Thursday, July 27, 2017

It's raining, which gave me some hope that the horrible house painter would take the opportunity to skip work today. But no. I hear someone outside rattling a ladder, which means another day spent alongside a guy who stares into windows, drops cigarette butts everywhere, splashes paint onto beautiful trees, argues loudly with his boss, and generally behaves like a boor. And you know I say this as the wife of a house carpenter: guys like this painter are bad press for the fine workers who abound.

At least the coffee shop down the street is pleasant enough. Yesterday I sat next to two men talking about rehab followed by a man and a woman discussing fundraising. Yet I also managed to finish a poem draft and copy out several Rukeyser pieces. I wonder how I managed to be so productive.

Oh, speaking of poems: I should tell you that the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance has formally announced my upcoming 10-week poetry master class, which will be held here in Portland on Thursday evenings, starting in mid-September. I'm quite excited about this workshop. It will be a treat to spend so much time with the same group and to watch poems evolve from first drafts to finished pieces. I don't get to do that very often.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Yesterday I finished editing the first of four Juniper Prize manuscripts. I will be editing the other three as well, but they have not yet appeared in my inbox, so theoretically I have today to myself. Yet given the ubiquitous and irritating chain-smoking, mess-making, shouting-arguing-thunking house painters who have been draped outside my windows all week, I'll probably have to wander down the street and find some coffee shop to take me in. As the wife of a house carpenter, I am generally the last person to complain about workmen. But even Tom is rolling his eyes at this crew.

On my way to yoga class last night, I stopped at the library and took out two books: Kenneth Roberts's Arundel (1930) and the complete stories of Jean Rhys (first published between 1927 and 1976). Arundel is a potboiler: a historical novel about pioneer-era Maine that I last read in high school. But when I learned that my dear friend Steve, a birchbark canoe builder and an expert on the Maine wilderness, also fell in love with it as a child, I decided I should read it again. Moreover, most of it is set in my beloved homeland: the forest of the Kennebec River corridor. The plot centers around Benedict Arnold's trek north through the woods into Quebec, in the pre-revolutionary days before he defected to the British. It should be the quintessential I've-got-to-kill-time-in-a-coffee-shop book.

I know less about the Jean Rhys stories, though I've read a couple of her novels before. But Ford Madox Ford loved her work, so that is a good-enough advertisement for me.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

We live now on the edge of what's known as the Peninsula; it's that jut of land, just below the bridge, that forms the 4 o'clock section surrounding the circular body of water, shown in the NASA photo below. The circle of water is a tidal estuary known as Back Cove, and Portland's older outlying neighborhoods are built around it.



Our new neighborhood is located at about 10 o'clock on the Back Cove circle, and our house itself is about a half-mile inland.

As you can see from the photograph, it's hard to get away from water in Portland. Everywhere you look you see a tidal river or an arm of the bay. Further inland a myriad of freshwater rivers and streams feeds into the watershed. This is the wateriest place I've ever lived, and I say that as someone who grew up on the Atlantic seaboard. I still can't get over the views that arise at the end of every other street, around every other corner.

This morning the tide is out, and the mudflats are visible around the islands in the bay. At low tide Back Cove becomes nearly empty--an expanse of mud dotted with tidepools. It's unusable for commercial navigation; the only craft I've ever seen on it are kayaks and rowboats. But it is a safe home for waterbirds--egrets and ibis and herons--and I'm looking forward to getting know them on my new walks.

Monday, July 24, 2017

This sky is unmistakable.      Not lurid, not low, not black.
Illuminated and bruise-color, limitless, to the noon
Full of its floods to come.

--from Muriel Rukeyser, "Haying before Storm"

* * *

Two guys are standing outside my window with a ladder that may be long enough to reach the moon. It appears that they are planning to paint the building, not to rescue Rapunzel. They also don't appear to be very happy about having to paint the building, although maybe they would use the word freakin' just as often if they were trying to figure out how to carry Rapunzel down the ladder.

* * *

The forecast today is for rain rain rain. Why are the painters arranging to paint? Clearly they'd like to get out of this job in any way possible.

