Monday, June 17, 2019

Snacking & writing, writing & snacking.

Friends, when you are in the wilderness, or, say, the countryside, you have to lay in provisions. You have to bring half your life as measured in a vast weight of paper. You have to bring a certain number of shirts, and a certain number of shoes. And other clothing too numerous to enumerate, as the packing adage goes (too many tee shirts = just enough tee shirts). AND you have to buy food for, let’s say, a week—and, in an unfortunate turn of affairs, you must do this provisioning when you fully in the throes of jet lag.

Here are some things I bought at the Aldi in Cavan Town:

  • Fresh pasta
  • Two jars of jam
  • Two smallish loaves of bread
  • Basil, cilantro, mint
  • Salad leaves (as they call it over here—cress and other pungent flavors)
  • Two packages of fresh tomatoes
  • Asparagus, green beans, two long pointy red peppers, garlic, onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Packet of crisps
  • Two bars of chocolate
  • Two kinds of Irish cheese
  • Box of oat cakes
  • Milk
  • Extra nutty granola, luxury style (oh, the good granola over here! So good!)
  • Butter 
  • Almond butter
  • Irish strawberries and blueberries and some bananas
  • Some smallish yellow-skinned potatoes
and probably a few other things I can’t remember at the moment. Oh!
  • Vegetarian sausages
  • Greek yogurt, plain, two kinds
My hosts have provided me with eggs from their hens, who are, as we speak, roaming around the yard looking fairly smug. 

And I am doing okay, food-wise, to be honest. Here is how my day goes:

1. I get up. I make tea. I have a breakfast—yogurt and granola and fruit, plus toast with almond butter, or eggs and potatoes and toast. Either way: lovely. I love breakfast.
2. I begin my work. Today, some writing I’ve been sort of plodding away at really kicked into gear, and I am feeling good about that. I’ve also been reading a bunch of things—books of poems I brought, plus there are lots of interesting books around here.
3. I go for a walk at some point. Or yesterday, I went for a run. I used an app which meant that after each kilometer, my phone spoke to me. Fairly unnerving, I must say, the first time it happened. On the plus side, I actually ran four kilometers and that made me feel like a boss.
4. I have a snack lunch.

DIGRESSION: Snack lunch is amazing, and I am a big proponent of it. My snack lunches have so far consisted of:
  • Oat cakes
  • Some of my fine Irish cheese
  • A few tomatoes
  • Some Kalamata olives (add: Kalamata olives to the list of stuff I bought)
  • A cup of tea
  • Half a banana
  • Maybe instead of oat cakes, I have toast and almond butter. Or maybe I have both.
Whatever assortment of these things I eat, they are satisfying, and they make me feel right at home here and also like I am doing as the people do here, which, I have no idea if that’s really the case, I’m just an American, shutting herself up in a barn to write poems, not a cultural anthropologist with expertise in foodways. 

I might also have a spoonful of that jam, in honor of The Historian, who loves a spoonful of jam or so. Frankly, I have a hard time keeping us in jam—I’ll bring home a couple of jars and maybe a week later, I’ll be looking for some jam to stir into a bowl of yogurt, and there is no jam to be found, and TH will just shrug and say, I finished that off years ago, and I’ll be all, damn, I have a hard time keeping us in jam, and that’s how the jam situation is chez us. DIGRESSION OUT.

Friends, I have two things to say: 

1. I’m pretty sure that my snack regimen is the reason I am having the good writing day I’m having. (Maybe another factor is the small nap I took, on account of the fact that for the second day in a row, I could not get to sleep until the light at yon window broke around 5 a.m., LORD. Also another factor: the year-old New Yorkers laying around here, in which there are all kinds of riches, who knew!? Maybe I should read the magazine when it is delivered to my own mailbox at home, but who has time for that in ordinary life? I traveled across an ocean and seven time zones to have time for reading the New Yorker, apparently.

2. I’m a little worried about my oat cakes stores. I have eleven oat cakes left! That’s three snack lunches plus a more paltry snack lunch!

Obviously, I can find my way to a store to re-provision up. In which case, I might also find some cookies. There are no cookies in my house and I don’t know how I’m supposed to have writing breakthroughs without them, if you ask me. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

A new beginning, OR: a barn of one’s own.

Dear Reader,

It has been quite a long time. I know it: a very long time, really. Before I reckon with that, let me tell you about how I came to be in Ireland, at least this time, and why at this moment, I am looking out an upper window upon two donkeys having their way with a fruit tree, from the looks of it. And just out of the frame, somewhere, there are a flock of chickens.

Last year, right about now, the NEH Summer Institute was just about to begin. Putting that Institute together had been a lot of work, and because there was a team doing the work, and because it had taken us three tries to get the grant, we were all feeling trepidatious, exhilarated, and exhausted. Then the Institute happened. It was four intense weeks of absolute and unadulterated presence. It turned out magnificently, kudos to my teammates who were absolutely epic in terms of their efforts and performance. I feel so proud to have played my part in this thing. HOWEVER: as it was getting underway, I had the prescience to say, first to myself, then to The Historian: “Next summer, I want to plan to be away for a good long while. Like, for weeks.”

From there, the plan for this trip took shape. At first, I thought about a writing retreat, which would attach to a family trip, longer than our usual trips, so that we could do and see more. Then, I had the idea that we should invite our children to come. We had a lot of children, and so the upshot of inviting the children was that the trip began to have fold-out pages and pop-ups, and lots of ins and outs and what have yous.

The constant was always: retreat first, then a family extravaganza. And that is where we are: the retreat first. I booked two weeks at this retreat, in a rural county, and built the trip around those dates.

On Wednesday, The Historian drove me to the airport. This was after a lot of thought and preparation—never enough preparation, it seems to me—and a wonderful visit from my son and his family. Before we took off, I read some more chapters from the book I was reading my grandsons, and it felt to me like I was maybe leaving the fun behind. And I was—leaving some of the joy behind, anyway—but off I went, with my very heavy bag and another very heavy carry on. I did practice packing—what a fraught enterprise it is, to pack for weeks away! when clothes are a thing you love and when your basic aesthetic commitment is to more—and even that morning, with my daughter in law, I did some last minute editing and weighing of my bag. I had gone through piles and piles of drafts, ones that had comments from my writing group and notes from my own edits, and came up with about half a ream of paper that I thought hard about leaving behind—but I knew I would regret it if I got to the retreat, and I felt the need to see those ephemeral tracings. I carried so much with me, too much, and that’s just how I do things, I guess. I apologized for this to the taxi driver who picked me up in Dublin, and to the very nice man who, with his editor/publisher/writer wife, is my host, as he hoisted the bag into the back of his vehicle at the bus station closest to this place.

On the flight—I flew first to Atlanta, then to Dublin—I did a crossword, then I watched episodes of Schitt’s Creek, then dozed through You’ve Got Mail, which I never get sick of (Meg Ryan wears the most lovely neutral clothes, specializing in various shades of grey—the shapes of them are somehow ageless), and which, for purposes of sleeping/not sleeping on an international flight, worked quite well. (Other virtues of You’ve Got Mail: a great small performance by the ineffable Dave Chappelle, and a perfect little performance by Parker Posey, and the sublime Jean Stapleton, too. It’s too long, but I kind of cherish all of it. Probably 88% of it, but that’s a good ratio for a comedy, in my opinion.)

Note: my flight from SLC to Atlanta had far superior entertainment options than did the flight from Atlanta to Dublin. Why, Delta? Please explain your reasoning and email it to me at

Well, I arrived in Dublin, exchanged some dollars for Euros, got in said taxi with the nicest taxi driver, an elderly gentleman who was very chatty and with whom, for whatever reason, I was happy to chat right back. He drove me straight to my hotel, where I dropped my bags and went directly out to walk around town for a few hours. I wanted to go to the National Gallery, a museum that I missed the first time we came to Dublin because my daughter and I decided to go shopping instead. Two of the wings in the museum were closed for routine maintenance, but I saw a lovely exhibit of Irish printmaking, and I lingered in a fairly extensive set of galleries focused on European art from about 1300-1650. Lots of religious art, some classical art based on mythology and a fair number of courtly portraits. I saw a gorgeous Caravaggio—maybe the first time I have spent any time with a painting by this artist. And a handful of paintings by artists from Moscow, most of whom were unnamed, including this fantastic painting of St. George slaying the dragon:

Good Lord, I love this. 

I walked around carrying nothing but a tiny pouch, containing nothing but my ID, some money, my phone, and a pen. I felt thrillingly light and spaced out with exhaustion, a little. It was cool—chilly, even—and I was glad for the sweater that I had brought on the plane and not worn. I ate lunch in the museum cafe, a thing the historian and I love to do wherever and whatever the museum. I bought a sketchbook with all gray pages, and teensy pencil sharpener. I considered a dress at COS, but left it there (then went back this morning and bought it, because it was fantastic). I heard all the voices that make up cosmopolitan, contemporary Dublin, a chorus of them in the flurries of people—tourists, workers, students, teens, older people like me.

Then I went back to my hotel, got the key to my room, and hauled my stupid bag full of the weight of my necessities into it, and took off my shoes and fell asleep, blissfully asleep, for a couple of hours. Those hours saved me. I went out to find food, ate some passable fish tacos. I texted the historian:

So glad The Historian has a cell phone now, so I can text him.

I felt underprepared and also victorious as I fell asleep again, at eleven, then woke at 4 in the morning—still dark outside, but with just a margin of morning showing. I rested, finished a crossword, read half of Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. Then I got up, went to breakfast, and read the rest of the book, taking notes and in general getting ready to write.

It felt good to realize: I got here on my own, making my way through Dublin with a fairly true memory of places I had been before. It felt familiar.

I bought my bus ticket to this rural county online.In thinking about how to manage getting to the station, I had previously thought I would get a cab, just to be on the safe side. That heavy bag, you know, dragging it around for the whole world to see, down Dublin streets. I tried to imagine how would that feel? But in the end, I walked it, dragging the bag the 1.2 kilometers, no big deal, and my sense of competence—amazing how it takes so little to make that come into focus—is currently at a pretty healthy level.

And that’s good, because the writing I have mapped out for myself feels ambitious and bigger than my abilities, which is all I want. That’s why I’m here, to find my way into that writing, and to put my hands, metaphorically speaking, on the means to do it. There are birds making their diverse music outside, and roses  blooming, and it rained like mad as I arrived. The house I’m staying in is a converted barn and the light is beautiful—it’s almost-summer light, streaming in from all directions. Friends: wish me luck.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


Dear The State,

Last night, as I was reviewing the Utah Driver Handbook, once between my last student consultation and my evening workout, and once after my evening workout, I came across questions like these:

and I tell you, I felt a little panicky. I have been driving since I was seventeen, and I mostly think I know the rules of the road, and drive safely, generally, etcetera and so on and what have you. But I began to feel a sense of foreboding as I contemplated my appointment at the Driver License Castle upon the morrow, when I would be forced to confront

1. my deep recalcitrance in letting my driver's license expire for twenty days. Twenty!
2. the State's deep and abiding disapproval of same
3. my knowledge or probably my lack of knowledge! of the laws and regulations governing the privilege of driving
4. my tired and aged eyes
5. an unreadable driving skills test evaluator who would probably be wearing mirrored sunglasses and would not crack a smile


Flash back two years, when I went into the Driver License Castle to renew my license and I was two years early! Ha ha! I misread the expiration year, although in my defense, the background they print the license on makes reading the details a wee bit tricky, and a six, under certain conditions of the lights, is only one curly line away from an eight. Well, that was a fine day, I can tell you what. Reprieve! Live it up! Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and so on!

Flash forward to this summer, when the renewal form came in the postal mail to my house, and I laughed bitterly, because I DID NOT HAVE TIME TO TAKE CARE OF MUNDANE BIZ LIKE DRIVER LICENSE RENEWAL, I said loudly and bitterly to whoever was listening (the historian, of course), and cast it aside in a devil-may-care/despairing fashion. "I will have to take care of that after the [swear word] NEH thing, and then the arrival of the family carnival, and then our trip to Santa Fe. AFTER THAT," I said, in a hopeful/hypothetical fashion.

Well, America, I found that my birthday arrived in late August, and lo, upon that day, I said, with a start: "ACK my driver's license expires in, like, one day," as we were leaving for Idaho etcetera.

And then it was September. > EXPIRED < and also the semester and every other [swear word] thing.

So, okay, I ransacked all the stacks of papers in the whole universe, aka my house, and of course the renewal form was nowhere in sight, and nowhere to be found, and had indeed been taken into the void of papers, whence nothing returns. Or so I assume. So I made an appointment with the Driver License Robot, and gathered papers to prove I was a person and a citizen and legit on all accounts. I assumed, basically, that I would be required to prove myself from the ground up. Knowledge test, skills tests, general genuflection before the Driver License Castle Lords.

So I walked in, with all my documents clutched in my hands, and my application form, and went to the first person, who took my picture. "You have an appointment! Awesome," she said. She gave me a ticket with a number on it, and said, "So just take a seat till they call this number." Which happened immediately: I looked up, and there was the number, no time to even take a seat.

I advanced to the requisite station. "What are we doing today?" the Driver License Castle Lord said. He was wearing a polo shirt with the Driver License Division logo on it, standard Castle attire, I guess.

"Renewal," I said, with my documents ready to proffer.

"Look into the vision thingie," he said.

I read two lines of letters perfectly.

"You passed," he said.

"Yippee!" I said, or something more appropriate with that same gist.

"Sign this," he said. I read it. Basically, I was promising that I was actually the person I said I was. AM I? AM I THAT PERSON? Yes, I decided. I am. I signed.

"That's $37," he said. And after I paid, he handed me a receipt, my old license with holes punched in it, and a print out of my temporary license. "Your plastic one will arrive in four to six weeks."

"THAT'S IT?" I said.

"Yup," he said.

"You are lord of all you survey!!!!!!" I said, or words to that effect.

And thus, my interpellation by you, The State, was concluded. My interpellation was, in fact, so delicate, that I went to Target to buy some celebratory mints, and also a new purse.

I'm v. cheerful, in fact, and it's all due to you.



p.s. on the other hand, this is apparently what you think I look like now:


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Field Guide to a Figured World.

Field Guide to a Figured World

The bridge is out, a woman tells me. I query: 
did you walk across it anyway? No, she says,
she didn’t try it. The bridge is out, I’ve been told
this now for years, but still I’ve walked across it,
leaned, even, against its railings to look 

into the water rushing down a decline, as all
rivers do, or they wouldn’t be rivers at all.
Looking at the barn swallows, hieing 
themselves from the water into the cross-
currents, playing the drift, in what seems

from here, the bridge’s edge, a kind 
of idling, purposeless, all their gleanings invisible. 
The air is thick with what they seek, and 
the cloudy world of blue and mist and gathered
rain potent and withheld. I inspect the bridge,

its seven spans, with care, its closure announced 
in definite terms: DANGER: but also provisional: 
the sign’s enclosed in a plastic sleeve, like 
an assignment turned in for grading, before paper 
turned obsolete. They’ve propped cattle gates 

across both ends, but left them slanting open. I read 
the message as DANGER, but not for you, 
not really. I take its invitation—the provision 
signaling in two directions. I want to see the whole 
panorama of the birds, flying up from under 

the bridge’s beams in extravagant loops, wings 
open to take the air, then tucked to glide 
back under to their nests, the thunder 
of the water over rocks as their contra basso, 
their chatter a countermelody, the wind moving 

through grasses at the banks maybe the motif,
recurring, that holds the whole composition together?
Anyway, that’s a little conceit I consider briefly, 
standing on the bridge that’s a ruin, or about to be, 
as the birds perform their aerial feats: 

I come to see it every year, I hold it sacred, 
though I know they soar and plummet for no one 
but themselves, and certainly not for me. 
And really, the birds are almost beside the point, 
rather that I come to them every year, 

at home in this world, its grasses and snaking river 
a garden out of which I grew, always knowing 
I could return, could watch for decades
as the bridge began to fall apart, and people
considered its repair, and the birds made

their nests and the water ever tore its passage 
downhill, and made the banks yield to its fury. 
Rocks, river, the wide sky and its rookery, its hawks 
wheeling overhead: all this I have studied, 
with a little field guide fit to my hands, 

lenses trained to loop and soar in the patterns 
of bird flight: and you, whom I have invited 
to cross this possibly treacherous bridge with me, 
you might read that sign and believe it, believe 
that the river I show you is not yours to cross, 

in fact you may not see yourself in it at all: for you, 
perhaps, the field appears nearly blank, does not 
welcome you, its tract is not your book, its sphere 
is not your ground. It should be no epiphany 
to say so, I should have known it by now. 

My path to the river will not be yours, 
and your path to wherever you’re going, 
folded into the map you hold that I can’t see, 
will not be mine. And what of it? This bridge 
is going to fail, and no tentative bravado of mine

will stop that disaster from its event. Will it interest you 
to know that today, I saw, fleetingly, a swallow, 
violet-green, and a tanager’s red neck? my missal 
is a folded page, tucked into a pocket 
next to a pen, for when the word occurs to me, 

set into flight by the downward swoop 
of passerines. And yours? I am curious: 
if I show you the figures the birds make of the air, 
tell you that I am of the people who build and then 
neglect bridges, will you open your book, 

its alphabets inscribed both faint and bold, 
interpret its languages, unfold it, show me
the print faded into the creases? Tell me
what birds, if birds, inscribe your skies? what 
the grasses are, if grasses, that score your music?

Thursday, June 07, 2018


A year ago or so, a woman I didn't know wrote to me to ask if I would be interested and willing to be the poet in a summer camp in a school district a couple of counties south of here. The Poet? "Sure!" I said.

There were a bunch of things I did not factor in to that "Sure!" To wit:
  • other, bigger grant I was also nominally a person of interest in/on/wherein/what have you. We hadn't yet been awarded this grant, but still.
  • there was big life-altering medical stuff happening in my family.
  • I had a book coming out--whatever that means.
The key here is, I didn't factor that stuff in. I just said yes

I'm sure you're ahead of me here, but a few weeks ago, I heard back from the woman. They got the grant. Was I, perchance, still available? 

Here's the part where I talk about my conception of time:
Time is infinitely subdividable into increments which can contain, potentially and approximately, three times the amount of stuff you think you can get done, and actually, twice the amount of stuff you can get done, if you don't mind a little bit of sloppiness and stress-induced forgetfulness and if sleep doesn't actually matter to you whatsoever.
I realize that this sounds like I'm saying that, through application of this theory of time, I get twice as much done as other people. But what I'm actually saying is, the sloppiness, forgetfulness, and sleep-deprivation you see me exhibit is the side-effect of a conception of time that is, quite frankly, inadvisable. 

Flash forward to this week, when I drove to points south each day, Monday through Thursday, for a morning with young people--first through twelfth graders--to write poetry. I said to one of my colleagues, "I've had the drive south and back again every day this week to consider my sins." We laughed, ha ha ha, because clearly what I meant was, don't ever do that again, LISA. But if that's the lesson that life was dealing out to me, via a lengthy drive forth and back each day, pray tell why I found myself feeling bereft today, when I realized I would not be working with these kids again? 

Today, everything went pretty well. The little girl, probably a first grader, who wanted nothing to do with poetry writing, was happy to dictate to me, so I could transcribe, an acrostic based on her own name.

"What's an H word?" I asked. "Huh huh huh?"

"Honey!" she said, while playing with three rather hazardous looking unbent paper clips, which she was imagining as characters.

"I have two names, Josh and Joshua," another little one told me.

"Which name do you like better?" I asked him.

"Josh," he said, with a tiny smile.

Before the various rotations of the summer camp started today, I arrived to see a part of circle time. This camp is located in a community with strong Native heritage, so upon arrival, the kids all took part in hoop dancing, or grass dancing, or fancy dancing, or jingle dancing. The littlest ones were the happiest to explain these various dances to me, showing me a little bit of their footwork and the positions in which they held their arms.

"You also keep nodding your head," one boy told another boy, who was showing me how you tapped your feet for the grass dance. They all nodded their heads.

Today, the woman in charge was showing the children how to put up a girl's hair in a traditional Navajo bun. One girl knelt while another girl and a boy helped the woman bind the hair with a tie, then secure it. The woman explained that putting the hair up was a way of showing respect for traditional ceremonies, such as dances, and that different tribes might have different traditions, for both men and women. I watched as the bigger kids paid attention, their little brothers and sisters sitting on them, or near them. 

I was watching--lucky enough to take part, even--in the intimate work of binding together a community.

The woman, when she first asked me to be a part of the summer camp, had told me that the curriculum had a strong Native American emphasis. But clearly, I didn't have any idea, really, what this meant, and for whom. And only by being there, by figuring out how to engage these kids in processes of writing, could I begin to understand. That, of course, is why I felt so bereft when I left today.

I told my colleagues about all this unexpected emotion at the meeting to which I raced after leaving the summer camp poets behind. It was, of course, a meeting for the bigger grant, which kicks into motion in T minus nine days. 

"One of the little boys [it was Josh, with the little smile] saw me in the gym as I was leaving. He had a little cookie in his hand. He said, 'I guess I'll see you tomorrow.' But he won't see me tomorrow." 

And then I cried into a Del Taco napkin, because even when time is infinitely subdividable, you still need lunch. 

"I'm fine, I'm fine," I said from behind the napkin.

My friend and colleague said, "Well, sometimes you just have to cry." She has said this to me before, and she's right. Otherwise, you just try hard not to feel things. And in the end, I'd rather feel things, to say yes, and to make sure that I show up at the powwow at the end of the month--"bring a lawn chair and a sun umbrella!" says the woman in charge--so I can see the kids' fancy dancing, help showcase their writing, and remember their names.


Related Posts with Thumbnails