Saturday, November 22, 2014

"I Have a Rendezvous with Death"

It almost defies imagination--like many elements that were the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—that the man whose life force was extreme would declare his favorite poem to be Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." (Wouldn't a life-affirming Yeats or Keats poem have served him better?) And that he would "often ask his wife to recite it."  You might expect this kind of reveal to be on a list in People Magazine, but it's on the Kennedy Library site, so one would expect it's true. Seeger died in World War 1, on the Somme.

Things I Have Always Known about JFK
It's not that my family had formal discussions about our first Irish-Catholic president, but growing up I seemed to amass many tidbits about JFK from my parents and grandparents.

•Papa Joe Kennedy wanted his first son, Joseph, to be the first Irish Catholic president, and started grooming him very young. When Joe died in WWII, Joe turned his eyes to Jack, and that was it. Jack had no say in the matter. Joe was smarter than Jack, and might have been a better man for the presidency.

•Papa Joe "bought" Jack the election through a combination of old school dealmaking and straight out bribes and corruption.

•His Addison's disease.

"Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's in the 1940s. In 1955 he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an insufficient output of thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include many of those associated with Addison's, as well as paleness, intolerance to cold, depression and a low heart rate."

•Sister Rosemary was "slow" and her father wanted to "fix" her. He brought her to have a frontal lobotomy when she was 23, while her protective mother was away in France. It incapacitated her permanently, and she lived on the grounds of a convent in Wisconsin until she died in 2005 at 86.

•Jackie wanted to divorce Jack before the election because of his rampant infidelities, and Papa Joe paid her a huge amount to stay.

•There was a second son, Patrick, who was born in the White House but died after only three days. (See below.)

•I wrote about Ted Kennedy's death here.

Things I Learned Later
•Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born on August 7, 1963, and died August 9. It was an emergency C-section for Jackie, and his lungs weren't fully formed.

•Lee Radzwill, Jackie's sister, had been in Greece on on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis. He says 'you should go to your sister to console her.'  Lee ends up bringing Jackie back to the yacht in Greece for her to recover from her son's death. That is where she meets the shipping magnate she will marry in 1968. Hmm.

•The gorgeous couple in the above photo are grieving parents of just three months.  And then they get in that car.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

(President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, arrive at Love Field in Dallas on a campaign tour with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. (Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

“Three Irishmen Walk into a Ferry Waiting Room . . . Again“

 If they had walked into a bar, Kevin, Dermot, and Joe would have been no more than an obscure trio in the long tradition of Irish jokes.

But instead, they are part of the memorable fictional world of Conor McPherson’s 2002 play Port Authority, which I saw in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company, and again today in the closing performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly. It is one of the joys of theatergoing, to see different stagings of the same play.

Our characters are in a ferry dock waiting room in Dublin harbor, erroneously referred to as bus station by many critics back in 2008, I guess because New York's Port Authority is a bus terminal. But that was the jetty of Dublin harbor on the Playbill cover. The set at the Irish Rep was more successful in conveying the time/place, with the blue sky over a horizon of water.

Each of our trio is a million miles away in his own thoughts, which he gives voice to as we all raptly listen in.  It is a tour de force of monologue writing and acting across three stages of man: the senior (Jim Norton/Peter Maloney), the middle aged (Brian D’Arcy/Billy Carter), and the twentysomething (John Gallagher/James Russell). They speak of life from the perspective of their age, and of love, which knows no such boundary.

With the barest of sets and the absence of any action, it is the sheer power of language and tale-spinning that pulls you in. Each is able to give you a sense of the entire life of that man, just from these revealed thoughts. That's what makes this such a special, powerful play. That primacy of the spoken word reminded me of HBO’s In Treatment, where another Irishman, Gabriel Byrne, absolutely commanded our attention, all the while sitting in a chair.

A line in Terry Teachout’s rave review of the play back in 2008 surprised me. He described it as a “series of interwoven monologues by three unhappy Irishmen.”

Unhappy Irishman. It never occurred to me that these men were unhappy. From my own experience, there is something about the Celtic soul that doesn’t think in happy/unhappy terms. Life is. There are highs and lows, joys and disappointments. So be it.