P.S. The house doesn't even look like it needs to be painted. However, pavers recently paved the driveway when it didn't need to be paved. C'est la vie with this condo association, apparently.

* * *

My own experience with home maintenance is more along the lines of "Quick, do something, before [important structural element] explodes." As you have heard, I am buying a house that is sure to give me many fresh opportunities for panic.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

It's been a long couple of days: more than 500 miles of solo driving, interspersed with hours of teaching and gig playing, plus driving twice over a bridge that made my hands sweat and my knees shake. But I managed to get to the other side, and today I woke up to cool gusts swirling through the open windows of the doll-house. The heat wave has broken.

* * *

Today: housework, a baseball game, the usual Sunday patterns. Mid-morning we may walk up to the AME church to sit on the curb outside and listen to gospel music. We're not very good churchgoers, but we do like the sounds. By the way, somebody has been driving around this neighborhood in a white van and blasting Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues." That is another sound I like.

* * *

I haven't mentioned politics for a while, which I'm sure you feel is just as well. But really: how stupid can they be? This presidency is turning out to be the plot of an Ian Fleming novel--one of the ones he thought was too obvious for publication and instead used the pages to wrap up old soup bones for the trash.

* * *

Tomorrow I start a new work project: copyediting the winners of the Juniper Prizes. I am looking forward to taking a break from academic editing and immersing myself in these collections. I'll be doing at least one book of poems and one of short stories. Maybe I'll even end up doing all four; that's not clear yet.

* * *

People keep telling me to read the Elena Ferrante novels. What's your opinion on that? I hate to jump on bandwagons, plus the cover art on those paperbacks are terrible, but are the stories themselves actually good?

* * *

Yesterday Tom accidentally bought a four-pound Arctic char when he meant to buy a two-pound one, so the refrigerator is now filled with the meaty remains of a giant baked fish. My plan is to pick the bones and make fried fishcakes for dinner. I am very fond of accidents.

* * *

While I was away teaching and driving, Tom visited a photo gallery, bought some tiny watercolor prints at an open-air sale, listened to records, acquired the aforementioned giant fish, and made a 3-d mockup of his proposed kitchen plans. He seemed very cheerful when I returned.

* * *

I am reading an Iris Murdoch novel I've never seen before: The Flight from the Enchanter, first published in 1956. It is encased in one of those utilitarian library hardcover bindings that were so ubiquitous in my youth: you know, the ones that seem more or less like book linoleum, varying only in color (though gray and green are common), with the titles stamped on the spines in a sturdy white font. I feel quite sentimental when I hold it in my hands.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

This morning I head off to Blue Hill for an essay workshop. It will be a long day in the car--two and a a half hours each way--so I will have to fall back on my Harmony-era driving fortitude. It has been so easy to stop thinking about cars.

The band's Thursday gig in Greenville went well. We had a good crowd, and no thunderstorm, and little boys came up to us afterward and very seriously asked for our autographs.

But the big news is about our house: we finally managed to come to a reduced-sales-price agreement with the sellers. This means we can start planning again instead of holding ourselves in check in case the deal falls through. So Tom is beginning to sort out the permitting issues for the sewer line and the kitchen construction, and I am back to imagining gardens.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Last night Tom and I had an entirely delightful anniversary evening. First, we went down to the wharf and ate oysters and clams at a raw bar. Then we walked across town and ate grilled Thai food. Then we ambled home along the warm but densely foggy waterfront. Twenty-six years later, and here we still are, hanging out together on a summer night.

This morning I'll be prepping for tonight's gig and Saturday's workshop. And this afternoon I'll be on the road, so you won't hear from me tomorrow morning. I may, at some point today, get a chance to rework a poem draft that I'm kind of excited about. A friend who read it yesterday gave me an excellent idea for a revision strategy, which I'm anxious to put into practice.

We've still got no agreement on the house negotiations. I hope this uncertainty is over soon.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

There are still a couple of openings in my Saturday essay workshop in Blue Hill, so if you're a midcoaster who's in the mood to experiment with prose structure, please consider signing up.

