prof was reading the text to us. Fair play, he had written it. So 3 times a week, I sat down at my dorm desk at 8:30 and memorized a new chapter. My roommate filled me in on quiz and essay dates. It was somewhat embarrassing when I won the award for top marks in Psychology 101.

But it wasn’t brilliant.

Elenu becomes a writer, even a noted writer. I became a teacher, thus the 6 week European vacations. And of course I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I even published. joycehowe.com But I was not noted.

God willing and the creek dont rise, I will continue these reflections

Closing Time: farewell Blake, it’s time to go

Posted on

December 14th 2020 would have been Blake’s 86th birthday. He passed Mar. 18, 2019. His real name as many of you knew was Rick Dermont. His sailboat was Gecko. This piece was originally posted in the summer of 2019. You missed 2020, so much fun, fella.

Tomorrow I go to sign the papers that close the sale of Blake’s house in Toronto’s Cabbage Town. The lawyer’s office is near there on Parliament St., but I think I will not go back to the place itself. I am told that it smells like any closed up house, which is good news because I spent several thousand dollars getting it not to smell like dying dog and master and incontinent cats and hoarder/not housekeeper girl friend.

The only trouble is by signing those papers, I am killing him all over again. Prostate cancer took him out, long, slow and painful, but there have been steps along the way that made him deader. The day the house was finally emptied of all the detritus of twenty years of living and never throwing anything away or cleaning anything for that matter. The day we got the unconditional offer for the asking price. The day that I could no longer feel him there beyond the veil. He had walked away. Gone on to higher education. Oblivious to the weeks of juggling figures, filing late tax returns, paying utility bills, house insurance, all that day-to-day stuff that I still had to do.

For years, when I glimpsed the blue of Lake Ontario from my 14-floor window, I thought Blake’s lake, Sirocco is down there waiting him to climb on board, his house is down there. Now it is not Blake’s lake.

Blake was my great love. Explaining that is like explaining sex to a child, impossible.The only one who expressed it was Leonard Cohen in Hallelujah.

Blake betrayed me. The only one who apologized was Leonard Cohen. I understood from him that Blake had tried in his way to be free.

Blake knew though what Cohen had said about “children waiting to be born.”, although he wouldn’t have put it in those words. Apparently, he and I had a contract to produce and nurture two children, He fulfilled it. They are greater than we ever imagined

Why he forsook us for those who seemed to care less for him than we did, we can only surmise. It was his life.

He left me a dragon’s trail of slime. Little by little his son and his step-daughter and my sister and my niece have helped me clear the material dross, and I have wrestled the numbers into some semblance of order. Our daughter lent me courage from afar.

I know you’re busy, Blake, learning some advanced other worldly physics, but, just saying, I miss you, Love.

Aide Memoir: Grant M and the red apple

My relatives look to me for family history. They say, “I don’t know what we’ll do when you’re gone!”

“Where am I going?” I ask, without thinking.

“Well, you know…” they reply

You get to a certain age and people start flying in for that ‘last’ visit. My Belgian brother has made several of those trips. I can imagine them saying to each other, “She’s 84. How much longer can she last?” I have no opinion. I had my cancer battle in my 60’s – twice – so far in the past that I don’t even think of myself as survivor. My doctor and I have agreed not stir the pot by tests and x-rays and Ct scans. The diagnosis is ‘old enough to die’ but doing well.

It’s true that I was the only member of the family to be born in the hills. I could memorize anything and I loved stories about the family’s past. In fact, however, there are vast stretches of my own life which are lost to me. Apparently I raised two children in ‘the house under the hill’ near the school where their father and I taught. At gun point, I could probably come up with five specific memories. I taught high school English for 30-years. Ditto. At least, I have a cupboard full of dated year books in the event I need to remember. The photo albums of my family are few and undated. The 8 m.m. movies are helpfully of French cathedrals and Greek ruins.

Soooo last Saturday I got an email from Grant M. who said he had been my student in 1985 and graduated in 1990. Probably I didn’t remember him, but he told me a small story about a day I wasn’t my usual sunshiny self – pause there. My marriage had come apart in full view of 2000 students and about 100 teachers, most of whom knew it was going to before I did. Of course Grant came on the scene 7 years later, time enough for me to cheer up and my father didn’t die until 1988, at which time we got acquainted with 3 different police departments. Okay. It is possible I smiled on occasion. Grant disturbed by my gloom that day in 1985 rushed to the local market and bought the biggest, red-est apple he could find. He put it on my desk. I came into the classroom from the prep room next door and exclaimed in delight. Ah ha, I had the memory, Grant skewed his body up in a dead giveaway as he sat down. He blushed as I laughed and pointed at him. He had warmed my heart.

