Magical & delicious
Stephen Petegorsky photo.
A limited edition volume of “On Being Ill” with handmade paste-paper covers by Claudia Cohen.
Ashfield poet Jan Freeman started Paris Press in 1995 to publish "daring and beautiful" books by women. Recorder/Trish Crapo
This is an undated photo of British author Virginia Woolf. (AP Photo) Ashfield poet and publisher Jan Freeman found a draft of "On Being Ill' when she and her partner were living with serious illnesses,
The cover of the Paris Press 2002 near facsimile of Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” with cover art by her sister, Vanessa Bell.
The cover of the newly released volume, which includes “On Being Ill” by Virginia Woolf and “Notes from Sick Rooms” by her mother, Julia Stephen, who wrote from the perspective of a caregiver. Cover art and design by Don Joint.
Argentine Tango heats up Arts Block
Dancers Armando Orzuza and Nuria Martinez will be strutting their stuff at The Arts Block in Greenfield Friday and Sunday. Before each show, there will be a dance demonstration open to all skill levels for only $5 for those who also buy a $20 concert ticket. See “Music.”
Nayana Glazier photo
‘Alice in Wonderland’ ends its run this week
The New Renaissance Players’ production of “Alice in Wonderland” is in its final week, with shows scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Beyond the writing talents of Lewis Caroll and the acting skills of the company’s members, this show includes original music from the Greenfield-based Daniel Hales and the frost heaves. See “Theater.”
Maybe you’ve had the flu — this week, last week, over a year ago. Maybe, as you lay in bed, surfacing from and sinking into the weird dreaminess of fever, it occurred to you that, though your throat hurt, your head throbbed, your bones and muscles ached, this was the longest stretch of time in what felt like forever that nobody expected anything of you. You didn’t have to get up, get dressed, make breakfast, show up at work. For once, you could just lie in bed and look at the sky.
Short of death, illness is the great leveler. And though medical expertise and equipment advances over time, there is no way to modernize illness. Illness doesn’t care what year it is. It strips away every detail extraneous to the drama of the body struggling to heal.
In 1930, novelist Virginia Woolf wrote of this strange, often oddly spiritual, drama in her essay, “On Being Ill.” The essay, originally published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was out of print for decades until discovered in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College by Ashfield poet and publisher Jan Freeman.
“The irony is that it was the taboo of illness, which was what she was writing about, that made it disappear,” Freeman said.
Freeman, who founded Paris Press in 1995 to publish “daring and beautiful” books by women that had been overlooked by other publishers, describes the process through which she came to know of the essay as both “magical” and “delicious.”
In 2002, Freeman had been invited to speak at the International Woolf Conference to be held later that year at Smith College. In preparation, she invited Karen Kukil, curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith, where Woolf’s archives are held, to meet with her in Ashfield.
“We had this wonderful, rare, magical conversation/interview at the kitchen table,” Freeman said of her meeting with Kukil. “And then, when I was walking her to her car, I asked her if she thought that there was anything that had been overlooked by Woolf that needed to be published, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you just come over to the archives and take a look yourself?’”
It was not long before Freeman was sitting in the rare book room, holding drafts of “On Being Ill.”
“And there were Woolf’s purple-inked edits and I was just covered in goose bumps. It was one of those moments that change your life,” Freeman said.
At the time, both she and her partner were living with serious illnesses. So much of what Woolf wrote was familiar to Freeman: the way people you might expect to take care of you disappear while others you wouldn’t have counted on show up; the way some people show up but want to compete with your illness, relating worse symptoms of their own. Even the way illness makes us want poetry, or trashy novels.
“I felt as if Woolf had just sort of swooped down and rested her hands on my shoulders,” Freeman said. “I was so moved by this essay, in which she’s very, very funny. She’s very direct about the challenges of illness, the disappointments of illness and then the transformations that take place.”
Freeman brought “On Being Ill” back into print in a near facsimile of the 1930 hardcover edition that included cover art by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Though it had not even been conceived of when Freeman was first invited to speak, that Paris Press edition became the centerpiece of the 2002 International Woolf Conference. The movie, “The Hours,” based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Woolf and two women in other time periods who are affected by her novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” was released the same year and shown at The Academy of Music in Northampton during the conference.
