Deciding now what of Jani's many letters, writings, photos and clippings to take with me. I have a small suitcase, and I don't know where I will be living in a month or so, which makes the question even more daunting. I called my cousin Darcy tonight and found out she has The Letter, the one I was wondering if it even existed, the letter Jani sent her parents after she was leaving her second husband, Bob, who is my mother's father. They lived a superficially charmed life in post-war Vienna in the early 50s but it was marred by many physical fights, some visible to the public, which caused quite a scandal. I found photos today of the boat she left on with Robin, who was age 9 and the photo she took of NYC when they arrived. I have all the other letters she sent her mother and father during those two years, but always wondered if she had told them in advance of the breakdown of the marriage and if so where that letter was. Well, Darcy has it and she just read it last night or in the past few days, and she's not sure whether it's the mold from the papers or the content, but she got a bad headache. Dealing with this stuff can frankly be depressing.
I fear perhaps I have depressed those of you who are reading this as well. I certainly don't mean to do that, but I am walking through some dark terrain here and that's the reality of the situation. I myself feel somewhat overwhelmed by it today and will be glad to be getting on a bus tomorrow to go to NYC, as mentioned in an earlier post, my spiritual home, to find a way to breathe again, let some new air in to myself, my thoughts and my experiences. It hasn't helped that we've had 3 straight grey, rainy days here, which has compounded the sense of gloom. Anyone else out there forced to read Ethan Frome one winter in New England? If so, you'll know the feeling. Why do they do that to us? I had to read that damn Edith Wharton story when I was 13. Absurd. As if a long New England winter isn't bad enough, let's compound it by a horrendous story of a woman full of life who gets disfigured in a sledding accident during a failed suicide pact because she and the husband of a sickly, self-righteous woman cannot elope - only to then transform into her image and be cared for by that woman. Dear God. How do we survive our educations? Can anyone tell me this?
Or New England?
OK, so here's the thing for those of you either (a) not from the U.S. or (b) not from New England. New England childhoods are harsh (or 'character building' - excuse me, I don't know what I was thinking), involve long winters, endless moral instruction and a sense of smug superiority to everybody else who is obviously too wussy to handle it. Wow. Fun. If the truth be told, it's a little like, well, England - shock. Hence the name. Except here, unlike in England, the Church is very serious and there is the puritan work ethic to contend with and all that. A sense of hellfire and damnation that will dog your every idle step, etc. It's not quite that overt, but the basic sentiment remains like a sediment that has encrusted on the bottom of a lake or a pan or whatever and just will not be moved and somehow affects the taste and smell of anything else you put into it.
It's not New York. New York, to a New Englander is practically California in comparison, a place where you can breathe free, no one will want to know every little thing about you and whether your parents came off the Mayflower or whatever. It's Walt Whitman, the joyousness and freedom, not dour, old Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose hometown, I should add, I'm staying in right now, godfather of Bowdoin College that he is and all that. Though Edith Wharton was born in NYC, she lived a lot of her life in Lenox, Massachusetts, the place that inspired Ethan Frome. Luckily for her, she left her chronically depressed husband and lived in France...but not so poor Ethan Frome.
There are some cool New Englanders of course and I am heavily influenced by them - especially the Transcendentalist whackos like Emerson, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson - the whole Massachusetts lunatic society and recently, I've also become a huge William James fan...which by the way, if you haven't read 'Varieties of Religious Experience' definitely do. James gave the lectures in Edinburgh in 1901-2, the Gifford Lectures (which are still given to this day, the UK being nothing if not the holder of traditions - which I might add they do incredibly well) - and he is advocating for an understanding of what we would call 'spiritual' experiences these days as real and potentially transformative experiences. As he was an early advocate of psychology as a real science, he is framing it in this way, which was incredibly radical for 1901-2. But he's also very respectful of the experiences themselves and their transformative power. He is also ruthless in discerning the difference between 'religious feeling' and a transformative experience - which he defines as something which actually - well - transforms you. Not just how you feel but also how you act. This book is the intellectual basis for an understanding of spiritual transformation that I was shown back in 1986 that changed my life, stopped me drinking and basically gave me my life back. However, it took me being in England and hearing good old Melvyn Bragg on his show 'In Our Time' (which by the way if you are not in the UK and can get this show online from the BBC website, do - it's an incredible radio series that rocks the house with intellectual - gasp - talk about a certain subject with a few experts in the field)...doing a show on James' book to get me to read the damn thing in 2010, and it's blown my mind.
