Week 2 and 3

Week 2 March 23-29

I don’t know what happened this week. I tried to recapture it by looking at photos and the health app on my phone. It seems I went for a walk along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The image may reflect my state of mind, desolate.

delaware and Raritan Canal

Week 3 March 30- April 5

April 2, the anniversary of my first marriage decades ago. Below a fictionalized version of that earlier marriage, an earlier time.

Beaufort, South Carolina. Everything is yellow-green and wet.  The air a hot compress against her skin.  If the air were cool as compresses ought to be maybe Salina’s head would stop aching.  A headache on its second month. Three specialists at the Parris Island Naval Hospital had tried their luck at a diagnosis.  Ultimately, they recommended psychiatric treatment.  She wasn’t quite ready for that.  The only time the pain went unnoticed was when she played tennis.  It didn’t seem to matter with whom or how badly she played.  The steady slamming of the ball distracted her from the pounding inside her skull. She could forget where she was, even if the court was at the Officer’s Club.  

 She drove down Main Street. Salina pushed the window vent towards her face.  The rush of air didn’t cool her; it was more like a hot furnace.  The clock on Wachovia National Bank said 2:00.  She had a half-hour before Gladys, the cleaning lady, had to go home.  A half-hour of freedom.  It surprised her that she could love her son so intensely and, at the same time, long to escape the responsibilities of motherhood.  She turned the radio up and headed across the bridge to Lady’s Island where she could be alone and, for a little while, be herself.  Her body jerked in rhythm to Jimi Hendrix’s wailing, anxious guitar riffs.  She wished she was friends with an enlisted man and could get some dope.  That might help her head.  Once over the bridge, she pressed her foot hard against the gas pedal.  The l967 Volkswagen bug was going as fast as it could, and Salina was gone: far out, far fucking out as her teen-age brother would say.  She didn’t hear the sirens or see the flashing lights of the MP’s car until they were in front of her, signaling to pull over.

I’ve led a long life. But where is the wisdom? Perhaps, I should be kind to myself. I went on a long walk this morning, stripped my bed, made breakfast, read the paper.  Yet, I spent the next three hours playing computer games and listening to the radio.  Is this okay?   Now it’s close to have a drink time. So no writing.  I don’t think I can attribute this to virus time.  I think it’s dysfunctional Judy time.

I did have some social interaction. My friend Wendy, her husband Max, and their adult daughter Mira walked by: we had a nice over the fence, fully masked chat. Afterwards, I managed to get outside of myself and search for Easter gifts for my granddaughter and beach plum plants for my son and his wife, now living in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. My son once told me that doing three activities a day should suffice. I met that criteria.

Took Beckett’s bio to bed. Freudian analysts would have a field day. According to Deirdre Bair, he had a troubled relationship with his mother who worked hard to mold him without much success. Yet her disappointment in him tied Beckett to her through much of his adult life. And like her son, she was a tortured soul with mood swings, insomnia and “thundering rages” when she would isolate herself from her family just as, later, Beckett sought his own form of “social distancing.” He also seemed to inherit her willfulness, so both nature and nuture.

Samuel Beckett Paris apartment

His suffering makes me feel better, that is, his difficulty producing work allows me to temporarily forgive my own lack of discipline.  Once after a month or more, he wrote just four lines of poetry.  And like me, he blamed himself relentlessly.  Previously I had dismissed him based on Deirdre Bair’s depiction of their working relationship in her memoir, Parisian Lives. He agreed to work with her, yet threw arbitrary obstacles in her way.  Her interactions with him portrayed him as a self-centered prig. However, her biography reveals his tormented relationship with family, friends, himself and his work creating empathy for him and, maybe, for me.

Day 3

Sunday March 15

The Ides of March.  Will I be betrayed or will I do the betraying?

Woke up weeping.  My blind cat, Milo, bumping into walls, walking in circles, looking for direction saddens me.  Really, it’s my pre-lock down life I’m lamenting.  I had just settled in to Dublin, had had a reprise from lingering ennui, the consequence of trying to write a book going nowhere.  Then, it was over.  Now, I’m home, untethered from that resolve and peace.  And like Milo, lost my way.


The maintenance of the house assaulted me- weeds, kitty litter, taxes.  A fog has descended on my brain.  I wandered from room to room looking, looking for what?  To get hold of myself, I listed what I had done by 1:15 P.M.: fed Milo, cleaned the litter box, took out recycling, filled out the census, had breakfast, read the newspaper.  Eating breakfast outside and reading the Sunday New York Times tricked me into thinking all was well: life hadn’t changed.  I wondered if I could put a vegetable garden in the front yard.

On the plane ride from Ireland, I considered growing potatoes.  Years ago, I had had a garden that included a long row of red and yellow “pommes de terre.”  Sinking my hands into the dirt, pulling out them out, holding them, eating them was deeply satisfying.   Associations to the potato- my Irish grandmother ate one every night for dinner, her mother emigrated to the states, an indirect consequence of the great potato famine in Ireland.  The poor relied on the potato for daily sustenance.  Since it provides many of the necessary amino acids, it is referred to as the perfect food.  When the potato blight hit Ireland, the British ignored the problem.  Starvation and homelessness were rampant.  Wouldn’t it be wise to grow a “perfect food” during a pandemic?

Yet as the day wore on, I didn’t work on my taxes or pay my bills or do the laundry.  Couldn’t pull all the threads together.

Like many people, I end my day reading in bed.  As a way of  “returning” to Dublin, I picked up Deirdre Bair’s biography of Samuel Beckett.  It should last a good long time, almost 800 pages.  Although he was a Dublin upper middle class Anglican and my family were Catholic tenant farmers from the hinterlands of Roscommon County, I hoped I might make a connection with my projected book, a mix of ancestral biography, history, anthropology, sociology, and maybe fiction.  I’ll grasp at any straw.  Instead he seems to be buoying me up, out of self-flagellation, however, briefly.  His struggle with writing, sometimes only getting a few pages done in many weeks, redeems me.  A colleague, another tortured nonprolific writer.


London Day 5 and 6

Friday March 6

Today was spent at Charleston once the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, now maintained by the Charleston Trust.  I made the same trip that they and their friends often made from Bloomsbury, taking the train from Victoria Station to Lewes, then, for me, a taxi to Charleston.  I almost missed the train: on the one designated for Lewes, people seemed to be getting off rather than getting on.  I left the cabin looking for answers and found the driver of the train.  The platform had been changed at the last minute.  He led me and the other passengers to the correct location and soon after, the one hour trip to Lewes began.

Unknown-2Victorian Station

Train travel, even short journeys such as this, have been a time of contemplation, even revelation, for me.  This morning, I again considered what my son had called the “beautiful struggle,” the attempt to create.  Beautiful would not be the term I would use for my particular battle.

Everything has come into question, especially what I once told my daughter: if I don’t write, if I don’t travel, I’ll shrivel up and die.  Is that what is happening?  I could find outside sources to blame: President Trump, the corona virus, not having a place of my own.  Yet, how can I fault the Irish Cultural Center: a large room, a communal breakfast, invitations to events, a courtyard for writing in good weather?  No.  What about my small hotel room in Bloomsbury?  It too looks out on a courtyard, it too gives me breakfast, and it too has an ideal location.  Why there is even a cinema around the corner showing interesting films and serving drinks at it’s two bars.

The rosy colored lens through which I viewed life seems to have been replaced by clear or even jaundiced ones.

This worm turning in on me began when I read Deirdre Bair’s Parisian Lives, a memoir of writing Samuel Beckett’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s biographies.  Both writers come across as suffering from extreme self-involvement.  Suddenly, I couldn’t read them or admire them.  Now I’m confronted with my own rigidity.  Why should their foibles have anything to do with my own work?  Why has de Beauvoir’s or Beckett’s work become tainted by their mean spirited personalities?   Rubbish me thinks.

12RIDING-COMBO-jumbo                                Simon de Beauvoir                             Samuel Beckett

Might Charleston rescue my interest in writers, in artists?

After a convivial taxi ride, I entered the front garden- restored.  Inside the house, each room filled me with pleasure.  So well arranged to enjoy life: the seemingly casual art, the lamps placed just right for reading, the tables for writing, the studios for painting.

Garden-Room-14-Axel-Hesslenberg-245x360The Garden Room

Maynard_Keynes_Room-_4-540x360  Maynard Keynes’s Bedroom

The gardens filled me with wonder and longing.  Organized beauty that appears natural, not designed, full of grace.  Supposedly, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant wrote to each other frequently about such matters.

IMG_7607A view from the kitchen garde

Beyond the house is a museum, a dining area in a restored barn, and a shop.  I was enthralled.  I imagined living here: it suited me.  I felt at home.  I contemplated buying fabric, a direct duplicate of those used on chairs and beds in the house.  Duncan Grant’s art fits comfortably inside my eyes, my brain.

Charleston-10th-September-17-e1576065700402Pamela by Duncan Grant

My taxi driver brought me back to earth when he dropped me off at the station.  We had had a lively conversation about his travels throughout the states in the late 60’s.  As I was leaving, I told him that, unfortunately, we couldn’t shake hands given the Corona Virus.  He laughed and quickly gathered me in his arms.  I smiled tightly, horrified that he may have given me the dreaded disease.

At Charleston, I had bought the memoir of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s daughter Angelica Grant, Deceived With Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood which I began reading on the train.  Here I go again.  All the beloved biographies, letters, diaries, novels of Virginia Woolf pale in light of Angelica’s childhood- ignored or worse, treated as an adored object, not a human being.

Again, I say to myself, rubbish!  Might I be a narrow minded prig?.  Or if I’m kinder, one who suffers from too much empathy.  A student in a documentary film course I taught commented on the film selection,  “You seem to favor the underdog.”  Do I want to get submerged by this identification?  Yet that seems to be my subject: my French grandmother, a mixed race woman; my Irish grandmother living when “no dogs or Irish” were allowed; and a Greek grandfather, sometimes, called a dirty Greek.

I once said to someone that to be a writer, one had to be ruthless.  Am I up to the task? Has the air gone out of my red ballon, the book I’m chasing?

Saturday March 7

I traveled to Dublin without much difficulty, yet anxiety seeped in as more news of the corona virus emerged.  My doctor had urged me not to take this trip.  Was she right?  I considered abandoning Ireland, going straight home from London.  But not yet.














Paris Day 15 and 16

Saturday, February 29

This morning I woke up exhausted after a good night’s sleep.  Do I have the corona virus or is it the ennui I seem to carry around?  Usually it dissipates after breakfast with the residents.  Today, overwhelmed by fatigue, I spent the day in bed and didn’t join the three women for dinner.

I tell myself there will be days of isolation and loneliness.  But why is it’s happening now?  I have stimulating conversations every morning, gatherings with artists in the evenings.  Although I have dinner alone each night, I’ve been very engaged.

IMG_7479                                                                 The last bouquet

I read my blog on Greece, written five years ago on the verge of a Fulbright.  I describe two days of staying in my Athen’s hotel room emerging only for a meeting one day and and a souvlaki the next.  Ennui is no stranger to me.   My expectations set me up for self-doubt.  I romanticize those that seem to have found their place especially the Bloomsbury group whose work I devoured many years ago, in particular,  Virginia Woolf.   Her country home with her writing shed surrounded by beautiful gardens, long walks along the downs, afternoons with writer’s and painters reading, discussing.  But like Samuel Beckett, she endured days of doubt, of mental anguish and, then, a swing to elation.  Her solution was suicide.  Perhaps, my urge to live on an island is a strategy to force me back on myself, to find my place.

Sunday, March 1

Today I feel alert, confidant, at home in Paris.  God, these extremes are exhausting.  

For my last full day in Paris (I leave for London tomorrow) I plan to have Sunday lunch at La Rotessirie d’Argent.  It faces the Seine two doors away from the famous Tour d’Argent, and next door to it’s bakery, Le Boulanger de la Tour.  I pass by frequently crossing the Pont de la Tournelle over to the right bank.  One day, I stopped to buy mini croissants.  Ils etaient parfaits.  The idea of eating roast chicken on a Sunday afternoon is part of a long tradition of Sunday dinner with Maman in which I long to participate.

UnknownLa Rotisserie d’Argent

On my way to breakfast one of the administrators of the Centre Culturel Irlandais caught up with me and asked if I still planned to attend the book club she had mentioned when I first arrived.  I thought I could  fit it in with my roast chicken.  But this was no intimate group meeting for an hour, this was a formal meeting known as Cercle Litteraire Irlandais (Irish Literary Circle) lasting three hours with drinks, food, a program and over 100 attendees.  There were speakers including Deirdre Farrell, Deputy Head of Mission at the Irish Embassy in Paris, and Lara Marlow, France correspondent for The Irish Times, as well as mediatations, readings, and even a group writing exercise.  It was a celebration of International Women’s Day.

Lara Marlowe in her keynote address discussed three women who inspired her: Iranian Nasrin Sotudeh, French Berthe Morisot, and American Edith Wharton.  All three defied their respective roles: Sotudeh, a lawyer, represented women who refused to wear the hijab, Morisot became a well-respected painter, the only women to exhibit in the first impressionist show in 1874, and Edith Wharton wrote novels becoming the first woman to win the Pultizer Prize for Literature in 1921 instead of being a doyenne in her privileged social circle.  My question to Ms. Marlowe was where are the Irish women of the 19th century without upper class privileges who fought against stereotypes to become artists in their own right.  She and the audience were stumped.

images   Nasrin SotudehUnknown-1Berthe Morisotimages-1Edith Wharton

 Then we were asked to write about a woman we admired.  I chose Molly Daly, my grandmother.  She lived in Ireland for 13 years without her mother.  She returned to the United States only to be teased relentlessly about her brogue.  She married an alcoholic whose family thought she was “shanty Irish.”  When he died leaving her with two children to raise, she often brought in family members who had no where else to go.  When her children married, she moved in with them usually with no room of her own, sleeping on a daybed in the dining room.  And she never complained.  Her solace, reading her prayer book and saying her rosary.


