Last Letter from Nora: Marilynne Robinson writes about how she believes community is essentially imaginative love for people we have never met. That felt very beautiful and true to me.

image-5June 21st, 2015

 

Dear Darcey,

 

This is my last letter to you before you leave for Paris.  I am really going to miss receiving your letters and writing to you.  And of course I would do it again!  Whenever you want.

 

It means a lot to me for you to compliment my writing because I value and respect your opinion so much.   It is especially motivating because I have been writing seriously again since my term ended and it has been really wonderful.  I have a babysitter on the days that I work at my old job at the community-based organization, and am often done quite early so that I can write for the rest of the time while I still have the sitter.  And on the days I’m with Polly I write while she’s napping.  I feel good about it.  I feel like I’m settled in to it and believe in it in a way that I never did before and that things are finally congealing.  Sometimes I read the draft of my manuscript and there is writing that I really like, I almost can’t believe it came from me.  I’m sure you know the feeling. But then there are parts of it that I read that are just frankly bloody awful. I even thought, what if I died in an accident before I finish rewriting the draft and people read these pages?!

 

I often think about how you said you hang on to your own writing even when you’re teaching a lot like “a dog with a bone.”  That really stayed with me.

 

It’s funny that you mention housework in your letter because of course since I’m writing while my daughter is sleeping that means I really don’t do any.  In fact the other day Teo’s best friend came over spontaneously after school with his mother and I was a little embarrassed because the house was a disaster because I’d been writing instead of…cleaning up.   They’d never been over before.  I really kind of hate housework.  I honestly never thought I’d spend so much time in my life just picking up.  I’m constantly tripping over toys.  These are the bits of adult life that I never pictured when I was a child.  In some ways I’m glad that, as a girl, my parents didn’t place a lot of emphasis on teaching me about housework.  We had chores, but it was approached more as a responsibility and a way of us all pitching in rather than as an education.  But it’s a huge part of adult life, these monotonous tasks.  It never ends.   I try to find a kind of Zen like calm in it all but honestly that’s hard for me.  I remember my friend telling me about a young person who had just graduated from college who came to her office for her first job, and how after a while she said how she couldn’t believe how it just goes on and on.

 

I have the same ambivalence that you describe about all the technology, or maybe it’s not even ambivalence but more of an outright distaste, and yet it’s unavoidable.  It’s so seductive but so empty in many ways.  And the ads are so invasive and even creepy. I tend to be pretty disciplined about it but I also know that longing that you describe and catch myself checking my email unnecessarily when I should be being more present with my kids.  I think it’s that very natural longing to connect that attracts us.  I’ve noticed for example that when I travel I just love receiving an email from a friend at home telling me about the dream she had last night.  Even as I’m far away, somewhere amazing and new, I want to feel that closeness.  I want to hear about that dream.  One of the biggest anxieties I have as a parent is this whole new world.   It’s so important to me that my kids develop not just good habits about it but also an understanding of the weight of it, how to use it in a productive, meaningful way that is respectful to themselves and others.  I’m often just frankly shocked by the cruelty that’s out there on the internet.  I suppose that cruelty has always been in the air but now it seems like it’s so much more in your face, and there is a flippancy to it now that I find very troubling.

 

I love this time of year in Brooklyn.  I love Coney Island, love Prospect Park.  Love my neighborhood, and walking around it as kids from Teo’s school peak their heads out of Laundromats and call his name.  Marilynne Robinson writes about how she believes community is essentially imaginative love for people we have never met.  That felt very beautiful and true to me.  She says that she believes that fiction may be an exercise in this kind of imagined love.  I also was reading a Mary Gaitskill essay called “The Wolf in the Tall Grass” about why she writes and she lists one of the reasons as love.  To write fiction and to hold so many fluid components of humanity in a story, so much joy, so much sadness, so much pride and hurt, one must have a deep understanding and respect for life that she thinks is a kind of love.  She also says she writes to reveal things that she thinks would otherwise be ignored or dismissed and misunderstood as ugly or unimportant, and how these things that are small and unrecognized are very tender to her.  I think of that, as I walk around Coney Island.  So many small and unrecognized things.  And you feel a kind of love in recognizing them.  That is one of the most wonderful things about writing every day again.  It makes me feel more alive and alert to the world around me.

 

Have a wonderful time in Paris.  Will Abbie be able to visit you? I’ve only been there once, when I was 20.  I flew in on Bastille Day, which was also the day after France won the World Cup and things were wild.  I remember that the friends I was visiting were staying in this amazing apartment and the host family was away all summer so they had it themselves.  But my friend didn’t tell me until I arrived that they weren’t really supposed to have guests, so I would have to hide sometimes when they came around.  That made for a couple of really absurd situations.

 

I will miss you!  Let’s get together when you get back when you have time.  Have a wonderful trip.

 

Love,

 

 

Nora

 

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Last letter from me to Nora: In which I impress on her what a great writer she is….

 

Dear Nora:th-5

I loved your last letter. Your daughter sounds adorable and strong willed. I love that she wanted cheese and crackers like somebody at a cocktail party.

 

I am in the country with my friend Susan Wheeler. She came up yesterday and its so nice to have her here. She is an old friend of mine. We meet I think when she taught at The New School so long ago with me.  There are so many things I love about her. She is a very good listener for one. Also she is very kind.  She brought me a huge bunch of beautiful flowers and other things too.

 

It rained hard last night, water flowing over the gutters and all night I could hear the stream near the house wooshing down the hill toward the river.  Even when she came at 6 it was as dark as it is at 9pm. She came running across the yard with a blanket over her head.

 

Before she came I cleaned up the house. I have always liked cleaning when its in preparation for something, for a visit or for a dinner party. I don’t like cleaning when its that it just has to be done every two weeks or so. But I like making something ready. I also sometimes get home, after being away, and I clean as soon as I get there, it’s a way for me to get reacquainted with the place, get intimate with it.  I like that too, though that sort of cleaning has a frantic-ness about it. The kind I did for Susan was more anticipatory and lovely.

