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Is January the Cruelest Month?

Wall Street Journal, 16 January 2020

-Eliot And Emily Photo

You could call it a tempest in a teapot, but T.S. Eliot would have nothing of American tea parties. In a letter he wrote to his confidante and muse, Emily Hale, on Oct. 24, 1948, Eliot dismissed them as places where “you spend most of your time being introduced to people whose names you do not catch.”

This and other descriptive idiosyncrasies of Eliot’s are now yours to discover. After more than 60 years sealed behind copper bands and padlocks, the 1,131 letters Eliot wrote Hale between 1930 and 1957 were finally opened to the public earlier this month. They provide an intimate glimpse at the poet’s cloistered inner life.

We descended three floors into the stony catacombs beneath Princeton University’s Firestone Library to be among the first to read these letters, still in pristine condition, as Hale left them.

im-143196?width=620&size=1.5An envelope T.S. Eliot addressed to Emily Hale. Photo: Ashley Gamarello/Princeton University Library

The letters attest to Eliot’s love for the Boston-born drama teacher he first met while in graduate school, in 1912. “You have made me . . . happier than I have ever been in my life,” he wrote in 1930. Their romance lasted most of Eliot’s life—he died in 1965 at 76—and survived his unhappy first marriage.

What their love did not survive was Hale’s decision, which Eliot vehemently opposed, to give his letters to Princeton—even with the condition they not be opened until 50 years after both of their deaths. (Hale died in 1969.)

What strikes you in leafing through the letters is less Eliot’s passion for Hale than his observations on quotidian topics. You see J. Alfred Prufrock’s complaint and regret.

In 1948 Eliot accepted a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, “or whatever they call it,” in Princeton, N.J. He wondered about meeting “atom-bomb” scientists like Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He imagined them to be “rather sinister, and no doubt charming and gentle souls.” In the fall of 1948 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but fretted that he had to take the Queen Mary across the Atlantic to attend the ceremony, “apparently an important matter for them.”

Nineteen forty-eight was a presidential election year, and his observations have a familiar ring. Eliot pronounced candidates Harry S. Truman and Thomas Dewey “clownish.” He wasn’t much happier in 1956, as the Suez Crisis roiled international relations: “I have never been so alarmed, disturbed, depressed about world affairs, and the future of Britain, as I am now. I have a low opinion of both the British and American governments.”

Eliot confessed to Hale one feeling, though, that many of us can recognize: “I have been struggling all my life with the problem of putting things into words.”

Ms. de Jong is a novelist and author of “Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition.” Mr. Jones is author of “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.”

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-Bitesand Barks Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

The problem is becoming more painful every day. I have a bad sense of direction, I am constantly guilty of missing turns, getting off on the wrong floor, and I always struggle to find my house keys. Are they lying on the bedside table, in the kitchen drawer, or in my handbag? And where is that handbag again?

My four-legged housemates, on the other hand, know exactly where they can and cannot go, keep track of their location, and sashay in and out of the house without any guidance from me. Here is the big difference: they are golden retrievers, and I am not. Fitbark-Elaine.jpg

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-Learning American Traditions Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

Traditions with which you did not grow up lack a certain nostalgic magic. So I manage not to get overly excited at the annual Memorial Day barbecue on our block after the war veterans’ parade. Or by the fusillades of lethal fireworks in our backyard on Independence Day. Never mind crowding onto a sofa to share pigs in a blanket with my neighbors while watching the Super Bowl. Alas, I even have few warm and fuzzy family feelings about pouring thick gravy over the Thanksgiving turkey. You simply cannot long for something that you did not experience when you were growing up in Europe.

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-Dress Code Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

Europeans who come to the United States often think they have a special responsibility to stand up for the lofty values of the Old World, the center of civilization, amid the cultural wastelands of America. Here everyone walks in T-shirts and shorts, chews gum all day, eats only cheeseburgers and doesn’t know how to properly handle a knife and fork — right?

Think again. In the U.S. today, it is precisely my fellow Dutchman who runs the risk of coming across as a boorish farmer. Back in the 1960s, the Dutch and other nations figured out that all social rules are arbitrary and optional. In Holland, personal freedom is happiness. Anything goes. Do it your way.

Not so in American social life, though, where rules are still rules. They are often unspoken, but they are rigorously observed, which creates a certain social insecurity. It’s as if the proper and conformist 1950s have returned. So beware.