Molly Daly on the right


Paris Day 13 and 14

Thursday February 27

At breakfast, we (the three female artists in residence and I) discussed Freudian and Jungian theory.  Each woman artist found Jung insightful.  I have my doubts: I’m skeptical of theories that have little basis in data but seem to be fabrications of the theorists’ world view.  Considering that Freud and Jung believed women were the lesser sex and lived in a world that supported that notion, how can I subscribe to their ideas?

My breakfast companions observed that many artists find Jung of value.  I know Samuel Beckett who once lived around the corner at Rue d’Ulm found him useful in the writing of his novel Murphy.  As Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s biographer explains,

The patient sinks into the unconscious altogether and becomes completely victimized by it.  He is the victim of a new autonomous activity that does not start from his ego but starts from the dark sphere.  

Beckett found a way to explore the protagonist’s, Murphy’s mind.

I posed the question why there wasn’t a woman analyst with the same recognition as Freud and Jung.  Interesting as men were raised by women.  How does that affect their theories and practices?

One of the artists mentioned the book, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the Nobel Prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk.   Her description excited me perhaps because the main character is a reclusive- a life that appeals to me.  I wanted to read it immediately.  The closest bookstore with English language books is Shakespeare and Company which I usually avoid as it’s a tourist trap.  To get there I had to walk down Rue Galande a charming street once an old Roman road, then, inhabited in the 15th Century.

IMG_7443Rue Galande

After I returned to the Irish Cultural Center, I got ready to go out again, this time, to the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris located in the Marias.  It has a beautiful reading room where I hoped to spend the afternoon writing.  On my way out, one of the artists asked if I’d like to go to the kitchen and finish off the pastries from the night before.  Mais oui!

While we were feasting, we met a filmmaker, Norah Dineen, who had been living on the third floor for over a month but never seen by any of us.  She can no longer afford to stay and would be couch surfing until some monies “turned up” to finish her film.  It’s subject is love in three cities: Berlin, Athens, and Los Angelos.  Whenever, she makes a film, she lives in the country for a month, immersing herself before writing, casting, and filming.  That’s the way to do it.  I’m just getting settled and I have to leave.  Why do I think I can just drop down in Paris and begin?

The rest of the afternoon was spent in libraries.  At the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris,  I had to get a library card in order to use the facilities which entitled me to all the public libraries in Paris.  Magnifique!  However, the woman assisting me decided to go beyond issuing a card: she would help me with my research.  What was I looking for?  What names did I have?  I was unprepared as we went from French to English to French.  All very confusing.  She assured me there was nothing there for me as she quickly went through databases, none of which I understood.

UnknownReading Room  Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris

Back to the mediatheque (a library with digital access) at the Irish Cultural Center.  As my great grandfather was a physician, it might mean he had attended a medical school in Paris.  I told the librarian I now had a library card and asked if there were records of 19th century medical students studying in Paris.   He found that the National Archives did have such a list which could only be accessed at the Archives themselves.  A plan for tomorrow.  I moved on to my Irish side and took out Social Change and Everyday Life in Ireland, 1850-1922.  It provided some interesting information on clothing, education, farming.

I ended the day with another writer from the center.  We met for coffee at Numero 220 on Rue Saint Jacques.  Her local.  Delicious coffee and a friendly owner.  She thinks someone should write a novel about women of a certain age- their struggle to be independent, that is, from familial demands.  Saying no to requests poses problems.

Unknown-1Numero 220

Friday February 28

Several of the artists have come to the end of their residency, so we arranged for a farewell dinner Saturday night.

I needed a pair of jeans, and, on my way to the National Archives, went to Cos, a clothing store in the Marais.  Success.   Since it was Fashion Week, the narrow streets were crowded.  Before people entered the shows, they were given an electronic temperature reading to exclude those who might have the coronavirus.  Many Italians were there although there had been were rumors that a travel ban on trains from Italy might be forthcoming.

I saw a small elderly woman and her companion making their way towards me.  I pushed myself against the building to give them room.  As they passed, this “frail” woman elbowed me- hard.  I turned towards her as she walked away, dumbfounded.  Then she cursed me.  I replied “Vous n’etes pas tres gentile Madame.” You are not very nice, Madame.

Unknown-3                                                           Rue des Rosiers

Although I had success buying a pair of jeans, my luck didn’t hold at the Archives. The receptionist informed me that I was at the wrong library.  This library only had records from before the revolution, that is, before 1789.  I asked if the correct library was open tomorrow, Saturday.  Yes, she said but the request for records had to be put in before 3:00 P.M. today.  It was 2:58.  I had forgotten the rules which I had once known by heart when I used the Archives d’outre Mer in Aix en Provence.  A bust.

But not completely.  I got the best fallafel in Paris.  No room at the inn, so I leaned against a building and chowed down.  Delicieux.

Unknown-4L’As du Fallafel