Likewise, on August 5, I'm teaching a poetry workshop in Kittery, which sits right on Maine's southern border. This means the workshop will be within easy driving distance for many of you New Hampshire and Massachusetts friends, which in turn means that you should maybe sign up so we can have fun together.

As a head's up: starting in mid-September, I'll also be leading a 10-week master class in poetry, held here in Portland, probably on Thursday evenings. I'll share the link to that event as soon as it's been formally announced.

Today, however, I will not be leading any workshops. Instead, I will take the cat to the vet for a distemper shot. And later I will drink coffee with a friend. And after that Tom and I will celebrate our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary by going out for oysters. Our anniversary is actually tomorrow, but I've got to drive to Greenville for a band gig, so we're having our party today.

We're also supposed find out sometime today whether or not the sellers will agree to our proposed revised house price. I am mostly optimistic, but who knows?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The fog is so thick this morning. Bits of cloud swirl under the still-lit streetlights, and the air is humid and heavy and very still. I am recovering from a horrible night's sleep, mostly spent on the couch, and interspersed with anxious dreams about trying to get a very old, very frail, very sick mystery woman out of a convenience store and into a car. A few nights ago I woke up and announced to Tom that I was starting a band called the Civic Crows. I wish I'd had that dream again, instead of the one I got.

Anyway, here I am, bleary but awake, with nothing on my schedule except for late-day real estate business. After catching up yesterday on various obligations, I managed to schedule a read-and-write-all-day vacation. I've got a Rukeyser poem to finish copying, and some drafts to weed, and possibly a new poem to coax into view . . . though I may need to add in a lengthy nap to recover from last night's geriatric nightmare.

But the Civic Crows! Who wants to be in this band with me?

Monday, July 17, 2017

I feel as if my reading life has suffered since I've been in Portland. With most of my books in storage, I've had to completely disrupt my life-long pattern of segueing back and forth among well-read and less familiar materials. Always I've let the tides of coincidence and curiosity carry me into my reading, but since moving I've no longer been able to do that. Having a library within walking distance is a help, but it is not a replacement for being the library.

I didn't quite realize how much my reading patterns had shifted until this morning, when I tried to describe them in a letter to my friend Baron. Since moving, I've done more crossword puzzles, read more magazine articles, paid more attention to the news. Part of that is Trump's fault, but part of it is simply being book-bereft. It will be interesting to see how my reading path shifts again, once I get my library back. The books will be the same, but now they will be in different rooms, on different shelves, so I will see them differently. Every little thing affects a reading life.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

We had a lovely day out yesterday: going to the movies, looking at mid-century furniture, cruising through a record-and-book store. I bought a 1962 Muriel Rukeyser first edition for $4. We managed, mostly, not to worry about the house. On Tuesday evening we'll make a counter-offer that takes into account all of the problems that have surfaced during the inspections. And then we'll wait and see.

This will be a busy week, what with the house buying and the manuscript reading and the music and the teaching. I'll be at home till Wednesday, but on Thursday I'll head up north for a band gig in Greenville, and on Saturday I'll be leading an essay workshop in Blue Hill.

So today will be a housework and laundry day. I'd also like to copy out a few of those Rukeyser poems. Last week I copied out Frost's "The Hill Wife" and realized that I need to get back into the swing of my copying practice. I spent much of the early summer on Carruth's "The Sleeping Beauty," but since then have done very little. Yet I always write better when I'm also working on a copying project.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The air is humid and grey. The sky has settled onto the rooftops, and low tangles of cloud are drifting over the quiet bay. I have been dreaming of something I can't quite remember, something that involved tape measures and rulers and endless rooms. No doubt it was a house-buying dream, though I can't remember feeling anxious or ecstatic, nor can I remember anything about the shape of this place I was apparently measuring. I do remember that there was no roof, only high walls. Perhaps I was measuring a house ruin, or a series of secret gardens.