 

I found out that the only two creatures that go through menopause are humans and killer whales. What they found out, by tracking killer whales for a few years is that older female whales lead the group. That they sort of get so wise and important as leaders that they just can’t keep having children so they stop. And the article suspects this is true of humans too. That women are needed to lead, or at least were when we where hunters and gatherers, and so can’t be both be having kids and leading.  This had helped me more with menopause then anything else.

 

What bugs me about the way menopause is treated culturally is that it’s loosing something. Unlike the transition earlier when you go from childhood into women hood (I was ambivalent about that too)  which is seen as exciting and a gain, menopause is seen as a loss, a movement away from being fecund toward  old age and even death. Its been hard for me to ordinate myself within that as I don’t feel that way.

 

I am loving loving Mary Ruefle’s poems lately.  I think you would like her Nora. Each little poem is like a prayer, if a prayer could be made out of like yarn, tacks and air.

 

Still working away on my book about sexting/a women who starts her own religion. I sit at my desk each day but I have no idea still if I can make it work. It was nice of you to say I have a strong work ethic but I am unsure if I really do. I try to work 6 days a week  for 2-4 hours but I don’t always make it. I in turn admire people who I feel work a lot. I really also now admire people who can step away form the computer and phone. I wish I could do that more. When in Brooklyn, each night I put my phone and my computer in the basement  so when I get up in the morning its not the first thing I do. But it’s a struggle, as all through my work time I sort of long for it.  Long for what? That’s what kills me. A bunch of adds and maybe one e-mail of some small personal interest? I don’t understand my attraction to it as I get so little from it.

 

Speaking of this. I got to get to work now. Thanks so much Nora for writing to me. Would you do it again at some point Maybe in a few more years.??? Also lets meet up in the fall and have dinner and talk.  Also Nora I really want you to keep writing. You are crazy talented. I hope you know that. You have the sort of delicate and lovely prose that is my favorite kind and I want you to keep working. Even if its just in your notebook for now. Or your journal. I have an old friend, Michael Parker, and I talked to him on the drive up here and I asked him how his working was going and he said “Not very Well” but he still worked everyday. He said sometimes he just wrote about his run in the morning. But he wasn’t going to freak out about it, he knew something would come eventually.  I really admire this attitude, this patience with the work. Its key to the creative life.

 

All love to you!

 

Darcey

 

 

 

 

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Nora Writes to me: A hard day of mothering! I want cheese and crackers!

th-5May 26th, 2015

 

Dear Darcey,

 

It was wonderful to hear from you.  You sound like you were crazy busy and I hope things have slowed down a bit for you now and you have more time for yourself and your own work.  I have to say that I find your work ethic really admirable though.  Not just your work ethic but your commitment to staying connected to your own writing.  It’s a good model for me.  I always work hard but often let my jobs consume me to the point where I don’t prioritize my own writing.  And I think that’s a real problem.

 

I also had my end of the term and things got really busy and nuts to the point where I was feeling pretty discombobulated.  I lost all sense of dates and social commitments and people were sending me texts saying, “See you tomorrow!” and I had no idea what they were talking about. It actually feels really good to just sit down now and write you this letter.  Polly is napping.  I’m sitting on a couch littered with Star Wars action figures.  Polly has a new little purple purse that my friend gave her and sometimes I open it up at the playground and it is filled with Star Wars toys.  She also has new pink cowboy boots and she struts all over the place in them, wearing sunglasses, a strand of Mardi Gras beads and carrying a tv remote control as a pretend telephone,

 

A few weeks ago I hit a bit of a wall and started to feel very overwhelmed by everything.  I was impatient with my kids and getting angry easily.  It felt like it was out of my control, and I usually don’t feel that way.  From the moment I wake up to the end of the day I am taking care of other people.  I often fall asleep putting my kids to bed because I am so exhausted.  And bedtime in my house is always a circus.  It takes Polly at least an hour to fall asleep every night.  (The other night she started saying, “I like cheese and crackers” from her crib and then in this little demon voice yelling, “CHEESE AND CRACKERS!”  After about 15 minutes of this Teo, who goes down with her, said very sweetly and politely, “Polly, can you please be quiet?  I’m trying to go to sleep” and she yelled back in the demon voice, “CHEESE AND CRACKERS!”  She wasn’t hungry.  She was just being a devil.)  Anyway, I cried on my husband’s shoulder a little about it all and after that felt better.  But of course I also have to make concrete changes and ask for help more. Luckily I have an understanding, supportive husband and also great friends who understand and agree that we are all just trying to do our best here.  I have to say that I really don’t feel the tension that is supposedly out there between mothers.  The judgment.  Maybe I’m lucky to know sincere people, but everyone I know is real about how hard this all is and has a sense of humor about it all.  My friend told me that if I ever feel badly about being impatient with my kids then just call her sometime and she’ll put the phone on speaker for 15 minutes while she interacts with her 3 year old.   I sometimes feel like the whole mommy wars thing in an invention of the media, or at least is exaggerated by it.

 

So since I last wrote you I read Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing and liked it very much.  I found the writing to be very brave.  I had somewhat of an unusual experience in reading it, however, in that there were times when it was so intense I felt like I needed to come up for air.  I usually enjoy the feeling of being submerged by a piece of writing, entering that dream-world, no matter how dark or intense. But I think there was something about the morbid voice of the protagonist, Elyria, that felt a little too familiar.  A little too much like my own way of thinking in my twenties.  I know that darkness.  I don’t want to ever think that way again.  And yet, as I was reading it I also felt so moved by it that when I put it down returning to simple household tasks felt impossible and wrong.  I thought she was brilliant on how sadness can make you feel almost dangerous.  How just being normal—sitting at a diner and ordering a piece of cake, for instance, can feel impossible.  I also really liked the oddness of some of the scenes; the surreal daydreams were just fantastic.  I found the prose in those moments to be vivid, true, exciting.  Now I am moving on to Elena Ferrante, finally.

