Category Archives: Essay

Comfort, Luxury and Domestic Happiness: Modern Villas

On March 13th, 2020 I walked out of my classroom at The Woodstock Academy wondering when I would be back. How many books should I take with me? When would I see my students in person again? Everything was being shut down so rapidly because of COVID and no one knew how long it would take for things to go back to normal. I could not have imagined that the answer would be never. After a successful 22-year career teaching Latin to high school students, never would I be in that space or be a teacher, for that matter, ever again. Just a few months later, in July of that year, a state police officer arrived at my house late one afternoon to tell us that my husband was tragically killed by a careless driver while he was on the way home from a cross country motorcycle and camping trip.

I took a leave from teaching that fall and I decided to focus my energy and attention on making my home, my daughter and my pets comfortable and safe. I was anxious and scared out of my mind about running our household by myself and being a single parent. During these months of mourning and figuring out a new life for myself, I realized it was comforting and satisfying for me, and my little brood, to do various redecorating, remodeling and updating projects around my house.  One of the first phone calls I made was to a contractor I hired to rebuild my deck and to remodel my master bathroom and bedroom based on my designs.  Many of you have seen the photos on social media of my gorgeous new deck and the love affair that has developed between the contractor and my golden retriever, Phoebe.

The contractor and I realized that we worked very well together so I jumped into designing other spaces he was working on and even helping with demo, painting and other tasks I could manage.  I soon began working for him as an intern and as his protégé and I’ve since helped with, among other projects, two kitchen remodels, two bathroom remodels and a whole house window replacement.  The biggest challenge for me that I still face is doing physical work with another person who has more strength, agility and experience with adeptly using tools.  But my determination and the hands-on experience of learning to use tools, equipment, and picking up new skills has been exhilarating, fun, exciting and humbling. Some days even a little humiliating. Not only have I acquired my own set of high-quality tools, but I’ve put to good use many of the ones that Alan left behind in his workshop.  I think he would be pleased, and proud of me. 

The most exciting part of this story is that my contractor, Ken, has now become my business partner, teacher, friend and mentor and together we have formed a real estate development company, K&M Villa-State, LLC.  Yes, “Villa.”  I couldn’t possibly cleanse myself of my Latin and Ancient Greek studies entirely.  A Roman villa was a farmhouse or a country house which provided the best domestic comforts and luxuries of the republic and empire.  Fully plumbed baths, radiant central heating and mosaic floors were common features of these homes. Catullus’s description of his villa especially comes to mind—a place which, for him, personified comfort, luxury and domestic happiness.  This is how we want individuals and families to feel when they walk into one of our villas.

Ken and I working on building a pergola,

Out of all the things we have achieved so far, I am the most proud of the fact that Ken and I have both worked hard to be a true partnership through excellent communication, mutual respect and encouraging one other’s strengths and having patience with one other’s weaknesses.  Our vision for the business is building single family homes, duplexes and apartments that provide value and comfort to individuals and families in Northeastern Connecticut where, according to statistics in these rural towns, very few new or affordable homes are being constructed.  One unique business strategy that my partner and I have is that we will be doing 99% of the work on these homes ourselves instead of contracting out various parts of the build.  We are especially excited about using ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) construction on our projects, a product and technique that is both innovative and green.  ICF construction homes are built with polystyrene blocks that are put together like Legos and are separated by plastic webbing.  Concrete is then poured into the webbing between the blocks to form a concrete wall.  This eliminates wood construction and the need for fiberglass insulation and the result is a home that is durable, energy efficient and requires a lot less upkeep.  ICF construction combined with energy efficient propane boilers in all of our homes will lessen the economic burden of excessive heating and electric bills that so many have recently faced.  In addition, bidet toilets will be installed in all of our homes which is not only green, but also saves anyone from suffering through another toilet paper shortage.

Quantum and Phoebe: Our mascots and brand ambassadors.

My biggest challenge has been working on my strength, agility and knowledge of different tools.  In my previous career the focus was solely on the intellect so now instead of collecting classics books I’m slowly trying to acquire most of my own tools. And the plot of raw land we purchased feels like a fitting metaphor for my own life—there are so many possibilities for us to create beautiful things through our vision, enthusiasm and effort.  A lot of effort. 

Just as I never would have ever thought that my teaching career would end so abruptly, I also never thought I would ever own a business of any kind let alone one in real estate development.  I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given in a profession that is largely male and the encouragement I have received to begin this new life, this new career. What motivates me most is the example I am setting for my daughter that success can be achieved even in the face of an awful tragedy.  My partner Ken likes to tease me that my excitement comes from the three cups of coffee I usually have during our morning meetings.  But the truth is that my enthusiasm stems from the prospect of providing others with the pride and sense of security that comes with owning a home that has value and comfort.

I’ll still be reading and writing and blogging, but with a new perspective. 

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Filed under Autobiography, Essay

This Obscure Warmth of the Soul: Memory, Grief and Love

A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros. William Aldophe-Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Grief feels like a race against time while I wait for my memories to fade—the memories of a happy life, the memories of a shattered life, the memories of the pain. Distract yourself with new activities, meet new people, make new connections is the advice I am constantly given. And strangely enough sometimes being with other people makes the grief and my sense of being alone worse.

Reading Paul Valery’s writings. on “Eros” in the final sections of his Cahiers/Notebooks 1 has especially struck a cord with me as I think about memory, grief and love. Valery had an eight year love affair with poet Catherine Pozzi and much of his writings about Eros are influenced by his love for her.  I’m not surprised he used the Ancient Greek word Eros for love—Eros is a complex figure that is unpredictable; Eros both elevates men and ruins them. Many see love as a distraction or a drain on one’s time and energy but Valery suggests that real love gives us more energy to accomplish other goals in life. Valery had some of his most productive and creative years of writing when he was with Catherine and she even gave him notes and encouraged him to publish his notebooks:

Happy love mobilizes all our strength. It creates superabundance, which is the supreme good, and the need for the finest works, making them necessary, easily accomplished, a relief. The happy lover is rich. He’s a physiological and psychological millionaire. He’s the king of expenditure. 

And:

To be profoundly loved, is the greatest thing in the world. It was the impossible object of God. ‘Profoundly,’ this is not about pleasure, nor about pride. But to received this obscure warmth of the soul, to warm yourself at the life which glows only for you…

What is a true, deeply loving relationship?  What is it, exactly, that I’ve lost? Alan wasn’t a distraction from my job or my reading or writing, but instead he enhanced it.  I think he would agree that I wasn’t a distraction from his work or his motorcycles or his camping, but I enhanced and encouraged and supported these things.  I hadn’t thought about this until Alan’s death, but I realize now that our lives were intertwined in a way that allowed us to complement each other;  and since my old life has been destroyed I feel that every day is an attempt to slowly build back my own foundation—find new supports, new ways of carrying on. Valery uses the metaphor of roots and a tree to explain this relationship-as-support idea beautifully: 

Love grows like a plant and what we see of it, namely the leaves and flowers, the fruit and stem, is nothing without what we don’t see, the roots. Nobody knows them exactly, neither their extent, nor their depth, nor their precise trajectories, nor the state of them.

For nothing imaginable explains the penetration, the vitality, the development of this plant by the apparent conditions of its nature. 

Any love love which can be reduced to a few things that can be counted out, described, understood, foreseen is a small plant of no importance.

But when we lose this kind of love Valery describes having a “soul-pain.”  When he is apart from Catherine  and when they finally go their separate ways for good the intensity of his grief is unbearable—something to which I can certainly relate. He writes about it simply and concisely as, “The one thing I think of tenderly, I think of also with pain. What is that thing? It’s you or it’s me.” 

Valery feels that the only true comfort for the pain is fading memory—he calls this a “fruitful forgetfulness.” When everyone tells me what I really need for the grief to pass is time that is what they are essentially saying—as the memories fade, so will the pain.  Valery writes:

The more or less powerful faculty we have…of diminishing the importance of something by taking other objects into consideration with it, by introducing a very different scale , or a much broader angle of view, —it seems that time, of its own accord, exercises this faculty automatically through the weakening of impressions, forgetfulness. Although intense pain can scarcely be weakened by thinking of or looking at other things, by reducing it to the point of the body where it’s apparently produced, still the succession of time undoes it and cancels it out little by little.

