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.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Dispatches from my hermitage.

1. Toast is one of the best things ever invented by whoever invented it. I have two kinds of bread here, because bread is ALSO one of the best things ever invented by whoever invented it, and there is a chic little turquoise colored toaster in the kitchen, which does a fine, fine job. So what I’m saying is, I have toast at least once a day and usually more than that, so my data is fresh, and here are my findings: toast is one of the best things ever invented. By whoever invented it.

Also, the Irish butter I have on hand is excellent.

2. I am feeling it, the way my time does not coincide with the time of most of my people. I wake up to a group text that has fifty-six updates. I text someone and know that they will not see it for half a day, never mind the fact that maybe I shouldn’t text them at all because what if they are a light sleeper? And have some sort of haptic buzz (pretty sure that’s not how haptics work) set for when a text comes in? And my silly and inconsequential text wakes them up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. or some other ungodly hour?

On the other hand, I am in the same time zone as Scotland daughter, which means that we can chat at will, and it is great. BUT: she has a job and so, boo, I guess I shouldn’t bother her while she’s at work, I GUESS.

3. I am a discreet observer of life at this little country homestead. Right now, for instance, I can hear children’s voices. The other day, the two mules who live here went galloping by one direction, then galloped back the other direction. Chickens have a whole conversation of their own.

4. I wrote a draft of a poem today, who knows what to make of it? not me, certainly.

5. Reading like mad. So far:
  • Jericho Brown, The Tradition
  • Khadijah Queen, I’m So Fine
  • half of Sycamore, by Kathy Fagan
  • 7/8 of We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta Nehisi Coates
  • Many articles in these old New Yorkers.
  • Have begun Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
and possibly some other trash. Which I will keep to myself.

6. No television feels weird. Okay, but weird. Keeping it very quiet here. Which means I can hear all of the lovely sounds—the songbirds, the dog colloquy, the mule gallop, tractors huffing on the road, and so forth. 

7. Vegetarian sausage almost always oversells itself, tragically.

8. I used to say—I had this conversations with The Historian the other day—that in a democracy, it was one’s obligation to be an optimist. (And all that that implies—to do the work to bring a hopeful future into being—it’s not just the believing that will make it so.) Now, I’m thinking about this and this and this as I’m working on a poem (different one than dispatch #4 above) which may or may not be too fragile a vessel for all that thought, but I’m not done with it yet. It may yet become sturdy enough.

9. Is it time to go for a walk? I think it might be time to go for a walk. 

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.


Related Posts with Thumbnails