Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Home from travels.

It's been, as the kids say, a minute. Well, I lived my life, I did what I did, and now I'm sleeping in my own bed again--sleeping well, it must be said, which, at this late date in my life, is not nothing, I tell you, in fact sometimes it feels like everything.

We got home from Scotland, dazed from everything we'd experienced.

"Remember when we went to Ireland, then England, then Scotland? Remember when we were gone for weeks and weeks?" I say to the historian. He does remember. We remember everything.

We've seen my folks again, several times. I've gone to Pilates and the gym and to HIGH Fitness. We've eaten enchiladas. We've seen a few movies. I've been back to my writing group. I've written and delivered a poem at Convocation. I've had breakfast and lunch and coffee with my friends.

When we planned this trip, I wanted to be gone long enough, gone thoroughly enough, to feel like I was not on a vacation, rather living my life in other places. And I did feel that. I felt at home in the world. Of course it was still in a sense a vacation--a leaving of one's ordinary life to experience extraordinary things. This trip delivered that, and in spades. But what I really cherish is a feeling that I could do--could be--anywhere, and live my life.

I'm back now. And I want to see if I can sustain at least that dimension of our epic travels. We'll see.

During this sabbatical, when I am writing and also undertaking a substantial project that I'll talk, I'm sure, more about later, I want to use this blog as a space to keep a record, to talk about what's happening. It will be another space to be, to do, to live my life.

The future

Imagine a shore, says the clairvoyant, when I ask
about the future. Imagine a river emptying itself 
into the sea. It’s dusk, she goes on, but light enough 
that you can see the river moving out, its direction sure. 

I can see it, in fact I’ve been there recently. Overhead,
terns wheel and cry. Walk downshore, where the sea
moves in, the salt giving it greater weight. The slap
and churn, cold and immediate, of this meeting

of waters is an inevitability. I watch the sun fall, 
its theater of blaze. I’ve come to her to ask 
about the future and its brightness, by what measure 
we might predict or calibrate it. I’ve come to believe 

that everything depends on this, so when she replies, 
Imagine you’re at altitude, flying across an ocean from 
one continent to another, I’m impatient, but I do it,
depart the shore, see myself in a metal capsule, 

at a window that frames nothing but sky upon 
more sky, and in my mind, we’re in it and of it 
and above it, somehow, and also drowning in it, 
perhaps swimming to a far-off shore—l even hear 

the voice of the cabin attendant intoning in 
the unlikely event of an emergency landing, and outside 
the imagined window, the firmament dissolves
into blue mist, diffracted light, a structure made 

for holding nothing but its own airy figment:
I look again, and the clouds fissure into a sheet 
of ice, floes adrift, more and more water. I want
to believe in a better ending, to believe that we tilt

toward hope. I fret in the near-silent alcove
where this oracular stranger tells me, in figures,
what can be made of this moment, this now,
deposited like river matter, the dregs of the past.

The coins to pay her clink in my pocket. I should not 
have asked about the world, or the future, at least 
not directly. I should have asked her, is there form 
or efficacy, or beauty, still to be made in this world? 

Even though I already know the answer: yes and no, 
the sea roars in salt and the river meets it, its sediments
suspended and dazzling. A plane flies miles above 
earth, combustible device, and in so doing plunders 

the air. The wreck of an old fishing boat, there, 
in the mud, is the past, falling apart now and for years
to come. The inexorable silt the river carries makes 
and undoes this estuary. When the harbor seal bobs up 

to inspect me, that’s the now and also the future: 
we are momentary peers, investigating one another, 
as I disturb his habitat. When I paint the future, 
it is luminous but with a wash of gray, 

and when I spell out its sentence, it is an anagram 
for insurmountable. That’s not quite right: 
the anagram is made of reckoning. I say 
to the clairvoyant, The world is on fire, which is not 

a question, and she replies, but the world 
has always burned. This answers nothing, though I know 
it is a kind of truth, yet devoid of the particulars 
that lend a divination its requisite weight. 

