People need celebration

I am sharing this today, April 10, 2023. I wrote this in 2011, before cancer, before a lot of things. This is Holy Week, and Passover, and spring. It matters.

GirasoleAzzurra/The LadyHawk

23 April 2011 @ 06:51 pm Sacred spring

Tomorrow my family will gather for Easter Sunday dinner. We are a ragtag and mostly secular bunch, but we are a family, and we take the celebration of Springtime/Passover/Easter/April seriously, which means with food. Lots of food.

I am making my mother’s Italian Wedding Soup, mostly as she did. I loved it as a child, and still do, although it is a lot of work and a lot of the family do not much like it. But I had made the broth several weeks ago and as I stood today chopping escarole and making, with assistance, many tiny little meatballs, I wondered why I was doing it. I am also making a six-hour roast lamb, and various other dishes, and even thinking about using the good china, which has been languishing lo these many years, mostly because I don’t bother to take it out.

So I ask myself again, why am I doing this? We cook all the time, and do it well. We will not be going to church, although I have followed the progression of Holy Week, almost in spite of myself, via music and thought.

Many of my friends and eating matzoh and haroset, jelly beans and peeps. There is a Persian springtime festival – Nowruz – I just learned about.

I strenuously object to the kind of living that finds every day the same. Always work, always play, always obligation, always – well, anything. People need celebration, and they need times to plan around it. They need times that are different from the usual way of things.

I think that is why I do this. I need to insist to my family that this isn’t just another Sunday. We need to mark the change of the season, the budding of the leaf, the appearance of Too Many Kinds of Chocolate. We need to do it in a sacred way. Sacred, holy, for me, always involves cooking.

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Words Are All We Have: A Very Brief Disquisition on Librarians, Technology, Access, Feminism, and The Truths of Things

Oxford University, England, & California Librarians November 6, 1997

Some wise person has said — I may have said it myself — that words are all we have. I have made my living with words, one way or another, for over twenty years. Today I want to talk with you about some of the words we use to define ourselves, our work, and our future.

Actually, of course, it was Samuel Beckett who wrote that “Words are all we have.” Now he is surely a guy for our time, an Irishman living in Paris, writing in two languages mostly about absurdity. You’d think he had experience on the reference desk.


So let’s talk about a few words, the kinds of words that we use to define ourselves and our work.  Let’s talk about the word technology. It has a wonderful derivation, from the Greek techne, for art or artifice, from the IndoEuropean  base tekth, to weave or join, the Greek tekton, for carpenter, and the Latin texere, to weave or to build. That dictionary search proved to me that the technology we are working with, using words like web architecture and cyberspace, is tied to the word rather elegantly. We librarians have always been creative in our uses of technology to connect the reader and the idea, so it isn’t a word that should startle or surprise us. Just now we are trying to get two specific kinds of technologies, our books and our terminals, to lie down peacefully together, the lion and the lamb.

I like to tell a story about technology — about the technology of the hearth. The invention of the stone hearth captured and harnessed a terrifying power, that of fire, and domesticated it. The stone hearth made possible long-term cooking, light when it was dark outside, warmth when it was cold, and storytelling after dinner. The image of the hearth is still the image of warmth, solace, sustenance, and comfort after lo! these many centuries. (And here we have a large and beautiful hearth, right here inside this room.)

But — bringing fire inside the house! — imagine that. Imagine how strange, how terrifying, it must have been. Imagine how the first person to carry the living flames in a bowl of rock into the cave, or the shelter, was jeered at and, probably, accused of terrible things. She would destroy what had been so carefully nurtured. She would harm the children.  There would be untold dangers. But it turned out all right, didn’t it?

I think the current folderol about books vs bytes is going to turn out all right, too. It is extremely instructive to go back through library literature and read about the extraordinary and vicious controversies that surrounded the acquisition of audiobooks— books on tape — in libraries two or three decades ago. There was a lot of talk of “automation” and the soul of librarianship about twenty years ago. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — around the time our parents and grandparents were born, not so long past — librarians argued with great passion and evident sincerity about the morality of adding modern fiction to their collections, you know, regular novels, not necessarily “literature.”

Can you imagine?

I amuse myself by trying to imagine what our professional children and grandchildren are going to think about our getting all bent out of shape over computers and their myriad uses, over the use of the word “information,” over the struggle we clearly are still having over technology.

There is a radio program about early music that airs in New York City called Here of a Sunday Morning with a wonderful fellow – he’s British, by the way, and an attorney in real life – named Chris Whent. Recently when discussing the rise of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century, he noted that some scholars viewed increasing literacy and the accessibility of the new printed books with great alarm. Why, anyone could print anything with a scholar’s name on it, and who would know any better? How could we be sure if we didn’t hear it directly from the scholar’s lips?

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. We have been there before.

the net and words

In the states at least, people are obsessing about pornography on the net. I think instead we could focus on the way the net has engendered a great resurgence of words. People are writing again. It is a pleasure to watch an email correspondent go from all capital letters and no signature to gossipy, thoughtful, or informative posts as they grow into and onto a listserv.

Whatever else the net has done to us, we cannot deny its word power. Nor can we deny that it has brought us together in ways we could not even have conceived of just a few years ago. I have daily conversations with people in California; in Kansas; in England; and in Norway. Some of these people I have never met face-to-face. But they are as much my colleagues and coworkers as anyone I have ever shared a cup of tea with in the staff room. Now that I am working primarily as a consultant and teacher, they are even more my colleagues. My work happens, as this speech was composed, in my office at home, my second floor aerie, where there is only me and my computer.


Another word I want to spend some time with is the word “librarian.” One of the things librarians have always been about is preserving the past. And not preserving it in amber, crystalline but very dead, but preserving it as a living entity, so that the voice of Hildegard of Bingen or Anne Frank can be heard as clearly in the pages we keep as if they were speaking to us. As indeed they are.

Since we know that we are somehow anointed to preserve the past, it may be difficult to keep that sense of hallowed purpose in facing the future, which seems to change moment by moment, to say nothing of keeping track of the present, which shifts like pixels on a screen as we watch. We like to think of the past, of course, as immutable, but we know perfectly well that’s not true. When I was in college in the Sixties and studied the Romantics, I learned that Dorothy Wordsworth was a silly, empty-headed woman and a drag on her brother William’s creativity. When my son attended the same university twenty years later, he learned that Dorothy was William’s soul mate, an accomplished diarist. Her journals provided her brother with insight and observation that he turned into splendid and glorious poetry. I actually find it comforting that the past can change, because it makes the change of the present and future a little less harrowing.

When asked to define what we do, I say that librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas. And it isn’t always good ideas, either. The joy of sitting down with a book full of trashy, silly, or wrongheaded ideas is certainly one of the delights of literacy. It is also one of the things that makes the Internet so much fun. We recall, too, that ideas once thought silly or wrongheaded or just plain evil include things like votes for women, and ideas once thought right and necessary like slavery or child labor are thought of rather differently now.

Fine librarian-like words like access and choice lead inevitably to questions of truth. Now there is a word to conjure with. I liked it better when I believed that there was only one truth, but anyone with children who has ever listened to three of them explain how the doll got broken knows about differences in truth. Truth is neither immutable nor always clear, and we search valiantly for truth among conflicting reviews, contradictory memos, and simultaneous requests.

When we are making acquisitions decisions, the question of “whose truth?” is bound to come up. 

This is not to say that we can acquire, or even access, everything. Sound professional judgment informs how we spend our precious funds, to support the life of the university or the casual browser. But I always remind my library students in preservation that it is not always clear what future scholars will have wanted us to keep. I don’t think Margaret Drabble will vanish from the shelves, but Barbara Cartland might. We cannot accuse Cartland of being a writer, but what her romances say about society, culture, and the place of women cannot be ignored by the 22nd century scholar of women’s history.

It is lovely to think of ourselves, library workers all, as living in a global village, but sometimes I think the library universe is more kin to the cantina at the Mos Eisley spaceport, the interspecies bar in the first Star Wars movie. That is an image of terrifying diversity in the pursuit, one imagines or hopes, of the same thing. Obiwan, the sage of the movie, describes the town to young Luke, the hero, as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  “We must be cautious.” he adds. And we are rubbing elbows — and sometimes other, more intimate parts — with people who call themselves librarians but who look and act mighty different from us.

Issues that have divided us before: access and censorship now in the guise of filtering the internet; the question of outsourcing – paying a vendor to provide services that used to be handled in-house — are dividing us again. While we think through these questions it is important to remember that we have done this before. Librarians have a history; and so does the pursuit of knowledge. Some of the examples I have mentioned, from the stone hearth to printing in the west to audiotapes,  had people worrying about the safety of  their children, the preservation of their morals, and holding fast to the devil they knew.

It was deeply interesting to me that when I told the folks I am talking to next week at the California Library Association in Pasadena, on the other side of the country from where I live, that I would be coming here, they begged me to ask here in Oxford what it is like for you. They took a leap into the dark, or better, relied on the kindness of strangers, hoping that your concerns as librarians will be similar to ours.

I believe that many of them are the same now. I believe that the differences lie more in our past. I think that most of us are doing things in our professional lives that would have been unimaginable to the selves we were when we got our undergraduate degrees, and unimaginable to the newly minted librarians we were when we started out, if we started out more than a decade ago.

In the states, we librarians are facing the future with a new icon and image, a genuine television hero. He’s part of a weekly series on network television. His name is Rupert Giles, and he is British, actually. He is tweedy and bespectacled and befuddled and extremely wise, and he is the school librarian where Buffy The Vampire Slayer is. Buffy, as you may know, is a blonde California sixteen-year-old who is the Slayer of her generation, besting vampires and demons left and right. Giles is her Watcher, the source of research and knowledge. While Giles does have some emotional issues to resolve over computer technology, he is developing a relationship with the computer instructor. She’s a TechnoPagan, a follower of the Old Religion with a New Age cyber twist. American librarians have taken Giles to our collective bosoms, and he may be doing more for recruitment than any number of American Library Association READ posters, images of Antonio Banderas notwithstanding. Giles is also doing a lot for us; he resolves our quotidian struggles to provide the right information and the right data into a cosmic drama with the forces of darkness, some of which are extremely attractive, by the way. We love Giles because at last we have a pop image for our uneasy relationship with dark and light, information and story, books and technology.

