So, like, imagine you had a grandmother who died in 1980, who you knew had been a hell raising feminist. So you think, hey, I'm gonna read her letters and essays (and soon I'll be on to her poems) and I'm gonna find out what made her tick. So, you start in the box, that like most cardboard boxes over 30 years old is disheveled and reading through the handwritten corrections on the onion skin typewritten pages, you realize, after reading the cover letter for this essay on sexuality in older women, that it was being sent to Playboy magazine.
So, of course, you read on, and are amazed at what you find: a woman who found her sexual peak post-50, who talks more graphically than I ever could about details of her sexual experiences, mostly these days (she's 60+ when writing this article) with men in their 40s - plural.
So, like, wow, right? I mean, how can you top that?! And the fact that it appears Playboy did not accept this article, which is not surprising seeing as it is as radical as the day is long and Playboy in the end is for horny guys who do not want their sexuality challenged in any way.
Do I even have to tell you this was in the 70s? Is that even necessary?
Her letters read like screeds written by Betty Friedan (author of the Feminine Mystique - which if you haven't read it: do - it's an antidote to waiting for the next episodes of Madmen and will explain all the female characters). She, Jani - my grandmother - was one of the founders of her local NOW chapter (for Brits et al: National Organization of Women) and there is a classic picture of her five sheets to some prevailing wind at the 1972 Democratic Convention with her hand in a fist, grinning ear to ear in her miniskirt and gogo boots.
What's not to like?
Well, there are her articles about her relationship with my mother, which show she did lean on her, as she - my mother - has always said, since she was 9 years old and they were on a ship bound to the US from post-War Vienna in the 1950s, her second marriage to my mother's father, Bob, having spectacularly exploded. Jani asking her what she should do, as if a 9 year old could even begin to fathom the question, having seen her mother and father physically fighting and knowing too young that life was not a fairytale.
Then there are the letters between her and her son (from her first marriage), Ted, in which she thanks him for introducing her as his friend and not as his mother. This is in adult life, in the 70s, when they were vying for political power in Milwaukee - a city big enough to matter but small enough to feel like a small pond - or so it seems from the astonishing mix of emotion, realpolitik and Dallas-like repartee about how to divide the city between them. You can almost hear the Marconi sound track, see tumble weeds and the camera flashing from one face to the other to see who blinks first.
These are two people so committed in their minds to progressive politics that they refer to their fight for "truth, beauty and justice" as TBJ...and accuse one another of not living it enough - essentially being posers. It is hilarious actually, to read - now - of course - many years later and not being either of them. But the best part is in their letters back and forth they also swear allegiance to each other, Shakespeare-like, but also say that strategically they will have to disagree in public so as not to seem like one owns the other. They agree on what to disagree on in public.
Next week I will be in Minneapolis to see my wonderful cousin Darcy, daughter of Ted (who died of lung cancer a while back, as did Jani in 1980) and read more in the Jani lexicon, I think this time from her life before my mother, with her first husband Russell, Darcy's grandfather. That Darcy is as sane as she is I can only assume has more to do with her mother, the incredibly gracious, kind and intelligent Carol than say hurricane Ted or Jani. It seems, from reading the letters, that they were made of fabric woven in the universal warehouse for political kickboxers.
Which I read with some weird mixture of horror, astonishment and yes, also, respect. To be so bold, to speak so frankly, to be so unmoved by the insults of the other and able to trade blow for blow and remain standing. Wow, I think. Just, wow. Prize fighters.
And yet I am not ignorant of the cost - in terms of addictions, early death, inability to be with loved ones in any simple way - except in extreme circumstances. But damn they were both vibrant and charismatic people. I met Ted a couple times and he was hilarious, warm, funny, the kind of guy you just love being in the same room with.
Jani, I got to be with the summer she was dying, so I got to see her at a time when the bombast had given way to the gentleness she intimates always is inside of her, but which she accepts - in a lovely essay she wrote about it - when she had just turned 60 and lost a political race for alderman.
I know I will read about this part when I read her poetry, which is quite emotional, and is if I'm honest a bit florid. But as I am writing a book in her words, I am embracing the style as it's not about being a great writer but about what she's showing of herself. A friend of mine who is researching writing on climate change has said that the books that are more populist and young adult books that tackle the theme directly are actually more informative and useful in terms of disseminating real information about the issue than the so-called great literature is. I think there is something to this. Sometimes great writing can conceal as much as it reveals.
My husband feels the same way about B-list cities in the many countries he visits - that they are more emblematic of the place he is in than the big A-list cities, which are somehow iconic in a global sense but do not say as much about the majority of the people in the country in which they are located. I know this is true of the smaller cities in the US and that New York and San Francisco are as representative of America as Ralph Nader is apt to become President of the U.S.
So Jani's poems tell the story in a raw not overly literary way of the vulnerability of a woman who fought her way through university in her 40s, out of a bad marriage by the time she was 50 and tried to run Wisconsin in her 60s. Tragically for all of us, she smoked and drank a lot, and died before it was possible. Ted died even younger in his 50s. Live fast and hard and die young, two fearless/fearful people, who made myths of themselves and each other and tore through people's lives like the last tornado in Jasper, Missouri.
It makes me so sad, both of their lives, though Jani's is the one I know best. But for Darcy's sake, Ted, too, because it is hard to lose a father twice, as I know only too well. But when I went to the memorial service and wake for Jani, her family with Ted and Carol and her brothers, Ted, Tim and Jonathan, seemed so warm and friendly, so all-embracing. I was just beginning my own drinking career so that part didn't bother me at all. I was just happy to be part of the party at last, not on the outside looking in, tut-tutting at all the outrageous adult behavior. Safi starts drinking (Americans: Safi is the girl who does not drink on British show Absolutely Fabulous, but whose mother and best friend are fall down, glamorous, high functioning alcoholics, while she rolls her eyes and disapproves).
I had arrived with an invitation to the party.
And some part of me will always love Jani, as I see in her all the glamour and was not the victim of any of her outrageous behavior except in how it affected my mother of course. It's easy to love storm systems you are not damaged by directly. It's like being close to where lightening strikes, when it gives you goose pimples and sense of excitement.
However, reading all her papers now, including the poems, I also see and feel the loneliness and the damage, and it takes her out of the realm of myth into the realm of the real. And this is such a conundrum really isn't it? When do we just say oh fuck it, let's believe the hype, let's throw all the dirty laundry away and look at the glittery outside instead. Who cares who got hurt? It's so glamorous, it's so Bold, it's so Courageous.
Is this why celebrities are so adored? They give us a moment outside of the grubby every day into a world where outrageous behavior has no consequence and we can gawp at the movements of these creatures, pass judgment or be in awe, as if they are not people at all, but just objects for our amusement. And when is it we do this to ourselves?
Is this blog a version of that? Am I creating a mythos around a life as much as I'm trying to work against that? Isn't all writing in the end fiction? Of course it is. You can no more capture real life in words than I can describe the hoot-cawing sound of the bird outside the window. You can describe moments, bits, little pieces, shards which another can recognize and maybe, as David Foster Wallace said help us feel "what it's like to be a fucking human being" and a little less lonely for that.
The more I write this, I do wonder if I'd be better off writing fiction, though, it would sure be more comfortable. Probably for everybody involved. So, we'll see, maybe I'll go there. It's a time of transition...
Some pictures of Maine and my mother today - our trip to the beach:
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now.