In his email, he admitted that I used to yell at him, but he didn’t hate me for it. I think he was in grade nine then, one of 35 hormone-driven kids, outgoing, spontaneous and funny. But that was my stage, my audience, so cool it, Kid. His friends had advised him to get a transfer when they saw I would be teaching him, but he said he was glad he hadn’t because I had taught him how to write an exam as well as much else.

By 1990, he had grown into his features and made a handsome graduate

On yearbook day, it was customary for me to hand my book around so students could write in it. His comment was on the back of the front cover, number one. I began to read other comments. I always had students fill out an evaluation of me on the last day and I always threw them away unread as soon as they were gone. The advice I gave any teacher. Never, never read them. I mean would you ask your ex-husband to evaluate you? Some of the yearbook comments alluded wryly to their differences with me, which apparently had ended in a truce. Others gushed. They sounded as if I had saved them from an otherwise unenlightened life. And I was always, always happy. If only I had known. Well, I lived in the country and I read the best books and I showed them how Hamlet was like them.

Then I leafed through the 1990 book looking at the pictures. Life in the hallways was vibrant with life. They were vibrant with life. They were in love – usually with a whole group. They were funny. They were up to no good. They didn’t have hall passes. When I was on hall duty they sent someone like Grant in to distract me. Then they sneaked in the other door.

In the halls my inability to recognize faces made me smile at one and all, really to duck and cover because sensitive little thing that I was, the noise and chaos overwhelmed me.

Grant said he told his children how much he liked me, how I’d helped make him what he is, how glad he was to have found me alive and well.

At a certain point in my career I had mentored new teachers and my job as department head had that same role. I always told them a good teacher was measured not by what she knew but by what she was. That was what the students learned.

Grant M. has a gift for reaching out and reminding me and no doubt others that alone as they feel, pandemic or not, they are loved.

Holiday Survival: flattening the curve

Thanksgiving dinner for one, 11/26/20 Note the fine china

Remember when the worst holiday problem was Uncle Joe who defended a point of view you hated. Now it’s literally a life and death problem.

So I didn’t fly to Los Angeles and drive up into the Kern Mountains to enjoy American Thanksgiving with my immediate family. I spend the afternoon in Mississauga researching Door Dash, Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes for roast beef restaurant takeout. This is Toronto or close enough. I don’t expect turkey. We never have turkey on the mountain anyway. Our eldest, even senior to me, and I am very senior indeed, doesn’t like turkey. We have roast beef from Whole Foods, which as I’m sure you know, entails a small second mortgage or at least a lien of the car. Three ribs usually does it.

Since Toronto is back to orange or maybe even red by today, there is no indoor dining and no outdoor either if by chance, you have a parka that warm. Chop and Cagney’s have roast beef on Sunday. It isn’t Sunday. The British pub has it every day and even has Yorkshire pudding or what it calls Yorkshire pudding but could serve as a hockey puck. The Keg seems to be confused offering every kind of delivery but impervious to ordering. I call them up. Sure I can get roast beef. I just have to pick it up. Would I like directions? No, thank you. It is our go-to place for major occasions, but how can I see a menu. “Just tell me what you want,” says Stephen. So I do. Dreaming it is Cagney’s, I order Caesar salad – it is definitely not Cagney’s superb Caesar, as it turns out – and the 10-ounce rib roast with mashed potatoes. And then dessert?

I can’t handle milk products, so, of course, I order Creme brule.

The first hurdle is that I have been shut in since March 13th except for early morning elder shopping in the grocery store. I step out of the lobby door into darkness. Whaaaat?! ‘Get a grip girl,’ I tell myself. I make my way north, do the left turn on Winston Churchill just before the freeway and park in The Keg’s empty parking lot. I call Stephen. The nice Bell telephone lady tells me to try again later. I tell her how many types of idiot she is and call again. And yes, Stephen says my dinner is waiting. I stride in the heavy door -once I had man-handled it open. The automatic thingee is taking Thanksgiving off. I present myself. Stephen is on the phone with his back to me. The young woman coming toward me looks alarmed. She stops more than 6-ft. away.

