"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Yellow Wallpaper


Pericles ~ Cicero

Click to see animated panels.

When I saw this exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art ~ Sydney, Australia, passages from "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman began floating through my mind. Had Gary Carsley evoked / invoked Gilman intentionally or by coincidence? Either way, one glance at Carsley's "talking heads" brought Gilman's text to life. Re - reading the story, I felt almost convinced that the narrator was staring at the Carsley exhibit:
"The front pattern does move -- and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very ' bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern -- it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!

If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad."
Whether or not Carsley's exhibit explicitly mentions Gilman's story, I felt a subtle connection and knew that I had to share it with my friend Rebecca, who has studied Gilman extensively and is the one who urged me to study "The Yellow Wallpaper" more thoroughly years ago in graduate school.

As I was getting ready to share with Rebecca, the next coincidence came along. I turned to her facebook page and discovered that her most recent post contained a link to:
"Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus:
A Brief History or, Why I Teach "The Yellow Wallpaper"

By Terri Kapsalis

Rarely does the phrase "wandering uterus" come into my conversation, but
-- another coincidence! -- here it was twice in two weeks. A couple of weeks ago, Gerry and I started watching a new series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the very first episode of which contains a quasi-medical, half - joking reference to treating the "wandering womb." I remarked at the time whether "wandering womb" might be a pre - scientific term for "endometriosis"? As it turns out, yes, that is one important explanation.

Kapsalis suggests a few others:
"The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. 'Treatments,' including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place."
A google search will yield numerous insights into the disturbing tale of "The Yellow Wallpaper," and into the mind, life, and times of the author. Before checking out any of the others, read this one! Explaining the course she teaches ~ “The Wandering Uterus: Journeys through Gender, Race, and Medicine” ~ Kapsalis moves through history, literary criticism and fiction, medicine, mental health, gender issues, hate crimes, contemporary politics and economics, leaving no stone unturned -- even the weather plays a part:
"We know that the social toxins of living in a racist, misogynist, homophobic, and otherwise economically unjust society can literally make us sick, and that sickness is no less real than one brought on by polluted air or water. In actuality, both social and environmental toxins are inextricably intertwined as the very people subject to systemic social toxins (oppression, poverty) are usually the same folks impacted by the most extreme environmental toxins. And the people who point fingers and label others “hysterical” are the ones least directly impacted by said toxins."
Kapsalis concludes that "I teach 'The Yellow Wallpaper' because I believe it can save people," echoing Gilman herself, who wrote: "But the best result is this. . . . It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."

As Gilman's distressed narrator explains from the outset, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a ghost story, although her husband is always ready to offer a practical explanation that "spoils my ghostliness." After a few more paragraphs, it becomes clear that the reader is also bearing witness to a descent into madness. Isolated from the family, denied meaningful work, and banned from creative expression, the narrator spends hour after hour sequestered in the yellow - papered, prison - like room, growing increasingly obsessed with the confusing random movement of the design. She hopes for order to emerge from the chaos, but it never does. Instead, a phantom woman appears, at first within the intricate design, then at the windows, then beyond. The narrator feels connected to this wandering yet trapped figure because their plights are similar:
" . . . there is something strange about the house - I can feel it. I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window." (648)

“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” (652)

“It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.” (654)

“I often wonder if I could see her out of all the windows at once. But, turn as fast as I can, I can only see out of one at one time. And though I always see her, she may be able to creep faster than I can turn! I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.”
[Click for more quotations & to read the entire story]

Last week, another annoying, local coincidence reinforced the message of Gilman's story. Well in advance of garbage day, an ugly old yellow - patterned couch appeared out on the curb of our street, just a few houses down from us, a sorry sight for the neighbors to endure for several days. Truly, every time I biked past, it was driving me a little crazier than the time before! It seemed to embody the reason that Gilman chose yellow for the offending wallpaper!