I saw Martin Sheen back in 2008 on The Graham Norton Show. Graham asked him what the secret was to having such a long and happy marriage. Sheen answered, it’s not really about happiness. What makes a loving marriage work is if your partner helps you to experience joy. It’s a subtle, important distinction which McPherson understands.

Each of our waiting-room Irishmen speaks of specific moments of joy within his tale. There is also deep disappointment all around, and they all wish many things were different.

But they are Irish. Their wit and wisdom and whisky will sustain them, until the final Ferryman comes to take them across that other river.

(photo, Doug Hamilton)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Remembrance Sunday: Life and Death 100 Years After the Great War Started

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetary, Ypres Salient. 11,954, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Cross is built on site of a German pillbox.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Trench photo in the Flanders Field Museum, Ghent, Belgium

* * * * * *

I recently returned from Belgium, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings.

On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughtered.

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Thomas Hardy's Guy Fawkes Bonfire & the Lessons of Eustacia Vye

While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district.

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

Thomas Hardy set his beguling The Return of the Native in his beloved Wessex, around Guy Fawkes Day. It gives us an excellent, up-close look at this most Albion of holidays.

First, A Quick Guy Fawkes primer, from the History Channel site * * * 

•Catholicism in England was heavily repressed under Queen Elizabeth I
•During her reign, dozens of priests were put to death, and Catholics could not legally celebrate Mass or be married according to their own rites.
•Many Catholics had high hopes when King James I took the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603. James’ wife, Anne, is believed to have previously converted to Catholicism, and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth’s Catholic archrival prior to being executed.

•It soon became clear, however, that James did not support religious tolerance for Catholics.
•In 1604 he publicly condemned Catholicism as a superstition, ordered all Catholic priests to leave England and expressed concern that the number of Catholics was increasing.
•He also largely continued with the repressive policies of his predecessor, such as fines for those refusing to attend Protestant services. * * *

This is the context whereby 13 Catholics got the stupid, murderous idea that blowing up James 1, while he was speaking in the House of Parliament,  would put his daughter on the throne and she might be more lenient.

The conspirators brought 36 barrels of gunpowder into the tunnels under parliament and were going to ignite it during the session on Nov. 5. Lots of twists and turns ensued, which a UK education site discusses in detail, but Guy Fawkes, the poor sap left to guard the gunpowder, is discovered when the authorities decide to search the tunnels. The plot is completely foiled.

It's one of those quirks of history that Guy Fawkes is the face of the conspiracy, when Robert Catesby was the mastermind.  They were all executed one way or another. Fawkes was tortured on the rack to get the names of his co-conspirators, and so that he would sign a confession. There is a comparison of his handwriting before and after his torture which is very chilling..

Back to the History Channel * * *
 •Londoners immediately began lighting bonfires in celebration that the plot had failed and their king was not assassinated
•A few months later Parliament declared November 5 a public day of thanksgiving.
•Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night, has been around in one form or another ever since.  * * *

In many counties it was the pope that was burned in effigy, along with Guy.  Then over time local bonfires burned all sorts of politicians in effigy.

Hardy's Bonfire on Edgon Heath and Eustacia Vye
Hardy wrote Return of the Native in 1878.  I love that he focuses on the primal urges of the bonfire—the Lux Fiat against the darkness—as the heart of the tradition, and not the echoes of the Gunpowder Plot with its religious baggage.

I read The Return of the Native in high school, a novel well matched to that time and place. Wildeve, the heath, the bonfires, the odd, red Diggory Venn character, cross-dressing mummers, burning a foe in effigy, Hardy’s relentless themes of loneliness and isolation—does anything more clearly speak to the surging angst of high school?

And to top it off, I connected with the tortured, sad, exotic figure of Eustacia Vye, deemed by a chapter heading to be Queen of the Night. It’s hard not to read Hardy as mocking his heroine, but this was a serialized novel during Victorian times, and modern irony was still waiting just over the horizon in the No Man's Land of World War I:

"Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman."

Hardy’s Tess has gotten the serious attention through the years, and we won’t even talk about the effect Jude the Obscure's Sue Bridehead and Father Time have had on subsequent literature.

But for me, Eustacia is the character that made me feel less lonely in high school, because she was so solitary.

She enters the story silhouetted against the Guy Fawkes bonfire:

"When the whole Egdon concourse had left the site of the bonfire to its accustomed loneliness, a closely wrapped female figure approached the barrow from that quarter of the heath in which the little fire lay.

