EASIER SAID THAN DONE

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One of the “attractions” we visited last weekend during a short trip to the Berkshires was The Mount.  (I say “we” because I went with a relatively new acquaintance from Windrows who had proposed the trip and volunteered to do all the driving, which was about 3 1/2 hours each way from Princeton.)

The Mount is the house the novelist Edith Wharton designed and built in Lenox, Massachusetts, and occupied most of the time from 1902 until 1911, when she separated from her husband and moved to Paris.  It is white and cool — important in the sweltering pre-air-conditioned New York and New England summers — and sits on raised ground.  In the rear is a magnificent landscape of Italianate gardens, formal on one side, “natural” on the other. Although I’d been to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, several times in my several past lives, I was never before able to visit The Mount because it was under reconstruction each time.   However, for several years now it’s at last been open to the public.

I’m a sucker for gift shops at such places. I always want some little reasonably priced something to remind me I was there.  At The Mount’s gift shop you can buy heavy and expensive illustrated books of Italianate gardens and others about The Mount itself, which I didn’t.  You can also buy copies of most of the over forty books of fiction and non-fiction Wharton wrote and published during her lifetime, which I also didn’t.

According to the guide who led us through the house, she did the writing in bed from 8:30 to 11:30 every morning of her life, before arising to don the corseted, restrictive day clothes of her era. She tossed each handwritten sheet on the floor, later to be gathered and typed up by a secretary.  In her bedroom on the top floor you can see scattered on the bed photocopies of some of those pages — of The House of Mirth, written at The Mount.  The writing enabled her to enhance her inheritance so as to support expensive living in Paris and the Riviera. She was a great success in her lifetime.  (The three novels still generally recognized and admired today, whose titles you may recognize and movie adaptations of which you may have seen, are The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome).

Not surprisingly, several pithy sayings suitable for printing on cards may be found in the collected works of a woman who wrote so much. Again no surprise — such cards were indeed in the shop, and then they were in my purse, and now they are going to be in the blog.  ($4.00 each: How’s that for a reminder I was there? Ah well, the Mount’s reconstruction is still paying for itself.). Although faithful blog readers may be able to surmise why these two particular cards spoke to me,  I suspect they may have general relevance to most everyone past the first flush of youth. (Or else why would they have been in the shop?)

But first some Wharton back story.  She was born into New York high society in 1862, when women were discouraged from achieving anything but a proper marriage. Unfortunately, she was a bookish girl who read widely (in French, German and Italian as well as English), and early on yearned for a wider intellectual life than was thought seemly for those in her social circle. Her marriage to Ted Wharton was not good.  He was social, outgoing and apparently not much of a thinker; she relished solitude, books, and good conversation. There were no children. Eventually he became mentally unbalanced, they separated, and she achieved a divorce.  She is known to have had only one lover, after separating from her husband; the lover turned out to be a cad with a divorced wife, a mistress, a fiancee, and a propensity for sticking his pen in many inkwells. Nonetheless, she hung on for three years before giving up.  (Her private papers reveal that it was with him, at the age of 47, she had her first orgasm.) Afterwards, she continued her ongoing and copious written correspondence with male friends such as Henry James and Walter Berry, but seemed to have had no later intimates.

As she advises (on the card above), “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.”  And perhaps she did have a pretty good time.  (Not to be cynical, but I can’t help thinking the money helped.  However, she earned it herself. And I do believe she enjoyed the writing as well as the spending.) Moreover, I once had a psychotherapist who said just about the same thing.  He asked me what I wanted.  I was fifty-seven.  I said I wanted to be happy. He said happiness was not the goal of therapy.

Another card (which I also bought) quotes Wharton’s thoughts on how to have a pretty good time without trying to be happy.  Actually, the thoughts are not specifically about not trying to be happy, but about how to stay alive — which I take to mean alive in all senses of the word — well after the age at which most (all right, many) people start to fall apart.

But it seems to me it comes to the same thing in the end:

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Be unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things?That’s a tall order, about which we could talk for days. For one thing,  life is change.  Often we forget it.  Our lives continue day to day, seemingly the same.  Boring even.  And then, suddenly, boom! — it’s not the same at all.  And yes, it is scary.  Especially the older you get.  But what are you going to do?  Give up?  Or go on?  I’m not going to wax philosophical about intellectual curiosity or interest in big things, either. You’ve got it.  Or you don’t.  (Although I suppose you could force yourself because you know it’s good for you; better to be insatiable about learning something new than be insatiable about chocolate cake.)

But happy in small ways?  Well, sure. Small ways to be happy turn up all the time, usually when we least expect.  In fact, six of them turned up right in The Mount’s gift shop, next to the Wharton lessons in life. However, I’m also discovering that part of becoming old old (“long past the usual date of disintegration”) is pacing yourself.  So I’ll just save them for the next post!

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WRITING SHORT: 12/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I recently came across a box in the basement holding the white leather baby shoes in which I learned to walk in 1932. It was then the fashion to bronze outgrown baby shoes and keep them in the living room. However, these had been carefully cleaned with white shoe polish, stuffed with tissue paper and put away as if being saved for another day. I look now at these very small white shoes with stiffening laces and try to imagine the baby who wore them, the baby who was me. I can’t. I can’t even remember how it felt to take first steps among kindly giants in a world where everything was high above.

The reason I was in the basement was to find a large red-rope folder containing all my older son’s school reports and college applications. They’re his property really, to do with what he wants; it’s time they left my safekeeping. In the folder was a notebook labeled “My Diary” in which, as homework, he was supposed to write something every day for his first-grade teacher. I leaf through the careful block-printed entries on its wide-lined pages: “Ap.(ril) 8 Today we took Mommy to a doctor. We know him. We took mommy to t(he) doctor because she had some wax in her ear. It was keeping water in her ear.” That little boy I do remember. He had just turned seven. He and his younger brother were the center of my universe.

My older son is now a forty-eight year old man with some gray in his hair. Where is my mother’s baby? Where is my little boy? Day by day we change and disappear. The dead aren’t the only ones who are gone from us.

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