Sunday, 5 June 2011

On Women's Literature: An Homage to Virginia Woolf

For there she was (Woolf, 172).

It seemed to her that Nashville would never cool, and it was only June. Jonathan had taken the boys to her parents' for the weekend, and three whole and perfect days were all her own. 'What does one do with three whole and perfect days?' she nearly asked herself--lying in bed, the bed she had made so perfectly every day of their marriage; the monogrammed pillowcases; the whiteness of the crisp linen; the curly-cues of the green letters of his initials; the sheets she had changed twice a week, for she so hated to get into anything less than a pristine bed. Clean sheets were the saving grace of the world, she thought. Civilization ends without clean sheets. 'I'll not clean out the attic. And I'll not exercise,' she thought. 'I'll not go up to that stuffy attic, and it's too hot to walk at all. Too hot to move. Even Edwin Warner will be horrible.' Not moving was delicious.

Then she pictured herself on that favorite path; the one she'd tread in college with girlfriends--sorority sisters with their iced coffees and pastel exercise clothes--the green of it; the twittering of the leaves above; the lady speed-walkers; the young men and their dogs; the girls her own age, it nearly seemed, with strollers and little ones. How she'd thought then what a lovely time she would have as a mother. All that nannying she'd done--especially for the Spars, the wonderful Spars! that little Alex with his dark curls; people were forever mistaking her for his mother in the grocery store; and squirrelly Andrew in his kid-sized basketball jerseys; dear Debra with her smooth, olive skin; always a tomboy and on the edge of growing out of it, but keeping all the best parts; her smarts, her sportiness, her cool head--all that nannying, and she knew even more than mothers knew.

Yet, she thought, for four and a half years, that walk could not be done. Never two hours to find with the boys; laundry always on; some meal pending; groceries to get; trips to and from school; doctors' appointments--O! the doctors' appointments! All of Lewis's ear infections and poor darling Nathan's head when he fell off of that ridiculous car! 'Mommy! Mommy!' he'd said and then nothing at all, just his head hard against the pavement, his eyes going bleary, no sound; no sound at all; no consciousness; her own world had gone dark; she moved as in a dream. She felt a quick, small wave of nausea, a sneaker wave with no warning, rise up and fall again in her belly. Her arms felt damp--her sculpted arms, the ones her sister envies. She would turn up the air conditioning, that was the thing.

It is the privilege of loneliness; in privacy one may do as one chooses (Woolf, 134).

The tractor was muffled through the windows of the house, Landon off in a far field, anxious to get the June grass under control. O, the June grass! The beginning of another summer, its months of bugginess and humidity and thirsty plants. What a glory to live in the time of air conditioning; what a lagniappe. Are those geese on the far end of the pond? she wondered. Or are they turkeys? She would get her glasses. Geese, yes. Four of them, stretching their necks and flouncing around with their handsome feathers. She pulled her bare feet up under the chenille throw on the paisley couch; the latest in the Mitford series lowering slowly to her knee; her eyes feeling a bit heavy; the timer set for the rolls; just a little while now before dinner.

But real things--real things were too exciting (Woolf, 125).

The day china would not do, she thought. George would be back from the store by noon. Philip and Sid wouldn't be back til evening with the oysters (which they would have to keep in the garage, she thought, trying to remember if the fridge were still full of watermelon for the meal at church on Sunday). Susan, her Susan, would help with the silver, she thought, pausing with the dishtowel midair; hanging her gaze on the lilies in the Limoges from Peach's mother, her favorite Limoges; wondering if Susan's dress, the white one with the empire waist and all the eyelet details, would be ready in time for the dance tonight.

One must say simply what one felt (Woolf, 170).

She squinted against the morning light through a London window, this flat she loved with Edward, not at all the difficulty she'd expected. What a perfect thing, a Sunday morning in June! How serene and fresh she felt, taking her Macbook to her lap, peripherally noticing the man in his underwear in a window across the street. An email from Blythe; she was glad. She logged in and set away to typing, not the least bit concerned with the yellow lilies in their clunky jar, dropping heavy rust-colored flecks onto the table. She wrote to her sister:

I've been thinking all night about our conversation; I'm so glad we had that time. I am worried that my maternal ambivalence seemed to you like a response to YOUR mothering and your experience of motherhood... Blythe, you and your kids make me WANT to have kids. You are the truth teller when other people are not; it is not insanity but an enormous gift--massively courageous and generous. That is all I ever want/crave from anyone in this world and most people will not give it. Not wanting to have kids is all about my own women's issues, feminism, reaction to our own upbringing, etc. ENTIRELY. Furthermore, the person who needs to be heard next to those women on that panel is actually YOU. You are the heroine here; make no mistake about that. Sometimes you undermine your own strength, your own 'accomplishments', so to speak. I was telling Edward last week how the big surprise of my adulthood is not being extraordinary--how it has been both terrifically shocking and sad for me to see that I am ordinary AND terrifically liberating to GET to be ordinary; I'm still swimming around in the middle of those for now. Edward said that what is extraordinary about me ISN'T any of the stuff that people might think it is (including me), like my work or degree(s) or those kinds of 'accomplishments'; he said that I'm extraordinary because I've chosen to see and name certain things about the world I was given and to seek to change them, move beyond them, etc. (or something along those lines). This is SO true about us. We grew up with this whole model of external rewards as meaning, when in fact it's the internal work that makes us, that means something, that matters. You are an amazing and inspiring person because of the person you are, have become, are becoming. Surely any friend you tell about what I'm up to can see that you chose the harder path... that the kind of bravery I have is if anything a lesser version of the kind of bravery that you have. That's that.

We know everything (Woolf, 171).

What knotty potatoes! she thought, turning them over in her sturdy hands, water falling between them into the kitchen sink; the dull knife trustworthy in its wooden handle; the potatoes with dark muddy eyes. She would peel the tomatoes and cucumbers, she thought; salt and pepper them both; cook up some apples; boil the greens and the corn; fry the three porkchops from that new grocer in town, picked up yesterday between Bible class and Landon's class picnic. She smiled to herself thinking of the picnic and that cocky Taylor boy, saying he could whoop anybody around the park; how she'd taken her shoes off before she'd said anything; decided not to worry about her pantyhose this one time; whooped him easily in her smart navy skirtsuit, without even disrupting a hairpin. She would drive to the store later, she thought. She would fix the cattleguard herself.


When I ponder the topics of our semester, those I've written about--power, beauty, repression, perfectionism, individuality, forgiveness, identity, complicity, femininity, rebirth, existence, connectedness--it occurs to me that my life and the lives of the women who affect my story have been lives made of these, these wide fields of consideration, these discrete experiences, these words and stories unnamed but not untrue. So in the spirit of Virginia Woolf and the way she found for telling more than one story in a single story, these small passages and fragments capture us, if only for a moment or two, living what Woolf calls "Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life" (144).