We love Giles and his romance with the technopagan computer instructor; we can see him struggle valiantly with information sources, we can see his love of story, we can see, as one of his students says, that “knowledge is the ultimate power” and that format is the least of our problems when there are vampires and demons about.

information vs. story

Speaking of words like information and story, in the September 1, 1997 editorial in Booklist, the American Library Association’s review journal, editor and publisher Bill Ott makes a distinction between those words, and between information folk and story folk, that is instructive. I believe, however, that it is false at best and perfidious at worst. Now, Bill is my editor, a good man, and a fine and strong voice in librarianship, but I respectfully disagree with his point. The thing is that most of the working librarians I know — and I know very many of them — do a very good job of integrating the “story” parts of their jobs with the “information” part. They haven’t lost track of the — let us say it out loud — sacred connection between book and reader.

What has been in the news and in the literature is a focus on the conflicts between those two roles, whilst in real life most of us are integrating them, perhaps not seamlessly, but well enough.


Information, history, access, technology, story – those words have implications for our female-intensive profession. All of the issues we have talked about include feminism, I hope obviously. The practice of feminism for me mirrors in some ways the practice of religion. And I think it is important to note that feminism is not just something we think or have, it is something we do. We have to practice feminism the way we practice religion: in ways both small and large, every single day. And the small ways count. Feminism informs my daily practice, the way I choose to live my life,  both personally and professionally. There isn’t much I can do about the big things, so I focus on small ones. I try to choose female examples of whatever it is I am talking about. I try to find women to quote. I try to recognize that the woman who is my tax accountant also has two small daughters under the age of three.

Here is a place where the future looks better. I see, with awe and with fondness, my daughter-in-law the financial programmer and mathematician, whose graduate degree is from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a study and a place that never entered my head even in my wildest imaginings when I was her age.

It is easier for her than it is for my generation, but it isn’t easy. In a profession as overwhelmingly female as ours, it is especially not easy. Remember Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, recounting how she was chased from the university grass and onto the gravel path by an outraged Fellow one fine autumn day, for having the temerity to wander about freely. She was refused entrance to the library, too, as I recall, as she was unaccompanied by a Fellow, or by a letter of introduction.

It’s better now, I mean, here we are. But all we ever wanted  — all we ever insisted upon — was the freedom to make the same choices that men do, without losing our hearts or our children in the process. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Even now.

the concluding part

Perhaps the reason librarians have such an affinity for mystery and romance, fantasy and cyberpunk, is that we see it ourselves daily in the vast human mystery and romance of research, of casual curiosity, of this reader with this need, and that insatiable human desire to find out.

From Shakespeare’s Prince Harry to Sayers’ Harriet Vane, the book and the reader, the child and the idea, the scholar and citation, have come together because of us. That’s a truth that can comfort us in the hard times, and it’s always hard times, isn’t it? We bring together people and ideas, and we do it with words.

In Margaret Atwood’s poem called “Spelling” she writes

“My daughter plays on the floor

With plastic letters…

Learning how to spell


How to make spells…

A word after a word

after a word is power.”

We claim and own the words. We name ourselves and our work.

That is what the truth is.

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What I Wrote about Cancer

29 April 2014 @ 02:19 pm

Musings on what will be a long year  

I am looking at months ahead with many many doctor and medical visits. I hope to be celebrating Christmas 2014 free of them at last.
I have long silver hair. Later this week I will have it cut. I cannot imagine what that will feel like. I have worn my hair long for 55 years.
I have a space where I have put up some of my best writing and thinking and speaking. I may add thoughts there, or here.

06 June 2014 @ 10:04 am

My birth day  

Today is my 67th birthday.
I am healing and it is a rough and scary road. But I am on it, and I am moving forward.
Those that love me, love me fiercely. It gives me courage.
The old roses that have bloomed every year for my birthday since I was six years old have done it again. Huzzah!
Be kind. Today I want to spread kindness, more than any gift.

31 July 2014 @ 02:00 pm

Midsummer report  

The slow business of healing takes all my energy, and today is a shitty day. It saps thought, and sometimes hope. But there is no way to get through but to take it minute by minute.
And think of food. Thinking of food is always a joy and a distraction. There is chicken stock in the freezer, some roasted vegetables from last night’s dinner, and butter and cream. Tonight, assuming I can stand up for awhile, I will make pureed roasted vegetable soup, and it will be delicious, and it will cheer me and my beloveds.
But I do feel shitty today.

08 October 2014 @ 09:25 pm

Health issues some more  

A milestone has been passed. That’s good.
There is still a lot more to go. More doctors, more tests, more things.
I am so very tired. At the same time, I can feel the smallest bit of hope springing up. That’s lovely.

30 December 2014 @ 08:45 pm

Happy Birthday Patti Smith  

“I don’t fuck much with the past but I fuck plenty with the future.”

my rock&roll goddess and inspiration.
Just a year older than I am.
This endless, healing year is almost over, although the healing is not finished yet. I want it to be. I want to move lightly in the world, and I want my hair to grow long again.

04 March 2015 @ 02:06 pm

March 4, 2014 – March 4, 2015  

The weather is lousy in New York City – it has been a hard winter – and I am spending the day cooking. That used to be a favorite thing of mine. It is quite nice to be able to do it now. I am reveling in that.
Exactly a year ago today, I had the second of two surgeries that led, eventually, to chemotherapy, radiation, and a year of, if not hell, then very strong heck. You can read in many places about what this feels like, and I am still processing a lot of it.
I am in my sixties and small and round and pink. I still am those things – maybe a little rounder. I was vain about my hair, which was first chestnut, and then silver, and very long. I had a large collection of beauteous hairpins and clips. Last May I had to have my hair cut. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had it cut two more times, but I never actually went bald. I had an absolutely brilliant hairdresser, too, and I bless and praise him. But my signature look is gone. I hope to live long enough to grow it all back.
I coped with the support of meditation, and generic valium. I had regular meltdowns. I had panic attacks and crying jags. I had, and have, them that love me.
I am so not the person I was. No one is, in their sixties, I venture to say. Today, though, is a milestone I am not entirely sure how to step past, except, of course, that after today, there is, thank the heavens, tomorrow.

March 2015 @ 05:11 pm

Things I am unable to do at this time  

I cannot do anything that involves a ticket to an event at a specific time and place. Each morning, I don’t know how it is going to feel to go downstairs, and make the tea and breakfast; I certainly cannot plan to attend an event so much as a week away. Or a day.
I am very tired. Usually I can do one Thing a day: making dinner, writing a picture book review, a half hour of meditation. Sometimes the one Thing is going into Manhattan and seeing art, having lunch. That usually requires that the next day I do pretty much nothing at all.  I have been permitted to have perhaps two drinks a week, and have welcomed bourbon and Guinness back into my life with glad cries.
There are a lot of side effects. They may go away in six to nine months. Or not. Some are small, almost inconsequential. Some loom large. Some days they are barely present. That’s the worst, because they are almost definitely going to come back the next day. Or the day after. My hands often don’t work. Neuropathy in my hands and feet make balance tricky (walking is possible with my beautiful rosewood cane, but it takes concentration). Everything takes concentration. That means that by 8 o’clock at night usually the best I can do is long for 10pm when I can go to bed. Sleep is often interrupted and dreams tend toward the bizarre, but it is far better than during chemotherapy, when I was often up for hours in the middle of the night. I would sit in our beautiful little study in the sweet dark, in touch with folk on my iPad Mini, TwinkleTwinkle, or just sitting. Healing. Pain might be weakness leaving the body, but healing takes a great deal of energy. It is hard work.
It is interesting to me that I wrote very little about this whole journey while it was happening, but now that I am post-treatment I feel the need to write about it. Possibly a lot.

21 July 2015 @ 02:32 pm

After it  

It has been nine months since the end of chemotherapy. It has been five months since the last radiation treatment. I look pretty damn good. I feel … it is difficult to describe how I feel.
There are a host of side effects that come with cancer treatment, and they are different, probably, for each person. And they linger. I know that my body will never be or feel the same. I am ok with that, mostly. I am in my late 60s, I don’t expect to feel 35. Or even 50. But there is a lot missing.
Yesterday I had a good medical visit with pretty good news. Then I had a really lovely lunch and a glass of Viognier with a beloved, and came home in the heat of a NYC summer day. Today, I am done. Spent. I do not have the energy to do pretty much anything at all. I do not have the concentration to read, or to meditate, or to watch moving images. I do not have the focus to do simple exercises or stretching. My joints and muscles ache, lightly, just to remind me, as they have since chemo, that my spirit is not in charge of them. My hands and feet tingle and burn, as they always do, and don’t quite do what I want. All of this is in the background, like slightly irritating music. On a day like yesterday when I have some energy and a push, it does not keep me from being out and about and intersecting with people. Today, though, when I am wicked tired – in part at least from yesterday’s focus on activity, movement, and thought – there is almost nothing I can do. As I sit in the study at home at this moment, noticing how much my hands ache as I type and contemplating how much my knees and hips are going to hurt when I get up, I am slightly surprised that at least I can still make the words come out.
So it goes. I read this over and cannot decide if I sound self-pitying or merely honest. It is where I am today. Thanks for listening.