New people, new connections, new memories; grief as a race against time…

And so, is the pleasure, the beauty, and the intensity of love worth the pain?  I keep asking myself this question over and over and over. 

The answer to this, I think, is the last thing that Alan taught me.  We were always learning new things from each other and his final “lesson” was probably his most important.  His last text message to me said, “Goodnight, I love you! See you soon.”  And my response, “I love you too. Can’t wait to see you!” If given the choice to send a final message before he was killed, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have sent this same message and sent it to me. 

I suspect that when my own time is up that I won’t think to myself that I should have worked more, or worked harder or spent more hours making money or starting a business or fixing my house, or doing one of the million other chores I fret over everyday. Today especially I’ve learned that people, connections, relationships and love are so much more important than any of the number of things or tasks we spend hours of our time and effort on.  It sounds clique and almost silly to say, but the true measure of a successful life is love; that’s what we are here for and nothing else in the end really matters—even when it ends in incredible pain and tragedy and heartsickness—nothing else really matters.

And so the natural question for me is, “Now what?” Do I close myself off to new connections, new relationships, new love? Do I want to suffer that kind of pain again?

What would Penelope have done if Odysseus never came home?

A dear, kind, astute friend write to me recently and gave me an answer that has changed my thought process: “Consider the Universe and his possibilities,” he said.

 

 

 

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Filed under Essay, French Literature, Opinion Posts

Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

In the preface to the Penguin modern classics edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, Andre Maurois writes, “His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—-but it is vast.”  This vast erudition is evident in the forty pages of essays that are included in this collection.  Argentine, Chinese, Spanish, German, American and ancient literature are all matters of interest for Borges.  His essay on Kafka’s sources was a particular favorite.  We always think of Kafka as being so unique, in a literary vacuum, without any predecessors.  But Borges argues that Zeno’s paradox against movement, the writings of Kierkegaard and Brownings “Fears and Scruples” all contain hints of which authors Kafka had in his mind.

The short stories felt to me like a journey through the labyrinth of Borges’s mind which was always thinking about language and literature.  At the center of almost every story is a book or a series of books or a library.  The Garden of Forking Paths begins with, “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by the thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.”  The rest of the story is told by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun.  Tsun is a spy who has been found out and is trying to get a message to his German commanders before he is executed.  Tsu takes the train to the village of Ashgrove where he meets up with an imminent Sinologist who happens to be studying Tsu’s famous ancestor.  Ts’ui Pen was a civil servant of the Emperor but gave up his position to write an immense novel and to construct a labyrinth.  The Sinologist realizes that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, his “garden of forking paths” was the novel itself: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in his way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”  I suspect that the literary threads running through Borges’s mind might be described in the same way.

My favorite story in the collection, which I have read and taught with before, is The House of Asterion which gives a background story that is compassionate and sympathetic to the Minotaur.  He is lonely and isolated and wants to be put out of his solitary misery.  Borges is influenced by Ovid’s Theseus and Ariadne story, but gives us the Minotaur’s point of view.  He tells us that every nine years a group of men enter his home but fall and die on their own.  One of them prophesies Asterion’s escape:

Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise about the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no long even a vestige of blood.

‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ said Theseus. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’James E. Irby, the editor of this edition, sums up Borges’s writing in this collection best:  “His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.”  The effect is just as striking for the reader as for the characters in Borges’s stories.

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Filed under Essay, Literature in Translation, Short Stories, Spanish Literature

How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

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Filed under Classics, Essay, German Literature, Short Stories

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2019

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” This is a fitting way for me to think about and discuss my reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape the future.

In 2018 I was not content to read a single book by an author, but instead engaged in what I called literary projects that involved immersing myself in an author’s oeuvre while also reading whatever additional sources were available by or about that author (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Here are a few such projects I have in mind, so far, for 2019:

Classics (20th century or earlier):

John Cowper Powys: I am half way through his novel Wolf Solent and think Powys’s writing is brilliant. I am also planning to read his magnum opus A Glastonbury Romance and his autobiography, aptly titled, Autobiography. I’ve ordered a copy of The Pleasures of Literature which should be arriving any day now and I am also thinking of tracking down some of his letters and poetry which, I believe, are all out of print.