Her reason for standing so dead still as the pivot of this circle of heath-country was just as obscure. Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear."

A tract of country unaltered from that sinister condition which made Caesar anxious every year to get clear of its glooms before the autumnal equinox . . . was not, on the face of it, friendly to women."

Hardy's language is a joy: "extraordinary fixity." It is astounding that he would write of a woman in terms of such strength—"utter absence of fear"—while understanding that such fearless independence can also be isolating. That was comforting to hear in high school.

Eustacia suffers from yearnings of grandeur: she is trapped by class and circumstance to live on the heath, which she detests, while she’s tormented by delusions of living in Paris. She yearns for love in an equally distraught way. Much of the book is overwrought passages about her comings and goings on the heath, as she walks between bonfires.

Yet, amid all the hype, I found a metaphor that seared into my teenage memory.

". . . a clue to her abstraction was afforded by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold of her skirt, and checked her progress. Instead of putting it off and hastening along, she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood passively still. When she began to extricate herself it was by turning round and round, and so unwinding the prickly switch. She was in a desponding reverie."

Important lesson for women: beware the brambles of life because they will snag the hem of your dress if you are not careful. If you are not vigilant, they will keep you motionless, throw you into a desponding reverie,  or worse. Clear them away, or at the least, walk around them.

Here's the rub: It’s not always easy to see these low-growing thorns, especially when your gaze is focused elsewhere than on your feet, like when looking up at a glorious sky or into the eyes of a beloved or at the bobbing head of a toddler. And that's when you can get ensnared . . .

But since high school, I have been on the outlook for those brambles. And it has helped. Thanks, Hardy.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pops with Our Better Ghosts and Goblins: Happy Halloween

This Louis Armstrong number from the 1936 Bing Crosby movie Pennies from Heaven is a great, great Halloween treat. Louis and the skeletons swing it hot.

The Skeleton in the Closet, (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston)

There's an old deserted mansion
On an old forgotten road
Where the better ghosts and goblins
Always hang out.

One night they threw a party
In a manner a la mode
And they cordially invited
All the gang out
At a dark bewitchin' hour
When the fun was loud and hearty
A notorious wall flower
Became the life of the party

Mmm! The spooks were havin' their midnight fling
The merry makin' was in full swing
They shrieked themselves into a cheerful trance
When the skeleton in the closet started to dance
Now a goblin giggled with fiendish glee
A shout rang out from a big banshee
Amazement was in every ghostly glance
When the skeleton in the closet started to dance
All the witches were in stitches
While his steps made rhythmic thumps
And they nearly dropped their broomsticks
When he tried to do the bumps
You never heard such unearthly laughter
Such hilarious groans
When the skeleton in the closet rattled his bones

Dracula-Go-Bragh: The Celtic Story That Will Not Die

 From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

 An Old Scottish Prayer.

Happy All Hallow's Eve. And by Hallow we mean a Saint, because tomorrow is All Saint's Day. Halloween as a feast is derived from the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain.

And so perhaps it's not so surprising that it’s an Irishman who wrote one of the definitive horror stories of all time.

In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, and so gave life to the Romanian Count who will not die. Oh he is fully dispatched in Stoker’s tale, but his story haunts each generation of artists who bring him back to life in updated forms. The august Masterpiece Theatre did a version a few years ago  that is quite excellent, although version is the operative word. There is something about this story that begs the new tellers to play with the actual story points to suit their new retellings. That’s why no two filmed versions seem to tell exactly the same tale, except in the broad strokes.

I first read the tale in an Irish Lit. class, right after Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), which is considered the first historical novel. The book is not the easiest read, because the epistolary/journal form can be tedious. But the story now lives so entirely in collective DNA, there’s almost no need to return to the original pages.

Stoker was born near Clontarf, outside of Dublin, to Protestant parents. In Dublin, they would have been in the minority, going to the Church of Ireland. The academics started finding meaning here in the 1990s:

"Once considered as almost beneath serious critical notice, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of Bram Stoker's vampire novel, when psychoanalytical and feminist critics began to see it as a veritable circus of fin-de-siecle sexual fears and longings.