13 September 2015 @ 09:08 pm

Baseball saved me  

We had a pink plastic AM radio in my mother’s kitchen when I was growing up, and some of my earliest memories are of listening to Yankees baseball games emanating from its small, tinny sound. (I still have the radio. It doesn’t work. It’s in the basement, and I cannot bear to part with it.)
In 2014, I had two surgeries, six months of chemotherapy, and about 28 radiation treatments. It was a very hard year. Most of the time, I couldn’t read in any sustained way, watch TV, sleep well, or Do Stuff. But half the year, there was baseball. I could always listen to my Yankees, or see them on TV, in Derek Jeter’s final professional year. No matter how stonkered I was, or sick and tired, there was baseball. Its rhythms and cadences soothed and calmed me.
This year, 2015, is post-cancer treatment. I rejoiced when the baseball season began, and each night I sink happily into my comfy chair in the study to listen, or watch, or just be aware of the music of the innings humming at the edge of my consciousness. When the Yankees are on the West Coast, I fall asleep to the sound. We are close to the end of the regular season now. Last year, the team did not make it to the postseason, evaporating my dream of Jeter and the beauteous Ichiro ending the year with World Series rings. This year, there is a pretty good chance that the Yankees will make it to October games.
I hope so with all of my heart. Not only because they are my team, but, personally and selfishly, the sound of their play means I can escape the constant monitoring of my physical self, and unite with the Bleacher Creatures and Twitterati and Suzyn and the good women on Facebook of She Loves the Yankees. Go Yankees.

10 March 2016 @ 05:42 pm

Come fill the cup  

For the fifteen months that I was in cancer treatment, I was unable to drink alcohol. I missed it terribly. I loved to have a Black Velvet (half Guinness, half Magner’s Cider) up the street at our local pub. I loved light floral white wines, mostly French and Italian, but some beautiful ones that were Greek and from New York State and Seattle and Vancouver. Most of all, I loved bourbon. I had numerous favorites. And I loved the occasional cocktail with Chartreuse or St Germain or Chambord or Cassis. And Dom Perignon!
There were few joys like sitting to lunch with a beloved, or a group of them, and wine. And cheer. I was very happy when I was able to return to a glass.
I am healing so very slowly. But I am looking forward to a new program of physical therapy that may help the persistent neuropathy in my hands and feet. The physician who began this process told me, gently but firmly, that it would be good to curtail alcohol, and perfect if I gave it up entirely.
Alcohol may exacerbate neuropathy. If it does, it does permanent damage. My neuropathy may get worse anyway, and the twelve weeks of physical therapy coming may not improve my hands or my feet or my balance. But I have to try.
This makes me cry. Being able to have that glass of Viognier with an apple and a piece of cheddar was such a great joy. It was proof that I was coming back to myself again. It needs to be banished once more, maybe not forever, but certainly for now.

30 March 2016 @ 08:15 pm

So here I am now  

This is not exactly an update.
I am better, even I don’t question that. But so much is the same. I still cancel plans as often as I make them. I still am good for nothing after about 5pm. I walk with a cane. Generally, I can do One Thing a day. It takes me an hour and a half to get from waking up to going downstairs to make tea and breakfast. I cannot make that happen any faster. I cannot make much of anything happen faster.
Much of the time, I cannot read, or write, or watch moving images more than about 20 minutes at a time. There are several reasons for this: macular edema, dry eye, chronic allergies. It comes from cancer treatment and probably a few other things.
I have moved to some physical therapy for balance and control, as the neuropathy in my hands and feet will probably continue indefinitely (forever). That has its own set of challenges, because managing my blood pressure has become an issue. I am taking enough meds so that I am muzzy and sleepy and sometimes dizzy. Every day. Most of the day.
This sounds dark. Well, it is. At the same time, I am reminded daily how far I have come. I have a cheerleader/prince/knight who reminds me that I am still here, still myself, and that if I feel diminished (and I do) not everyone shares that opinion.

28 August 2016 @ 12:59 pm

Post-cancer syndrome  

I resist calling cancer a battle, or a journey. It is the troll harrying our steps and making clouds of oily smoke over our decisions. It is the misshapen sprite that materializes whenever we try to envision an event next year, or even next month. It devours plans, and sometimes, hope. I am in recovery from cancer treatment, but the troll may never leave.

18 September 2016 @ 07:51 pm

Food and healing and other things  

I do love to cook. It’s harder to do now. Tonight I made chicken and veggies in cream sauce and James Beard’s magnificent cream biscuits. When I am tired it takes all my concentration, and tonight, with a recurrence of an instep strain probably related to neuropathy I was in pain. But I even made myself a cocktail (bourbon, ginger, agave, lemon, based on a lovely thing I had once at the late, lamented Campbell Apartment) and for dessert had another of those biscuits with sweet butter and honey. Yay me.
It was a fine dinner and I made it myself. Despite needing extreme focus when handling a knife (always a good idea) and having some difficulty bending the Cuisinart to my will (I won), I only dropped a few things and didn’t break anything.
I have had a couple of weeks of feeling, if not good, pretty much OK. That always makes me nervous, because I know it is not going to last. As soon as my foot started twingeing early last week, I knew what it was, and hoped I could head it off, but no. It takes a long time to heal. I cannot put weight on it without gasping but if I don’t move some, it swells and stiffens and gets worse. If I walk too much on it, even with the cane, it knocks my hips out of whack and then they hurt, too. I am looking at a long and fairly unhappy week. Damn.
I told a Facebook friend this week that my days of concert going are pretty much over. Certainly crowds and arenas are not negotiable any more, and as a person who generally cannot stir past the computer screen after about 5pm, evening music is not going to happen. So it goes. I get grumpy and whingey about it. I get sad. But there it is. It could be worse, and it has been, so I am trying to come to terms with that.