 

So you had a birthday and now I am also having one in a few days.  38.  I actually have an easier time with getting older, in some ways, than I used to.  I used to feel a lot of pressure to have accomplished more, mostly creatively, at a younger age.  But I’ve let go of that somewhat.  I had to.  It didn’t really mean anything.  I also think the realization that I was no longer young at some point was hard.  You spend your whole life identifying as a young person and then suddenly you’re not.  Of course it’s still hard to get older as a woman when there’s such value placed on female youth and beauty.  As a teenager, I was fascinated by elderly women.  I loved spirited, colorful old ladies and looked forward to becoming one.  I wonder if on some level I recognized the freedom they had.   I was a late bloomer and it really turned me into a different person.  I felt, suddenly, so exposed.

 

But I am sorry to hear that your birthday is so hard for you now that your mother is gone.  I do have a much harder time with death than I used to because I question the idea of an afterlife.  I grew up very Catholic and I never doubted it, but as I’ve gotten older I have more doubts.  I struggle with it all a lot.  I sometimes teach an essay by Cristina Nehring about why thinking about death isn’t morbid at all, basically arguing in favor of the end of life memoirs that have become so popular in the last 10 years.  She thinks they have brought death back into our culture in a positive and necessary way, and that thinking about the fragility of life might make us love deeper and be better people.  Now death is somewhat hidden away and hushed.  We don’t keep the hair of loved ones in a locket around our necks.  I always remember that E.M. Forester quote from Howard’s End:  “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.”  And yet I used to have more acceptance of the tenuousness of life that you wrote of, but I find that’s also gotten harder for me since I’ve had kids.  I remember when my brother’s wife was pregnant with their daughter, who would become the first grandchild in the family.  My mom was knitting a sweater for her and said she was excited, but the only problem was that it was one more person to worry about.  I didn’t really get it at the time but now I do.  I sometimes feel like I will spend the rest of my life worrying.

 

Yesterday was Memorial Day and felt to me like the real start of the summer, maybe because Prospect Park was such a riot of activity.   Tell me more about your writing when you can.  I hope to be able to write you at least once more before you go to Paris.  I have a lot more time on my hands now that I’m not teaching anymore!

 

Much Love,

 

 

Nora

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Letter: Me to Nora #Letter Project

image-3Nora:

 

Sorry it took me so long to write this time! I get busy at the end of the semester. I work hard to keep my own work going during the semester and this pretty much means I have to do school work most nights and some on the weekend too, so at the end when the work amps up I get crazed.  I try to never let it go, but hang on to my own writing like a dog with a bone. So sorry , I will be faster this time. Lets keep writing till mid June and then our part of the letter project will be done, maybe with school done and  more time we can get more letters in during this time.

 

So I am up in Long Eddy at my country house. We opened the place up yesterday and its just lovely. The cats are out in the yard and my husband is sleeping on the couch. His story  about the world bank and what a terrible job it does relocating people when it builds mines and dams and whatever finally ran and now he is very tired out. I worry about him, as he works harder then anyone I have ever known. On deadline he will work through the night, only sleeping a few hours and this goes on for days. He gets really pale with grey circles under his eyes and it scares me a little. I can tell he is engaged though and that he even likes the intensity.  He is feeling it all now though, he is tired and a little punchy too, sort of goofy and sleeping a lot.

 

I am nearly done with school! I  have some stories to comment on and my new school students are coming with their papers to my house for dinner next week, but I am near the end. I have Paris in july but that seems awhile away now. SO I hope to be at my desk some in the next two months. I really hope so. I am just starting something new, trying to follow the emotional thread so I need to just write with out closing myself down too much and see what happens.

 

I am going to read a lot too. I am judging the Pen Creative Non-Fiction prize. The 100 or so books came to my house last week and I have been looking through them. I am going to try and read 6 in the next week or two. I got this one on Harriet Beecher Stowe going now. I  have always been interested in her. Partly because she is in the period I really like…. mid 1800’s. I tend to read about people in that period a lot. The transcendentalists but also writers and thinkers. I tend to read the bios of people who knew each other or were in the same group. It gives me a deeper feeling of the period. I have also wanted to read about HBS too as she was   a minister’s daughter, what that does to a women I have always been interested in. Particularly the women who make something great of that legacy.  I have a few others too I am really interested in. I am also judging the  LA Times First fiction prize. I really like how they do that one, you pick the books that look interesting to you right out of the open field. SO I love that idea, that for a year I can read first novels and short story collections intently. It will be a good project.  Cool to see the direction the novel is going in these days.

 

I had my birthday which was hard for me this year. Not only am I getting older 53! But  more then that,  since my mother died I always, on my birthday, think more about her being dead then my being born or being alive. I feel a little dead on my birthday somehow since she has been gone. It’s a very odd feeling. Not so much a triumph because I am alive for so many years, I made it, but a bit like counting down toward death.

 

I am sorry about your grandma, even when someone is 96 you miss them. Also the transition between a spirit being in a body and the body being with out spirit, is just really upsetting and hard to understand I think.  I know what you mean too about the Loss, just of time and life in general. I always think how no one mourns like robins or rabbits from 50 years ago, but how just the passage of time seems hard and sad….things dying, whole generations passing away,  though I am not sure if it actually is or not.  But its hard not to feel the loss. It makes life now seem less stable too, too think like that. But life is unstable and in flux, in a way just as passing but in smaller ways.

 

How did I get so dreary? Sorry. I am about to wake my husband up now so we can walk up Church Street along this creek. And then I am going to cook all these root vegetables I got at the green market today for dinner. The practice my french.  And we are on Nurse Jackie now! The modern joys of a new TV show! I love all this New TV centered around women and I like NJ particularly as they are letting her be bad and good. Usually women have to be good all the time or bad all the time, which is, narratively, so dull.

 

So write me back and happy spring!   Xo Darcey

 

 

 

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New Letter: Nora to Me….

