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For Other Virginias

Today is the 70th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death. Woolf was 59 when she drowned herself in a river near Monk’s House, the country home where she and Leonard then lived.

In 1941, the threat of Hitler invading England was very real; Woolf’s London houses had already been destroyed by bombs and the countryside around Monk’s House had been shelled as well. Woolf suffered most of her life with depression and mental breakdowns; her writing brought stability, despite the anguish it often caused her. Yet even writing failed to provide solace as the war came closer. Amidst the possibility of England’s fall and her own fears of returning madness, Woolf’s despair was evident in the note she left for Leonard before she walked into the river: “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.”

As a writer and critic, Woolf expanded the boundaries of literature. Her novels experimented with point-of-view, time, and structure, bringing a unique and feminist voice to a patriarchal literary world.  I first read To the Lighthouse as an undergraduate thirty-some years ago and it is still one of my favorite novels. Following its shifting viewpoints is like watching a shell game: despite how closely we observe each movement, we still can’t understand how everything ends exactly as it should.

In my first pearlmoonplenty post, I mentioned that the night before I started graduate school for my PhD, I dreamed that Woolf invited me for tea, which I took as reassurance toward my new endeavor. Woolf was, in fact, a mentor for many young writers, including May Sarton, who had tea with Woolf when Sarton was starting out as a novelist.

Virginia Woolf kept a diary for much of her adult life; after her death, Leonard anthologized the entries about writing into A Writer’s Diary. For the last couple years, I’ve kept this book by my bed, opening it at random every few nights to read a few pages as inspiration for my own writing life. Or maybe less inspiration than support, for Woolf was clear about the difficulties of writing: “Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither” (May 13, 1933).

Woolf was also honest about the financial aspects of writing, delighting when her books start to make money so she can afford a WC at Monk’s House. It’s Woolf’s blend of practicality and “you go girl!” spirit that draws me to A Writer’s Diary again and again.

In memory of Woolf today, I want to share some of my favorite passages from A Writer’s Diary for all of us who love literature and rejoice in the imaginative life of the mind:

May 11, 1920: It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yes, writing is always difficult.

May 1, 1925: This is a note for future reference, as they say. The Common Reader [Woolf’s collection of literary criticism] came out 8 days ago and so far not a single review has appeared, and nobody has written to me or spoken to me about it, or in any way acknowledged the fact of its existence; save Maynard, Lydia, and Duncan. . . I have just come through the hoping fearing stage and now see my disappointment floating like an old bottle in my wake and am off on fresh adventures.

March 20, 1026: But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little. God knows. This is dictated by a slight melancholia, which comes upon me sometimes now and makes me think I am old; I am ugly. I am repeating things. Yet, as far as I know, as a writer I am only now writing out my mind.

August 12, 1928: We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough–made me envious of its country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?” and try to make more and more vivid the roughness of the air current and the tremor of the rook’s wing slicing as if the air were full of ridges and ripples and roughnesses. They rise and sink, up and down, as if the exercise rubbed and braced them like swimmers in rough water. But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes, and not only to my eyes; also to some nervous fibre, or fanlike membrane in my species.

October 11, 1929: And I snatch at the idea of writing here in order not to write Waves or Moths or whatever it is to be called. One thinks one has learnt to write quickly; and one hasn’t. And what is odd, I’m not writing with gusto or pleasure: because of the concentration. I am not reeling it off; but sticking it down. Also, never in my life, did I attack such a vague yet elaborate design; whenever I make a mark I have to think of its relation to a dozen others. And though I could go on ahead easily enough, I am always stopping to consider the whole effect. In particular is there some radical fault in my scheme? [Leonard Woolf considered The Waves “a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books.”]

November 16, 1931: Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at least the exact shapes my brain holds. What a long toil to reach this beginning—if The Waves is my first work in my own style!

October 29, 1933: Yesterday the Granta said I was now defunct. Orlando, Waves, Flush, represent the death of a potentially great writer. This is only a rain drop, I mean the snub some little pimpled undergraduate likes to administer, just as he would put a frog in one’s bed. . . . But let me remember that fashion in literature is an inevitable thing; also that one must grow and change. . . . I will not be “famous,” “great.” I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self; to let it find its dimensions, not to be impeded.

August 2, 1934: I’m worried too with my last chapters [of The Years]. Is it all too shrill and voluble? And then the immense length, and the perpetual ebbs and flows of invention. So divinely happy one day; so jaded the next.

November 14, 1934: A note: despair at the book [The Years]: can’t think how I ever could write such stuff—and with such excitement: that’s yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down—and Lord knows the truth.

August 21, 1935: Up in London yesterday. And I saw this about myself in a book at The Times—the most patient and conscientious of artists—which I think is true, considering how I slave at every word of that book.

March 24, 1936: A very good weekend. Trees coming out: hyacinths; crocuses. Hot. The first spring weekend. Then we walked up to Rat Farm—looked for violets. Still spring here. Am tinkering—in a drowsy state. And I’m so absorbed in Two Guineas—that’s what I’m going to call it [later Three Guineas]. I must very nearly verge on insanity I think, I get so deep in this book I don’t know what I’m doing. Find myself walking along the Strand talking aloud.