He uses anecdotal evidence and some of his own experience to analyze the various transformations people experienced, which in 1901, were mostly in a firmly religious and Christian context, though - also ahead of his time - he speaks of Eastern experiences as valid, too. I have a vision of reading each lecture out loud as a durational performance, because to hear each chapter back to back would be a spiritual experience on its own. I would like to do it in one of the rooms he probably gave the lectures in in Edinburgh, so we'll see if I can make that happen sometime. He was an American abroad (like his famous writer brother Henry - who interestingly was jealous of William because of his academic credentials - which I found surprising when I was told this by an English scholar - Henry, btw, palled around with Edith Wharton...) - and I believe when reading the book I can hear how he is carefully framing all the religious experiences for his British audience, not wanting to sound too American, too loony, too - well - scary. I find myself doing this a lot when I am in Britain, so perhaps am sensitive to this in a certain way.
You see here in America, you can talk about God all you want, yammer yammer yammer, and no one will freak out. Just don't, whatever you do, talk about class or money. In England, the exact opposite. You can talk about class all you want and even - sometimes - money, but Do Not talk about God, it's like someone farted in the room, way too scary and vaguely unpleasant. And I can sense James' hesitancy as he speaks, and a fear that he is offending sensibilities.
My theory - and please British people reading, feel free to chime in and tell me I'm wrong - I'm all about trying to figure this one out - is that it's not that people in the UK don't have an experience of something greater than themselves, it's just that the idea of Talking about it somehow seems vulgar. I also sense an underlying Christian presupposition in the majority culture ( though clearly not in immigrant groups from Hindu or Muslim countries), which expresses itself in many subtle ways, but focuses with a certain precision on 'fairness' as an ideal. There is almost a transcendental idea of this fairness, as far as I can tell, and a sense I get, as someone from the outside looking in - even after 8 years living in London - that this ideal is somehow drummed in from a very early age and repeatedly. I can see the edges of it and get a sense of it, but it's not a world I inhabit in the same way.
It's like the word 'equality' in the U.S.. When I wrote in my PhD thesis about the ideal that members of my theatre company should be 'equals,' my supervisor (born in Britain, but whose childhood was in the U.S.) said, "I don't think anyone would use that word here." There's a subtle difference between 'fairness' and 'equality' but I think in that subtlety lies a lot of the difference between the two cultures - which, oh believe me, are Incredibly Different.
Fairness somehow involves coming to a solution, which is practical in a given circumstance, is an idea that evolves from a country with common law legal system rather than a constitution, which in the U.S. enshrines certain 'inalienable human rights.' Equality is one of them, and all of the changes in the legal system, which have been hard won over the years (one required a Civil War) have gone towards coming closer to that ideal. And it is an Ideal. The idea of fairness is that it is something that can be pragmatically sorted out when cooler heads prevail. The notion of Ideals and Fighting for Them is way too extreme and hot-headed. Fairness can be found somehow, mediated, allowed.
This is of course an over-simplification, but it's something that I feel is an interesting area for debate. And I would really like to know what others think about this, who are either British and/or have an experience of the two cultures.
How I got from point A to B on this post is beyond me, but there you go...another rambler. 'In fairness' or 'to be fair' (two big phrases in Britain) I have been subsumed in letters and writings of my grandmother and before that shopping for some clothes in Freeport (oh, and I must mention - for the first time ever Freeport - which is a town with a lot of outlet stores for major chains and is overrun on Saturdays that are rainy in Maine like today - was full of Chinese tourists. Clerks ran to them to help, knowing these folks would buy. The Chinese middle class, my mother and I reasoned by doing the math, must be larger in sheer numbers than the whole US population. They are the new must-have consumers. And, the Chinese are known in Asia to be like the Americans are in Europe - a bit louder and pushier and more demanding than the rest. So, they are here and they are us. Just a lot richer.... welcome to the new world order...and here's the newsflash - it's not America anymore...but damn we are going to fight that one to the bitter end...)
So, how do I end this? I have to start packing, I have to think through some practical things. And somehow I am now nattering on about the Chinese consumer. Dear God/dess. What next? How about stopping...yes, I think that's it.
Except, except, except...do read the William James book. And if you do read it and you do like it, get in touch with me because I am determined to make a series of theatrical/performance pieces using the book as a basis and not sure how to do it yet. Or where, or like anything really...so I'm open to new collaborators, forms, processes (and for that matter cities, countries, jobs, whatever...)....I am still very much in transition.
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. While felt blessed for the opportunity, after four years of this, the lack of pay combined with heavy work load stopped working, so have transferred this teaching passion to private workshops in my own apartment and working with writers one on one, which I adore. I will die a happy person if I never have to grade an assignment ever again.
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 a new book recently completed.
I am now working full-time as a freelance writer, writing workshop leader, coach, and editor. Contact me if you are interested in any of these services.
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. You can also contact me through that site.