WP_20150430_001March 20, 2015

 

Dear Darcey,

 

Your letter was lovely and thought-provoking.  And so many ideas for books I now want to read!  By this time you are probably immersed in your visit with Abbie, eating good food and watching Broad City.  (I love that show too.  My husband introduced it to me, and one his Turkish friends introduced it to him!)  I hope your visit is fantastic.  She is so cool.

 

The most significant thing that happened since I last wrote you is that my grandmother died.  She was 96 and died peacefully and quickly.  Of course we were all still surprised.  We thoroughly expected her to make it to 100. I stayed at her house in Long Island the night before the funeral and my mom and I went through some of the pictures.  It made my mom very sad, looking at them.  And I found that I became the most sad when I looked at pictures of my grandparents as children.  There was this one school photo from 1925 when my grandfather was my son’s age.  All of the children were lined up in their Little Rascals-style outfits, the girls with identical haircuts; these chin-length bobs with pin-straight bangs.  It was this overall sense of loss that I felt, looking at them.  The end of a generation.  They are gone to us all.  You try to hold onto what you can but there is just so much loss.

 

For my mom it was the 2 love letters from when my grandfather was stationed overseas during the war that made her fall apart.

 

And speaking of domestic responsibility, my grandmother was the only girl in a large immigrant family and her mother died when she was quite young.  She was expected to drop out of school to take care of the men, but fortunately one of her brothers (who was also the best friend of her future husband, my grandfather) advocated for her and she stayed in school.  But of course the expectation was that she would stay in school while still taking care of everyone.  We think this is why she cooked her last meal in 1971, after her own children had grown.  As my aunt said, she wasn’t really a milk and cookies kind of grandma.  But Lordy, was she neat.  She was also very blunt and I could almost hear her voice making fun of the shoes I wore to her funeral!

 

I have also felt that the nuclear family as an institution is limiting.  When I used to teach ESL I often admired the multi-generational families that so many of my students lived in.  I remember going to a Father’s Day celebration at a Guatemalan couple’s home in Boston and they were all living in one building in 6 or 7 apartments, and it was such a joyful place.  I strongly believe that children need to seek wisdom from a variety of people, not just parents.  Of course this is a little different than what you wrote about, and a very traditional multi-generational family could potentially feel even more oppressive for some people.  But I also think that it provides opportunities for children to connect with other grown-ups who might be able to show them another perspective that could be quite freeing.

 

I wish I could have heard your talk!  Noon Wine is such a great title.  I love Katherine Anne Porter and am also fascinated by her life.  She’s so striking and gorgeous in her photos and looks so self-possessed and yet mysterious.  This is interesting, as her story that is most memorable for me, “Old Mortality,” is about this very mythologizing.  It’s about the stories the south tells itself about the past, especially regarding femininity, and juxtaposes two aunts, one of whom is romanticized in her death as being this idealized version of feminine beauty, all grace and poetry.  The other is an old maid and a suffragist who is still very much alive.  She does not want the myth.  But she suffers for this.   She has a weak chin and the family uses that detail to basically sum up everything about her.  There are all these great details in the story on this theme, like the protagonist’s father saying that there were never any fat women in the family.  But of course there were fat women in the family.   It also explores that Victorian notion of romance and illness we discussed earlier, how in reality there is nothing glamorous or beautiful about illness at all.

 

I really want to read that Catherine Lacey book now.  I liked what you wrote of her saying that every novel needs to have a surreal element to lift it out of the every day.  I have a friend who directs children’s plays who always says she likes her theatre to have a little magic in it.  I read the David Shields book Reality Hunger a few years ago.  It had sat on my bedside table for a few years before that.  I had been dreaming and obsessing about fragments at the time and was drawn to it, but was reluctant to read it because I was worried it would tear the apart the novel as a form, which is so beloved to me.  But I actually found it really inspiring.  He embraces the messiness of art that teeters between reality and fiction.   It is a matter of seeing, I think.

 

I’m teaching James Baldwin this week in one of my classes, which I always enjoy.  He was such a fierce intellect and his prose is so energized.  I showed this 5- minute documentary from the NY Times, “A Conversation with my Black Son.”  I had teared up the first two or three times I watched it.  I was fine when I showed it in class until I looked at one of the students, who is also a parent, and she was sobbing, so I got a little weepy and very inarticulate.  My chin started to quiver.  It was a hard moment, Darcey.  I’ve been wincing at the memory of it for days.  Me and my female pains!  I suppose I should just own them.  But it’s also being a parent.  It changes you.  My other class is a developmental writing class and I am loving it.  It’s a more diverse group; a lot of older students with children and lots of life experiences and the students have a lot to say.  My favorite kind of teaching is when you have to pound on the table for quiet because everyone is so engaged.

 

I am looking forward to the mud and bloom of spring.  I want to see my children wild and free in the open world.   Grass stains on their knees.  I took my kids to a literary reading with children’s book authors at a local coffee shop last weekend.  The room was packed and the kids were funny, interrupting to yell back to their dads that they wanted a hot chocolate, etc.  There was this wonderfully odd book about a pet glacier written by the poet Matthea Harvey.  My son showered her with compliments after the event.  I love Brooklyn!

 

Much Love,

Nora

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New Letter: Nora to Darcey: She was also very blunt and I could almost hear her voice making fun of the shoes I wore to her funeral!

 

WP_20150412_001-2Dear Darcey,

 

Your letter was lovely and thought-provoking.  And so many ideas for books I now want to read!  By this time you are probably immersed in your visit with Abbie, eating good food and watching Broad City.  (I love that show too.  My husband introduced it to me, and one his Turkish friends introduced it to him!)  I hope your visit is fantastic.  She is so cool.

 

The most significant thing that happened since I last wrote you is that my grandmother died.  She was 96 and died peacefully and quickly.  Of course we were all still surprised.  We thoroughly expected her to make it to 100. I stayed at her house in Long Island the night before the funeral and my mom and I went through some of the pictures.  It made my mom very sad, looking at them.  And I found that I became the most sad when I looked at pictures of my grandparents as children.  There was this one school photo from 1925 when my grandfather was my son’s age.  All of the children were lined up in their Little Rascals-style outfits, the girls with identical haircuts; these chin-length bobs with pin-straight bangs.  It was this overall sense of loss that I felt, looking at them.  The end of a generation.  They are gone to us all.  You try to hold onto what you can but there is just so much loss.