“At the same time [1990s], the question of the novel's origins came to the fore, and critics began to locate it as a Victorian Irish rather than Victorian British text . . . ."

Not to be too reductionist, but it doesn’t take a team of academics to suss out that blood matters to the Irish, very deeply, as does soil/land. The fear of women’s sexuality, on the other hand, knows no geographical boundaries.

But what’s even more interesting is to look at our Irishman. He toils as a civil servant in Dublin for some eight years, and writes a nonfiction book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions. Clearly he is more Wallace Stevens than Edgar Allen Poe.

He meets the rock star actor Henry Irving, moves to London, marries an Oscar Wilde-cast off beauty named Florence Balcombe, and becomes the business manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre.

Thus his day job is filled with the creativity and talent of the likes of Ellen Terry, George Bernard Shaw, later Walt Whitman, and Irving himself. His biographer, Barbara Belford, believes that Irving is the “monster with manners,” that Stoker models the Count on. Stoker was overwhelmed and dazzled in many ways by his egocentric boss. He wrote a monograh on Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving.

Still, it begs the question: how did this civil servant cum business manager create the lasting story that is Dracula?

Kirkus did the same head-scratching:

“As for Dracula itself, it remains a conundrum of violation, rapacious desire, and death under the cloak of Victorian civility. It mirrors the fundamental conundrum of Stoker's life, as posed by a journalist of his time: How could this ""great shambling, good-natured overgrown boy"" have been the author of Dracula?”

I like to think it all goes back to the essence of Irishness: it’s deeper, darker, more complex than ever meets the eye. Nothing surprises me about those tantalizing people.

I hear they invented the Jack O’Lantern when a lazy farmer named Jack tried to trick the Devil. . . .

(post first published in 2007.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Love is the jewel that wins the world": Inspiration for a birthday, for every day

Today is my birthday.  There is one card that has arrived without fail for the last twenty-two years that will not arrive today. It was from my friend Barbara, who died in August. I offer some of her story today because it is so extraordinary and so inspirational.

It is an epistolary story of a woman who suffered a catastrophic stroke following surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor that would have killed her. The surgery saved her life but cruelly took away the ordinary life she had and replaced it with, well, keep reading.

Barbara befriended me when I first walked into the alto section of Church of Notre Dame near Columbia University.  She is a big reason that I have had the pleasure of singing in polyphony workshops throughout Europe. She was also the first intellectual Catholic I ever met.

Barbara was paralyzed after the surgery, which was in 1992. She needed a trach tube to breath and feeding tubes for nourishment. She had lost the ability to speak, much of her hearing was gone, and her vision was damaged and would continue to degenerate.  And yet, her mind was entirely intact.

Locked-In Syndrome and Literary Letters
 I never heard the diagnosis "locked-in syndrome" but her situation amounted to a very similar condition. One difference was that Barbara could move her hand, which meant she could finger-spell letters into someone's hand to a communicate.  Locked-in people generally can only move their eyes.  And that is how the magazine Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was able to write the stunning, haunting memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, detailing his experience. He blinked it. Letter. By. Letter. I highly recommend it.

Through friends I learned that Barbara was asking to receive mail to keep her connected with her old life. She could only answer by finger-spelling every letter. to every word. into a caregiver's hand, who would transcribe the words, first in snail mail, and later email. Here is more about Finger Spelling communication from the American Sign Language association.

This lead to the most rich, poignant, inspiring correspondence of my life. I'm sorry to say that it took me three years to actually start sending Barbara letters. I didn't know what to say to a dear friend who was suffering such catastrophic circumstances. Thank God I didn't let my initial slowness to act keep me from starting, a lesson I have applied elsewhere.

And since I wrote my first letter back in 1996, I have received a chestful of letters, including a birthday card, every year.

Barbara died on August 3, 2014, twenty-two years after the surgery. I know at least the last five years of which were in extreme physical distress, because I visited with her in England.  The duration of her suffering is part of what makes her writing so extraordinary. For some context, the Elle editor only lived eighteen months in his "diving bell body with the butterfly mind." Not 22 years.

I offer excerpts from Barbara's letters to me because I want to share her spirit, wit, faith, philosophy, and ability to love and care for her friends from the confines of her bed, in hellish circumstances.  Her concern about my own frequent, romantic heartaches is particularly poignant.

I want Barbara to live on in everyone who reads this little blog as an example of the staggering courage of life. During her lifetime whenever I felt down or distressed I would think about Barbara and her strength, and I still find inspiration in the letters she left. I hope you will too.

Do you know your purple dress is what the French call demi dueil?

Right now God is asking me to take a lot, but, I keep saying to myself, this can’t last. I look forward to it being over, and maybe to take my place in the back row of the altos.  Please give everyone my love and keep lots for yourself.

I was surprised that you polished your nails blue. I’m sure it’s very modern, but I liked ‘Fire and Ice.’  It was bright red.

I’m afraid I’m jaundiced about John John [Kennedy's] wedding, but not so much I didn’t wonder where it happened and who he married.

I never watch TV because I can't hear or see much. I did read Vile Bodies. I agree Evelyn Waugh is interesting, but I understand a bit of a bastard. He said he'd be even worse if he weren't a Catholic. What a guy!

I have my computer back again but my tinnitus and cold are so bad that I haven't worked on it in a while. I'm really cowardly about my ataxia too. It's silly because if my number is up it's up. I do have these fears and I'm terrified to work alone. As it is I think people are more impressed than they should be by it [a computer]. It is just an aid to writing and arithmetic, after all. People act like it will solve all problems. It won't. Our Lord is the only one who'll do that.

I am learning to lip-read. You see I rather like learning new things.

Teaching me is a race against time anyway, because I'm going blind slowly but surely.

I'm supposed to have a new trach because my current one is too small. I will have to have plastic surgery because my stoma has closed up and got too small, but when God knows.

2/23/1997 [Five years since the surgery]

What a hoot seeing the wreck I am now! I wouldn't have aged gracefully so maybe it's as well I won't have a chance.

How the hell do I convince the bureaucracy that I need a new trach that fits. And how do I cope in the mean time? How do I manage increasing deafness and blindness?

I voted ‘cos I think the franchise is important, and I may be disabled but I don’t want to lose the vote as well as everything else.

I will face new problems 'cos I think Labour won't want us cripples. I bet they want us just to kill ourselves. Well, we are willing to support abortion, and why not pick on somebody else that's defenseless? I don't mind dying, but not 'cos they say so.

I am very depressed and quite willing to die. I was told this was selfish and selfpitying, but five years is a long time and I spend time thinking what good I’ve done, and I think the world would be a better place without me. Of course I may be useful in the future, but I’ve lost my powers, to say the least, and feel I can go. I wonder if you know how galling it is to be me? They want me to take antidepressants, but the happy pill doesn’t exist which can make up for all my losses. Anyhow, they make me stupid, and I need what little intelligence I have left.

Well done for moving to a one bedroom apartment. Seriously, have you any needs? I am an old apartment dweller from way back, and remember being quite pleased with house gifts, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need something.

[When I misquoted Browning !]
My brother, who comes nearly every day, says I should phrase this differently, but I’m shameless and haven’t changed it. You misquoted “Oh! To be in England!” It’s Browning and one of my brothers gave it to me for Christmas so I’m sure. My sister takes a dim view of Browning, but I rather like him.

You don’t say anything about your love. I had a moment’s hope that he’d gone away.

I hope I do cheer you up. ‘cos frankly you worry me. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just think, you could end up like me.  A junked wife is a junked wife, and believe me, dumping isn’t any fun for the dumpee.

Did you know I was a State Scholar? It’s all meaningless now of course, but I thought I was the cat’s pajamas at the time. I’m glad you are rereading Lord Peter Whimsey. I like whodunits myself. Lately I’ve been on a jag with Margery Allingham. She isn’t quite as literary as Sayers, but she is a good read.

I was pleased that your brother got a new job. I rather narcissistically attribute it to my prayers.

In our language it would be o.t.t. if we had to worship the Virgin, which many Protestants think we do. Calling her co-redemptorix is surely just a way of formalizing her status, but I believe that expression has been specifically condemned so fuck Newsweek. Christ died for us and great as she is Our Lady didn't.

I am struck over and over again by how boring life is. Of course it is for me, but I mean generally. I think people sin 'cos they are bored, though of course sin is pretty dull. Actually virtue is much more interesting, but people won't know that. Their minds are darkened by the devil.

