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A Friendship of Unabashed Exposure

In July 1974. after a long afternoon with my friend Barbara Myerhoff, the anthropologist best known for the renowned Number Our Days, I left for a summer in England. Barbara, realizing she was ill, gathered up the pages of a novel I had just finished writing and went into the hospital. Barbara was 39; I was 40. The letters that Barbara and I called our Co-Respondence began that summer, and when our regular letters stopped, in 1976, we had written over 600 pages. The correspondence begun when we were apart continued unabated even when we were living just a few minutes away from one another in Los Angeles.

The correspondence was shaped by our personal history and also, of course, by the historical moment. Barbara was deeply involved in her research on marginalized people like the elderly Jews who gathered at the Israel Levin Center (work which became both the book and the Academy Award-wining documentary Number Our Days). I was preoccupied with the 1973 golpe in Chile (about which a group of us had made a documentary film, “Chile: With Poems and Guns”) and with the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, the first feminist center for the arts and social change outside a university. Barbara and I were wrestling with Judaism, our affiliation and dis-affiliation. And we were trying to discover through our own lives what it meant to be independent women and thinkers while raising children, being wives and partners, running households, earning our living, writing books, involving ourselves in political, cultural and spiritual struggles. Barbara came into feminist consciousness through me and the Woman’s Building, and in our correspondence we often investigated the existence and nature of women’s culture.

After many long conversations we committed to writing in depth to each other at least once a week. By the time Barbara died, in 1985, we had found through our almost thirty-year friendship quite a few collaborative forms, but this was the most intimate and interesting to us.

The first letter, July 11, 1974.

Dear Deena:

Your manuscript lies in a hopeless disarray on my hospital table, paper clips mixed with pansies and alcohol soaks. I never had time to staple the segments before I left home with it, seizing it with a prescience that this was going to be ‘special time’ for just that. I’d rather you had been here. I really came close to death while you were on vacation-you would never have forgiven that betrayal. It has taken me four days to read it. Slowly, carefully, feverishly. The conditions were part of the book for me: If I died, I wanted to have read it; tho you would never have been sure I finished or liked it; you would have known I had it with me and the pages out of order.

Last conversation with you on Thursday, I had a 103.5° fever—what did that have to do within the curious progression of our talk. We talk well always but that was special for us, no?…searching, returning, probing, honest and fearless, completely committed to each other with wealth of details and experience, experienced lovers; we are courageous, we go the entire path, we flinch and persist; we are responsible and dauntless and inexhaustible and imaginative….

Let’s continue our journal over the summer. If you can’t write it for you, write it for me and I will keep track, as always. No fusion problem here, is there? We must continue to allow each other to be trusted tho different. Tho different, you are not the Other.

Goodnight, my dear me,

Love. Barb

I returned from Europe and we continued writing to each other, though we lived just a mile apart. Sometimes we didn’t have time in the week for a letter and a visit, and we found ourselves in one house or the other, sitting in separate rooms typing letters to each other.

[From Barbara] Here I sit, having burst into your house. Taken a drink for myself without announcement or precedent. Why? I sit here, ritualistically if need be, to devote myself in a stolen half an hour…

The form we had found was as intimate as any journal. The presence of the other as a reader elicited a level of exploration and honesty that we might not have reached otherwise. This was in itself perhaps the single most important reason for the correspondence. We were both concerned with and fascinated by the relationship between the private and the public, the ways in which the one would inform but also threaten and undermine the other. To find the means to say more, and more truthfully to the other, became a compelling motivation for the letters, made them essential to our lives.

We wrote to each other with the passion that is elicited in great love affairs. The correspondence had the same motivation; to wrestle language to the ground so that we would know the other and be known as deeply as is possible in this life.