 

For my mom it was the 2 love letters from when my grandfather was stationed overseas during the war that made her fall apart.

 

And speaking of domestic responsibility, my grandmother was the only girl in a large immigrant family and her mother died when she was quite young.  She was expected to drop out of school to take care of the men, but fortunately one of her brothers (who was also the best friend of her future husband, my grandfather) advocated for her and she stayed in school.  But of course the expectation was that she would stay in school while still taking care of everyone.  We think this is why she cooked her last meal in 1971, after her own children had grown.  As my aunt said, she wasn’t really a milk and cookies kind of grandma.  But Lordy, was she neat.  She was also very blunt and I could almost hear her voice making fun of the shoes I wore to her funeral!

 

I have also felt that the nuclear family as an institution is limiting.  When I used to teach ESL I often admired the multi-generational families that so many of my students lived in.  I remember going to a Father’s Day celebration at a Guatemalan couple’s home in Boston and they were all living in one building in 6 or 7 apartments, and it was such a joyful place.  I strongly believe that children need to seek wisdom from a variety of people, not just parents.  Of course this is a little different than what you wrote about, and a very traditional multi-generational family could potentially feel even more oppressive for some people.  But I also think that it provides opportunities for children to connect with other grown-ups who might be able to show them another perspective that could be quite freeing.

 

I wish I could have heard your talk!  Noon Wine is such a great title.  I love Katherine Anne Porter and am also fascinated by her life.  She’s so striking and gorgeous in her photos and looks so self-possessed and yet mysterious.  This is interesting, as her story that is most memorable for me, “Old Mortality,” is about this very mythologizing.  It’s about the stories the south tells itself about the past, especially regarding femininity, and juxtaposes two aunts, one of whom is romanticized in her death as being this idealized version of feminine beauty, all grace and poetry.  The other is an old maid and a suffragist who is still very much alive.  She does not want the myth.  But she suffers for this.   She has a weak chin and the family uses that detail to basically sum up everything about her.  There are all these great details in the story on this theme, like the protagonist’s father saying that there were never any fat women in the family.  But of course there were fat women in the family.   It also explores that Victorian notion of romance and illness we discussed earlier, how in reality there is nothing glamorous or beautiful about illness at all.

 

I really want to read that Catherine Lacey book now.  I liked what you wrote of her saying that every novel needs to have a surreal element to lift it out of the every day.  I have a friend who directs children’s plays who always says she likes her theatre to have a little magic in it.  I read the David Shields book Reality Hunger a few years ago.  It had sat on my bedside table for a few years before that.  I had been dreaming and obsessing about fragments at the time and was drawn to it, but was reluctant to read it because I was worried it would tear the apart the novel as a form, which is so beloved to me.  But I actually found it really inspiring.  He embraces the messiness of art that teeters between reality and fiction.   It is a matter of seeing, I think.

 

I’m teaching James Baldwin this week in one of my classes, which I always enjoy.  He was such a fierce intellect and his prose is so energized.  I showed this 5- minute documentary from the NY Times, “A Conversation with my Black Son.”  I had teared up the first two or three times I watched it.  I was fine when I showed it in class until I looked at one of the students, who is also a parent, and she was sobbing, so I got a little weepy and very inarticulate.  My chin started to quiver.  It was a hard moment, Darcey.  I’ve been wincing at the memory of it for days.  Me and my female pains!  I suppose I should just own them.  But it’s also being a parent.  It changes you.  My other class is a developmental writing class and I am loving it.  It’s a more diverse group; a lot of older students with children and lots of life experiences and the students have a lot to say.  My favorite kind of teaching is when you have to pound on the table for quiet because everyone is so engaged.

 

I am looking forward to the mud and bloom of spring.  I want to see my children wild and free in the open world.   Grass stains on their knees.  I took my kids to a literary reading with children’s book authors at a local coffee shop last weekend.  The room was packed and the kids were funny, interrupting to yell back to their dads that they wanted a hot chocolate, etc.  There was this wonderfully odd book about a pet glacier written by the poet Matthea Harvey.  My son showered her with compliments after the event.  I love Brooklyn!

 

Much Love,

Nora

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Letter #5 in letter project: Me to Nora “The point of female agency is that we want to have all possibilities on the table, motherhood as well as everything else too.”

image-2Dear Nora:

 

Thanks so much for your letter. I loved what you said about women not feeling they can always talk about the experience of mothering because the culture at large still wants to claim it’s the key thing for a women.  And that idea is a lie. I have so many friends who did not have children and My God how they thrive!  I think you are so right about that.  The point of female agency is that we want to have all possibilities on the table, motherhood as well as everything else too.

 

I have also, in the past, particularly when I was a single mom and Abbie was little, felt that the nuclear family was sort of an insular and selfish institution. Being outside the intact family, let me see what a strangle hold the institution has on society.  I can’t say I felt like that all the time. But I do sometimes feel the American idea of a family can be problematic and excluding.  I worry too sometimes that the family can be a shield for a sort of male agenda. I think that’s true of the idea of “family values” for sure.  That has worried me some too.

 

I always think about what Gertrude Stein said…a women with a pet dog is a family.  That family is created because of the connections between humans not because of a unit with certain gender types.

 

I just interviewed Maggie Nelson, her new book The Argonauts is a lot about making a family with her partner Harry Dodge. He has transitioned now and to hear about her family’s joys and challenges is really gripping. She was also ambivalent about family but has come to have a son and make one of her own. The book goes deep into the idea of family as a unit of Love.