December 19, 1938: On the whole the art [of writing] becomes absorbing—more? no, I think it’s been absorbing ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa at St. Ives while the grown ups dined.

In memoriam: Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941

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Still Winter

In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone.

Christina Rossetti,  1830-1894

It’s January, and still winter. Still winter because nothing is moving. The ice in the ditch is frozen; we have to haul water for the chickens in a bucket filled from the kitchen tap. Laundry freezes rather than dries on the line. I pin towels and socks as quickly as I can but my fingers numb and slow me down. At least the sun is shining. At least the snow stays in the mountains for another day.

In my grandmother’s diaries, she starts each entry with a weather report. Farmers depend on the weather so recording its changes helped her mark the years, but in rural North Dakota, the weather meant something more.  My grandparents lived in the country so snowstorms meant no trips to town and no visitors dropping by until the weather cleared.

One entry makes me smile at the typical understatement of her voice:

Sat Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today.

In my grandmother’s make-do world, “Won’t be very warm” means “Won’t be going anywhere today.” I can imagine her watching the wide wintergray sky from the kitchen window while she baked her weekly loaves of bread. She was a slim woman and in her later years, never seemed to get warm. For her last Christmas, we gave her a thick wool sweater to take away the chill; after she died, the smell of her face powder lingered for years.

Winter in North Dakota is unforgiving. An incautious mistake—an empty fuel tank, bad tires, turning down the wrong dirt road–can mean death in a blizzard that shrouds the prairie in icy white. And winter stays into spring there, as my grandmother’s diary confirms.

Fri March 4, 1966: 12 degrees above hi for today. It’s nice here today but not so warm. Is close to zero. We were lucky to miss being in the storm the last three days. Some lives lost in S. Dakota.

I baked a pie.

Here and on the next page, my grandmother tucked two newspaper clippings about the days-old storm.  “Snows Wrath on Our Path” warns one. “Holy Cow! No Snowplow!” cries the second.

Luckily, my grandparents missed that blizzard and got to town so that my cousin could try on the dress our grandmother had been sewing for her of “tissue gingham.” But, Grandma Smith admits again in her understated way, “The wind was so howling, I didn’t like it.”

Christina Rossetti wrote the Christmas poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” as an allegory of the life of Christ. I learned the poem in junior high choir as set to music by Gustav Holst and never forgot its austere yet eloquent first verse. I think of it often in January when it’s still winter.

I think too of my grandmother, watching the sky for snow and waiting for the roads to clear so that she could venture into town to visit family and buy supplies, perhaps even some fabric for my Easter dress in Colorado.

Here at Stonebridge, winter is a time when both the land and the farmers rest, at least until it’s time to plant onions in the greenhouse. The land sleeps under a coat of white and the frozen ditch quiet silent in its banks. But even in the stillness, small movements stir the air. Wooly mice and voles tunnel under the snow for harvest remains; red-tail hawks with their snowy breasts survey the fields for any movement that portends dinner.

And inside the house, the busy-ness of our lives turns inward: we knit, spin, write, and plan the next season’s gardens. With the fire glowing in the woodstove and the root cellar stocked, we are safe in our farmhouse, waiting and watching for spring.

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Marking Her Days with Grace

Recently I took out the few diaries I have from my Grandma Smith and re-read her sparse entries. A true farmer, she always noted the weather, both the high and low temperatures and noteworthy conditions like sheer wind or a blinding snowstorm. Some days in July she would just write “Hot.” My favorite weather entry reads:  Sat, Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today. Even in a North Dakota winter, that could be considered an understatement.

Another series of weather entries in 1966 reads like a poem:

Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above

snow melting

just like spring

Thurs, March 10: No need for a weather report.

Fri, March 11: Weather is fine.

Re-reading her diaries this time, I looked for clues about how she spent her days. She sewed a lot and she baked a lot of bread—six or seven loaves at a time. She kept her flour in a deep pull-out bin in the kitchen cabinet that held a 50-lb bag. She would bake once a week, making enough for morning toast, noon sandwiches, and evening bread and butter. Covered by thin cotton dishtowels embroidered with vegetable people or sunbonnet girls, her loaves rose high in their pans.

Sometimes she would make cinnamon rolls along with the bread, letting my siblings and cousins and me roll out the rectangle of dough and spread it with real butter from our uncle’s creamery. Then we would spoon on brown sugar and sprinkle the dough with cinnamon, roll it up tight, pinch the seam, slice into a dozen thick rounds, and pack them carefully in the cake pan to rise. Fresh and hot from the oven, the sugar and butter-filled rolls melted on our fingers and tongues. No “store-boughten” cinnamon rolls could ever taste as good.

Grandma Smith worked hard on the farm, even after she and my grandfather weren’t raising animals and crops anymore. A typical entry of her busy life reads:

Tues, Feb 11, 1966: I baked 2 apple pies/ put in freezer/scrubbed the kitchen floor/fed the cats at the barn/burned the papers/this pm I’m going out visiting.

