Monday, February 27, 2017

We Need to Talk about Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) is one of the darlings of the cozy lit crowd.  A large body of her books, written between 1933 and 1961, are known as the Barchester Chronicles, as they are set in the same fictional region as Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series and concern the general faffing about of the British upper middle class.

I discovered Angela Thirkell by accident, when browsing the library shelves. The mention of Barchester hooked me and I checked out Wild Strawberries, which had the earliest publication date among the library collection. I enjoyed it but in my review, I mentioned that there was a certain snobbish nastiness in the book that turned me off.

When I discover an author, I like to read their entire oeuvre in order of publication, and so I've been slowly and more or less chronologically working my way through Angela Thirkell's books. Below is a copy of the Angela Thirkell section of my book list. The titles in colored fonts are those that I've read. (Blue means I liked the book, maroon means I didn't.)

All of Angela Thirkell: Three Houses (memoir); Ankle Deep; High Rising; Wild Strawberries; Trooper to the Southern Cross; The Demon in the House; O These Men, These Men!; The Grateful Sparrow (children’s); The Fortunes of Harriette; August FollyCoronation Summer; Summer Half; Pomfret Towers; The Brandons; Before Lunch; Cheerfulness Breaks In; Northbridge Rectory; Marling Hall; Growing Up; The Headmistress; Miss Bunting; Peace Breaks Out; Private Enterprise; Love Among the Ruins; Old Bank HouseCounty Chronicle; The Duke’s Daughter; Happy Returns; Jutland Cottage; What did it Mean?; Enter Sir Robert; Never Too Late; A Double Affair; Close Quarters; Love at all Ages;  Three Score and Ten; Mrs. Morland & Son (stories)

I recently finished O These Men, These Men! (1935) and it was a disappointment.  At the outset of the story, Caroline Danvers, aged 26, becomes estranged from James Danvers, her abusive, alcoholic husband. The rest of the novel concerns sorting out the romantic lives of Caroline and several other characters. Here are the reasons this book disappointed me and why I'm rethinking Angela Thirkell:

One:  Shittiness to women. We are made to understand that James Danvers is so awful and abusive that he somehow causes Caroline to have a miscarriage. His family shelters her after he runs off with another woman and treats her with outward kindness, while also quietly blaming her for being abused. Poor James has had to "put up with a lot." If only Caroline had been more firm, none of this would have happened!  Conversely, Caroline's extreme passivity in response to her abuser is admired by some, as if that is the only correct response from a wife.

Two: Fascism. The two younger Danvers brothers, Wilfred and George are obsessed with opposite political ideologies. George loves all things Russian, whereas Wilfred is an open admirer of Hitler. Their squabbles about politics are supposed to be the comedy of this novel. What? You mean one brother is a communist and the other is a nazi? Hilarious! I know I shouldn't judge people of the thirties with the eyes of the 2010s, (and in fiction, no less) and maybe I'm just jumpy about Trump, but casual mention of meetings with Blackshirts really turned me off.  Also, at one point, apropos of nothing, Wilfred announces, "Einstein is a dirty jew." Surely, surely, even back then people knew better? And this is not to say that Thirkell herself was a nazi (although the comment about Einstein makes one wonder). The reader is not encouraged to approve of Wilfred's philosophy, but to see it as an amusing youthful foible.

Three:  Shittiness to servants. A comic mini plot concerns Rose, the parlourmaid of one of the characters. Rose is described as grumpy - one of those tyrannical servants with a heart of gold - but is otherwise faithful and perfectly competent at her job.  Indeed, she goes above and beyond her duty in looking after the alcoholic James when he stays as a guest with this character. The problem is that her employer would like to sell his house, but doesn't know how to get rid of Rose. This little dilemma is solved when Rose's feelings are hurt by an impossibly petty incident and she gives her notice on the spot. She's then further humiliated by another guest in the house. How marvelous!  Rid of the old bag and it's her own fault for being low-class!

Classism and nastiness have been in evidence in all of the Angela Thirkell novels I've read so far. It's not funny and I'm not impressed. Comic nastiness aimed at privileged people can be funny. (I'm thinking of Jane Austen's brilliant parody of the snobbish, overbearing, self-important in her Mrs. Elton character.) Comic nastiness aimed at people who have no power to defend themselves is just shitty.

Am I giving up on Angela Thirkell? Not yet. I'd like to read a few more of her books and see if she matures as a writer or gains any perspective. Perhaps if some of you have read her later works, you could let me know in the comments. I know that racism and anti-semitism are rife in older works of literature, and sometimes, (such as with Anthony Trollope) there is so much of value in the novel as a whole, that you put up with it. And of course, there is no point in boycotting a dead novelist.  I wonder where the line is between turning a blind eye because of the time period the book was written in and saying, "Enough.  I won't read any more of this author?"

*I hate making disclaimers, but I hope everyone realizes that I'm not talking about censorship. I would never suggest that a book should be removed from library shelves because it contains anti-semitic or other offensive language. We should all be able to judge for ourselves what offends us in literature and should have the freedom to chose to read these works or not. It's entirely personal.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Knitting as Activism

As you may recall, since the Trump election, I've been knitting little signs with resistance messages and tying them to trees in public areas. It's a small act, but I had been hoping that lots of other people would do the same, and based on what I've seen on social media, it does seem that others around the country have independently had the same idea. Certainly, the Pussy Hat Project was a great success, and the other day, activists hung a "REFUGEES WELCOME" sign on the Statue of Liberty.  There's someone in Charlottesville who is placing pink, heart-shaped resistance signs in the middle of vine wreaths and hanging them around town. Bravo to that person and his/her creativity, and to anyone else who decorates the landscape with anti-Trump messages, even in a small way.

It just so happens that the winery owned by the Trump family is only a fifteen-minute drive from my house. I drove out there one weekend on a recognizance mission. At the main entrance, the Trump Winery sign sits on blocks of stone - not really conducive to a yarn bomb. It was nice to see a little knot of protesters gathered at the end of the drive. So the main entrance was a no-go, but the service entrance had real possibilities. It's located on a more heavily-traveled road than the main entrance. There's a driveway with a wide apron and plenty of room to safely park a car out of the way. There's a Trump Winery sign by the side of the road, affixed to wooden posts - ideal for attaching a knitted banner. The sign is close to the road, and further up the driveway is a heavy gate and security card reader. Therefore, the service entrance had all three required elements for this type of adventure: a place to park, a way to affix the banner without damaging the sign, no need to trespass.

It wasn't even my original intention to hang the yarn bomb on the actual Trump Winery sign. I would have been happy with a likely tree or fence or telephone pole in the general vicinity, but the sign, once I saw it, was irresistible and I hurried home and began work on a new yarn bomb, larger than the ones I'd done before.

Almost finished knitting

Other than Jon and Seamus, I didn't tell anyone about my plan. It would have been so humiliating if I chickened out. Hanging the sign in broad daylight was crucial, so that I could get a good picture since I anticipated it would be removed by winery staff almost immediately. I admit, I was really nervous. I thought getting arrested was unlikely since I was taking care not to commit an actual crime. More likely would be to get told off or possibly detained by an overzealous vigilante security guard. I couldn't come up with a good plan for such a situation and just had to trust my luck. (I also concentrated on the image of my mother - a true rebel in her own right, and who died twenty years ago - watching over me.)

With the finished banner, I drove to the winery late enough for good light, but early enough that I probably wouldn't meet anyone. I tied my banner to the sign post with long strings of yarn and took some pictures. As I was walking back to my car, I noticed a guy in a pickup truck watching me. He had come from the winery (that electric gate is completely silent, yikes). Instinct took over and I smiled and waved as if this were the most normal thing in the world. I got into my car and politely waited for him to pull out ahead of me. Then I drove home, feeling triumphant.

I lightly felted the banner for a tighter look.
Unfortunately, the felting process distorted the skinnier letters. That T is tragic.

I posted one of my pictures on Instagram and Facebook, with the caption, "NO ONE WANTS YOUR BAN, NO ONE WANTS YOUR WALL, NO ONE WANTS YOUR WINE." Most people liked it, and it got shared a lot, but some people were really angry. I couldn't possibly track down all the angry comments, even if I wanted to, but on my own facebook page, someone lectured me that "yarn bombs hurt innocent people." Someone else said my sign made her sick and accused me of being a "sneak thief." A friend told me she saw a comment that wondered what my parents thought of me. There was a kerfuffle about immigrants - Trump Winery hires foreign workers, therefore my sign was hurting them. Oh sure, Trumpers, support immigration when it's convenient, but look at your man's agenda. Most commonly, resisters hear, "Get over it; Trump won; Stop being a sore loser." No. This isn't about losing an election. This is about thousands of Americans, saying in every way they can, that bigotry, cruelty, religious intolerance, racism, and hate are un-American.

Of course I realized that Trump supporters wouldn't like the sign, but the intensity of the anger was surprising. I also realized that if a clumsy knitted sign upset people this much, then Trump supporters are feeling really insecure and that the resistance is working. Let's keep it up. Trump may be in the White House, but we will not let his agenda overrun our great country.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Pity Party About Depression

It's difficult to be objective about your mental health. Thus, for years, I believed that my main mental issue was anxiety. And certainly, I was anxious. Since childhood, I worried like I was getting paid for it.  I've been aware that I felt depressed at times, but the depression seemed more transient - would last for a few weeks and then lift - but the anxiety was ever-present. Indeed, I was convinced that my anxiety caused me to be depressed.