Posted in: US 1 Newspaper
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-Rowena 130519 Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

Rowena Xiaoqing He is a Chinese historian and guest researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study. I meet the small, modest woman over lunch. “I have a lot on my mind,” she says, eating her salad. “I have to prepare for the coming weeks, the many lectures I give throughout the country.”

For Rowena, who chooses her words carefully, everything is about June 4. That very day, 30 years ago, student protests in Tiananmen Square were forcefully suppressed by the government, a horror many of us witnessed live on television. Since then Rowena’s goal has been to not let the world forget what happened. In the beginning, when she started out as a researcher, she kept a low profile. But in 2014 she became known to a wider audience with her acclaimed book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. The book was named one of the top five China books of 2014 by the Asia Society’s China File.

Posted in: Princeton Echo
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-Visiting Mother Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

I don’t have to get ready to visit my mother. She never likes it when I put anything on my face. “You are beautiful as you are,” she always says. I take an early train. I know she’s already waiting for me, sitting at her window.

When I take her in my arms, I feel her bones through the baggy sweater. She has been sick, lost pounds. My mother has become a birdie. A little bird with gray feathers on her head.

“Finally,” she says, “you are finally here.”

Posted in: Princeton Echo
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-Keto Diet Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

Because it is pouring rain, the six men who have been repairing our roof all morning have come inside to have their lunch at our kitchen table. They tell me that their families are originally from Pettoranello del Molise, in the mountains of Italy. There are three young men in their 20s,

two in their 40s, and the foreman, Mario, who is 50-ish. All are on the heavy side. They pull off their caps and wipe sweat from their foreheads. Then they unwrap the food that they have brought from home.

A plastic tray full of baked cauliFower, overFowing with melted cheese, a couple of sticks of butter, a bottle of coconut oil, a bowl of tomatoes, and chopped roast beef. When an enormous slab of bacon is extracted from aluminum foil, a hurrah arises. Time to attack!

Everyone piles bacon on his plate. The sliced butter is smeared over the cauliFower, which is already dripping with cheese and fat. Who needs my tea? They already have thermos jugs steaming with hot coffee spiked with coconut oil. Delicious! they all say. This is the tastiest diet we have ever followed!

Posted in: US 1 Newspaper
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-Sleeping Through The Night Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

“And does your baby already sleep through the night?”

I found that one of the most irritating questions I heard

during the time that we had three children under the age of

four. Hello, of course not! All three were awake at every turn.

The solution came from my midwife, who found us

exhausted after the umpteenth time with our eldest. She

shook her head and said: Why don’t you just take him to bed

with you?

Posted in: Princeton Echo
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-Recommendation Letters Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

‘As a natural leader, he always takes the lead and knows how to motivate others ... Curious and creative, he takes the initiative to go off the beaten path. He loves intellectual challenges, which cannot be complex enough for him. His analytical qualities and scientific interests are beyond his years. In addition, he has a strong empathic capacity.”

That’s a fragment from a letter of recommendation written for the son a friend of ours for admission to a very selective private school. Mind you, this is for kindergarten. The boy was five. His intellectual achievements so far consist of stacking blocks. And what toddler does not go off the beaten path, especially at the table with a plate of pasta in front of him or her? Six letters were needed when applying to this school, which the parents had set their sights on. Once he was admitted, they hoped, he would surely be on the fast track to a top-notch high school, then on an Ivy League university.

Posted in: Princeton Echo
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-Fulfillment Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

I am driving through the tranquil New Jersey countryside near Robbinsville when a mirage suddenly rises out of the mists in front of me. It is the gigantic Hindu temple BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. This fairytale building, the largest Hindu temple in the world, is breathtaking in its splendor: sculpted Italian marble, Turkish limestone, almost Gve million man-hours of carved Indian sculptures. This improbable exotic sight is only a few miles away from the bare and austere Protestant church in the nearby town.

I take off my shoes and walk inside in my socks. People sightseeing seem to Joat between marble pillars embellished with carved elephants. Worshippers exuberantly pour water over the head of a sculpted child in an idyllic garden. The mood of the whole temple is festive. The elephants are happy, the dancers in the murals are smiling, the golden images of the gods are festooned with Jowers. Outside this morning there was frost on the grass.

Posted in: US 1 Newspaper
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Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition
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