I don't think we celebrate St. Patrick's day much because it's an Irish feast.  Did you drink green beer? Did you have real shamrocks? I hear it is a big religious deal but not as big as the feast of St. Joseph that occurs two days later.

One of the priests in the Dominican community here says it is a providential thing that St. Patrick's day never falls in Holy Week 'cos otherwise the Irish would forget about celebrating Easter! I might be English but I do honor him. I think people often forget about the doctrine of the Trinity or take it for granted. I know St. Patrick's Breastplate so I have no excuse.

You'd think I'd care but in fact I often allow worldly concerns to drive it right out of my head. I suppose I'm like others in that way.

Sorry for the delay in answering your letter which I did like. I went to Lourdes in the time since I last wrote.

Now I have one eye sewn shut I guess I'm not attractive and am perhaps frightening. But my niece copes and says I don't scare her. [Note: The Elle editor JB Dauby had the same thing happen. He explained that when the lid ceases to function to close and keep the eye clean there is danger of cornea burn, so the doctors sew the lid shut to prevent that.]

The memory banks got stirred up when you spoke of what you were singing. I recall singing Palestrina's Missa Brevis with you in Brooklyn. Come to think of it we never had a crash in over two years.

You'd soon stop writing if I complained so I don't on the whole, but since you  ask about my tinnitus I must tell you it is so loud now that I can't hear much else.

This is a good home and I'm glad I'm here. I have been in some bad nursing homes, and this isn't. Of course nothing in this life is perfect but I am much loved here, which I know doesn't always happen. I have a nurse and an aid interested in me and if I didn't have so many problems life would be perfect. But hey, who has a problem-free life?

I'm sad at the moment 'cos a resident is leaving and I want to leave and can't. On the bright side I am hearing more in my left ear and the machines are even detecting some hearing in my right ear. The trouble is I depend on my vision a lot and it is slowly going.

I'm not at all offended by your participating in a Schola at St. Barts. Just don't become an Episcopalian!

You must think I fell off the edge of the earth.

I rather liked thinking of you in the Dordogne. You said you had seen the place where Poulenc wrote the Black Madonna Vespers. I remember those very well, though I have to sing them in my head, as I do for many things.

I'm sending you a note to tide you over 'til I can write properly. The letters keep on piling up and I'm very glad to get them. Also I'm glad to hear your news and I really mean it 'cos I'm very cut
off, as if I went to prison. Given all my sins that wouldn't be too surprising.

[Amidst a letter of extreme sorrow and sadness within her family . . .]

Today I had clothes put on me that I chose. You'd think this wouldn't matter. It does.

Are you still the pretty blonde I recall? As far as I can tell my mind is OK but my body is a mess. Specifically my time sense is off.

I did hear about the World Trade Center by the way. We are remote but somebody showed me newspaper pics of the plane in the second case. Also another friend wrote from Brooklyn that the stench was noticeable for months and the wind blew burned letters into people's backyards for a while, so I guess these events will not be forgotten.

5/24/2003  [I love this extremely poetic thought]
I'm glad you had a good time in Italy and enjoyed singing in Spain. Now you have planned your summer. Where will it take you this time? I'm quite tied down but I love hearing about other people's travels. I gather this was common in Soviet countries when people weren't free in body and their minds roamed.

I must stop 'cos it is late, but I think of you often.

I recall you said my letters meant a lot to you. I feel pretty futile so I was touched. I have to go, but am I nuts? Help!

Thank you for the card. Amalfi is quite beautiful and I envied you your trip. I was especially taken by the bougainvillas.  A priest came to see me today and gave me a tract about Marthe Robin. I'm not very like her. For openers she was a peasant and I'm middle class.

[Marthe became bedridden when she was 21 years old, and remained so until her death 60 years later.]

How are YOU doing? I'm worried about you saying you are depressed. My reaction was to say "Bloody men!" Don't let the bastards get you down. I must go now, but you have my prayers.

p.s. I now have e-mail fully, and a busy person like you may find my address useful.

[I broke my ankle running for a subway]

I’m very sorry your foot is being so slow. I hope the rest of you is ok and you have lots of books to while away the time.  It’s a drag but later you may see the reason.