“Could you put your mask on, please?’

I already have glasses and a tight fitting tam, so I haven’t missed the additional stricture of the mask, which I have taken off one ear to talk on the phone.

Shame! I am overcome. While I am apologizing profusely, she picks up my order and says, ‘It’s not as if it will kill me.’ ‘O God,’ I expostulate, ‘I certainly hope not.’

It turns out there was a line for tip on the bill. You bet.

Here, where I live, no one fights the mask mandate. They want to go into stores. They never punch out the door person. Well, it’s true that one legislator and his looney followers demonstrate at the parliament building, but he’s been kicked out of caucus and the rallies are short and sweet, so they can get home in time for their afternoon meds.

How do you get 50 Canadians out of a pool in an emergency. ‘You say, “Please get out of the pool.”‘ Done.

On the way home, I irritate one young guy because I take too long turning left into a continuous stream of traffic. Just grateful he saved his horn concert until we were safely across. Like F—, I’m really old!

Unpacking the ‘hot’ bag, I am impressed. The main course is inside an insulated bag as is the warm bun. ‘There’s bread! And that lovely whipped butter with garlic and honey!’

I set to the hot food with my music on shuffle. It plays the Stones Paint it Black, Hugh Laurie’s St. James Infirmary and Leon Helm’s When I go Away. Eighteen months ago, I picked up my ex-husband’s ashes from St. James Crematorium, but I refuse to remember. I go with Leon who wants ‘no crying for this orphan boy’ ‘only tears of joy’.

The food is delicious, especially the bread and butter, even though or probably because I really can’t eat wheat or butter. I have opened a bottle of Berringer Chardonnay and poured two ounces. It’s true. I can’t drink alcohol. The beef is beyond description, streaked with buttery fat -I can’t really eat fat. Let’s just assume that everything on the table is an anathema to my digestion and a wonderful delight to my senses. As I am digging through the crust of burnt sugar on the dessert down to the yummy custard, I realize that I had not felt lonely once.

I’m not really an orphan. Well, legally I am but I am part of a 3 person bubble. At Canadian Thanksgiving in early October, we three singles – my sister, my niece and me – feasted together. My lovely niece cooked. We will do the same at Christmas. Usually if I am here and not in California, we drive an hour and some north to my other niece’s and join 6 to 9 children and 7 to 9 adults at a long table full of laughter.

In pictures, the youngest, Austin, is barely recognizable to me now. He is a real boy not a retiring toddler. His nearest sister, Jennifer, has lost her front teeth. Emily, their half-sister has become a statuesque young woman easily confused with her mother. Jason, the college student, is a taller mystery than ever. Quinn and Arya are still blonde and as free as ever. The other three are new step-dad inclusions and I haven’t got to know them.

We will miss the usual Christmas potlatch that my sister’s family goes in for.

Why not see them? I am 84. My sister is 78. My ‘bubble’ niece has serious health issues. We are willing giving up one Christmas to avoid dying alone on a ventilator lying prone. That last part – arrrrgh! But of course I would be unconscious by then. My son wouldn’t be tenderly sitting beside me, the way he did for his father. My daughter wouldn’t be able to show up in the ICU, from across the continent, as I have done for her.

If you are putting your hand up for that, you’re a ‘better man than I am, Gunga Din’. (Literary reference there. Google it.)

When I put on a mask, even now as the weather grows cold, I don’t breathe well and I get sudden hot spells. But I have absolutely no doubt that they work to prevent me infecting others and others from infecting me. Staying home except for essential shopping has protected me. Staying at least 6-ft. away from ‘non-bubble others’ has kept me safe. Luckily, I don’t have employment concerns because of my age. I do lose my mind staying in, on a fairly regular basis. On the other hand, I spend at least 2-hrs a day talking to others on video. Once a week or so, we three bubblers see each other in person. We don’t wear masks but we don’t hug either.

Nine and half months of living alone has been an education in mental health. Every emotional collapse has brought some more insight. It is very painful. It is nearly a year of invested time that I’m not about to throw away. But what if someone told you all you had to do to save your life was cover your mouth and nose and sit on your couch.

Deal or no deal?