Tag Archives: women’s friendship

The Last Down Dog

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Be grateful that all the work of getting here today is behind you . . .

So speaks my friend and beloved yoga teacher, Lisa, on this final day of our classes together. Word has gotten out that Lisa will be leaving. Her regular Wednesday students are here, joined by others who have come to say good-bye. We fill the sunny studio while Lisa jokes that we could fit in twice as many folks. Smiling and stretching on our mats, we prepare for practice one last time.

I am heartbroken that Lisa is leaving, even though I know we plan to stay in touch and teach yoga and writing again. For the last three years and five months, our gentle and restorative yoga class each Wednesday morning has balanced my week. I anchor the routine of my life to that day. From Thursday to Saturday, I enjoy my relaxed and limber body. From Sunday to Tuesday, I anticipate the mental and physical benefits yoga will bring. Without these years of Wednesday practice, I know my health would have suffered.

As class begins, my awareness is heightened. I want to remember each pose, each posture, and each word that Lisa offers as she guides us one more time through our asanas together. Make this practice your own, she advises again. We know this already, yet we listen all the same. We are not passive recipients of Lisa’s wise teaching; instead, we follow her guidance while staying attuned to our own needs.

Lisa’s sessions regularly incorporate a gratitude practice to acknowledge and appreciate the people and opportunities in our lives. This morning, I consider the words of gratitude with which class began. My feelings are mixed, my thanks bittersweet. I am grateful for the years I’ve spent in class, but I’m sad about the changes that are coming. I’m grateful that “all the work of getting here”—not just today, but every day–has brought me to a place of health and friendship, but I don’t like thinking that this class will now be behind me. Letting go, especially of people, has always been difficult for me–and hasn’t gotten easier with age. At 55, I’m tired of loss and disheartened at the horizon of further loss before me. All the more reason to be grateful, I suppose, for what I’ve already had.

Today, we move, we breathe, we stretch, we hold, each movement paired with breath as we integrate body and mind. Even though I’m not watching the clock—I never watch the clock—I’m aware that time is going much too quickly. When we shift to warrior postures Vera I, II, and III, our concentration deepens as we work to attain balance. Tree pose—never natural for me, especially on the left—seems a little easier this time. I’m determined to hold it longer, if only to sustain our last class a few seconds more.

Too soon, it’s time for a relaxation pose. I lie on my back with my legs extended up the wall. I try not to think, but I am already imagining the days ahead. I know I will continue Wednesday yoga with a new teacher. I’m sure she, too, will offer wisdom and experience, and I look forward to meeting new yoga friends. But it won’t be the same and, right now, “the same” is what I want. If I’ve learned anything in this class, it’s that change can best be met when least resisted. Still, I’m not yet ready to let go.

In our final posture, we sit in hero pose with legs folded beneath us and arms extended with hands on our knees. My palms face up to receive my practice, rather than palms down for grounding. I want to stay open to this moment, to receive each second that remains.

The ticking of the clock behind me turns my desire to prevent change into my own selfish mantra. Tick tock. Tick tock. Don’t go. Don’t go.

I know this is wrong, not to mention futile, so I shift my desire toward the future. Tick tock. Come back. Come back. Come back.

While these words buoy my spirit, I have to concede it’s time to go. I struggle to change the words in my head in the hope of changing my heart. What can I say to release this moment, this desire to hold onto something that must certainly, irrevocably change?

Suddenly, the words seem to come without conscious effort and I know they are right.

Be well. Be well. Be well. Be well. As I send these words to Lisa, I trust they’ll also be true for me.

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Filed under ecobiography, memoir, women's writing

For June

Dear June,

Tomorrow I’ll have been missing you for 30 years. You would be in your 50s now and we would have celebrated so many important milestones together. Instead, you were taken from us at much too young an age in a way no one should have to bear.

We were students together at Colorado State University in the late 1970s and early 80s, where we joined the CSU Feminist Group to try to make a difference for women on campus. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Fort Collins and shut down a campus Playboy Club. We held Women in Film festivals and published The Feminist Newsletter. You wrote “A Touching Story” about the need for skin-to-skin contact in our lives.

When we graduated in 1981, we found each other on the football field at Hughes Stadium in the midst of hundreds of other graduates to hug and celebrate how far we had come. We stayed in touch during the next year as we began a new phase of our lives in neighboring cities. And then, on June 11, 1982, you were gone.

Thirty years ago, my daughter was only five months old when I turned on the noon news—something I rarely did—and saw the gruesome photos of a young woman’s murder. Although your name wasn’t used, I knew it was you. It took hours to confirm that fear.

I wish I could have been more involved in the investigation from the beginning, but with a newborn baby, I had to depend on others for help. Now I wish I had been the one to ask the questions and I wish fewer mistakes had been made along the way. None of that would have brought you back, but justice might have been served in some small way to offer a healing for those who grieved your loss.

Almost a year after your death, I was in my bedroom while my daughter took a nap when I sensed a strong smell of flowers from a bush outside the window. I’d never smelled it that strong before. And then I felt you there with me, assuring me that you were all right and that it was time for you to leave. I cried because I realized that you had been with me from the beginning, helping me to care for my daughter despite my sorrow and pain.

You had been so excited at her birth, you brought me the flagstone slab you found hiking when you came to see her for the first time. That was so typical of you—supporting others by sharing your life. I carried that stone with me from home to home for years, until I decided it was time for it to stay in one place as I continued on alone. But your memory never faded and when I could face your death again, I began to ask the questions I hadn’t before.

Five years ago, the police returned to your case with new eyes and new methods. They still believe the original suspect is guilty but they haven’t yet been able to find the evidence they need to convict him. Last week I talked with one of the detectives about the possibility for new types of DNA testing to provide the proof necessary for an indictment. A murder case is never closed. We’re still waiting for a breakthrough, but it hasn’t come yet.

I have missed you constantly the last thirty years and will never give up hope for your murderer to be brought to justice. But it’s time to mark your life with something other than your death. We were in a feminist book group together one summer thirty-some years ago; I remember reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Monster by Robin Morgan, books that placed women’s lives at the center rather than the margins of the world. Because you loved women’s writing, I want to dedicate a collection of feminist press-published books to you, my friend, in the Special Collections library at Colorado State University.

These are the books I collected while writing my dissertation on feminist publishing of the 1970s, books that carried forward the work you and I began while students at CSU. I want the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to inspire other young feminists to challenge the limitations they face in their lives as you and I did together more than 30 years ago. The collection is a reminder of how far women have come and a call to continue that activism in these reactionary times.

With these books, I dedicate the memory of our friendship to the joy we felt at the work we did. I will be missing you, June, forever, but I will never forget what a wonderful friend you have been.

Love,

Kayann

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Filed under memoir, women's writing

Letters Between Friends

This pearlmoonplenty is lengthier than most; the author asks her readers’ indulgence for her own.

 

My dear Virginia

How much I like getting letters from you. 

With what zest do they send me to meet the day.

So much do I like getting them, that I keep them as the last letter to open of my morning post, like a child keeps the bit of chocolate for the end—

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, 2 September 1925

 

Virginia Woolf was born 130 years ago today. She has long been an important writer and role model for me, but I didn’t know much about Woolf’s seventeen-year relationship with Vita Sackville-West until friends gave me The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf for Christmas. Reading these letters not only introduced me to intriguing aspects of Woolf’s life, but also inspired an appreciation for Sackville-West beyond her historical status as Woolf’s lover, friend, and muse behind her most imaginative character and novel, Orlando. A poet and novelist herself, Sackville-West strode through Woolf’s life in breeches and pearls, a devotee of Woolf’s artistic genius and maternal protector of Woolf’s fragile health and self-confidence.

The book contains all the surviving letters written by Sackville-West to Woolf, as well as relevant excerpts from Woolf’s letters to “My dear Vita.” Together they sketch a charged and complex friendship that evolved from romance to affection to deep appreciation and support between two avant garde women well matched in their conflicting personal desire for love and independence.

Begun in 1923 when Sackville-West invites Woolf to join the P.E.N. club of which she was a member (an invitation Woolf politely declined—she was no joiner), the letters continue until March 22, 1941, six days before Woolf’s suicide. Woolf’s last letter did not allude to her ensuing madness and her death shocked Sackville-West, who years later confided to her husband, “I still think that I might have saved her if only I had been there and had known the state of mind she was getting into.” Perhaps that help was something Woolf intended to avoid.

Both women had been raised with the privilege of English upper-class consciousness but were determined to live beyond the gendered expectations for propriety it bestowed. Sackville-West used her aristocratic position and open marriage to a diplomat to shape a life of sexual freedom and world travel; ten years older, Woolf used her intellectual capacities and marriage to a supportive husband to pursue literary achievements that have earned her lasting renown. Their letters portray a mutual impulse for pushing life to its edge, an emotional necessity for Sackville-West, while for Woolf, an artistic one.

As their relationship turned from recognition of each other’s social rebellion to a more intimate level of affection, they often used pet names or their own pets to express their feelings. Days after their short-lived sexual affair began, Woolf referred to Sackville-West as a “dear old rough coated sheep dog,” an image she repeated over the years, while Sackville-West jokingly referred to Woolf as “Potto,” a name Woolf created for the child-like creature she became in her desire for Vita: “Potto kisses you and says he could rub your back and cure it by licking.”

Over the years, both women used letter-writing to discuss their ideas about writing that reveal important insights into both their literary styles. For Sackville-West, Woolf is the writer to whom her own writing can never compare: “[Passenger to Teheran] is a rambling, discursive sort of affair. And I think of your lovely books, and despair.” She complains that Woolf has “the mot juste [Flaubert’s term for the “right word”] more than any modern writer” she knows: “I wonder whether it costs you a lot of thought or trouble, or springs ready-armed like Athene from the brow of Zeus? I don’t believe it does cost you trouble (confound you!) because you have it in your letters too, where you certainly haven’t made a draught (draft?), and where there is never anything but an impatient scratching or two.”

Woolf sidesteps this compliment by debating literary strategy instead: “As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” For Woolf, rhythm “goes far deeper than words”: “A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, . . . and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.” [Click here for the only surviving recording of Woolf, speaking in a radio broadcast about words]

Although their writing was quite different in style and story, their letters share a concern for novelistic form. Writing from Germany in 1928, Sackville-West begins to imagine her novel The Edwardians (for which she and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press made a nice sum) as “a sort of patch-work counterpane . . . beginning to form, but so far the patches are only laid side by side and I have not yet begun to stitch at them.” Wondering whether it is better to “fail gloriously than dingily succeed” (the clear answer for Sackville-West being the former), she concludes that “one’s pen, like water, always finds its own level, and one can’t write in any way other than one’s own.”

Woolf’s reply reflects the anguish she experienced about form and voice echoed in her diaries: “I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that its to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good should seem before one writes it, something unwriteable: but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable. I assure you, all my novels were first rate before they were written.”

Despite the commercial success of Sackville-West’s novels and poetry, both women recognized Woolf’s superior artistry. “When I read you,” writes Sackville-West, “I feel no one has ever written English prose before.” In reply, Woolf reminds her friend of the work involved in writing well: “Yes I do write damned well sometimes, but not these last days, when I’ve been slogging through a cursed article, and see my novel [To the Lighthouse] glowing like the Island of the Blessed far far away over dismal wastes, and cant [sic] reach land.”

But for all their literary aspirations, Vita and Virginia were friends who wrote about the common things that women share: food, family, small gifts, gossip about friend’s love affairs. Early in their friendship when Woolf earned money from the publication of Mrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader, she wrote, “And, dearest Vita, we are having two waterclosets made, . . . both dedicated to you.” They pierced their ears together, after which Vita wrote, “Are your ears still sore? Have you enjoyed the sensation of twiddling the rings when they have stuck?” They took only one extended trip together to Burgundy but until the later years, they met in London frequently and dined at each other’s houses like friends do. During the war, Sackville-West sent butter on Christmas Day, eliciting Woolf’s grateful delight: “Oh Vita what a Cornucopia of Bounty you are!”

Woolf and Sackville-West used letters as a space for first creating, then maintaining a long and loyal friendship that survived jealousy, distance, debate, illness, the boredom of predictability, and the distractions of their busy lives. As WWII brought fear that each visit would be their last, their correspondence assured each other of their continuing love and affection. In 1939, when Sackville-West sent Woolf a copy of her book Country Notes, Woolf called it “a dose of sanity and sheep dog in this scratching, clawing, and colding universe.”  In April 1940 as bombs fell around their homes, Sackville-West wrote, “Your friendship means so much to me. In fact it is one of the major things in my life—.” And in August, Woolf lamented the bombing near Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle and reaffirmed her love: “What can one say, except that I love you. . . . You have given me such happiness.”

Reading such an intimate friendship between these vital women makes me value my own correspondences with women friends all the more. Email has taken the place of twice-daily postal service by which we can keep in near constant written contact, but the sentiments are the same. Writing to each of my friends has its own timing—some weekly, some monthly, some more intermittent, but all valued for the support they lend to my goals and my sense of self.

One dear friend and I still write letters on stationery and mail them in envelopes with stamps; I look forward to their arrival and read them as Sackville-West did, like children save chocolate. I’ve kept every letter she’s sent in pretty dresser boxes; perhaps someday I’ll read them all straight through again. Another friend mails postcards from her travels; I’ve saved those too, as well as the poems she sends in exchange for my ramblings. And I have stopped corresponding with a few friends when I felt the support became less mutual and interests no longer met.

It seems letter-writing for me, no matter the form, is as important an indication of continuing love and affection for my friends as it was for Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. My friends, near and far, are lively correspondents. How excited I am to find their letters in my mailbox or In-Box. A letter says “I’m thinking of you” and so much more. Preserving our friendship’s history and anticipating its future, we write of ourselves, our dreams, our joys, and our sorrows, trying always to find the right words to say, “Thank you for being my reader.”

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Filed under memoir, women's writing