“We were able to sell books at the popcorn stand, which was super fun,” Freeman said. “It was all just a wonderful experience.”
In addition to the near facsimile, Paris Press also produced a limited edition of “On Being Ill” bound in colorful, original paste-paper covers by renowned bookbinder Claudia Cohen. When Freeman went to choose a paste paper for the edition, she was so entranced by what she saw as Cohen opened the drawers in her Easthampton studio, she decided to use small ends of papers left over from many years of Cohen’s projects, making each book truly one of a kind.
This past November, Paris Press reissued “On Being Ill” in a paperback edition that marries Woolf’s essay with another, “Notes from Sick Rooms,” written by her mother, Julia Stephen, nearly 50 years previous. Freeman described the chance to publish the two essays in one volume as “thrilling.”
“It transforms the book,” Freeman said, by creating a “textual conversation” between mother and daughter, patient and caregiver.
While Woolf writes of the experience of being bedridden, Stephen, a vocational nurse working and writing in the same era as Florence Nightingale, offers advice for those charged with bedside duty. Stephen’s voice is measured and calm as she writes of the proper way to change a sheet, dispense with crumbs, make beef bouillon or handle bedside visitors. Now and then, an intelligent wit familiar to readers of Woolf nudges in, introducing, as Freeman put it, “the idea of Woolf being influenced by her mother as well as her father.”
To have the two perspectives of patient and caregiver in one book deepens a reader’s understanding of illness. As Rita Charon points out in her afterword, even simple differences — Woolf is horizontal; Stephen is vertical — are striking. Charon is the director and founder of Columbia University’s graduate program in Narrative Medicine, a fast-growing field that combines humanities and medical studies to train medical personnel to pay as much attention to patients’ stories as to their symptoms. Charon writes that reading the two essays together produces, “the precarious inner balance I try to achieve when seeing patients.”
That balance is made up partly of a medical professional’s “knowledge born of having watched many persons fall ill and die” and a patient’s sense that her illness is unique.
“I have come to adopt the stance of radical unknowingness,” Charon writes. “As long as I don’t assume anything about a person in my care, I may learn something that will help.”
“I found her essay to be extraordinary,” Freeman said. Charon’s comments provided a way of understanding the two older texts in the more current context of what Freeman called, “A time of crisis in health care and, politically, an urgent time in terms of determining what kind of health care is going to be available to the people of the United States.”
Sharon Olds, Chris Adrian, Suzy Becker and Janlori Goldman, who has taught narrative medicine with Charon at Columbia, will be a featured at an event on narrative medicine that Paris Press will host at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Boston, held March 6–9. Paris Press has also received funding from Mass Humanities, the Northampton Arts Council and the Massachusetts Cultural Council for educational and outreach programs related to the book. Freeman is planning writing workshops and readings at extended care facilities and senior centers in the area. And soon, readers will be able to access a study guide to the book through the Paris Press website.
In the meantime, open “On Being Ill” and Virginia Woolf is still in bed, having given up on being a soldier in “the army of the upright.” She sinks into her pillows and lies there, watching clouds, realizing with some alarm that the sky goes on changing regardless of whether anyone is watching, that “this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away — this endless activity, with the waste of Heaven knows how many million horse power of energy, has been left to work its will year in year out. The fact seems to call for comment and indeed for censure. Ought not some one to write to The Times?”
“‘On Being Ill,’ by Virginia Woolf with ‘Notes from Sick Rooms,’ by Julia Stephen” is available at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield and Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, or online through Paris Press. A few copies of the near-facsimile of “On Being Ill,” by Virginia Woolf, published in 2002, are still available through the Paris Press offices. The limited edition, one-of-a-kind volumes with handmade, paste-paper covers by Claudia Cohen help to fund Paris Press, a nonprofit organization, and are available on its website.
Here are some ways to contact Paris Press: P.O. Box 487, Ashfield, MA 01330; phone or fax: 413-628-0051; email@example.com
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org