Fin in a Waste of Waters

"These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom....Leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns....I note under 'F.,' therefore, 'Fin in a waste of waters.' I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter's evening." (from Woolf's THE WAVES)

14 September 2007

An Open Letter to Zohreh Sullivan

12 September 2007

Dear Zohreh,

I’ve been meaning to write you for about a week now (the words were already coming to me as we sat across from each other at Espresso Royale), but then I had my doctor’s appointment the very next day, and this, with the move to California, has thrown off my writing, understandably, I suppose, though I feel that it is during these times when I should be writing, recording, remembering.

And the same for my dissertation/thesis: I was so exhausted by the writing of it that I still haven’t written about its writing, which is what I so wanted to tell you about at Espresso if we’d had more time – but it works out, because now I might write it to you instead of wasting my words by frittering them all away on talk (so ephemeral). Now that I’ve found a post office not too far from me, though, I can write it to you.

I wanted to write to tell you about the sheer intensity of writing about Woolf, an intensity that I had never tapped into until now (with the exception of a paper I wrote on Katherine Mansfield & “Bliss” – but that was an intensity so close that it terrified me, and I shied away from her, leaving the piece as “breathless” as its subject. Writing about Woolf, however, this intensity became rather a calm center of extreme focus, a gathering of fragments, a comfortable closeness (reading her letters and diaries, I began unconsciously to think of her as Virginia, or sometimes, if I was feeling particularly protective of her, as “my Virginia”). I realized towards the end of te writing process that (though I’d already had many undesirable interruptions during the summer) I was purposefully slowing my writing down, procrastinating not by avoiding the work but by sinking more deeply into details. I was reluctant to let either it or Virginia go; I regretted turning in what had nurtured me (if it tortured me at times) for nearly two years. (Luckily, I saved one of her novels, Flush, to read later, and carried it with me here to Irvine so that though there may be geographical disconnect, there is no severance.)

So while understanding the dangers of identifying with one’s topic (especially a subject like Woolf), I nevertheless allowed myself (or imagined?) an understanding with her, quiet, tender at times, undramatic (unlike the identification I imagined myself to have with Mansfield, which was destructive, frightening – like clinging desperately with no saddle nor reins to the slick back of a black horse who races through a lightless vacuum you know is Time; Limited Time; 5 year’s Time – while I loved her and her writing, working on her cut too close, fed my fears, would have been my collapse [here, I wanted to write “death,” but that seemed too dramatic a word]). In Virginia, however, I identified a quiet strength, a balance, a knowing guide. While writing her, I dreamed her, along with the Wars identified in her writing. During this year, these were the major moments:

An email from D.S., my first love before Rasheed (a young love – D. was a conservative who didn’t believe the ERA should be passed, but somehow he still managed to love my feminist tenacity – it was an inexperienced love that didn’t survive the year of my illness and finally the removal of the tumor in ’04, but everything for a reason – perhaps I wouldn’t have found Rasheed otherwise!). Years ago, when D. & I were still dating, I dreamt that he went to fight in the war (this must have been just before or just after Bush invaded; this of course is the ever-constant weight that bore on the writing of my diss.). In this dream, he was leaving for the service, and we stood facing each other on a wooden train platform (dusty & the color of his neatly pressed uniform – like he had never worn it before) saying good-bye. I knew in the dream I would never see him again; I knew it, and gripped his head between my two hands & sobbed, despite his calm, even slightly amused, reassurance: “It’s going to be okay. I’ll be fine.” Up until this point in our relationship (‘02-03), he hadn’t mentioned enlisting in the military. In fact, it wasn’t until years later, when I was living with Rasheed in London, that I heard from Dan that he was going into the service. I immediately recalled that dream. I phoned him the night before he left home for training to wish him luck, but didn’t tell him about the dream. I haven’t seen him since before I first moved to London, and indeed, had not even heard from him since he left, until, a couple of months ago, in the midst of writing about Virginia (and about Virginia writing about war), there was an email from him.

Then, the aeroplanes. This was nearly constant. During the summer, there were a number of air shows around Brighton – new planes & antique, show planes & trick planes. Again and again do the war planes appear in Woolf’s diary, droning over London and Monks House (she wondered that a bomb didn’t drop right through the glass ceiling of her writing house), sawing the air – it seemed as though as she wrote it, so, too, I read it – these lingering sounds (which are right now, appropriately, perhaps, if anticlimactically, the high whine of a force of lawn mowers and weed whackers driven by a team of lawn care workers attacking our grad housing grounds!).

And the death of my grandfather, a World War II veteran of the Navy. At such a distance from him, I wasn’t sure if I’d lost him at all, or if perhaps I hadn’t actually lost him already, long ago, before my birth, before the birth of my father (his son) even. If he wasn’t always-already lost to me, a casualty of the war. I dreamt the night I learned of his death that he had died in that war, yet somehow, I still existed, and more, was still his grand-daughter.

Finally, a visit to Monks House. Rasheed & I went together during his most recent visit (we went, too, to Hogarth House in Richmond). We went to see the House, their bedrooms, the balcony where she installed a telescope, the gardens where he planted & dug & declared famously that these plants would still be growing long after Hitler was dead, the small house with the glass roof where she wrote most mornings from 10 to 1 at a great butcher’s block table. I used the outhouse there just for the joke of it – the house has an indoor toilet which Virginia was so excited to have installed after Mrs. Dalloway sold so well, but now that the house has new owners, all visitors must use the outbuilding. Then, we decided to rest & relax outside for awhile as the weather had finally turned nice again (the sun came & went with Rasheed this summer), and R. let me choose out of all the gardens and lawns where we would sit. I chose a small, semi-secluded garden with a square lily pond in its center. We rested there on the grass for a time, then left the house to explore the churchyard on the other side of the fence dividing the property of “the Woolves” from that of the church, where/when I realized I had forgotten to ask where the ashes of Virginia were buried (I knew that they were buried under one of the two great trees the Woolfs had nicknamed “Leonard” and “Virginia,” but also that those trees have since come down). So we went back to the house, and asked directions which led us back to the same garden where we had rested, even to the very same side of it where we had sat. Approaching this garden a second time, I felt an overwhelming awe for this woman, and gratitude for the understanding I had been granted during my writing. Perhaps here she had found peace in life and now after; perhaps it was the sense of that peace that led me here years later.

There were, of course, other dreams (R. & I, war refugees, in danger still, running through the night, through gunfire) and many, many other moments (seeing the portrait of the son she lost to war which Vanessa had hung over her bed at Charleston), but these were the four main things.

Love,
Tessa


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