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.


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