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time (I have yet to purchase the entire series, but am leaning towards the University of Chicago Press editions). I also found, last week at my favorite secondhand bookshop, the first volume of his autobiography, Infants of the Spring. When the time comes I will complete my collection of his autobiographical books. Finally, I’ve ordered copies of his non-fiction writing, Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writing on Writers and Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990.

Andre Gide: I discovered Gide in 2018 by reading his very short book, Theseus. I’ve put together a pile of his books that I would like to read in 2019 which include: Madeleine, Journals: 1889-1949, Straight is the Gate, If it Die: An Autobiography, The Andre Gide Reader and Pretexts.

H.D.: I saw quite a few posts last year about H.D.’s writing, especially her poetry, and her volume of Collected Poems which I’ve already been dipping into is magnificent. I also plan to read: Palimpsest, Nights, Notes on Thought and Vision, and Bid me to Live. And I’ve ordered copies of The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan and A Great Admiration: H.D./Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950-1961 which should both arrive any day now.

Dawn Powell: I’m especially excited about this author which will be completely new to me. I bought Library America editions of her fiction as well as the volume of her Diaries from Steerforth Press. (Thanks to @deckr_j on Twitter for this discovery).

Anita Brookner: I’ve been tempted for a while to try this author because of Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes who raves about her books. Having collected three of her books I’m ready to dive in: A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

W.G. Sebald: I did a Michael Hamburger reading project this year and discovered that he was also a translator of Sebald. I would like to read all of Sebald’s fiction in the order that they were written and published. I haven’t bought any of his books yet, though, because I would like to research which editions and translations would suit me best.

Other possible books that are sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention include the six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time I received for Christmas, Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, Alexander Herzen’s massive autobiography, Casanova’s 12-volume memoir, and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I was thinking it might be a good idea to choose one of these as a summer reading project, but there is no way I could get to all of them! I would also like to explore Flaubert, whose Sentimental Education particularly captivated Kafka, and the last George Eliot novel I have yet to read, Romola.

Contemporary:

Giorgio Agamben: The few books I read by him in 2018 captivated my attention due to his discussion of words and language. I am especially excited that Agamben has quite a backlog of translations published by Seagull Books that I have yet to read. I’ve also acquired Profanations, Karman and his magnum opus, Homo Sacer. I will slowly work my way through his shorter pieces before I even think about cracking open Homo Sacer.

Sergei Lebedev: His previous two novels, Oblivion and The Year of the Comet, are brilliant. I am eagerly awaiting The Goose Fritz from New Vessel Press which will be published in March.

Claudio Magris: I have yet to finish his book Journeying from Yale Press and I will also add to my piles his new book, Snapshots, translated for the first time in English and also published by Yale Press.

Kate Zambreno: Her Book of Mutter was intriguing and I am looking forward to her new book due out in April entitled Appendix Project: Talks and Essays

Clarice Lispector: The Besieged City is due out in April. Even though she is a 20th century author, this is a new translation published by New Directions.

I will also catch up on some of the publications from the Cahiers series which are always a delight. And, finally, I have my eye on new releases from Seagull Books, Fitzcarraldo Books, & Other Stories (publishing Gerald Murnane this year) and New York Review of Books which I won’t list here. But all of these publishers are wonderful if you are looking for interesting contemporary authors, literature in translation, or reissued classics.

Poetry:

In 2018, I’ve read more poetry than any other year and would like to continue that into 2019. I always enjoy the variety of publications from Ugly Duckling Presse. I’ve also been tempted by flowerville to explore Emily Dickenson which I haven’t picked up since studying her in school. My intention is to also read Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets and Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry to enhance my understanding of and appreciation for different types of poets and poetry.

Of course, all of this is subject to change based on weather, mood, alignment of the planets, attention span, etc.

What is everyone else excited to read in 2019?

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Essay, French Literature, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Seagull Books