Your recent email about your trip to Chicago reminded me that I never answered your last one.  Most remiss.  Mea culpa.  I read a few articles by Peter Phillips in the Spectator and assumed wrongly that some hack had written them.  I think there was something about the Tallis Singers as well.  I didn’t pay much attention.  I was able to read then, and skimmed through a lot of things. 

If you can manage a Sunday visit that would be very nice.  I see nothing wrong with Sunday July 12th.  I often get no visitors on Sunday so the day yawns like a chasm.  As I recall, you do not know alphabetic sign.  It’s not hard and there is a one for one match with ordinary English letters.  I never went further than finger spelling.  So if you can pick up a bit before you come that will be a big help.

7/13/2009  AFTER MY VISIT

I dunno when you will get this but I did want to thank you for your visit.  The signing was probably too fast for you.  I am forced to use gaps in communication like the phone company does.  It is very hard to follow my sign and it’s my fault not yours I fear.  I go fast cos people get so cross with me when I go slow, but they can’t follow me when I am fast, so I can’t win.  To make things worse, I have developed a stammer in my signing.  This doesn’t help. 

I'm moving. The name of the home is ironic cos I feel really desperate.  I do not enjoy it when nobody can talk alphabetic sign.  It’s what I use to communicate, but not everyone has good friends like you.  This makes up for a lot.  I hope to hear from some of you soon.  All the emails are a lifesaver.  Be well.

I know what you mean about the Russian language.  Years ago I learned a little Russian cos when I was a schoolgirl invasion seemed inevitable.  As you know, it didn’t happen, but I still have a few words and I once freaked out a Latvian carer by thanking her in Russian.  I believe Stalin didn’t allow Latvian to be taught.  A whole generation of Latvians don’t know their own language.  This is what conquest is like.

I want to be sure to wish you a very happy Christmas.  I dunno if you will join your mother in her condominium?  I’m finding Christmas cards a struggle.  The constant weariness I feel is taking its toll.  It also makes my letters shorter than I would like and now I must stop.

I had an old Irish woman as a patient who paid me a great compliment.  She said my friends must be all Irish.  Then and now this is not true, but I do have you of course.  I used to own a disc called The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  Goodness knows where it is now.  I wonder if it’s the same Clancy Brothers as the ones you mention.  Of course the name Clancy is quite common in Ireland.  Do you think they need and extra voice?  I was once told by a woman outside a store named Clancy that I had saved her from going to The Grange.  This was the local loony bin.  It was a lovely moment which I cherish.  I have to go now but I hope you are well.

I wonder how you are doing?  One thinks one knows a person but you may be doing something new and my former ideas are silly.  My brother takes me to Mass here in the chapel every Sunday.  The poor man can’t speak to me so he simply rubs my hands a bit.  Otherwise my Sundays would be very dull and they are often bad anyway.  I keep hoping for some breakthrough that will change my life.  As Auden says, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. 

I use these times to find out how badly I am doing.  There is a big black cross on the wall and this time it was a little fuzzy for the first time.  People come up and shake my hand at the Kiss of Peace I often don’t know who it was.  The chaplain is a nun called Sister Margaret.  She always squeezes my hand so I know it’s her.  Touch becomes very important when you are nearly blind.  In the summer months maybe there is no singing but are you going away?  Do tell me where to.  Now I must run.

I do not think there will be a breakthrough for me, but I always was a pessimist. I hope you had a good time in Italy and that your birthday is very nice. I'm the same as ever, only weaker, which is very annoying. When I get to heaven I will shout at God like Saint Teresa of Avila. I think I might have been her friend. Be well. Many happy returns.

Lovely to hear from you.  I can remember picking an apartment cos its bathtub had claw feet.  I think bathroom fittings are very much a matter of fashion, and it was surprising that you found a tub like that.  You said your niece went skydiving. I should also have been impressed. I haven’t the nerve for that.  What it is to be young!

I meant to ask you if there were a clan system in Ireland as there is in Scotland.  If so, I wanted to know if there were an O’Neill clan.  I have a dim memory of being told that some one who asked where the head of the table was being told, “Where the O’Neill sits is the head of the table!” 

You asked me how I felt about the monarchy.  It is rather complicated cos I don’t approve of the current house.  At the same time I was very pleased to hear from you that the [Irish] state visit had gone so well.  I don’t think I am a monarchist but one has to open buildings and name ships.  On the whole I am against them cos I don’t think kings are very good for nations.  Human beings are odd cos we are not very happy with no king as in the USA.  I think many presidents secretly think they are monarchs.  Being a republic does not seem any protection.  Some of them have been pretty bad.  Remember Nixon.  I think people were glad when he fell.  I hope you are well.

I have never been to Portugal so I was very pleased to get your email.  Actually you rang several bells.  About Portugal I thought you would be amused to hear there was a bureaucratic directive in World War Two which said it is strictly forbidden to call our gallant allies the Portuguese the “pork-and-beans”.  Somebody with no sense of humour wrote that.  I have a vague idea that the people of Portugal are great sailors and that they found a lot of the known world.

Have you ever read poems by a woman called Moira O’Neill?  I ask cos I was trying to find a student by that name.  It turns out that there are a few women named for this poet, but I had never heard of her let alone read her.  There are probably lots of O’Neills.

[I sent B. opening lines to O'Neill's poem "Beauty's a Flower"

Youth's for an hour,
Beauty's a flower,
But love is the jewel that wins the world.]

Mainly I want to say Merry Christmas.  We say Happy Christmas.  It’s a small shibboleth.  I try to remember to talk American.   I have not heard either piece you mention; so do say how you liked them.   As it happens, I have read a few poems by Wilfred Owen, but I did not know he was set in the requiem.  I do think WWI was a terrible waste of young men.  I gather WWII was a bit less wasteful.

A while ago you said you had enjoyed some P.D. James stories.  I have been meaning to tell you I like her too.  I specially like her detective, named Adam Dalgliesh.  I enjoyed the fact that he was a poet as well as a cop.  Did you read the one set in Sussex marshes?  I liked the idea of a house that was somehow set apart.  Of course he does order a criminal shot in that one, but I don’t think he has a choice.  I also read The Dark Tower.  I don’t think Dalgliesh is in that one.  I think he does improve a story.  I am not sure why.  Anyhow I wanted to say I had asked my friend in Canada if she had ever heard of Moira O’Neill.  She hadn’t.  So much for fame!  I have to stop but I hope you have a very nice St Patrick’s Day.  Do you have something lined up for that day?

I have thought some more about what you wrote about the poet Moira O’Neill.  I dunno if it still exists, but there used to be a publishing house that specialized in the works of women.  The place was called “Virago”.  I think the stuff you have sent by her is quite good and if it is typical of her, she maybe should be read by others.  Think what a gas it would be if an O’Neill got her republished in a special new edition!

 I am very blind now and I can’t read my own emails, which is a big drag.  I haven’t been able to read anybody for months, so the days are long.  I hope you are well.

I had hoped to write to you before Easter, but that was vain and so I do now what I intended then and wish you a very happy Easter period.  You have been out of touch for a few months and I wondered if you were busy or if I had lost you.  I do notice when I stop hearing from a friend.

I had made up my mind you were in the midst of various labours with Virago Press getting Moira O’Neill, better known in the present.  It can take lots of time to work with publishers.  I didn’t have nearly such an important job as you and I still found that.

I guess you all know there has been a delay.  I went far too blind to read even my own emails a year ago.  I thought this was just temporary so I did not say much about it.  You have gone on sending fairly long emails and they have mounded up.  So I thought you deserved to know I am still around and not dead yet.  To make matters harder I have great trouble in processing information and any speech and I seem to have developed a stammer.  So it is very hard to reach me.  My brother has been slogging away and he has coped with my emails.  All I can say is thank heaven for his assistance.  I send you all my best wishes.


I believe you sent a line or two of poems by Moira O’Neill.  I want to thank you for one in particular.  It said, “Love is the jewel that wins the world”.  I say it over and over to myself and find it very nourishing.  Maybe you could use a bit of that nourishment right now, cos I have not heard a peep from you in a little while.  So what ‘s the story?   I believe in my last I asked about your nephew particularly, since I have one too, and I gather that Tom is having a bad time with college.  Gosh, it does seem to be hard to get over this first hurdle and start on one’s life.   I don’t remember it was so bad for me.  Getting old is another matter.


That was the last letter, a month before she died.

I have never prayed for this sentiment more deeply: Rest in peace, Barbara.