04 February 2017 @ 10:33 am

An anniversary, with Dragon Pearls  

On February 4, 2014, I had surgery to remove a fibroid at Mt Sinai in New York. The gyn and I expected this to be the end of a series of tests and procedures that had taken up the previous six months. As it turned out, under the fibroid was endometrial cancer. Still, the gyn (and I) were reasonably calm about it. If it hadn’t spread, a hysterectomy would take care of it. But it had spread, just to one lymph node, we discovered a month later in the second surgery.
So that led to six months of chemotherapy, and 25 plus three radiation treatments, that ended on February 6, 2015.
Today is three years since the first surgery, and Monday will be two years since the end of cancer treatment.
I am angry and depressed and outraged. I am uncomfortable and sometimes in pain and always kind of foggy. On Facebook and Twitter and on LiveJournal, we do curate our lives, displaying and highlighting the good parts and only so much of the dark as we feel we can safely share.
This is not a cancer story. I hate cancer stories. I have read a million of them, and they are all the same and all different. It’s not a battle. It’s not even a journey, although that is how I described it for a long time. Journeys imply a destination, and there is no destination here, there is no arrival.

06 February 2017 @ 06:39 pm

This post is a year old  

From Facebook, a year ago. These several days of anniversaries are rocky to get through.
February 5, 2016
It is never over. What cancer patients want to hear is, that’s it, it’s done, you’re cured. The reality is that each of those difficult treatments medicine uses to heal you has myriad side effects, both physical and psychological. Tomorrow it will be a year since my last radiation treatment. I had five months of chemotherapy before that.
So the past year has been followup with all four of my doctors, and a few new ones. I have a whole host of lingering side effects, ranging from merely annoying to debilitating. A lot of them cannot be fixed. Some of them may never go away. They affect everything I do and perform and think and act. Dammit.
This morning I complained to one of my beloveds that I was afraid I wasn’t very interesting anymore, with most of my attention and energy focused on fixing or at least mitigating what was broken. His every word and action indicates that is not true. But I am not interesting to myself so much, and I cannot change that until more healing takes place.
Facebook is a true blessing for me. I know I can send these words out to people who care to read what I write, and some of you will write back or ask questions or just remind me that I am truly still in the world, and that it matters.

03 March 2017 @ 05:09 pm

I did not expect this  

I carefully mark the days of February 4 & 6: one is the anniversary (2014) of my first surgery and one is the anniversary (2015) of my last radiation treatment for Stage 3 endometrial cancer.
I did not expect the anniversary of the hysterectomy, the second surgery, to hit me hard this year. That date is tomorrow.
I did not write about it as much during that first year as I have since. March 4-5, 2014 was one of the worst days, and definitely the worst night, of my entire life. I am realizing as I type this that I cannot write about it even now.
Today I have been weepy and sad and cold. I am having flashbacks to that endless day (surgery scheduled for 11am but didn’t happen until 5pm) and that terrifying, endless night. I wasn’t supposed to be in the hospital overnight and no one was allowed to stay with me. I have to write about this at some point but it is not now. I have to write about it because using words is what I do. The word is my sword.


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Vermeer: art was a language, and you could learn it

Vermeer: the Milk Maid, 2009

Once every other week or so, in eighth grade at St Frances of Rome school, a woman came to talk to us about art. She wore makeup and had a thick Spanish accent, which made her exotic, and she gave us things, which made her admired. I loved her, because what she gave us were small postcards of famous art works, and then she talked to us about why they were famous, why they were good, what we could see in them when we looked.
My family also proudly owned the World Book Encyclopedia, which was my idea of fun reading. It had pages and pages of full color art plates, and some of those paintings were the same ones the Spanish art teacher had showed us.
One such painting was Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. I must have read and listened hard, because I remember so much of what was said over a space of nearly fifty years. I remember the rough texture of her bodice, how you could tell the cloth was coarse, and how every loaf of bread was distinct in surface and heft. I don’t remember how it was explained to us that the quality of the light was astonishing, but it was, and we could see that. The maid herself was a thick, strong-armed woman with a heavy face: not beautiful in any way. But she was solid and present, as she poured milk.
Yesterday I got to see that painting, in person, as it were, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, loaned by the Dutch to NYC in honor of the 400th anniversay of Hendrick Hudson’s voyage. It is quite small, about 16 x 17 inches, and it is absolutely glowing. The blue of her apron is astonishing, the quality of the light astounding. Pretty far from that dull eighth grade postcard, but simply magical to see, for myself, at last.

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For Nana, written for my grandmother’s memorial, May 2003

Written for my grandmother’s memorial, in May 2003

What makes us human is that we know we will die.

What makes us human is that we know we will live forever, in our families, in our children, in the memories of those whom we have loved and who have loved us.

We rejoice in the life of Grace DeBacco – Grazietta Silverio. And what a rejoicing it is. Look around you. It’s Grace’s Faces as far as the eye can see. Once at one of the many birthday parties and family reunions someone who had married into the clan said to me, “I look out over this crowd, and you all have the same nose.”

I am not certain about the noses. But our blood and bone are indeed the same. I submit to you, however, that what’s really the same is that we all have the same heart. If heart means courage, and strength, and laughter, and family, we have the same heart indeed. It was she who gave it to us, in her body, in her spirit, and in her love.

I cannot pretend that I knew my Nana as a person. I knew her as my Nana – strong, loving, generous, full of stories. I suspect strongly that my own near-sacred devotion to good food comes from her, handed down directly through my mother. She had a definite sense of style, too, giving hope to all of us short, round women who manage to be stylish in her honor and in her memory.

Each of us knew her in varying ways – as mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin. Each of us were shaped by her in ways seen and unseen, across a long life.

She was a little girl who came from Chieti, Italy to Pennsylvania, a voyage by ship where she was so seasick that she asked her mother if she was going to throw up the entire ocean. She was a young girl who fell in love, and lost her love, and then found love again. She worked hard. She had ten children. She knew how to laugh, and she loved to have her family gathered around her.

In a Star Trek novel he wrote, my son Keith, Nana’s oldest great-grandchild, named the president of the Federation after her. I think she could have run a whole planet, no problem. She certainly did a good job on us.

She and my mother, her oldest child, Annie, made a life together for themselves for over twenty-five years, after my father died and my mother came home to live in that little house in Roseville. They were quite a performance, those two. It’s a part of my grandmother’s life I got to know pretty well, since it had my mother in it. It was great theater. And it comforts me more than I can say that Mom was holding Nana’s hand when she died.

It is a little scary to think of the changes that passed by her in her life. She was born after the turn of the century just passed – before either world war, and just a year after the first air flight at Kitty Hawk.

This week when she died – just after the turn of another century – much of her large and far-flung family were in constant and almost instantaneous touch through the medium of the internet, on the web site Tim has so aptly called The Grapevine. How extraordinary.

What is more extraordinary, though, is that throughout her long life, the things that she lived are the things that do not change. Wake up and greet the day. Smile at the children. Feed the family. Do the work to hand. Sow the seeds of laughter, and make sure that there are hugs and kisses in great abundance for everyone.

What makes us human is that we know we will die.

What makes us human is that we know we will live forever. And Nana will, in all those noses, and in our hearts, in our children and our children’s children, and in the heaven where I know she lives now.

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Memory: growing older

When I was a child in the 1950s and 60s, we lived in the upstairs half of a two-family house in the North Bronx. We had a porch, but no air conditioning, not even fans. On very hot summer nights when I could not sleep, I would get up and go out to the porch, where I usually found my dad, sitting in his shorts and bare feet, smoking a cigarette. Summer mornings, sometimes we would have a treat for breakfast that I don’t remember anyone in the house liking but us, blueberries and sour cream. Daddy loved it, and so did I.

I read Peter Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place as an adult. It takes place in Woodlawn Cemetery, about a mile from where I grew up and only steps from our house now. Blueberries and sour cream play a small role in that fantastical and cherished story, as do images and shadows of the Bronx where I was raised.

This morning I had blueberries and sour cream, thinking about my father, and unicorns, and growing older.

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The Red Studio: Art was a language, and you could learn it

When I was in seventh and eighth grade, at St Frances of Rome school in the early 1960s, once a week a teacher came to visit who wasn’t a nun. She had a rich Spanish accent and an exotic history – she may have been a Cuban refugee. But what she taught was even more exotic. Each week, she brought us a small color reproduction of a famous work of art. And then she talked to us about it. I can’t recall clearly any but the first one, which was Matisse’s painting The Red Studio.

I understood that this was a famous artist and that this was supposed to be a great painting. But I couldn’t figure out why everything was so red, deep red, rose red – the floor and the chairs and the table, quivering with red. Why didn’t he make the space look real, the way it did it photographs? And why were the shapes so squiggly, so artless?

The art teacher spoke to us, and we read from the Art Appreciation brochure she brought. Matisse wanted the space to vibrate. He wanted us to see what he saw, in his studio, shapes leaping into aliveness, ideas almost born, everything dizzy with color. It was possible to see things if you knew what to look for. Art was a language, and you could learn it.

