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.


  1. Love, love and lots and loads of luck! So glad to see a post again!

  2. Bon voyage, and let's hope it's not a year until the next entry!

  3. Good luck! And I am so jealous. You will get so much done and be your usual amazing self. Looking forward to these posts! I have thought about blogging again and maybe now I will! Loves.

  4. Thanks for the grand re-opening of the Megastore, Dublin branch! I love living your best life vicariously.



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