Somewhere on the menu of this page it will say that my most “Recently Published” entry was April 29, 2012.
Recent? It’s May 7, 2014.
Some of you may know that I lost my calm reflecting pool, my love of twenty-eight and a half years, last March. I’ve been Rip van Winkling my way through life for thirteen months now, and exploring Planet Literature seems at the same time both incredibly necessary and utterly unimportant; consequently un-do-able. As do most things, including eating. Pedicures. Other people’s birthdays.
I’ve been waiting for signs that will clue me that I am coming back. They are irregular at best. Some might seem more like danger signs to other people (Exactly why is she laughing maniacally because someone said “milieu”?) but I can spot them. And yesterday I said something out loud that I realized that I have known for fourteen years but have never articulated, and I took that as a good sign. Despite my brother’s dire warning that between the grief-driven weight loss and cognitive sluggishness I am halfway to a supermodel (aging, of course) I actually learned something yesterday, pieced it together almost as I’ve been able to do my whole life before Nature and Nature’s God reached in and took half of me away.
Yesterday I told a colleague with absolute assurance, “My mother wanted to go to one of the Seven Sisters and major in English Literature and write her dissertation on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Which is a pretty detailed and confident statement considering that my mother never mentioned college, let alone Barnard; her high school yearbook states as her goal “to become Mrs. —.” The ambition for an advanced degree seems woven out of purest thin air, and the Browning only a casual reference to the fact that she owned, in my lifetime, just two pieces of canonical literature, The Good Earth and Sonnets from the Portuguese. But my mind, sluggish for a year, woke up a tiny bit, asking, “Where did THAT come from?” But I knew. Knew it like she had used me to utter the words herself.
The novel that I wrote myself into between the ages of 14 and 17 takes it epigraph from Aurora Leigh: “And, in a certain house in Kensington/Three years I lived and worked. Get leave to work/In this world, — ’tis the best you get at all” and even when I typed that in the “grown up” revised draft of 1540 in 2002 when I was out of work and hurting, I knew just how perfect the quote was and still didn’t know what I now know about my mother.
My mother, if you had asked her, would have said she “never worked.” (Don’t even try the old “every mother is a working mother” gambit — she was just as impatient with bumper-sticker philosophy as I am.) Yesterday I realized she had never been given leave to work. But I’m not casting blame on others; note Browning makes it our job to get the leave. Maybe she never sought. Anyway, it was never got.
Is the academic study of dead white European poets “work,” nowadays? My voice, uttering my mother’s wishes yesterday, made it sound like she had aspired to something higher whereas the majority of my immediate neighbors and almost certainly all of the East Jersey Tea Party membership (at least one of whom knew and loved my mother) would argue that thank God she became, and remained, a good, married, Christian, stay-at-home mother instead of some liberal Marxist feminist union-loving Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging college professor of the most useless of the useless college majors, English. I think, if I understand Aurora Leigh at all, it is the fact of the work, not the type, that is the “better gift,” and maybe I am projecting some of my own desires onto her; forgetting, of course, that while I could be married and at the same time become a liberal Marxist feminist useless blot on the fabric of Real American society, she could not have; college would have meant spinsterhood and marriage would curtail the advanced degree (anything beyond the MRS., of course).
God, if I had had to choose between Dan and life on Planet Literature! What would I have done?
Her curse; my benediction; and the obverse. I got them both, and one was taken away and so I hid from the other; she never knew the one, but got to keep the other until her last day. I’ve cried all morning over that. So this afternoon I decided to try to take Planet Literature back, even if no one is listening. And sometime soon, not that I can set any deadlines (playing the grieving card relieves me of all sorts of obligations and commitments) I am going to write the dissertation on Browning that needs to be written. I don’t care if it’s unpublished, unread, unsanctioned, non-matriculated. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Its author will be Elaine Perugino.