 

She also talks a lot about  the idea of hetero-normativity and how she does not want her family to go into those well worn patterns, of male-female work, role  divide.  And I can hear this. While some people embrace traditional gender roles they can be both boring and limited. But I also have to say I kept thinking Have you ever had to deal with a heterosexual man?  Its very hard sometimes to get them to do what they consider female work. Its much easier to get them to take care of the car and mow the grass, shovel snow. Maybe my case is rare, but this is what I have found to be true. If they will not do domestic work its key they do something! I remember when I realized my husband did not want to do domestic work that was repetitive, that had to be done over and over, like making the bed and doing the dishes and cooking, he did (even though he is so lovely ) not really consider that stuff his domain. And I think in general (and I know this is saying in general) men prefer work that moves forward, that does not have to be done over and over, They want work that builds, that creates something.  But I want to do that kind of work too!  We have talked about it and things have gotten better, he does the dishes! But it can still be very tricky. I feel frustrated with this some.

 

I hope the men coming up now will not have such defined ideas of what is women’s work and what is men’s work. I hope its been modeled for them with more variation.  It needs to be modeled very young I think.  So they don’t think they are doing women a favor by doing their share. I know I tried to make really clear with Abbie that she should not always be the one to have to take on more domestic work, or change her planes or adjust her self to situations just because she is a women, Women are asked  to compromise themselves all the time and it makes it hard for then to get traction in the world and I think we need to be much more careful about always giving into this.

 

So Let’s see What else? The Novelist Catherine Lacey came to my seminar wed night  at the New School and she was great. I really love her book Nobody is Ever Missing. It got linked to that last essay in the Jamison Book, The Empathy Essays about taking back female pain. The Lacey main character is in deep trauma as she hitches around New Zealand. It’s the prose that is great though. She also said… Anti-heroes and dystopias are more interesting to me, as a reader and writer, than their tidier counterparts. My students were tough on her, they asked some really hard questions.  I liked what she said …that every novel needs to have a surreal element, to sort of lift it up out of the everyday. Next week Scott Cheshire comes to class. He wrote a book about his Jehovah Witness Dad.  I just finished it last night. It really shook me up, the idea of having a father with deep faith is familiar to me. Also the idea that being drawn to faith maybe in a family line. The book ends in an 1800 camp meeting. And the idea of the end of the world and how that idea has fascinated people  for so long, over so much time, felt real to me.

 

I have spring break from my teaching this week. I am right not waiting for Abbie to come home from Bard for her spring break, I am really excited to see her.  My husband cleaned up the house !!! And I cooked a bunch of food for her and I look forward to watching many episode of Broad City with her, my new favorite show that she turned me on to.  Its about two girls in NY and its just great, crazy feminist. In its very conception its so pro female. They never say, for instance, they hare going to get fucked or got fucked, they say the Vagina is going to swallow the penis. I love this!!!!

 

 

I have a really busy week next week. I read on Monday night at the New School and then I have to give a talk on Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine. I loved reading about her life, which was a childless, rather wild one. She was in Mexico for the revolution and lived all over Europe. She did not write a lot of fiction but what she wrote is very fine. I was jealous of thinking of her living in paris and reading and taking notes for future stories. It all seemed so dreamy. I think there were a lot of money worries and she did marry 5 times, sort of a lot!  I fly to Virginia end of the week to read at the Festival of the book and I am looking forward to seeing friends at UVA, that’s where I got my MFA, and I still am close to many of the teaches there. Though my old and wonderful teacher George Garrett is dead now. I learned so much from him. Maybe the biggest thing was not even what he said, I remember once going into his office for a conference and while he was out running an errand, I saw he had his book The Succession, historical novel about Queen Elizabeth, and I saw that he was making margins notes in the finished book, he was reworking the lines!!!! I realize that nothing is EVER really done then. The flow and continuity of story and language really thrilled me, to think about it in that way. That while a books publication may stop the words, at a some point, the reworking and rethinking really never end.

 

Ah I went on too long. I will get this in the mail. I think we finally have spring. I love the rainy spring days, its my favorite weather of the whole year. I like the rainy fall days too, the best days for reading and writing.

 

All love to you guys! Darcey

 

**some of you have been asking about the wonderful Nora. Here is a brief bio…

“Nora O’Connor grew up in Minnesota.  For several years she managed anti-poverty and job training programs in Brooklyn, and she currently teaches writing at the College of Staten Island and works as a non-profit consultant.  She is at work on a novel.”

 

 

 

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LetterProject: #4 Nora to me–I guess I just feel that we’re so careful about tying female identity to motherhood that it keeps us from talking about it in a meaningful, and yes, intellectual way that allows us to embrace how powerful of an experience it is.

WP_20150307_002Dear Darcey,

 

I’d forgotten how exciting it is to get real letters in the mail.  It’s a bit thrilling, a little piece of joy.  And I love hearing from you.  Knowing, for example, about the pink lamp shade in Princeton that delights you.

 

And a lot of what you said about motherhood felt very true to me.  I think it can be a delicate thing to talk about, how profound an experience it is, because of the story out there that it is the only way for women to find a meaningful life, which is obviously such a lie.  But as someone who was for many years ambivalent about having children, I can say that it has been the most wonderful surprise of my life.  I look back at how I felt in the years before I had my son, how I had this kind of malaise and a sense that I had experienced so much and that nothing could truly be new or exciting anymore. Clearly my perspective was quite off, but I can laugh at it now.  Really it was just the beginning.  As you say, you are forced into attention.  I guess I just feel that we’re so careful about tying female identity to motherhood that it keeps us from talking about it in a meaningful, and yes, intellectual way that allows us to embrace how powerful of an experience it is.

 

That said; it is also the riskiest thing I have ever done in my life.  I’ve never had so much at stake and sometimes it terrifies me.  I have a friend who says she sometimes just wants to tell people not to do it because she finds the anxiety of it so overwhelming.  But I couldn’t agree with you more about what matters is if a mother deals with her own shit.   Of course the work of that is never over.   One thing I also admire about how you approach parenting Abbie is how supportive you are of her life and art in a way that still allows it to be hers.  You’re not patronizing or cutesy about it, you let her do her thing and you back her up.  I guess I wonder if you feel that is just very natural to you because you took yourself seriously as an artist at a young age, or has that been a conscious decision on your part that has taken constant effort and vigilance?

