On March 15 my temporary disabled parking placard expires, a handy red tag that hangs on the rear view mirror and allows convenient privileges like use of blue zones and free unlimited parking elsewhere. These are among the small compensations for enduring pain.
It began two years ago with an ache in my right knee. After months of physical therapy, I had an X-ray last summer that revealed pelvic bone-on-bone and foretold total hip replacement.
I should have cancelled a London trip that was planned as a celebration of my retirement, but the doctors said go and take pain meds. And so I went, stupidly. Having conducted theater tours to England for over 20 years, I knew the territory. My old friend Fiona, a bursar at the University of London, booked me into my usual room at the top of Canterbury Hall, overlooking roof gardens and chimneys to the clock tower of Kings Cross station. To the south, I could see the Shard, the capital’s newest skyscraper. I was home away from home.
Making the most of misery, I studied acceptance and limited my activities to theater and three excursions: Oxford, the Dulwich Gallery, and Rodmell in East Sussex, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf had lived. Their Monk’s House is a National Trust property, and one of the literary pilgrimages that I had been anticipating for many years.
I delayed the big outing until the last Sunday and filled difficult days with matinees, made tolerable by the ready accommodations offered by box office personnel. All I had to do was mention my hip, and they gave me convenient disability seats at half price. In that way I was able to enjoy The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, Pinter’s Hot House with Simon Russell Beale, the song and dance show Top Hat and other memorable performances.
The only disappointment was Shakespeare’s Globe, where the audience is expected to suffer for art. Severe discomfort and heat forced me out of the theater and onto the Thames pedestrian bridge, limping along, taking in the river views and refreshing air.
I had to rest a lot, and during my down time, I kept company with Max Glickman, the entertaining narrator of Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson. In the mornings I ate breakfast in the canteen with an Australian scholar who was doing research at the nearby British library.
The day of my Virginia Woolf pilgrimage arrived with perfect weather. From Victoria Station I took an express train to Brighton and from there a local service, two little green cars that followed the River Ouse, where on March 28, 1941 the author walked into the water, stones in her pockets.
At a rural stop near the village of Southease, a group of English ramblers got off the train, and together we walked across a bridge spanning the river, where they stopped to examine maps.
I asked a couple of locals for the shortest route to Rodmell, so while the ramblers set off along the river, I took the high road through village and golden hay fields and got to Monk’s House before them, amazed at how well my leg was holding up.
Monk’s House is a rustic cottage set at the front of a narrow property that slopes up to a garden. The feel of the place is old-fashioned, an ironic setting for a couple of modernist writers. The main sitting and dining rooms are furnished in the arts and crafts style with hand made fabrics and accessories. Books and paintings by friends and family decorate the low walls. The kitchen and Virginia’s bedroom are also open to the public. At the back of the garden her small writing hut hides in the bushes. In the English tradition, the garden is divided by stone walls and hedges, each open air chamber accented by planting beds, brick walks, sculpture, and outdoor furniture.
After looking around and talking with the docents, I found an empty bench under a magnolia tree near a rectangular pool, a quiet corner to eat my packed lunch. On the stone wall nearby sat a bust of Virginia Woolf and a plaque announcing that her ashes were buried under the tree.
This was unexpected and gave my little repast a certain gravitas. Soon I arranged my backpack as a pillow and lay down for a nap, sinking into a reverie.
In forty years teaching literature at CCSF, I assigned many of Woolf’s more accessible works: The Voyage Out, Three Guineas, Flush, Jacob’s Room, Between the Acts, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and a Room of One’s Own. My students, mostly retired women who had worked as teachers, secretaries, social workers, nurses, homemakers, and other professions, wanted to read good books and understand them. But even some of my brightest students found Woolf’s style difficult.
Interest in her work blossomed with the popularity of The Hours by Michael Cunningham and the film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, in which her suicide serves as a thematic reference. The story interweaves one day in the life of Woolf while she is writing Mrs. Dalloway with two modern parallel characters played by Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore.
The Hours makes good use of Woolf’s life and work as well as her pioneering style of multiple points of view and temporal shifts, but the film treatment of her death is removed from its historical context and therefore distorted. No understanding of a famously desperate act should be so detached from the empirical circumstances.
Virginia Woolf drowned herself, not only because she was mentally ill, but because the war on the home front drove her to despair. She suffered from bi-polar disorder, mostly kept in check by her writing routine and the care of husband, family, and friends; but once the air battle began, her stability was shattered by the threat of invasion.
The London Blitz of 1940 destroyed her Tavistock Square home, and the next year brought new horrors. On March 8, Buckingham Palace was hit; and two days later Portsmouth, just forty miles down the coast from Brighton, was the target of thousands of incendiary and high explosive bombs. In the week before Woolf’s death, the Luftwaffe reduced the historic center of Plymouth to utter rubble in two terrible days.
In his memoirs, Leonard wrote that the couple intended to kill themselves should the Germans land, because they certainly would have been taken by the Gestapo. As a Jew and a former diplomat, he had no delusions about Hitler’s intent. These were some facts of their life in March 1941.
The empirical circumstances of my own life at that dozy moment eddied around fatigue. After forty-two years of classroom teaching without a sabbatical and conducting sixty-five theater tours, I was worn out. In my professional life working with hundreds of seniors, I knew that the golden years were often tarnished by poor health, their long awaited freedom become a duel with the grim reaper.
Nap over; I decided to follow Virginia’s fatal footsteps down to the River Ouse. The guides assured me that the walk to the station would take forty-five minutes, and with more than an hour before the last train to Lewes, I set off on the soon unpaved road. At first, it was exhilarating to be out in the open country, surrounded by fields, the chalky hills of the South Downs in the distance.
I reconstructed how Virginia must have felt on her walks, when Nazi war planes emerged from the southern horizon on their way to London, how wrapped in black depression, she made her final determined way towards death.
I kept expecting to see the river, but I had underestimated the distance, and my leg began to seriously hurt. By the time I reached road’s end, my physical communion with Woolf had reached its full intensity.
The banks of the Ouse in no way resembled the drowning scene in the film The Hours. Here was no green riparian foliage draped over a stream, only a channel of high sloping concrete walls constructed for irrigation and flood control, not an inviting place for the refreshing wade I had imagined.
But I was happy enough to turn down the well trod path. Normally I would have enjoyed the river walk, but the uneven surface jarred my nerves, so to keep up a steady pace and my spirits, I maintained a deliberate cadence to the mantra of “not dead yet.”
Should my leg collapse, I was alone in the middle of the country with no phone and nobody in sight except for some munching cattle. I was checking my watch when a short green train slid along the tracks on the other side of the river. I had a moment of panic, thinking I had missed my connection, before realizing it was going in the other direction. By brutal willpower, I pushed forward until the sight of the bridge hastened my steps. I got to the station just minutes before the train.
Woolf died two years before I was born during World War II, the historical nexus that links those of us who lived mostly in the twentieth century. I knew her intellect through her writing, but now totally exhausted, I felt bound to her in body by this strangely sublime pilgrimage.
Back in my room, I reflected on the milestone of retirement. My teaching and touring career was over. Canterbury Hall was going to be demolished and replaced with new student residences, Fiona’s legacy to London, a city always rebuilding and reinventing itself.
I was hoping to emerge from the condition of pain, our shared human heritage that too often makes us feel ashamed. Somewhere along the way, we absorb the notion that pain is punishment for being alive rather than the proof. My ordeal and surgery are now past, and I have been released once again, ready for renewal. So when my disabled placard expires on the Ides of March, I will not be wary but aware.
Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley