Saturday, April 4, 2020

Last Saturday, the cat was gracious enough to let me sleep till almost 7. But the honeymoon is over: this morning he started bouncing me at 4:30. I hid under the blankets for another half-hour but finally gave in at 5 and got up. Bed wasn't being that enjoyable anyhow. I'd had a night full of dreams about grocery shopping among empty shelves while talking on the phone to a friend who'd decided to hate me. So relaxing. Hot coffee and a quiet couch are way better than that.

My constant headache is still constant, but my sinus congestion feels some better. Tom will be home for two whole days. This afternoon, if the ground isn't too sodden, I plan to start edging flower beds and weeding out the maple saplings that are starting to sprout in the soft soil. For dinner we'll have either leftover-beef tacos with the genuine Chicago-made corn tortillas I've been hoarding in the freezer or noodle bowls with marinated tofu, blackened cabbage, and pot-au-feu broth. I'll let the boy decide.

Last night I finished rereading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. Martha Ballard, the diarist that Ulrich studied, has many charms for me. Though I am not a caregiver in the way she was, I so admire her pertinacity: an aging woman falling off her horse, for the hundredth time, as she muddles down a wet lane in the middle of the night, on her way to help a neighbor in labor. How many times did she cross the unruly Kennebec in a canoe and immediately tumble into the mud? Her physical clumsiness and her skilled grace are endearing. And she loved her garden. In May 1809:
Clear part of the day. Showers afternoon. I have dug ground west of the hous. Planted squash, Cucumbers, musk and water mellons East side house. Began and finish a Large wash after 3 O Clock. Feel fatagued. Son Jonathan ploughing our field. My husband workt with him.
Two hundred years later, in Portland, Maine, a day's voyage down the watery lanes from Martha's vanished farm, I dig ground and sow seeds and finish a large wash, as a son and a husband wrestle with their own thorny chores. The contiguity pleases me.

Martha's chaotic spelling is also a charm of the diary. Her own sister was illiterate, but somehow Martha not only learned to read and write but also used those skills to enshrine a private life . . . a very rare action for a woman of her class, in her time and place. Her erratic spelling feels like part of that bravery: a way of stabbing over and over again at language, determined to make it do her bidding. And sometimes it is also very funny. In March 1809:
Son Jonathan sent for his Father & I to dine with him. We had moos meet stakes.
The diary has been a fine choice for pandemic reading . . . close enough to evoke a shared life; distant enough to allow a detachment that is not available to me in our present crisis. But now that I've finished it, I'm turning back to familiar fiction: yet another rereading of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View. Published in 1908, a hundred years after Martha ate moose meat with her family, it will certainly clash in my thoughts with Mrs. Ballard's frontier diary. But I like its farcical prewar English-in-Italy hoohah, especially the misunderstandings: the impossibility of actually saying what one means. No matter when or where we live, we still seem to struggle with our words.

Friday, April 3, 2020

It rained all day yesterday, and it's still raining now--a glorious ticking and dripping and running--and meanwhile the world is greening. Arugula has sprouted; tulips are budding; a sea of scylla flows across the side yard.

Inside, our lives are assuming a pattern. I had a 9 a.m. yoga class in our teeny zoom room. Then Paul took it over and spent much of the rest of the day in class and rehearsal. While he was busy, I was busy too--upstairs in my bedroom editing manuscripts, down on the couch in front of the fire to work on Frost Place stuff, back upstairs copying out Rilke. It's not like being alone in the house, but we are figuring out how to structure a productive life. There's no ignoring the crowd in this little domain, but at least we have rooms and doors. And we like each other.

Cafe Quarantine is soldiering on. For dinner last night I made bacala alla Vesuviana--salt cod simmered in a piquant tomato sauce: capers, onions, lots of red pepper flakes. On the side: Yorkshire pudding and a salad of steamed broccoli, fried garlic, and greens. Tonight we'll have pot au feu--French boiled beef--and maybe a potato salad with coarse mustard, and a tossed salad of cucumber, tomato, and romaine. The chunk of beef is huge; it should last well into the weekend for tacos and such.

Still, I'm tired . . . not just because of the stress you're enduring too, but also because my spring allergies are terrible this year and I've run out of allergy medicine until the drugstore finds time to ship me some more. In the interim, I'm Advil-managing a permanent headache and clogged sinuses. My skull feels like an over-inflated soccer ball; I'm coughing and sneezing; and since I don't have coronavirus, I feel like a public nuisance: not dangerous but alarming.

But it's Friday: Tom will be home all weekend: rain is transforming the earth. What else can I share with you? Maybe you would like to look at this Facebook poetry-month reading series, which includes an awkward video of me reading poems on my bed? I certainly don't want to look at it, though I am reluctantly coming to terms with my new video-based work life.

But I prefer the sixteenth-century song that is always true--
Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

Thursday, April 2, 2020

When my boys were young, we listened to the Fountains of Wayne a lot. Like the Ramones, they were one of our family bands: music we played on car trips, music that made all of us cheerful. The Fountains of Wayne wrote sugar-pop hooks about lonely office guys in New Jersey, about a young quarterback imagining his dad watching him on TV, about a kid falling in calf love with his friend's mom. The harmonies were tight; the lyrics were both comic and sad. I taught Fountains of Wayne songs to school kids, back in the days when I was an elementary school music teacher, and my students loved them.

Yesterday coronavirus killed Adam Schlesinger, one of the band's founders and songwriters, who had since made a career as a songwriter on Broadway. He was 52. In his honor, Paul played the Fountains of Wayne album Welcome Interstate Managers as we ate dinner. We sang along with our mouths full. We knew all of the words.

I bought that album at the Borders in Bangor, in about 2004. The boys would have been 7 and 10 years old. Both were with me, and we were excited. When we got back to the car, James unwrapped the CD and stuck it into the stereo, and the song "Mexican Wine" came on . . . a slow ballad intro, the surprising lamenting lyrics: "He was killed in a cellular phone explosion. . . . " And then the intro dropped into a sudden grind of guitar, the song exploded, and all three of us instantly went crazy. We'd been sucked into that old irresistible rock-and-roll joy, and we played the CD over and over again, at top volume, for the hour-plus ride home.

I would never list the Fountains of Wayne among my top bands of all time. I reserve that for the Clash, for Bruce Springsteen, for the Band, for the Pretenders, for James Brown (this is an impossible list to finish). But every time I hear their songs, I'm dialed back into moments of pure sweetness: when being with my boys transcended "I'm your mother/you're my children" . . . when we were just friends soaked in a shared rainstorm of delight. We were singing the songs. We were waiting for the bridge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Yesterday I had to announce to faculty and applicants that we would be moving the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching online. This was a really painful decision as the place itself--Frost's barn in Franconia, the vision of the White Mountains--is such an integral element of the experience. But with the world as it is, we can't count on being back to normal by June. And moving online now means we'll have adequate time to figure out tech issues and to completely redesign the curriculum.

So far no applicants have dropped out!  Everyone seems game to try this new venture. The hope is that we'll get even more applicants, now that people know for sure that the conference will be running in this new way. It will be cheaper (no lodging, no catering); you won't need to leave home or family; and we've even got thoughts of extending it into a couple of school-year master classes. As Maudelle, our executive director, crowed: "This is an opportunity, Potter! We're going to make this great!"

Still, writing that announcement cast a miasma of sadness over my day. The Frost Place is one of my places on earth; and since my move from Harmony, when I gave up my land, I have found comfort in remembering that I have a small annual right to Robert's patch of mountainside.

Next year, next year. And in the meantime, something is better than nothing. Something could even be wonderful. I'll do my best to make it so.

In happy news, I had my first online yoga class yesterday, which went really well. Fortunately, I wasn't wearing my glasses so I couldn't perseverate on my appearance. The college student and I have transformed the little back room, home of the TV and record collection and futon couch, into what we're now calling the Zoom Room--our household center for classes, rehearsals, meetings. Those of you who've signed up for the conference will get to visit me there this summer. I'll show you the portrait of one of my cranky ancestors and the elderly deer antlers where I dry fresh herbs. Probably you'll get to meet the famous Ruckus as well. He is quite pushy about attending classes.

Today: no grocery shopping, thank god. That, too, was yesterday's burden. Instead, I'll edit, work on a poem draft, read Rilke, ride my bike, hang clothes on the line, talk to my parents, talk to my Chicago boy. Cafe Quarantine will be serving chicken curry.

And my thoughts will be brushing, again and again, against the final lines of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo":
                                           For there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Yesterday felt like a first step back into normality for me, at least insofar as doing productive work. I edited most of a chapter, finished judging a poetry contest, and spent an hour on the phone with my friend Teresa, conning over various translations of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Teresa and I used to have a telephone-talk about poems once a month, but now we're tightening our schedule to every two weeks. We're both craving more intensity, not just for the sake of the poems we're studying together but for the sake of our own writing. Self-motivation is not something I've struggled with before. Since I first figured out I needed to be a poet, I've driven myself forward into my vocation. But this crisis has upended me: my worry spirals into anxious household management, and I need to find some way to rediscover my private voice.

This morning's aid: yoga at 9 a.m.. Last night my yoga teacher sent me a note saying that she is starting regular Tuesday-Thursday classes via Zoom. I have to say I hate the way life is shifting to video. But apparently that is going to be the only way to do lots of things for a long time, so I am trying to adjust. Tom has even figured out a small studio-ish arrangement for me so that I can take part without seizing up in horror at how terrible I look. That's the big problem: video triggers my vanity in the worst possible way. There's no way to avoid the fact that I'm 55 years old and look like it. When I can't see myself, then I don't care. When I can, all I can focus on is ugliness. 

Apparently this post is exuding stress. I apologize for that. What calm can I share instead? How about:

I looked out the window yesterday and saw a turkey in my back yard. I have never seen a turkey in Portland before. It was large and perplexed and seemed to enjoy pecking up something or other along our fence line.

Cafe Quarantine served split-pea soup last night, which is a most delightful comfort on a rainy evening. (Side dishes: toasted leftover cornbread, raw beet slaw.) Tonight: penne with shrimp, grapefruit salad.

My son is a trash-talking Scrabble player who loves to trounce me. The flip version of this: I raised a good speller who knows a lot of words. Success!

Tom and I have always been solid partners in bad times. He is the prince of my heart. I am grateful for his patience, his kindness, his wit, his resourcefulness, his stamina, in every hour of every day. 

Here's a poem from Chestnut Ridge, a small paean to everyone who manages to keep loving one another in these dark hours.

Saturday Night in Connellsville

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky; 

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever. 

[from Chestnut Ridge (Deerbrook Editions, 2019)]

Monday, March 30, 2020

Today, the classic Monday-morning scenario that everyone hates: Tom forgets to set his alarm, we oversleep by an hour, the next 45 minutes are a flurry and a panic with lunch slapped together and breakfast wolfed and T rushing out the door . . .

But now it is quiet.

I fell asleep last night to the sounds of thunder and lightning and the rattle of sleet, a strange but strangely soothing combination. Now there's a steady drizzle, and in the gray first light I can see my cat digging a hole in my garden, a rain-coated neighbor stepping out for a double-dog walk, the sodden grass greening.

In a few minutes, I'll gather myself together: start a load of laundry, wash breakfast dishes, make the bed, take a shower, open a manuscript file, and begin the picky prissy rigamarole of copyediting. Paul's classes start this morning, so our daily schedules will change--I hope for the better. I've had such a hard time concentrating on my work, both paying and personal. That's in no way his fault. But maybe the knowledge that both of us have exterior obligations will help me use his class time constructively for myself.

The news is bad. The news is worse. But the wet air is full of bird song--cardinals, mockingbirds, robins, a white-throated sparrow--and yesterday, before the rain, I discovered that my peas are up.


Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

I slept late again this morning . . . not with the hammer-to-the-head effect of Friday night's coma, but still much better and longer than usual. Outside, the sky is drear. We're forecast to get rain and sleet by late morning, with the storm lasting all day and night and into tomorrow. It will be the sort of day for a troupe of high-spirited aristocrats to clatter into the yard of a snug inn, to the joy of the innkeeper's widow and the consternation of the local drinkers. who are all sitting around the roaring fire telling weak jokes like 19th-century versions of Midsummer's Rude Mechanicals. 

Unfortunately, with social distancing, the inn is closed. The local drinkers are dozing at home in front of their own fires, and the aristocrats have all been hospitalized after catching the virus at a society ball, and the innkeeper's widow, who thought she'd finally managed to wriggle out from under the load of crushing debt her husband had bequeathed her, is now crouching over her sputtering laptop and typing into her web browser by the light of a single tallow candle.

Here, at the Alcott House, things are not so dire. In fact, I've been feeling pretty fortunate. Yesterday I went for a 6-feet-apart-at-all-times walk with an old friend, who, on top of everything else, is scheduled for cancer surgery later this week. What do I have to complain about? Nothing. We still have a little income. We still have food. Our house is rain-proof. Our tempers are easy.

Speaking of food, I think I forgot to update you on Cafe Quarantine's menu. Last night we had potato gratin (shredded potatoes, sautéed onions, sage, red pepper flakes, parmesan, eggs, milk), a tomato and cucumber salad, and angel cake with blueberry sauce and sweetened yogurt. I made the angel cake from my freezer stash of leftover egg whites, which I've been collecting over the course of the year. Usually I save our annual angel cake for strawberry season, but my boys needed a treat and I needed the freezer space.

Tonight: a small ham, cornbread, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes (yes, we're back to the root vegetable stash), another serving of angel cake.

Today, I suppose I'll do some maintenance housework: bathrooms at least, and some cat-fur vacuuming. I'm not going overboard. I want this weekend to feel like a break in the pattern. The three of us are planning to watch a movie together: maybe Pietro Germi's 1961 Divorce Italian-Style; maybe footage of the 1912 or 1964 Olympics (the Criterion Channel mysteriously features coverage of many old Olympic Games). The boy is in charge of choosing something that will entertain us all.

Here's a pantoum about weather and love. 

Epithalamion for Grendel

Dawn Potter

Cordgrass slashes rents into the wind, 
but I am waiting for my lover at the river. 
Close the floodgates: the tide is high 
and the one I love is mud and reeds, 

yet I am waiting for my lover at the river.
He strides into storms, he wades into pools of silt,
for the one I love is mud and reeds
and my hands long to cup his jagged face.

He strides into storms, he wades into pools of silt.
A scatter of fishes gathers in his wake. 
My hands long to cup his jagged face 
as herons bow to him in the saltmarsh,

as a scatter of fishes gathers in his wake.
Close the floodgates. The tide is high. 
Herons, bow to him in the saltmarsh.
Cordgrass, slash rents into the wind.

[first published in Vox Populi]