I was at the Museum of Modern Art many years later, wandering through the galleries, enjoying the city on a damp autumn Sunday, when I came upon my old favorite. The Matisse was even redder than I remembered, as rich and intoxicating as it was in my fevered decades-old memory. Yes, I shouted at him in my head. I know why you did it this way. I can see it.

Today, the among the first museum visits I have dared since the pandemic, I visited MoMA to see Matisse: The Red Studio, with its artifacts and history and letters about the painting. Today, I found out that color Matisse called Venetian Red. Today, I had all my molecules rearranged by that painting once again.

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farewell, beloved scent

Comme des Garçons was (and is) a perfume that introduced in 1994, a year when I was the editor-in-chief of a small professional magazine, a shopper of some repute, and at what turned out to be the height of my career. I bought my scents mostly at Barneys (remember Barneys?) in part because I certainly could not afford (nor fit into) their clothes. Its name came from the fashion house that produced it, meaning “like the boys” and whose ads proclaimed that it “worked like a medicine and behaved like a drug.”

It was and is absolutely luscious. Their web site says the scents are “Labdanum, Styrax, Cedarwood, Cardamon, Cinnamon, Black Pepper, Honey, Rose, Cloves, Nutmeg, Incense, Sandalwood.” It manages to be both exceedingly comforting and frankly erotic, like deep December holidays and Midsummer Eve at the same time. It was never a daily perfume, but it was always in regular rotation.

I wore the last of the last bottle last night. I am sure I could still find it, if I chose, but I am going to let it go. In all its loveliness, it brings to mind a part of my life that is now so much in the past that I feel as though a different person lived it. That is true. I could not let it go without a tribute.

ADDENDUM, June 6, 2022

Today was my 75th birthday, and in the mail today, came a gift from a couple very dear to me. They read this essay, they found that beloved scent, and made sure that I would no longer be without it. My heart is full.

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Ten things you need to know about online classes, with a little help from the yellow submarine

(by GraceAnne A. DeCandido, for my graduate classes at Rutgers 8/2009)

1.The Long and Winding Road: Taking a class online is more work than an in-person class. You have to read more and faster, interact with your classmates more, log in almost daily to see what is going on, and keep up.

2.We Can Work It Out: Everybody has a life. In online classes, these lives tend to be even more complicated. Many of my online students have children or elder parents to care for, part- or full-time jobs, chronic illnesses of their own or of family members. No matter what accident or crisis has befallen you, I can guarantee at least two other students this semester are suffering through it, right now.

3. Eight Days a Week: We work asynchronously, but not alone. Work needs to be completed and shared within its unit and section dates, but when you do it is up to you.

4. I’m Looking Through You: An online course in literature requires intense reading and thoughtful responses. It is not, however, a therapy session nor a confessional. Think carefully about personal stories and how they relate to the book in hand.

5. Don’t Let Me Down: Your lack of planning does not constitute your instructor’s emergency. The class is available 24/7, the instructor is not.

6. Things We Said Today: You will probably get to know your classmates and your instructor better than you could ever do in a face-to-face classroom.

7. Getting Better: Know what technology will be used, and learn how to use it. Make sure you have your own email address and that it displays your name. Be comfortable online.

8. A Hard Day’s Night:This is a graduate course. Spelling, grammar, usage, and style all count, as they would in any written assignment on the graduate level. This is not a place for IM, texting, or other abbreviated methods of communication. The exception to this rule is live Chat.

9. Here Comes the Sun: Practice netiquette. Practice courtesy and good manners. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” says Philo of Alexandria, and I say it, too.

10. Yesterday: In an online class, you can see the whole arc of the semester from the beginning, and see your own arc of understanding and knowledge and even wisdom unfold before you. You can share that with your classmates. It is made of awesome.

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Farewell, my linen

originally written in 2012

In the late 1980’s, I was a senior/executive editor at a professional/trade magazine. A friend and I were known by our family as “the fashion group.” I had achieved a personal goal of owning enough silk blouses to wear a different one to work every day for two weeks.

I also loved linen. I bought a luscious linen shirt from the elegant Paul Stuart. It was simply tailored, a heavyweight Irish linen the rich color of double cream. It fit me perfectly. It did have to be ironed, but I sent it out for a time. A long time.
Time passed. I moved on to an editorship. It was the best job, ever. The magazine closed, and in 1997 I began working from home. A lot of the silk blouses found other venues.

The linen, however, I discovered looked just as good and felt just as comfortable with jeans. I also discovered that if washed in cold water and hung in the sun to dry, it was not terribly wrinkly. In fact, with jeans, it made quite a nice hipster look. It was one of my favorite things to wear. For years. Even after a spot or two of tea took up residence below a button and would not come out.

Before Hurricane Sandy, I did laundry. When I went to hang up the linen, I discovered that blouse had begun to shred, all at once and nothing first, not along its solid seams but in the middle of the fabric.

Reader, I cut off the back panel and am thinking of turning it into a handkerchief. It is still a beautiful weave and a beautiful color. I have loved it now for nearly twenty years. There is just enough of it to make a story.


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