 

There are times when it all feels untenable though. Even as I’m doing it, I don’t know how people do it.  I have a hard time with whining.  I sometimes desperately crave quiet and privacy. I know women who lock themselves in their bathrooms just to get a moment of silence, especially in NY where space is so limited.  And even then somebody is usually pounding on the door.  I used to have this fantasy of reading Jane Eyre in the grass at Audubon Park in New Orleans.  I’ve never read Jane Eyre.

 

But nothing compares to the thrill of these lovely and affectionate and hysterical little people.  I love it when my nieces and nephews come into town because the whole place becomes a riot; someone is always saying something that has me laughing so hard I fall off my parents’ couch.  When I was 25 my best friend won a luxury vacation to Australia and brought me with her.  We jumped on the beds of our hotel room in Sydney in exhilaration because we were so surprised and delighted by the gorgeous hotel room and the pure excitement of the whole trip.  That experience was not half as exhilarating as the feeling I have of coming home to my kids.  I have a little girl who steals fake pearls out of my jewelry box and parades around in them in her footed elephant pajamas and a little boy who says things like, “It’s so nice to have everyone here together” when we have guests visiting from out of town, and then I feel like, what could be better than this?

 

I do remember Outer Dark and remember liking it, though I think my experience of reading it now might be quite different.  The Cormac McCarthy book I’ve read most recently is of course The Road, which I found to be the most hopeful of all his books.  I felt like it was about what it means to be good, and to love, in a brutal world and I connected quite a bit with that theme.  I also loved the Empathy Exams, but did lend it to a friend, a high school counselor in the Bronx, who hated it and couldn’t finish it.  She was particularly bothered by the essay about getting punched in the face in Guatemala, not because she didn’t believe that that must be a horrible experience, but because she felt that to write a whole essay about a single experience with something (violence) that is a daily occurrence in the world for so many millions of people was a first world impulse.  I disagreed and had written a whole mini-essay in my head in response but got bogged down in grading student papers so we left it at that.

 

Tonight my dear friend Payal from Minnesota is coming over for dinner with her husband.  I’ve known her since I was 3.  A few years ago she quit her architecture job to start her own fashion line and I’ve always admired her bravery and confidence in taking that jump. I don’t know many people from home here in NY and even though I only see her a few times a year I find it such a comfort just knowing that she’s here.

 

Much Love,

Nora

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Letter Project: Me to Nora #3

WP_20150208_002-2Dear Nora:

I loved your letter. In part I wanted to write to you as I wanted to hear about your children.  Abbie is gone off to college and I miss her. So I wanted to hear about your younger kids some. I am lonely for children. Also I think mothering is very interesting. For me mothering was intellectually fascinating as well as emotionally. I feel angry how the media treats mothering, reducing it all to Mommy War hot (dull) topics. But there is a world of beauty and nuance in care giving and I wanted to hear about that some from you.  Also I like that you read my letter after your kids were in bed, I think that time at night has such an interesting texture. I think time periods that are sectioned off have a different feel then freer ones.  I am very interested in time’s tone and feel, how it varies so much, based on context.

 

I was worried to hear about your dizzy spells. I think its so interesting that I was writing to you about Mary Baker Eddy and the idea of female illness, female pain and we both had some of it! I hope yours has passed or that you have at least figured out what it is. When you are sick and still have to care for kids, that is a hard thing. I can remember sometimes when Abbie was a baby being sick with cold or flu and still having to get up at night with her, and it was dire. I remember one night having her lay on me while I was on the couch in the dark living room, and we lay like that till morning. I have such memories of that night, the light across the way in an apartment window and the street light under lighting the material of the curtains, so I could see the weave of the threads, the occasional car down below on the street. Sometimes I feel I never really saw anything until I had a baby.  You are forced into attention.

 

I did read the Leslie Jamison book and I loved it. I loved the last essay. I think female pain has been degraded of course and the idea of taking even the smallest pains seriously is a beautiful idea. It’s challenging for me though, as my mother lived in a world of pain her whole life and it seemed to me self generated in many ways. She also, out of her pain, her wound, bleed on me and my brothers and that was hard. Pain is hard when its directed at others.   As a mother that is something I have tried so hard not to do, to dump negative emotions on to Abbie, to dump bitterness, loneliness. That is the thing with the Mommy Wars that drives me crazy as it does not really matter if a mother works or not or uses one child rearing technique or another, its all about if the mother deals with her own shit, that’s what makes a good mother, an attentive one but also an aware one, a lucid mother.

 

My newest female pains are these hot flashes. I find them sort of terrible but also fascinating. Right before I have one I feel a sense of terrible claustrophobia and dread, and then the full sweat.  It’s very intense. And feels wrong somehow. There is also so little written or talked about it. Even some shame attached to it, I think.

In the same way that motherhood is debased I feel the same thing around menopause. Everyone is really uncomfortable, even women inside it. Maybe it’s a fear of losing the power to create life physically. I do grieve that. It’s a hard demarcation that a phase of life is over, I guess I prefer softer demarcations. But I also know I can still make life, maybe not in physical ways anymore, but in so many others, writing and relationships for one.  You don’t have to materially make life to make life! I have a great herbalist, a linguistics major from Brown! Who is going to make me some herbal tinctures so I can at least sleep better and not wake up hot and frantic in the nights.

 

My teaching is full on now. I taught McCarthy’s Outer Dark last week. Do you remember it? I love it very much as its about knowing God through unknowing, through the void.  I like very dark books sometimes because they try to know in this way rather then dealing in conventional ideas of salvation. This is a favorite idea of mind, the idea that to know you have to break down what you know. Go into the dark.  I also love Rinthy, she is just a simple country girl who has lost her baby, but she goes looking for it, in this brave and heroic way. She is also very honest about her pain and her love. I admire her as much as any character in all of letters. The students were mixed on the book. There are some brilliant critics in the class, though we got caught up on some dull topics of pov and what not. I think when you teach books that have a modernist or post modernist feel sometimes you can get stuck on the why did the author tell the story like that not a terrible thing to talk of a bit but its good to jump over to themes.