Remember Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the enchanting childhood poetry collection in which each color "has a taste . . . a smell . . . a wonderful story to tell?" Yellow, for example, "is the color of the sun / The feeling of fun / The yolk of an egg . . . And a daffodil . . . sweet corn / Ripe oats . . . Summer squash and / Chinese silk . . ." (Mary O'Neill). If only Gilman's imprisoned heroine could lay hold of such nostalgic joy, but to her dismay, and ours, her reaction is the exact opposite:
"It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! ... The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell." [654]

And for one last connection: in searching for material on Gilman and "The Yellow Wallpaper," I came across this collection, featuring a painting of Gilman herself, nursing her newborn:

Click for more about this book
and more about the cover painting:
"Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Breastfeeding her Baby Katharine"

How timely that my friend Brendan had recently spoken out against the latest misogynistic incident of breastfeeding hysteria, and I had posted this photo of what it looks like, more often than not, to breastfeed a baby in public:

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, July 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Always June


My husband Gerry and I spent the first eleven days of this month in Australia, somewhere we had never been before. On June 1st, Gerry was driving us to the airport, while I sat quietly in the passenger's seat browsing through my latest Martha Stewart magazine. No sooner had I marked the above page with a little bookmark than my friend Katie texted me the following visual:

"Thought you'd like this quote from The Oprah Magazine.
Happy June!"

I wish it were a bit more legible, but take a closer look at the caption under the summer fruit and you'll find the exact same passage from Lucy Maud Montgomery. I loved the idea that at the exact same moment, Katie -- at her desk taking a break from her writing -- and I -- in the car on the way to Indianapolis -- were connected through our reading of these beautiful summery words from Anne of the Island, used in one case to illustrate the perfect summer bike ride, and in another to accompany an array of delicious seasonal berries and peaches.

I took a quick photo of the page in front of me and texted it back to Katie: "Funny coincidence. I brought along Martha Stewart Living to look at in the car on the way to the airport. Just got to this page then took a break to check my phone and got your message with Oprah page. Could it be that both magazines share the same literary editor?!"

Katie replied with her usual charm: "You were obviously meant to be seeing that great quote today! Happy June and happy travels!"

Red Leaf at
The Chinese Garden of Friendship
Sydney, Australia ~ June 9, 2017

I'm pretty sure that we readers from the northern hemisphere know exactly what L. M. Montgomery means when she wonders "what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June." She means, if only it could always be summertime!

Likewise James Russell Lowell when he asks: "And what is so rare as a day in June? / Then, if ever, come perfect days."

And Emily Dickinson When she exclaims that "My only sketch, profile of heaven is a large blue sky, / larger than the biggest I have seen in June -- and in it are my friends -- all of them -- every one them."

In our prose and in our poetry, June and summer are synonyms! As are October and autumn! Gillian Flynn explains it perfectly: "I had seen the photos . . . always with autumn colors in the background, as if the school were based not in a town but in a month, October." October is practically a place! It's certainly a season.

We know that George Eliot must be thinking of October -- not June -- when she declares: "Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

As it turns out, that's kind of what Gerry and I did. We flew around the world and found another autumn! In Sydney, June does not mean summer; it means a very mild and mellow (except for that one really stormy day) late autumn. Even more disconcerting than the 26 - hour time difference and the jet lag, was this sense of what I call season lag. Could it really be coming on to winter but not coming on to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas?

I guess the reverse was true last December in Medellin,
wearing summer clothes, photographing the tropical plants,
and admiring the Christmas lights without a snowflake in sight.

Yet, somehow my mind could bridge the disconnect of a warm December with greater ease than a chilly June. After all, I've visited Florida in December and seen the poinsettias sitting out on the front porches -- something you could never do in the Midwest! But never before had I seen leaves falling in June! I had to pinch myself a few times as a reminder: yes it is June, yes it is autumn!

An Autumnal Perspective ~ June 9, 2017
The Anglican Cathedral of St Andrew
Sydney Town Hall ~ Constructed 1886
Surrounded by a combination of green trees and fall leaves

Speaking of wandering the globe, Happy Bloomsday!
~ Coming up June 16th

The Return of Odysseus
by Romare Bearden (1911 - 1988)
And more! ~ Look at these!

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, June 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading