Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Aside from his overuse of the word “sour,” I thought this was a great read, kindling my interest in old Shakes by providing the background detail of the life and times he was writing in. Greenblatt makes the case that Shakes borrowed from everything he ever read or saw, including the morality plays that made their way from village to village in the 16th century. He also pushes you into believing the earliest of famous love sonnets were penned not for a woman but for Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. Besides the swirl of London life amidst the theater, there was an undercurrent of tension from the battles between the Catholic & Protestant Churches, King James’ ascension to the throne, the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot, years of the bubonic plague sweeping through the streets. If you squint, it almost looks as chaotic as our current world. At any rate, this is a great jumpstart to anyone looking to get back on the Shakespeare horse.

The art of solitude : a meditation on being alone with others in this world

The author was part of an interview panel celebrating Tricycle Magazine’s 30th anniversary so I picked this up at the library, a sucker for anything with solitude in the title. He leans heavily on quotations from Montaigne which thank you very much I’ve already read myself. I did like his irreverent dabbling of ayahuasca and the realization that he didn’t want to drink wine anymore.

“The practice of Zen is about coming to terms with the question of who and what you are. Allow yourself to be a mystery for yourself rather than a set of more or less interesting facts… At any moment when you are suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that you are here at all, rather than not here.”

On jhānas: “… start by focusing on the breath as when practicing mindfulness, .. turn your attention to the sensations on your upper lip created by the passage of inhalations and exhalations. Over time, these sensations coalesce into what feels like a solid, fixed point. Once you can sustain attention on this point for several minutes, you gently smile to yourself and shift your focus to the pleasurable feelings that accompanies the smile. As you dwell on this pleasure in a relaxed and disinterested way, the jhāna will find you.”

Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen

Sweet biography of Virginia Woolf’s dad, organized by his pal Fred Maitland and consisting of Stephen’s letters interspersed with reminiscences from friends, pages from Leslie’s mother’s diary, and memories from Woolf’s own pen. The ordained Cambridge clergyman who turned his back on religion and made his way with journalism in London, surviving two wives’ deaths and churning out books and articles and managing the Dictionary of National Biography in between long walks. Beati omnes qui ambulant. I appreciating his mellowing with age, “I know a good many plants now, and feel the pursuit excellent for an elderly gentleman. It gives a motive for many pleasant strolls at a mild pace.”

Virginia Woolf: A biography

I don’t know why I was so reluctant to read her nephew’s biography. You can clearly see his bias and inflating certain areas of her life (undue emphasis on the competition between VW and the author’s mother about having had children, perhaps too much emphasis on her mental illness), and if you’re aware of it, you can tolerate its presence. Bell does an admirable job weaving together bits and bobs from her diaries and letters at a time when not everything was public, when in fact his wife was doing the far more heroic job in transcribing and editing Woolf’s journals. Worth reading, obviously.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

I normally view business-y type book recommendations with a lot of skepticism but Suzann kept referring to this book (and held it up as a North Star that guided her decision to make a recent  change), so I gave in and was delightfully surprised to enjoy it immensely. Do less, better; ask yourself what really matters and do that; you can apply the very self-help-y suggestions to both work & real life. The pandemic induced change to routine is the perfect time to reshape life along these lines, and I found that I’ve been doing many of the suggestions naturally.

We’ve lost our ability to separate what is important from what isn’t, and people try to do everything. Choose how you spend your time. Most things in life are noise/not essential. There are tradeoffs, but instead of trying to to everything, ask what problem do you want. Don’t surrender your power of choosing what to do with your one precious life. Unless something is a clear and resounding YES! then it’s a no.

How to say no: “I’m flattered that you thought of me but I’m overcommitted at the moment.” After the ask: pause & count to three, give yourself time to consider. “No, but…” say what you will do. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” “What should I deprioritize?”

The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park

A bit windbaggy on the myriad of details about national park status, but some good summing up of history. Jotting some details I want to remember here:

  • President Millard Fillmore proposed the Presidio boundaries to start at Fisherman’s Wharf, encompassing much of what would end up being the Marina and the Richmond. (10,000 acres proposed, 2,500 acres actually earmarked)
  • The 12 officers’ cottages built in 1862 originally had their outhouses facing the city. In the 1870s the houses were flipped around to present a nicer face for visitors coming from SF.
  • The Presidio was always an “open” fort, not requiring guarded entrances except during WW2, fearing Japanese submarine attacks.
  • We can thank Phil Burton for his efforts, once again. The Presidio was included within the boundaries of GGNRA in 1972, guaranteeing that once the fort was decommissioned, it would be protected from development.
  • Once the Army did decide to close the Presidio, local politicians (Barbara Boxer & Nancy Pelosi) lobbied against the military closure for economic reasons.
  • There was a lot of pressure over the years to develop this beautiful piece of land. Local papers dubbed it the Idle Acres in an effort to drum up support for development at the same time that the idea of building a skyscraper or casino on Alcatraz was floated.
  • In 1994 the Army appeared to want to reneg on the agreement to some extent, demanding to keep several hundred units of housing, the commissary, swimming pool, Officers’ Club, and retaining exclusive use of the golf course. Negotiations on this point lasted a year and ended up with the Army getting control of the golf course for 5 years with phasing in of public play.
  • Truman wanted to build the UN Headquarters in the Presidio but the Soviets were against a West Coast location.

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 6: 1933-1941

And now we really come to the end. This last volume had her final burst of essays along with extensive appendices and several previously uncollected essays from 1906-1924. A true Woolf nerd delight, pages of errata detailed painstakingly, the three BBC broadcasts Woolf did are here transcribed, this is a hugely valuable resource.

My silly notation marked certain things like her calling Melville a “poet novelist” (alongside Emily Bronte and Hardy), but most extensive appreciation was for “The Leaning Tower” (1940) where she delves into philosophy of words/writing.

A writer, more than any other artist, needs to be a critic because words are so common, so familiar, that he must sieve them and sift them if they are to become enduring. Write daily; write freely; but let us always compare what we have written with what the great writers have written. It is humiliating, but it is essential. If we are going to preserve and to create, that is the only way. And we are going to do both. We need not wait till the end of the war. We can begin now. We can begin, practically and prosaically, by borrowing books from public libraries; by reading omnivorously, simultaneously, poems, plays, novels, histories, biographies, the old and the new. We must sample before we can select. It never does to be a nice feeder; each of us has an appetite that must find for itself the food that nourishes it. Nor let us shy away from the kings because we are commoners. That is a fatal crime in the eyes of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Virgil, and Dante, who, if they could speak—and after all they can—would say, “Don’t leave me to the wigged and gowned. Read me, read me for yourselves.” They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us. Of course—are we not commoners, outsiders?—we shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass. But let us bear in mind a piece of advice that an eminent Victorian who was also an eminent pedestrian once gave to walkers: “Whenever you see a board up with ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’, trespass at once.”

Moments of Being

Five unpublished autobiographical reminisces were a perfect way to wind up the project of reading all of Woolf’s work. Three of these pieces were papers read to the Memoir Club in the years after the Great War, and aside from her diary these are the only autobiography she wrote. For the pieces written for her Bloomsbury audience, she delighted in thrusting her spear at the sitting ducks in the audience, recalling her first meeting Duncan Grant as he shuffled up to her and Adrian at the Louvre, or perfectly nailing Desmond MacCarthy’s personality to the board for analysis. The memories of St. Ives and Cornwall are the bedrock of her consciousness, everything creative springs from that eternally refreshed well.

Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose

Every time I read Nye’s final poem of this book, Gate A-4, I can’t stop my eyes from tearing up. The rest of the pieces were just as precious, poetic musings that capture life freshly post 9/11 in the mid-aughties from the viewpoint of a writer born of Palestinian father and American mother, living in Texas. Poetry is vital and her book makes this case over and over. And now I get to load up on anything and everything else she has written!

No One Is Talking About This

This was awesome. I couldn’t get into her memoir (was it my mood?) but Lockwood’s first novel landed perfectly. Perhaps it’s the small chewable bits that make it ideal for covid-brain reading, but this has to be one of the best books that sums up our current state of affairs, our attention-deficit always-online swept from one meme to the next living in a state of terror from the tyrant. Into this setting she cuddles the story of her sister’s newborn, slated to live only 6 months with Proteus Syndrome (elephant man-itis). I heard an interview with Lockwood and she verified that this was taken from real life and her sister was pleased that the baby would be forever remembered in this book.

Some favorite snippets:

“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”

“We were being radicalized, and how did that feel? Like we had just stepped into a Girl Scout uniform made of fire… We were being radicalized, yes, even though we owned personalized goblets that said Wine O’Clock, even though we still read the Old Gray Lady every morning with not nearly enough of a sneer on our faces!”

Between The Acts

Stunning. Her best work? I feel this after finishing everything she wrote, and yet this makes a strong case for being her most ambitious work that succeeds in achieving the vision she had. Mixture of poetry and play and prose, dipping into people’s psyches, noting the precarious state of the world on a June day in 1939 as England hovered on the brink of war, the village come to Pointz Hall to view a play that pulled them through the many ages, culminating in flashing mirrors to reflect the audience itself. Gorgeous luscious writing, a miracle of assembly and disassembly, unity and separation. This signals the end of the works she intended for publication, as it came out a few months after her death. Yet my project marches on, into the autobiographical essays she perhaps never intended for publication, Moments of Being.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Ugh, I wish this book had been better. It was right at the edge of annoying with placing himself at the heart of the story, gallivanting to Brazil to meet with a famous yoga dude who was hurrying to the airport to get back to his NYC yoga studio (read: Nestor wanted to write off a trip to Brazil instead of simply meeting this guy in New York) and dismissing the people he encountered in the lobby as “giggling in Portuguese”. While Nestor thankfully didn’t veer into bloviating misogyny his presence in the tale was a bit too pitch perfect, it’s like you’re watching a character have a flashback with wavy images as he perches on a doctor’s table and then takes you to a related part of his research.

Anyway, there didn’t seem to be much “new science” in his discovering this lost art. He’s simply pointing a spotlight on science that’s been around for a while, like the research that points out our mouths started shrinking from disuse after humans started eating softer foods 300 years ago (more processed, not as much chewing required). This collapse of the mouth cavity causes breathing issues and we’re all breathing wrong, all the time. Chewing gum for a few hours a day can build bones in the jaw (Falim Sugarless Mint).

Breathe through your nose. Right nostril breathing increases heat & blood pressure, left nostril breathing relaxes & shifts blood to the part of your brain that assists with creative thinking.

Wim Hof method/Tummo (inner fire): lie on back with pillow, relax chest/shoulders, legs. Deep breath thru nose into pit of stomach, let out quickly, breathe like this for 30 cycles. Inhale inflates stomach then chest, exhale out stomach then chest. After 30 breaths, exhale & leave 1/4 of air in lungs and hold for as long as possible, then big inhale and hold for another 15 seconds. Move this fresh breath around thee chest and to the shoulders, exhale & start heavy breathing again. Repeat 3 rounds and add cold exposure a few times a week. The flip-flop forces the body into stress then relaxation, making the body more adaptable.

Resonant/Coherent Breathing: sit up straight, relax stomach & shoulders, exhale; inhale 5.5 seconds, expanding belly; no pause then exhale for 5.5 seconds, bring belly in. Each breath is a circle. Repeat at least 10 times.

Sudarshan Kriya: om chants, breath restriction, paced breathing (4 sec inhale, 4 sec hold, 6 sec exhale, 2 sec hold), then 40 minutes of very heavy breathing.

4-7-8 breathing into deep relaxation: exhale through mouth, inhale thru nose for 4, hold for 7, exhale thru mouth for 8, inhale 4, hold 7, exhale 8, (4 cycles).

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf

Alongside all the letters, diaries, essays, biographies, novels, and plays, I was also reading Woolf’s shorter fiction squeezed appropriately in chronologically. This excellent resource included all the stories collected in Monday or Tuesday and Mrs Dalloway’s Party plus many more. She frequently turned to short stories as a way of relieving her brain, to amuse herself, to give voice to the burst of words bubbling up inside as she worked on larger, more intense projects.

Her evolution as a writer is on display in this collection spanning 1906-1941. I was particularly struck by the sound design she evokes in In the Orchard, dated 1922, describing a woman sleepily reading beneath an apple tree. The sound of schoolchildren reciting the multiplication table is described as a “shrill clamour as if they were gongs of cracked brass beaten violently, irregularly, and brutally.” The sound of the church organ “floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of fieldfares flying at an enormous speed.” Then bells “thudded, intermittent, sullen, didactic…” And the weather vane squeaks as it turns, and the reader realizes she’ll be late for tea.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 6, 1936-1941

Reading the volumes of letters in tandem with the diaries is absolutely essential. I finished the diary yesterday, which means I finished the letters yesterday, too, only the volume included an Appendix of dozens of letters that had been discovered too late for inclusion in the earlier volumes. And so I lingered a bit with Woolf’s ghost, reading snippets from 1903 onward, after I had already read up to the point of her death. (Like this lovely 1923 ululation during a trip to Spain that “I am reading Proust, I am reading Rimbaud. I am longing to write.”)

The letters are always chatty and entertaining, light, meandering, poetic. As Nigel Nicolson notes in the introduction, a letter “was a wine-glass to hold her delights, or a sump for her despair.”

This volume contains many examples of the unease with the coming of war, like this 1936 to Victoria Ocampo, “Here we live under the shadow of disaster. I’ve never known such a time of foreboding. Even the artists mope and pine and cant get on with their pictures.” And in Jan 1938: “Lord what a year of incessant catastrophe–but that years over, so lets hope the best for this one.” Aug 1938: “As for politics, I feel as if we were all sitting downstairs while someone slowly dies.” Feb 1941: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget…”

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1936-1941

It seems appropriate that it’s a grey drizzly morning when I finally close the pages of this last volume. I’ve gently sipped at this diary for the past four months, admittedly dragging my feet for the last few weeks not wanting to get to March 1941.

I am prepared for it as I head to the end, we all know what’s coming. And this project of reading everything she wrote chronologically has prepared me better than anything I could have comprehended. I’ve been with her all these years, and with the onset of the second world war, the nightly bombing raids which destroyed their London flat and sent all their possessions scavenged from the wreckage (thankfully including all volumes of the diary) stowed in barns across the village, it makes sense. Her deteriorating mental condition is completely understandable when there is no future to look forward to. But up to the last entry, what a romp, what a delight it has been! Thank god Leonard disobeyed her injunction to destroy all her papers. This five-volume series of diaries is one of the most magnificent documents in the history of literature.

I have dozens of markers glittering along the pages noting things I wanted to remember here, but I’ll start at the end and work backwards:

24 December 1940: “By shutting down the fire curtain, though, I find I can live in the moment; which is good; why yield a moment to regret or envy or worry? Why indeed?”

She envisions what death by German bombing would feel like (Oct 2, 1940): “I shall think—oh I wanted another 10 years—not this—& shant, for once, be able to describe it. It—I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light,—painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so—Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness—& then, dot dot dot”

Relieved to have the servant gone and cooking for herself: “Domestically, a great relief & peace, & expansion, it’ll be tomorrow, into merry kitchen harum scarum ways.”

Thinking again of what death by German bombing would be like (Aug 28, 1940): “It wd have been a peaceful matter of fact death to be popped off on the terrace playing bowls this very fine cool sunny August evening.”

In July: “So, the Germans are nibbling at my afternoon walks.”

General feeling of unease during the war: (June 1940) “I mean, there is no “autumn”, no winter. We pour to the edge of a precipice … and then? I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.”

22 June 1940: “I would like to find one book and stick to it. But can’t. I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. I feel oughtn’t I to finish off P.H.: oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety and recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk…. The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work. And now dinner to cook. A role. Nightly raids in the east and south coast. 6, 3, 22 people killed nightly.”

May 30, 1940: “And was very happy—the moment can be that: only theres no support in the fabric—if you see what I mean, as Charlie Sanger used to say—theres no healthy tissue round the moment. It’s blown out. But for a moment, on the terrace, no one coming, alone with L., ones certainly happy.”

August 7 1939: “Oh & I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, & the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; & to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, & not as unconscious at least in its approaches, as birth is.”

July 30, 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it will books, as a sponge with water.”

Jan 18, 1939: “I am going walking & adventuring going to see pictures of an afternoon; & often come face to face, after tea, at odd moments, with the idea of death & age. Why not change the idea of death into an exciting experience?—as one did marriage in youth?”

Watching the world march into war (Sept 22, 1938): “The prospect of another glissade after a minor stop into abyss. All Europe in Hitler’s keeping. What’ll he gobble next?”

Sept 17, 1938: “Just as in violent personal anxiety, the public lapses, into complete indifference. One can feel no more at the moment.”

June 23, 1937: “Its ill writing after reading Love for Love—a masterpiece. I never knew how good it is. And what exhilaration there is in reading these masterpieces. This superb hard English! Yes, always keep the Classics at hand to prevent flop.”

The radio after the King died only allowed official pronouncements, and so “if you turn it on you only hear the ticking of a vast clock” (Jan 1936).