I lived like that for over forty years, with my anxiety becoming markedly worse when I started my nursing career. I felt some relief when I quit bedside nursing, but then a series of family crises that occurred between 2011 - 2015 left me in a shattered state. I was "functioning" in the sense that I went to work every day, and attended to my household responsibilities, and in public maintained a cheerful face at least some of the time, but all that time I was crushed under a black cloud of dread. As with any illness, there are good days and bad days, so I felt OK for some periods during that time, but I never fully escaped the black cloud.

Late in 2015, I moved to a new position in my department - a more technical job with a steep learning curve. With my mental state being what it was, trying to master the skills of my new job was too much and I broke down. I still went to work every day, but I couldn't handle even the slightest mishap.  Once, dropping a spoon between the stove and the wall reduced me to tears.  I cried when I walked the dog, indeed, I cried nearly every day. I felt disassociated from myself - like I was protectively carrying the most vulnerable part of myself in a teacup because I literally could not stand even the smallest crisis. And still, I thought my main problem was anxiety.

My panic about a minor difficulty related to cosigning my younger daughter's lease led her to make me promise to see a doctor. I didn't want to see a doctor because I was afraid of being put on anti-depressants, which I was convinced would make me fat and I knew I'd rather be miserable than be fat but I kept my promise and I saw my PCP in June. That day started out badly because I'd tried to work from home before the appointment and had been unable to connect to the work network, which of course made me cry - not crying because computer failures are annoying, crying because I felt I was literally too stupid to work from home. That is the thought trough my brain was stuck in. These are the lies that depression tells you.

I'd rehearsed in my head what I would say, "I'm only here because my daughter made me promise," but I did give him an accurate picture of how awful I felt. The doctor listened sympathetically and prescribed citalopram, an SSRI, which I agreed to take. Despite my fear of weight gain, I knew I couldn't go on like I had been. He also gave me a list of therapists and advised me to shop around for the one who felt right.

An SSRI is a relatively new type of anti-depressant. I believe the first one available was Prozac. Since then, newer, more selective SSRIs like citalopram have been developed. SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Our brains have receptors that mop up any excess serotonin (because GOD FORBID anyone become too happy) so SSRIs help prevent these receptors from eating your serotonin, so you feel happier.

They say it takes three to four weeks before you feel the effects of an SSRI, but I swear I started to feel a tiny bit better on day two. After a couple of weeks, Jon - who I didn't know I was taking an antidepressant - commented that I seemed happier and less anxious.

The first month or so on citalopram was like a honeymoon period. I felt great and I lost weight, which boosted my mood even more. Naturally, the dramatic lessening of a pain that you've lived with for years will make you feel pretty good. Then you adjust to the absence of pain and you have to start working on what was making you sad in the first place. Antidepressants don't solve your problems, but they do help you gain the strength to deal with them.

I found a therapist and it has been helpful to have an objective listener. I have a lot to work on and some serious decisions to make as to how I want to proceed with the rest of my life. I've also realized that my main problem was depression, and that depression made me anxious, which is the opposite of what I'd believed all along.

After the honeymoon period ended, I continued to feel better. This was the first Christmas in nearly twenty years that I didn't have a sobbing meltdown at some point.  I saw my doctor in early January and told him I felt fine. And then the depression came back. Not as bad as it had been, but suddenly the old "I'm stupid" thoughts were popping into my head. I was profoundly irritated with everyone, and I cried over nothing for the first time in months. I had an idea it was related to the winter lack of light (I've always known I had a touch of SAD) but I couldn't understand why it was affecting me now, when the days are markedly longer than they are around the holidays.

I told my therapist and she said seasonal depression worsens with the cumulative exposure to darkness, and that there are the most suicides in April because that's when people tend to feel worst. Hearing that was an epiphany. For as long as I can remember, I've hated and dreaded spring, and April is when my anxiety seems to peak. (I impulsively bought my solo ticket to Iceland in April because I felt so strongly that I had to get away from everyone.)  The cumulative effect seems to work in reverse as well. I've always had the greatest feeling of well-being in the fall - now, I realize because from the effect of months of summer light.

My therapist suggested that I buy a full spectrum lamp, which I did. All of this is a recent development and I've only had the light for a few days, but I did feel happier and more energized this weekend after having used it. I lived for years with depression, thinking that if this was how I was, I didn't want to change, but now, after experiencing life without depression, I don't want to go back to it.