The world is burning now, I say. She doesn’t need 
to repeat it: it has always burned, but at least I know
this blaze has history, and that I must learn it.
From that shore I might pick up two stones: one 

for ballast, and one to remind me of the past, 
already here, as I go forward, and that, 
in a burning world, we’d better be prepared 
to carry water.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The past.

When we checked out of our beautiful house by the sea, our proto-crypto dream house, it was raining. The wetsuits we had draped across the fence were newly wet. Our bags, full of the things we’d packed and the things we’d bought, jenga’d into the boot of the passenger van. And off we went.

St. Ives, this was the last day of our acquaintance.

Our plan was to drive to St Helens, on the outskirts of Liverpool, with a stop in Bath to see the Roman baths. This would be roughly halfway between St. Ives and Inverurie, our Scotland home for the next two weeks. What could not been predicted was mayhem on the motorway. This, combined with what can only be described as an avant garde Sat Nav, took us through the highways and the hedgerows and the byways of the southwest of England, and roughly doubled our estimated time to destination.

We drove past signs for an event called the Buddhafield Festival. This event lasted four days in the Blackdown Hills of Somerset. My son in law, our intrepid driver and my interlocutor for the journey, since I sat next to him (riding bitch, as my daughter pointed out)—and even though this involved sitting in the middle seat on the front bench, it ended up being one of the best parts of it all, since now we, my son and law and I, had a shared experience of, if not trauma, then at least an unanticipated—if not nightmare, then at least a super long van ride in a close space—with unpredictable teenagers in the back. Plus, one of my daughters is traveling while pregnant. So. Anyway, you know: the recipe for how great relationships are born!

What was I saying? Right: my son in law wondered who the acts at the Buddhafield Festival might be.

Buddhafield Festival, for your information, is not a music festival, despite being within hurling  distance of Glastonbury. No, according to its website, it is “a joyful gathering of around 4,000 people, celebrating community and connection with the land. Song, dance, arts and crafts, yoga, live music, meditation, and play blend together without drink or drugs to create a loving and life-affirming space. There will be Buddhist teaching, workshops and ritual, under sun and stars.” Perhaps it was because  we were packed into a nine passenger van, we noted with some smugness that the sun and stars were in rather short supply. Poor Buddhafield festival goers: instead of seeking enlightenment, they could have been like us, packed in a van, driving the hills, dales, and one-track country lanes of southwest England, wending their way toward Bath, with no realistic or reliable sense of when they might arrive. If ever. Talk about your nonattachment.

We did, finally, make it to Bath, which took us just six and a half hours as opposed to the three hours it was supposed to take. We fell into a Pret a Manger and ate all the food they had left, basically. Because our group is large, some of us drove in another car, so we reconnoitered outside the Pret, and readied ourselves to march on to the baths. 

Two of my daughters, who had been in the other car, reported that their Sat Nav had taken them right into Glastonbury. ‘We were all, oh, hey! We’re in Glastonbury!’ said one of them. The other said, ‘We saw the Tor.’

OMG, the people: the Glastonbury Tor has been (laughably, probably, but shut up) marked on my Google Map of Dreams for ever. Why did OUR Sat Nav not take us through Glastonbury? Instead, when we passed it by at some distance, I said to anyone who cared (no one), ‘Glastonbury is over there,’ and gestured toward the West. ‘The Chalice Well is over there. The Glastonbury Tor is over there.’ Gesture toward the west.

‘Did you take a picture?’ I asked. Reader, I think you know that the answer was NO, they did not take a picture, and thus I found myself so annoyed/disappointed/in a fit of pique that I had to turn my back on the whole group for one entire minute.
  It was drizzly in Bath, as it had been drizzly all day. The youngest of us was four, the oldest of us seventy-five. Variables, thus, included attention span, predisposition to be interested in the distant past, basic heed to be paid to things like ‘don’t touch the water, it’s not treated’ (for your information, this heedfulness/heedlessness does not map easily onto the age/maturity spectrum of our group—we had a lot of rulebreakers), need to have a thing purchased at the gift shop, &c &c. Still, despite or maybe even because of our prolonged journey, most of us found the experience beautiful and edifying and, simply, a look into another entire world, which happens to be our world, too.

The historian and I took a moment to think about our previous trip to Bath, twenty years ago, my memory of which is hazy: I remembered being down at the level of the baths, looking up, and seeing the line of sculpted figures, and beyond them, the medieval era buildings. I remember the sense of descending, physically descending, in time, to see how our world is built upon the past. I remember the way the water smelled—faintly metallic, steamy, earthly. 

To see it with these people. To see it now. To have the sense, in my body, that the life I am living now is built upon the past.

Rain on the water

Figures of three saints, but eerily echoing a Celtic form.  

My women.

After a Pizza Express dinner, where our server was so witty, cheery, and attentive to our mad group that I felt he deserved, like, a Guggenheim grant or something for his hospitality, we clambered back into our respective cars and drove three more hours to our Travelodge rooms in St. Helens, where we all fell into our beds and slept as if we had journeyed for days, for miles and leagues and eras and millennia. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Patience is a virtue, just not one of mine.

America, we are having the time of our lives on this trip. We had a close to perfect time in Ireland, although I admit that I have a few notes for a couple of the bed and breakfasts we stayed at, including this note: bed and breakfasts are just inherently kind of weird, a subject that I will perhaps engage at greater length at a later date, but for now, let me just say: coming into a stranger’s house, to sleep, and make/not make noise, and in general feel like an interloper, and they make you scones in the morning, and the eggs are just not quite right. But I digress.

Our Ireland trip was so good, and then the time came for our beloveds to fly back to America. We all said our goodbyes in the airport, and then the historian and I flew to London and paid an extravagant amount of money for a taxi because ugh, HEAVY BAG, and found ourselves dropped at a hotel’s front door. Possibly a hotel. A very nice, handsome young man begged our patience while he took a guest’s bag up the stairs. (I had read about this in the reviews: no elevators. No big deal, I thought.) He returned to look up my name, and lo, it was not there.

“May I see the booking number, please?” he said, respectfully.

I showed it to him. “Oh, you’re staying at the college,” he said, “not here.”

“Is that a hotel?” I asked, hopefully.

“It is not a hotel,” he said, firmly. “But you’ll be all right.”

We schlepped our bags (HEAVY) around the corner to the decidedly shabbier reception for the college. We retrieved our keys, then hauled the bags (&c) down the street a few more doors. “Georgian manors,” is a phrase the listing had said of the rooms. Well, maybe, but in fact what we had booked was a college dorm. A suite-ish, but still: college dorm-suite.

Oh, the flurry of feelings then to be articulated and aired! How furious was I? So furious. How terrible was it? Pretty terrible. Sort of terrible. Well, not terrible, just not delightful.

We poked around. The overhead light in the kitchen wouldn’t turn on. And although there was a washing machine—an amenity!—it would not work.

I called the phone number, which the young woman at reception had helpfully provided, with the assurances that I could call day and night if there was anything that needed to be attended to. I reported the outages with crispness, and asperity. “I’ll leave a note for facilities and they’ll see to it tomorrow,” she said, somewhat languidly, I thought, given the state of things.

We went out to get food. It was rather late, and we didn’t really have our bearings, since the address we thought we’d be staying at was actually halfway around the block, and who even KNOWS what north or south or east or west is, in London? Not a person who is staying in a college dorm, I can tell you that.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, hightouchmegastore, why didn’t you just find another room, at a better hotel? Well, here’s the thing: we had only three days and four nights in London. Would it have been worth it (and would it have been worth it after all?) to work on finding other accommodations, and trying to decide about pursuing a refund for a room I purchased with points through a rewards portal (is that even a real thing? It totally sounds scammy, when I write it that way)? Well, maybe it would have been. In the end, though, we decided, over freekeh salads  (that *is* a thing, even though it sounds like fantasy world food) that we could at least give it a night and see. So we bought some yogurt and granola and strawberries and snacks at the Waitrose about seven minutes before it closed, and trekked back to our shabby digs, where we actually slept pretty well, and woke up to rooms that, though shabby, were light-filled, and decided we could make the best of it.

The next morning, a facilities guy did in fact show up and fix the wonky light in the kitchen. He was not, however, a washing machine fixit guy, he informed us. “If they haven’t fixed it in a week, give ‘em another call,” he advised.

I did not share with this handy person that we would likely never see the fruits of our having reported the non-functioning washing machine, since we’d be leaving sooner than a week. But I did share with the historian that I didn’t expect to see that washing machine working before we left. Once you’ve booked a college dorm room when you thought you were booking a hotel room, you lose confidence in the little graces.

Do you think this is my story’s happy ending—my new equanimity-stroke-cynicism? Well, it’s not. I am at this point, on the one hand, full of adventure and a strong sense of competence for having organized so many logistics for this trip (despite having booked a college dorm as a hotel, I’ll think about that later), and I am interested in walking very fast everywhere I go. In a word, I am impatient, raring to go and don’t slow me down, please. Meanwhile, to prepare for this trip, the historian systematically took care of a billion things, like the bills that would need to be paid while we were gone, getting the yard and the house ready for us to be gone, and  so many other things—so this morning, as we were getting ready to go, and we began talking about a money detail that necessitated, in his view, a call to our credit union back home, and I expressed myself in an impatient way that I regretted almost instantly, and said so. I felt anxious to make it right.

A couple of  hours or so later, when we had taken in the exhibit of Leonardo’s notebooks at the British Museum, I stood near a couple of giggly Italian women, and thought, ugh move along, gigglers. They were standing in front of one notebook folio, so close that no one else could even see the interpretive placard, just hogging the viewing space and giggling, and I admit it, I thought rude and uncharitable thoughts. I made what was probably an audible exasperated sound as I moved further along in the exhibit, where they weren’t taking up the space with their Italian giggling.

The historian and I sat in the cafe after that, to catch our breath after the intense museum-ing, and to check in with each other about what to do next—more in the British Library, or move along to the British Museum?

I recounted my exasperation with the gigglers. “They were just huddled so close to the glass, and you couldn’t even see the exhibit material. So rude! I thought to myself, quit your effing giggling and let me see the Leonardo pages!” I said to the historian . Then paused: “so that’s the person you’re married to.” (In the British Museum, there were so many people, so many that when I tried to navigate to the gallery with the thorn reliquary, then realized we were going the wrong direction, upon turning around as if a fish attempting to reverse course in a cascade of water, I said, in a cadence that escalated in volume, “This is UNACCEPTABLE.”

[“What was it I said on the stairs in the British Museum today?” I asked the historian, as I was thinking about writing this post.

“I think you said, ‘this is effing UNACCEPTABLE,” he offered.

“I don’t think I said effing,” I said. Hoping that I hadn’t, because I knew that the volume alone had been pretty aggressive.

This is who you’re married to, the historian. Seriously, I’m really so sorry.]

In case you’re wondering, they did come and fix the washing machine—the very afternoon after I had  expressed my grave doubts. And today, when we returned to our dorm, they had replaced that washing machine, which was actually working, with a brand new one, that created nothing short of a seismic event during the spin cycle. I’m still walking super fast and I will probably be patient when I’m dead. But it remains true that we are having a superb time, and the historian is really, truly,  the best of men.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

In which I have left my hermitage and ventured back into the city.

On the day before the very last day of my retreat I had a bit of a panic. On the one hand, I had come through my usual summer dip, wherein I discover, in a blaze of insight, that all my work is crap, it’s probably always been crap, why do I even both when it’s all crap, and there’s literally NO HOPE OR EVIDENCE that it will ever be anything but crap—are you with me? I came through all that, and found new focus and a better frame for the work I had come, verily, to Ireland to do.

On the other hand, I hadn’t done everything I thought I might do, i.e., write new poems, write revisions of all the old poems, finish all of it and have it ready, more or less, to win the universe. Did I really think I would do all that? No. But did I sort of really think I would? Yes. It’s my nature. I’m a maximalist. Why dream small when you can dream outlandish and impossible? is my motto and credo.

Also, the night before the day before my very last day, my sleep was interrupted by the long light, late and early, of my more northerly latitude. 

Anyway, what all of this meant—having come through etc., my maximalism and shoot the moon disposition, my lack of sleep—was that I could barely figure out where to start on getting anything at all going. A revision, a new poem, a new mood, a new outfit—anything at all.      

Late in the day, I went out for a walk, feeling rather out of sorts and possibly disgusted with myself. I ran into Will, one part of the dynamic couple that run The Moth and its various enterprises. He was taking a look at the lush hedgerow bordering their homestead.   

“How’s it going?” he asked.   

I offered an abbreviated version of the above. Possibly some of the out of sorts/disgusted with myself vapored off me.

He said, “But you’ve gotten a lot done, haven’t you?” 

I assented, with a shrug. “Sure.”

“And you’ve got the whole year off, don’t you?” he pointed out, helpfully.

And, reader, the sun burst through the clouds. Metaphorically, and literally. “True,” I said.

“You’ll be fine,” said Will, with a small encouraging smile, and off I went, and when I came back, I wrote a  big pile of notes for a new project, one that ties together an couple years old failed draft and its central gesture with a different subject matter, metaphors, and language, that works beautifully, I think I hope, with this current project. 

It was a gift beyond measure to be  able to to spend that time alone, to have that emotional crater and rebound from it, to find my way to new language and new poems-in-progress, and to do strong revisions of a number of poems. To be with my own self as a writer, to give priority to that. And it was something, to do it in this exact place, far from my usual diversions and entertainments and self-soothing mechanisms—it wasn’t just conducive, it was constitutive. I walked to that ruined abbey and round tower a couple of times, and seeing the time-wrecked place, abandoned and also not, with graves there dated as recently as the 2010s, helped certain questions and lines of inquiry about faith and its forms take a different shape.

Oh, how glad and grateful I am for this.

The day before I left, it was beautiful, sunny and balmy. We sat together in the garden as the evening fell, talking and laughing, then went into the kitchen for a little more conversation when it got a bit too chilly. It was perfect, the kind of perfect where you know things are coming to an end, but fittingly, and with such a conversation as an unsought blessing. The next morning, the family drove me into Cavan town to catch my bus back to Dublin. On the way, we passed a fantastic building, with a great dome, very imposing. 

Cavan Cathedral, can you believe it??

“What’s that?” I asked, gesturing.

“That’s the cathedral,” Will said. After a pause, “That’s where we were married.”

Really.” I said. I mean, not that people don’t get married places like that, but REALLY.

“All the Cavan celebrities get married there,” he said. 

Previously, I had seen Cavan in a jet lagged blur, and then really only the Aldi, where I bought oatcakes and whatnot. Everywhere you go, the reminders of what you have and haven’t done. No visits to the Cavan town sights, no Cavan celebrity weddings. On the other hand:


Two and a half hours later, I disembarked and I dragged my giant bag (refrain of this entire adventure: I dragged my giant bag through the streets of [town]) from the Dublin bus station to my hotel—across the Liffey, down some blight-y streets, then into a lovely street where my hotel gleamed. Lo, my room was ready, so I could drop my [giant] bag and go out. I walked until my feet felt a bit the worse for wear. Then, I saw Late Night in the Irish cinema with a bag of popcorn and a diet 7Up, which felt approximately perfect after walking amidst the ruins and the swans and loughs and the wilds of my own emotional and imaginative life. 

I walked back on my the-worse-for-wear feet and ate a perfectly delicious dinner in the hotel lounge, cod and mussels and a delicious herbal-tasting tomato broth and colcannon fritters, dang! So good. I watched the US v France Women’s World Cup match, an excellent match, it must be said (and I am delighted with the outcome). Then fell asleep, first drawing the curtains so that I wouldn’t be awakened in the night by city light.

Friends: today is the Pride parade in Dublin! A factor which I had not calculated into my plans, or in my hotel choice. It turns out that the parade route goes right by my hotel, and the parade ends with festival activities on Merrion Square and environs, also right by my hotel. This explains why I sent this text to my daughter in Scotland, who happens to be in the same time zone as I am: 

Two salient points: fam is arriving, and soon! And I have plenty of snacks nearby! Next phase of international adventure, IGNITE!

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A few remarks.

It’s evening here, right about solstice time, and it is still just as light as it can be:

circa 9 p.m., good grief

I am going to revise and/or make notes on a poem or two before I start reading and I hope fall asleep with relative ease and very few hiccups. Sleeping is, on this side of the Atlantic, not without its little ordeals. I’ve had a few blissful nights, but more where it was hard to fall asleep and then too easy to  wake up too early. I’m still working with all the potential variables: drawing the shades for the windows, hitting the right mix of the hour when I lie down, what to read, how long to read, and what about a snack? And don’t forget to do the dishes! &c.

I have reached the following points in my retreat trajectory:

1. Get things organized and tidy. Articulate an agenda.
2. Recognize that the agenda you have articulated is your placeholder agenda, are you kidding? Your real agenda has to emerge, from reading and writing &c &c.
3. Recognize that the “manuscript” you thought you had is basically worthless and almost all the poems are dross.
4. Recognize that you are a hack and everything is stupid and basically nothing you’ve ever done is any good.
5. And that’s where we are, currently.

Dispassionately, I know that this is par for the course. I don’t even have to have a retreat in Ireland to experience this delightful sequence of events. I basically experience it every single summer, which I know, because I’ve reread the journal I keep of such things.

On the plus side, the hedgerows and gardens are filled with stuff like this:


I made a note to myself yesterday to try to sink into this place a little more. I took a longish walk yesterday, then did the same walk today, but in reverse. The road, which is a big circle, is mostly narrow, so it means paying attention to cars approaching from both directions, on the side of the road I don’t expect, but who’s counting.

Last week, my daughter proposed that a bunch of us make Spotify playlists of our top ten (plus one, potentially a ‘guilty’ pleasure) songs of all time. The big bonus of this is several playlists that have given me an intense hit of the person who made it, and that has been a real pleasure to me. I listened to two of those playlists today. (Here’s mine, in case you want to know). Anyway, I took my walk on the narrow road whilst listening to music and simultaneously remaining alert for cars, and that kept me going, I’ll tell you what.

The chickens are in their coop, and a few minutes ago, a magpie strolled up, to troll them, I think.

If I were in America right now, I would be planning which movie to see and also probably planning some guacamole for dinner. I would also have full access to my sweaters. But I wouldn’t have access to the full and extravagant range of my emotional world, vis a vis being a writer, and all that that implies. So, you know. On balance, it’s good I’m here.

It really is, though. I wrote a draft of something that is currently pretty lousy but is on the trail of something I think is productive. It would be much harder for me to have done this at home—to get started down a new road, narrow and full of unexpected approaches, because I would have been planning that movie and guacamole and would have had a whole mad wardrobe of sweater choices to distract me.

Well, all right. The goings on around here are mostly related to (a) flowers, (b) fowl of the barnyard, water, and song varieties, (c) strange noises in the night, (d) donkeys, (e) light sobbing, or (f) snacking. In regards to all of these, This is, such as it is, my report.

Guacamole-less in Ireland,

HTMS at your service.


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