I remember my grandmother down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in case someone stopped by. I marveled that she wore dresses around the house with her old pantyhose, not wanting to waste a brand new pair. When I would ask her why she didn’t just go bare-legged, she would exclaim in disapproval, “No, I can’t do THAT!” She was fashionable her entire life, even when scrubbing the floor.

Because the Smith farm was on the highway into Williston, the county seat, many of my grandparents’ farming friends and relatives would stop by unannounced for coffee on their way to or from town. In her diaries, Grandma Smith noted who had visited that day and what she had baked, like lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or a kind of cookie she called “Matrimonial Chews.” Visitors were so common at the farm that one entry comments on not receiving guests:  Sat, March 9, 1985: I was home all day. Baked a pie but no company.

My grandmother rarely noted her feelings or reflections about her life, but one of the few reflective passages she wrote makes me laugh: Tues, Jan 25, 1966: I’m cleaning the basement—and it sure looks better. That “sure” sounds just like her, a mix of practicality and positive thinking. If you’re going to do something, it seems to say, do it right—and be happy you’ve done it.

Why weren’t her diaries more personal, more revealing of her thoughts and feelings? I don’t think she worried about someone discovering them. After her death, we found these few diaries stuck in an old cabinet in the basement, more tucked away for safe keeping than hidden.  I think instead that she didn’t feel a need to express personal feelings in diary form. What was important was recording the everyday events of her life, keeping track of the weather and the visitors, the comings and goings of a farm on the edge of town.

In a few entries, though, I catch a glimpse of a more private side of my grandmother, moments of the solace she found in the natural world. In her diaries, she would note signs of the seasons changing, especially when a long, cold winter was turning away for spring:

Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

Tues, April 12, 1983: No snow yet. Cleaned house. Saw a meadowlark today. Gophers are running around and also saw a pheasant and two rabbits.

In entries like these, I can imagine her looking out the window over the prairie, although “prairie” is my word, not hers. She would say “pasture,” since the long grass is where my grandparents grazed their cattle. I can imagine her walking to the creek to look for mayflowers, grateful for a sign that spring had finally made its way to the north. She paid attention to the creatures around her because they inhabited the same piece of land. She marked her days by the weather and the seasons because they formed the backdrop of her life on the farm, determining each day’s possibilities. These diary entries reveal an intimacy with nature that seems a private part of my grandmother’s life, quiet moments of grace in the midst of her busy days.

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What Shall This Be?

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking through them.

                                                                                Easter Sunday, April 20, 1919

Virginia Woolf again? Don’t worry—I’m not pulling a “Julie and Julia” and my name doesn’t start with “V.”  In wondering what this blog will contain, though, I can’t help but include this quote because, in her inimitable style, Woolf has encompassed so much about personal writing in so few words.

Woolf imagined her diary as “loose knit” but not “slovenly.” By “slovenly” did Woolf mean “written in haste without sufficient editing” or perhaps “written without proper attention to detail, without providing enough depth to create a coherent meaning”? Both of these shortcomings are found in journalism today, yet when information comes in such short forms, like blogs, such problems are hard to avoid.

I’m blogging in part because I want to experience what blogging can be as a form and a genre. Unlike blogs, most diaries aren’t written for someone else to read (see Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Shadow Tag for a plot that hinges on deceptive diary keeping and peeping). I’ve been journaling simultaneously in multiple journals for years but never for pubic consumption. How will (hopefully) having readers change how and about what topics I write?

         “Capacious hold-all” is my favorite phrase for personal writing like journals, diaries, and blogs that are consecutively and consistently written. I see this blog as a  “hold-all” for my ideas about women’s writing and my experiences as a women in her 50s who writes, reads, farms, teaches, cooks, knits, and organizes community in various ways, a woman who is transitioning from one career to many interesting and satisfying occupations, as in “things that occupy my time,” including pearlmoonplenty.

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The First Post

Odd how coming back [to London] upsets my writing mood. Odder still how possessed I am with the feeling that now, aged 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are. . . . I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.

                                          Virginia Woolf’s diary, Sunday, October 2, 1932

Where to begin is always the question, so today I start this blog with Virginia Woolf, the writer to whom I turn most often for insight into a woman’s writing life.

Since reaching 50 last year, I’ve kept Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary by my bed, reading entries randomly for insight into her genius and “determination not to give in.” Facing 50, she wrote, “Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at last the exact shape my brain holds.”

Woolf is one of my many mentors; the night before I started graduate school, I dreamed that she invited me for tea. Tea with Virginia Woolf! What better way to assure myself that I was ready to realize my own intellectual voice?

Now, as I alter my aspect toward the sun of less certain but newly imagined years, I turn to Woolf again and find that at 50, she too was poised to follow her own mind wherever it might lead. “Shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are.” Let that be my motto as I round the fullness of 50 like a pearl moon embracing the plenitude of its shine.

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