Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year

“The truth is, the case of poor servants was very dismal, as I shall have occasion to mention again by-and-by, for it was apparent a prodigious number of them would be turned away, and it was so. And of them abundance perished, and particularly of those that these false prophets had flattered with hopes that they should be continued in their services, and carried with their masters and mistresses into the country; and had not public charity provided for these poor creatures, whose number was exceeding great and in all cases of this nature must be so, they would have been in the worst condition of any people in the city.”

Almost 350  years ago, Defoe went through a “plague year” and I am not surprised, nor shocked, to see that he was concerned about the people who had little or no money and those who had been “flattered with hope” by the likes of “priests” and “astrologers”.

You can dip into this volume at and reflect upon how little human nature ever changes.  We are always repeating and reenacting the woes of the past; the popular delusions and denials; the magical thinking.   My son is scornful of those who retreat to their Martha Vineyard’s spreads.  So little news, however, concerns the homeless and the deeply financially insecure.   I am almost paranoid enough to believe that our republican leaders knew a lot about this in December or January, but refused to entertain the notion that they could not shape the world as they wanted.


The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Theodore Roethke, “The Waking” from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Copyright 1953 by Theodore Roethke.





“The Differentiated World is Coming”

“I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in the melted ego world.  But I find I have trouble coming back to the differentiated world, the one you were just talking about where you have to wash the dishes and take out the garbage.”

She was very pregnant, six-months, maybe.  Oh, don’t worry, I thought, the differentiated world is coming for your ass.”

__Jenny Offill



She loved ballet and she loved to play ballet music and dance in the living room.   I remember her putting on an LP of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and slowly, as the early notes played, she would enter the living room.  She wore a black leotard and a pink tutu.  She was 9 years old.  She would practice the various positions and act like a tired little dancer for the first few minutes of the ballet.  Around the room she went, improvising barres.  Then when the orchestra really revved up–about 5 minutes in—she would go leaping across the room.  In flight, her tutu waving about, her arms carefully positioned, she would dance dance dance.

Sometimes feverishly and febrile; other times joyously leaping.  Concentrating on the nuances of the music; concentrating on the story.  Determined to play all three parts because there was but one dancer in the house.

I loved Andrea’s dancing.  It could be flamboyant and one second later segue into a rather stiff diffidence to match the music.  Outbursts of speedy music followed by pensive moments animated her.

She loved the ballet.  When she was a couple of years older, she started babysitting to help pay for her lessons.  Her long blonde hair was tied up in a very professional topknot.  Margot Fonteyn!  Patricia McBride!  Suzanne Farrell!  Allegra Kent!  We would take the train into the city and see the  New York City Ballet perform.  She took the lead, because my physical talents were wooden and clumpy and her head was filled with ballet—the music, the dancers, the variety.  She may have been only 10, but she knew that one did not stop to stare at Edward Gorey, but only appreciate his presence.

Then she was raped by a man for whom she was babysitting.  She was just about to turn 14–that October.   He turned her into a private sex slave.  When he discarded her, on her 18th birthday claiming she was “too old” for his tastes, she was entirely fragile.  She had not kept up with her ballet.  She was jaded and terminally depressed.  She killed herself at age 20.  A casualty of the phallus.  I grieve each and every day.   I know I am dying and it does not help to know that I am the last person who remembers her well; who remembers her dancing in the living room; who remembers her wishes and hopes.  All derailed by a pedophile.




Memories of Thanksgivings Past

“If you think you are enlightened; go home for Thanksgiving.”
― Ram Dass

Yes, indeed.   Thanksgiving was always a time for tyranny in my household.   My father insisted on cooking a turkey which he would lovingly baste and gaze at with admiration.  When the turkey was all skin and bones he would delicately, using tools, tweezers, pliers, etc. separate every edible ort from the bone and then make his patented Turkey Soup.   My mother thought that turkey was vulgar and that Thanksgiving was a plot to keep the children home from school.   It was not easy to be a child when a holiday beloved by so many became a battle of the wills.

This is marriage.  Two people come from two backgrounds and for my father it’s a time of family and food and decency.  For my mother, it’s a reminder of the poverty and deprivations of her childhood (her missing father had divorced her mother a few years before she was born and she was the product of a sentimental, soppy, single-malt scotch visit).

The result was a stubborn refusal to back down.   My father’s argument, that my mother could ignore the turkey, was refuted by her insistence that the reek of turkey permeated the house.  He made all the “fixings”–dressing, mashed potatoes, some form of something  green–about one serving of that for the 8 of us–and tinned cranberry sauce.  My brother and one sister claimed the drumsticks.  The little ones got themselves into a mashed potato carbohydrate stupour.  And I was besotted with cranberry sauce.   I privately believed that Thanksgiving was justly a celebration of the cranberry.


Those gloomy Thanksgivings were vitiated by the Cranberry.

I always tried to be bright and cheerful on Thanksgiving and cooked for days.   No soup—never any turkey soup–but lots of variations on the cranberry and its presentation.

I can go home for Thanksgiving via the auspices of memory, but I prefer the Thanksgivings of today–minimalist; no trauma; and I still always have at least 3 or 4 cranberry options.

I am grateful that the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas will be briefer than usual this year.

I wish you an abundance of what you love and an ability to avoid those tension-filled items.


Aristotle on learning

“Learning is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, and a provision in old age.”
― Aristotle

Aristotle got this correct, I believe.   Some of my family members always thought I was seriously lacking in my  non-existent zest for football, alcohol, recreational drugs, the bar scene, the daring.  My mother, who had more than a small problem with nymphomania, thought I was born at the age of 40.   Certainly she had no respect for a daughter who liked to read.  Really, being an introvert has served me well and kept me away from many of those places where people are likely to gamble with their money, their health, their resources, their bodies.  I am not boasting, to be clear.  I always envied people who could just to out and “have a good time”.  But it’s been many decades since my failure to chug kegs has puzzled people.

My light is flickering but I am certainly reaping the rewards of my investment in education.   Reading and listening to music and kissing cats.  That’s what I was like when Eisenhower was president and my education has sustained my interest in many topics.

Sometimes I have a little fantasy:  what would my quarters look like if everything came alive?!!  If all the bookcases turned to trees, if all the books and papers returned to their previous incarnation.  If that food in the refrigerator—the milk.  How many cows?  What did they look like?

I imagine this collection of stuff going back to its beginnings—some tiny calves; many trees; cotton coerced from the ground; the tea from China and the ink from Japan and the pictures from France.

I look at my books and see Thomas Mann bedded down between Wilkie Collins and Iris Murdoch.  My poetry is in disarray:  look at Sophie Hannah cuddling with Ben Jonson!   “Eugene Onegin” is placed between two Barbara Pym novels.  How puzzling for a Pym heroine to see the cold-hearted Onegin turn his back on  a warmly offered macaroni cheese.

I have some odd little niches:  I always like to buy sheets and pillow-cases that represent cowboy culture with spurs and boots.
I am, of course, not the only Salmagundi spirit around.   But my rooms rhyme so much with the way they looked almost 70 years ago.  Music, books, cats.   I hope I don’t sound smug—one can only lead an unquiet existence in this world of savage inequality where 600 narcissistic billionaires are accounted to be of much greater importance than the 15 million (or more) children living in poverty.   Or the 2.1 million native Americans.

Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have any money to speak of.  I read that one of our billionaires (and not our wealthiest)  earns $23,148 per minute and about $32 million each day.  I cannot think of one single item I could buy that would offer ease and solace in my old age that I am capable of enjoying.

“Provide, Provide”

by Robert Frost


The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!



When I first read “Provide, Provide” I was little more than a child and was enchanted by the triplet rhymes.  I think that a bombshell actress from the 1940’s ended up mopping floors but now of course I cannot recall her name.  It was not Betty Grable but it may have been a woman with a similar name.

Of course it’s better to go “down dignified” but so many of those who made “the stock-exchange” their “own” are unethical and repulsive people.  I’d rather be alone and unprovided for than to have been on the top of the financial/food chain.

So I rely on “what [I] knew” and turn more and more to poetry and music to accompany me.   I could never “buy” a friend.  I can’t afford it. But good books and music are better than most friendships I’ve had.

More than anything else I miss my memory.  I’ve lost a lot of my hand to “Arthur Itis” and my legs and neck like to spontaneously freeze.  My skin gets papery.  Most of all I miss having a trustworthy memory.  It was my biggest pride.   Watching Jeopardy! is a moral teething for me.  I garble syllables.  I have to search deeply into my mental encyclopedia to retrieve anything of help.  I sometimes get 19th century presidents confused.  Did Polk come before or after Pierce?   Why was Chester A. Arthur president during the 1880’s?  I would have guessed the 1840’s!

I have never really entered the 21st century.  While I am out of place in this new dispensation, time whizzes by at warp speed.  My only remaining goal is to vote in the 2020 election in 364 days.  And the futility of my vote washes over me.

Who wants to live in a world where Buffalo Wings allows a racist to determine who gets seated where for the weck?  A world with republicans and their hostility to anyone who is not a billionaire is a dangerous plutocracy based on the fundamental American evil–the Eurotrash of the 15th and 16th and 17th century blithely spreading pox and measles and effectively creating a genocide?  A world gleefully continuing its ecocide…..  It’s time to check out indeed.

“Are We Still Here?”

Are We Still Here?

Between the woodpile and the window
a line of small black ants is moving,
some to the north, some to the south.

Their constant industry is admirable,
as are their manners when they pause
in meeting to exchange a touch.

I must have brought their home inside
for fuel, heating my small house.
And if it burned I too would move

along all points of the compass rose,
touching my neighbors on the path.

by David Mason

I like this extended metaphor about people and ants. Even though they are incredibly busy, ants will stop to greet their neighbors and colleagues. I wish I could keep my own purposes in sight just like the ants do.

This poem reminds me that close observation of what is going on around me can keep me intrigued.    I love Mason’s observations about ant etiquette.  How often I see good, neighborly/family manners in my cats.   When they jump up on my bed, they greet me.  When they are fed they will often take a little lap of gratitude around my ankles before they tuck in.  I would like to have the sense of purpose that ants have.   Thinking of them, however, is decent medicine.  My neck won’t move much today and it hurts a lot less when I am reading provocative poems about animals.

Each poem is a little elegy, I find.  I never know if it will be the last poem I read.  Or perhaps I won’t meet up with this poem again.

As an invalid, I’m bemused and very anxious about the sundry people who want to visit me or have me come to visit them.  One of my sisters is paying a visit soon.  She did not ask me if, when, why, or where.  She’s coming with her granddaughter later this month.   She sent me a list of things they want to do.  The Zoo?  How splendid but I cannot walk around for  more than 10 minutes maximum and then I’m totally wiped out.     She has a non-refundable ticket.   I can’t drive anymore although I might take a chance on 3 or 4 blocks in the broad light of the day.  But I can’t pull off a job like a perfect ant.