Thursday, March 13, 2014


I have many faults, one of which is putting things off. Such as thoughtful reading. I have stacks of journals and newspapers and other such things by my bedside. I am not exactly a hoarder, although my husband's spartan Bauhaus proclivities would label me as such. He thinks having about 20 books total is appropriate and looks forward to the days when there are only e-books and no clutter, he says.

I cannot countenance that, but I digress.

Some days I feel guilty, such as today, and I wade through my stacks and read the bits and pieces I have meant to read forever, or at least for six months, so that I can recycle them. I am usually rewarded; there is a trove of brilliance and great writing out there. I have my authors I love, and when they are on, they are so hilarious and inspirational.

Many years ago, I read an essay by the inimitable Terry Castle, a British academic who clearly has the same type of obsessive nature that I do. At one point, she was gripped by a WWI fever and traced a family member's grave and read everything she possibly could about the war. Her journey was chronicled in Courage, Mon Amie, which is now thankfully included in her collected essays. Last summer she wrote in The London Review of Books about going through her mother's papers, though, and her mother's lack of communication and how discomforting is was to come across her oracular cyphers, trying to parse them: 

Despite being friendly and garrulous to a fault, my mother has always been somewhat averse to self-examination. Nor is psychological transparency her strong suit. Indeed, she might once have served as poster-lady for that delicate mental process Freud called the Censorship. Given all that seems to go unacknowledged in her emotional world, these undated, untethered notes can often read--shockingly--like eerie and unprecedented eruptions from the maternal unconscious.

Witness a pencilled memorandum from one of the real estate pads: 'WE'VE BEEN THRU A LOT TOGETHER & MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT.' Haunting enough, this message. A kind of oracular, Emily Dickinson-style 'Letter to the World'. (A complaint letter, at that.) Like something you might find in a sadistic fortune cookie. I love the self-conscious--and very English--effort to appear fair and sporting, even when not, embedded in the phrase 'most of it'. But when did she write it and why? At whom was it directed? 

I love the idea of trying to put words to the ineffable, to make sense of the wordless. Been there, Terry. Bonne chance!

And then reveling in the not-very-lovely prose of Bee Wilson, that's still catchy as anything: "America has the Barrymores and the Fondas, the Douglases and Baldwins. We have the actoriest of all acting families, or as Vanessa prefers to put it, the many 'sprigs of a great and beautiful tree.'" And "Lynn said there was a gene running through all the Redgraves with a proscenium arch attached, but Corin and Vanessa vigorously disagreed, as they disagreed with most of what Lynn, the youngest sibling, said. Natasha...disliked talk of a dynasty. 'It's like coming from a family of carpenters or plumbers who work in the family business, generation after generation.'" 

I am, of course, a sucker for family stories, and acting families such as theirs. Not their notoreity, but their skill in storytelling, and the idea of the stage in their DNA? Why not? Performing and the arts are in my family, too. 

Then my most beloved Julia Margaret Cameron, iconoclast, housewife with collodion stains on her hands, messy, holding her own, inspiration to her great-niece Virginia Woolf, who always had prints of her photographs in her home (again, with the family). I have read and reread Anthony Lane's review of  the Cameron exhibition at the Met. I adore Lane's quirky spikiness. He is snarky. I love that he does not hold back when films are ridiculous, and I love that he is kind to Julia Margaret Cameron, acknowledging imperfections as art. I am not enamored of her more cloying works, the Victorian tableaux-vivants, but her portrait of Ellen Terry, her niece Julia Jackson, her Carlyle. I would have loved to have tea with her. As Lane writes, "the camera did not amuse her, in ladylike ease, as a fitting diversion for an amateur; it consumed her, firing a career and a faith."

As Lane says, "you could post her on Instagram right now." 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Strange dream

I am an insomniac, but when I do sleep, I have strange dreams. Last night's dream was among the most strange I've had recently.

I dreamed that I was a ghost, and that only two men could hear me. They could not see me. I didn't realize that I was dead for quite some time in my dream. I kept going through odd experiences that would lead to my death, including my worst nightmares: being in an enclosed space with crocodiles, for example. Or in a fiery car crash. At one point, I was wearing a red jacket that I haven't had in my possession for more than 20 years. I wondered how I came to be wearing it; nothing made sense. I had been at a party, then ended up in a room with glass windows all around, and a barricade at the door. I had no key. It turned out that the barricade was to keep me (a ghost/monster) at bay. At one point, I did have a "magic" object (strangely, a coffee cup) that was to help me allay my fear. I put it on the ground and said, "Show me what I am to be afraid of," and it came right back to me. At that point, I realized that I was a ghost.

I saw two men then, outside the window, and a small, very slender blond woman on a couch. It turned out that she was a ghost, too. We bonded over not being able to be seen by anyone. She asked if I could see her, and I described her, exactly. We then knew we inhabiting the same space, whatever that meant.

I saw a plane crash then, into a building, and all the phrases and discussion in the dream then made "sense" as part of people's lives flashing before them, rather like the film Jacob's Ladder, which I haven't seen in many years.

 All of a sudden, I saw a light and heard my father's voice (I have heard it before on a video) tell me, "Your name is Hannah. I would have named you Hannah." After that, I woke up.

It was very disconcerting.

I tried in the aftermath of my dream to find meaning in family, and spent my morning going through my father's great-grandfather's side: Ashkenazi immigrants from Russia and England, as opposed to the proper German Baroness in her castle. No wonder they fled Hitler's Germany.

I feel strange claiming the Ashkenazi past. It's strange enough being adopted, but being Jew-ish but not really Jewish? I found that my great-great-grandparents are buried in the Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, and which synagogue they attended. Those invitations to Hillel make sense and don't make sense. How could my classmates know? How could my friend Rachel's Israeli father know? What did they see in me?

I love that my great-great-grandmother Julia was born in England (at least she told the census-taker) in 1863, during the reign of Queen Victoria. But she was an immigrant herself, an outsider. Does that make us alike? What would she have made of me?

Why did I feel that pull to learn Russian?

Why did my mind fix on "Hannah"? Have I been watching too many episodes of Girls?

More threads, more loose ends, more not knowing who/what I am.