July 15, 1975:

Imagine, Barbara, those things we know, KNOW, you and I…the rediscovered rituals, the old beliefs….[W]e are miners digging into each other coming up with such ore, minerals, which then become animated, open and close, grow like flowers,…I know you have an image too what is it?—write it down—this must be the beginning of our book this is the fusion the novel which is anthropology, the anthropology which is a novel—it begins where it did not know it was…[Y]ou were beginning to walk toward death [but] when you wrote to me can we say it was a rope—”You would be so mad at me,” you wrote “You would never forgive me.” So that must be the first letter in the book and then?

And Barbara wrote:

The problems, Deena, for us are reversed. For you it is hard to write the journal in anticipation of being read. For me it is hard to write without that anticipation.

We guarded the primacy of these raw letters fiercely, but on the other hand, we pretended that our correspondence would someday be a public document in order to justify the time to the brutal inner arbiters of our lives. We had families and commitments to other writing. I was teaching in three different places plus trying to give my own writing the attention it needed. It seemed that every second of our lives was under scrutiny by ourselves and others.

Yesterday, Deena, in Venice [California], I had a nugget, a fragment for our kitchen culture. I realized, immobilized as I was by a long discourse in Yiddish, I could not reasonably take notes and was forced to attend to non-verbal events. In this state of attention, I realized that I could linger in those people’s arms now. Most physical contacts among people are confrontations and separations. These people hold on and don’t release (as you well know.) I found myself managing that lingering embrace by doing to them what they do to me. I touch their cheeks, I rearrange their hairs and set their sweaters aright, I pull off little balls of wool and bits of lint. I brush hair off their faces and search their skin for blackheads— at this close range, easy to find. Will it end with me picking their ears and noses, cleaning their toes? It is done with some self-assertion, [and] you well know this carries some hostility. It makes claims on others, it reshapes them to one’s own liking. It makes one a participant and not a passive victim.

August 1975

Barbara,

…I heard myself saying, “Not for me. This church was built against me it is not mine.” Suddenly I knew that I no longer took as mine all those strong patriarchal Christian figures who wrote so eloquently on philosophy,…Descartes, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Sartre. Another culture spoke in me Jewish and female.

Barbara, In the [Salisbury] Cathedral there were some pillows with needlepoint…and a little sign…saying the triangles and circles in the background were in disarray to express chaos upon which the idea of the Trinity is imposed….Ah yes, the women, how I enjoy looking at their work, chaos and order.

On Yom Kippur 1974 Barbara initiated an event that became an important focus in our correspondence. Here is what I said about it at her funeral:

The day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in 1971, I was suffering my usual ambivalence to the Jewish High Holy Days….I happened to see Alan Resnais’ terrifying and awesome film on the concentration camps, Night and Fog. Overwhelmed, but skittish, I dared to call Barbara while I was weeping and she insisted that we observe Yom Kippur together the next day. She said I was not to prepare anything, that she would arrive at my house in the morning with a minyan. The minyan she brought with her was herself. She brought candles, her father’s tallit, a shaman’s whistle, a few poems, an awkwardly cut yellow felt star, a prayer book and because she knew that I love to eat, not to fast, believe in abundance not deprivation—she brought matzo, gefilte fish, fruit, wine, her grandmother’s silver goblet, and she set up the ritual table in my kitchen in the presence of my kids, my housekeeper and the dogs.

Here are excerpts from the long letters we wrote to each other in response to this event:

[From Barbara:]

I invited you, Deena, to dare, to take the enormous risk of all ritual, the danger of discovering it is made-up and thus all of social life and meaning is made up….Most of all sharing the right to tamper with religious forms, taking them away from our poisoning mothers, finding the bridge to our unknown, therefore undestructive grandmothers….That our past belongs to us, that it was unthinkable for you to suffer alone thru Yom Kippur, grieving inchoately, without forms or rights….I realize that it only half worked, that I did it to you, that out of love you let me and trusted me on principle, but I believe that someday it will bear fruit and that we will eat it fully together.

[From Deena:]

And the candle for the dead, Barbara? The candle for your dead mother and your dead father? Are you going to be able to manage a candle for their dead souls which will really be a candle? A light for the darkness? Surely you are afraid. Surely you know that if this ritual doesn’t work this time, it never has worked and never will work. The candle is so humble. You and your kitchen religion. But I admit this time, I am moved profoundly by what I never understood before, by white wax in an ordinary kitchen glass that will burn for 24 hours. Where do we light the candle for the dead? In the kitchen, in the place of day. In the place of wounded fingers, chocolate milk and green peas. Broccoli, oatmeal, dirty noses and plucked chickens. In the kitchen, the place of life.

Death and loss were among our themes

July 17, 1975

Deena, July is death month. My mother died tomorrow, July 18th. My father began to die in July and finished in September. Death is not convenient.

January 1, 1976

Deena, yes you are right, at some time, order and beauty kill. Be careful. Too much beauty, too much myth and meaning, blot out the confusion and craziness that must stay in too….Too much order is the crystal forest, utterly perfect, delicate, shining, glistening, quite dead. Watch out. Stay close to broccoli and madness.

It was Tuesday, July 20th; Ruth, Barbara’s dying friend, was trying to hold on through July to live until August because July was known to be full of terrors.

July 22, 1976

She exhorted me to be grateful. We had enjoyed 20 years of grace, a friendship beyond the normal. It had always seemed a miracle, a gift. She accused me of carrying too much of the light….It was true, but only with her of anyone in the world. Mostly I was the friend of the dark….I stood below and watched the ambulance pull away.

July 23, 1976

Dearest Barbara: I don’t know what this letter will say. I came in about an hour ago and found your letter on my desk—a curious bundle—and a little dramatic—loose ends in an envelope, a letter about you and Ruth, about raging and screaming in pain, a will. I know you are leaving but only for a week! I am very clear about some things, sternly, maternally clear, but I don’t know if I have the gift Ruth had to make you, help you, see what is clear. The simplest way to say it is that while you may grieve, mourn, ache, you cannot carry so much death with you….The dark must become more optional, chosen and the light more possessive, inevitable.

Do you know what I did today at 11 am when I was alone in the house? I practiced laughing. As if I were actress who had to learn to laugh on the stage, on demand. I pushed the laugh down into my throat saying, huhu huhuhu huhuhu until there was a hahahahahahaha which was real….If Ruth had any last wish for you, I know it was for you to continue the struggle toward light.

After we had been writing for some time, almost a year, we read from our letters at the Woman’s Words Conference I’d organized at the Woman’s Building, trying to describe the intense intimacy from a correspondence that allowed for such honesty, nakedness and caring, for intellectual concerns as well as our personal and inner thoughts and feelings.

In the reading, everyone was stunned, delighted, grateful for this image of women’s friendship. It became a model for other women, but our correspondence was over. Going public and sharing the correspondence at the Woman’s Building actually brought it to an end. The intimacy between us was not destroyed, but the ability to communicate it regularly in letters was. Like it or not, an audience had appeared for our most private thoughts, and we retreated to our own journals.

The very last letter in the volume was written on February 7, 1977, eight months after the rhythm of our correspondence had ended. This time I was in the hospital with breast cancer. This time Barbara took on the task of calling me into life:

I confess from the outset that I don’t regard death as transformation but as a finish and I abjure it with uncompromising resistance. That and that alone is the enemy with whom one must never compromise; the rest is negotiable.

Barbara Myerhoff was the author of, among other books, Number Our Days: Culture and Community. Deena Metzger is the author of Writing For Your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds and other books including the forthcoming The Other Hand (Red Hen Press), an epistolary novel in which a Jewish American woman astronomer addresses the nature of light and darkness. Also forthcoming is Late Talks and Tales, co-edited by Barbara Myerhoff, Marc Kaminsky and Mark Weiss with the collaboration of Deena Metzger (University of Virginia Press)