 

My Princeton classes are good too, very smart and lively students. I stay over Thursday night there in a house for visiting faculty and that’s been fun too. It’s like a mini retreat for me. This week I went to the little movie theater in town and saw the Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner about the painter. I liked it, mostly for the way he places things near each other, not worrying about exposition too much. Just a nice light touch. I really think too much telling kills a narrative. I also thought John Ruskin, was fantastic, the actor great. There is a lovely scene too with Ruskin’s long suffering wife and Turner that I found beautiful. I like my little room there, the bed is situated so I can see out the window a slice of a house across the street. In the upper widow is a pink lamp shade that delights me.

 

Its snowing now on Valentine’s Day. Last night Mike and I went out to celebrate so we are going to my brothers to take care of my nephews so they can go out tonight. I am going now in a few minutes to buy them, Theo and Booster, cupcakes and sticker books so Auntie Darcey does not arrive empty handed.

 

All love to you Nora—

 

Darcey

 

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Letter #2: Nora to Darcey

WP_20150208_002-2Dear Darcey,

 

It was such a treat to get your letter after all this snow.  I love that your words made a journey, even if just across Flatbush.  (We adore our mailman, by the way.  He inspires me.  Always in a good mood; always kind.  My son calls him “my friend the mailman” and rushes out to greet him whenever he sees him.)  I waited until I put my daughter down for a nap to read the letter so that I could enjoy it completely.

 

And I love that you are writing me after spending a week in a monastery, although I am so sorry to hear about you getting sick.  That must have been so scary.  I think the worst thing about something like that is the mystery of it.  Not knowing what it is or how long it will last.   And I’m sure it was not how you pictured spending your time in the monastery after looking forward to it so much.   I have been thinking a lot about illness as well because I had been having dizzy spells these last two weeks and didn’t know why.  I was so miserable, Darcey.  I didn’t know when it was going to stop.  I had no motivation and that was hard.  I just wanted to lie down, but that felt like avoiding life. Since I’ve had children I find that I think about illness differently.  Maybe it’s about getting older too.  I used to like to believe that I was very resilient, a bit of a tough cookie, someone who could endure pretty much anything.  But having children has made me more vulnerable, and every time something awful happens I question how I would handle something more serious.   I worry about becoming sick and not being able to have the relationship with my children that I want and need to have.  I remember lying in my hospital bed after having my son, just falling apart, completely unzipped.  I had these feelings of empathy for others that were very powerful and unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.  I thought about my mother, whose first-born, my brother, was born with congenital heart disease, and how scary that must have been for her.  I really hadn’t understood that before even though she had told me.  I thought about my brother, and the pain he endured recovering from his surgeries.  I thought about mothers who give birth in war-torn countries.  My son was safe and healthy.  We had food and shelter.  And still I was absolutely terrified and unsure that I could do it.

 

I was also interested in your story about Mary Baker Eddy.  Your idea that women found empowerment through illness and then self-healing in Victorian times was a new perspective for me and felt very true.  It’s embarrassing for me to admit now and I almost never do, but I used to have romantic notions about females and illness that surely came from being a dreamy, bookish kid.  The idea of being sick was mysterious and beautiful to me and I didn’t realize how much of that terrible notion was an idea I was absorbing not only from books but surely from television as well, like those Danielle Steele adaptations on tv my sister and I used to watch furtively in the basement late at night.  I see these warped ideas now as not being that far off from media’s fascination with the deaths and murders of young beautiful women.  I remember reading an interview with the Nigerian writer Helen Oyeyemi and her saying that all she ask about a story of a murdered woman is that it not imply that she was somehow more interesting and beautiful in death because it’s a terrible lie.  People are at their best when they are alive.  That really stayed with me. I do think that our culture is still obsessed with female fragility in a very twisted way.  People are drawn to it but then end up wanting to crush it.   And yet I find that I’m just not drawn to these ass-kicking female warrior characters in the way that some other women are.  It’s great that they’re out there.  But it just doesn’t turn me on.  I really enjoyed that Leslie Jamison essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.”  Did you read it?  The way she put it all out there, how that pain can be so true and real, even at its’ most sentimental.  I loved the story in that essay about how her boss at the bakery she worked in used to put on a wounded music mix and daydream about being abandoned by her lover on the side of the highway.  I remember actively wanting to have my heart broken when I was a teenager.  I wanted to feel that cut.  I thought it would make me feel more alive and complete.

 

I was a teenager in the nineties and I still think it was a great time to be a girl.  I’m so grateful for the freedom of that time.  There were so many great female role models in music, for one. Growing up in Minnesota too, with skinned knees and scrapping about the woods and streams.  I remember seeing those public service messages from the city on the subway last year about being a girl and how that also meant you were strong and smart.  I still don’t know how I feel about those.  I suppose it’s a necessary message.  But it would have ever occurred to me that being a girl meant I wasn’t any of those things.

 

My eight-year-old niece went through a Victorian period and would pretend to dig wells in the backyard.  My sister used to send me photos of her lying languidly in the grass in white dresses, pretending to be a Victorian.

 

And I was also very moved by what you said about your relationship with your mother and the purity of that first year of her caring for you, and you for Abbie.  I found it to be very profound and lovely. My own mother turns seventy next week, the day after my daughter turns 2.

 

I have a lot more to say but am going to leave it here.  I returned to teaching this week and it felt good.  My son started keeping a journal and also got glasses, and the sight of him under the covers in those blue glasses, scribbling away, brings me a lot of joy.  I always think of what you said about Abbie, how your family motto was “full engagement.”  I think that’s great.  You guys inspire me too!

 

Much Love,

Nora

 

PS.  I’m still reading that book of Charles D’Ambrosio essays.  It takes me a long time to read these days.  I think Loitering is such a fantastic title.  That essay about his brother’s suicide and themes of suicide in Salinger’s work was stunning.

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