I have started reading fairy tales again--gone back to my fat Grimm omnibus, the only one of my fairy tale collections that isn't in storage. Outside the window a comic mockingbird is imitating a seagull. Tom is in bed, drinking coffee and reading a David Foster Wallace novel. Ruckus is hurling insults at the evil neighborhood squirrel.

Today we (Tom and I, not Ruckus and the squirrel) are going to the film festival in Waterville to watch a couple of episodes of The Decalogue, a beautiful Polish TV series, first broadcast in 1989, that is one of Tom's favorite things ever. And then we might go used-furniture shopping. If we're going to buy a house with a dining room, we'd better acquire a table and chairs. Of course we don't yet know for sure if we're going to be buying this house. This will be a weekend of negotiation and sewer-pipe angst.

Friday, July 14, 2017

After a beautiful voyage up north to play music with three friends and then a chattery visit in the dark night air with another one, I returned home to face House Buying Issue du jour. According to a loquacious plumber with a scope and a camera, the 70-year-old sewer pipe from the house to the street is on the verge of collapse, a problem that will cost up to $10,000 to fix. Today we will get an estimate for asbestos remediation, and there are also some questions about the furnace. I doubt any of these figures will be good news.

My guess is that the sellers are in in state of woe. I do feel for them, given what we went through with the well in Harmony. But they are stuck with a mess.

In other repair news: a man who looks like a Super Mario Brother came to fix the window to the apartment deck, which was hanging from its supports like a drunkard. After meeting with our realtor and signing this-and-that contingency papers, Tom and I repaired our nerves by eating tapas and gnocchi and clam stew at nine o'clock at night. Then we came home and watched the DVD of our sewer scope, which was pretty hilarious/mysterious/disgusting. Imagine a lurching, sped-up, Go-Pro view of that nasty gelatinous stuff in your bathroom-sink drain, and you'll have a good idea of our sewer video. It did need Marlin Perkins or David Attenborough pointing out the salient highlights, though. Also a soundtrack.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

This afternoon I'm heading north for band practice, so you won't hear from me tomorrow morning. But this morning, now that I've finished my editing project, I'll be catching up on pesky little tasks like hauling winter coats to the dry cleaner, and calling the garage about getting my car inspected, and making an appointment for Ruckus to get a distemper shot. And I think I'll get a chance to spend some time with a few poem drafts, and to browse through the garden-design books I took out of the library, and to wake up my violin fingers with a little Bach.

I'll also spend some time getting distracted by the White House reality show, which this week is featuring Junior, TV's dumbest son. His idiocy boggles the mind. Doesn't it make you yearn for the good old days of Billy Beer?

Outside on the hazy bay, a score of sailboats twitches quietly at their moorings. I keep thinking that I should focus on this view, that I will miss it when I don't have it anymore. And I'm sure that's true: I'm a born elegist and second-guesser, who regrets everything and rereads books she didn't like the first time. But what a relief it will be to have my own small plot, my own back door.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Yesterday Tom and I signed about a million pieces of mortgage paper. Then I read a front-page article about what a fun spot our new neighborhood is, which good restaurants are moving there, how residents are angling to keep it cheery and walkable, etc., etc. I came away from the article wondering if Tom and I might be buying the last affordable house in the area.

Well, let's hope everything goes through as planned. I don't know if I have the gumption to survive any more property-related angst. I've been casting my mind back over this past year: of living alone in Harmony, of trying to sell my beloved house and land, of dealing with all of the roof and water problems, of finally ending up here in the doll-house before Christmas, and then my dark winter of homesickness and tooth problems and generalized gloom and grief and estrangement. It was a really terrible year for me. I realized that I was sad, in the moment; but looking back on it, I recognize how much I kept trying to project a doughty "don't mind me; not a big deal; other people have it worse; blah blah blah" kind of self-deprecation and self-dismissal. I would never expect anyone else to brush off their grief, so why did I expect it of myself?

We are mysterious creatures in our ways and means, not least in how we're always trying to cut ourselves off at the knees.

Anyway, it took a year, but I am returning to the world. The Frost Place helped. The immigrant high schoolers helped. You helped. And now having a sense of the future helps. Tom and I pore over his kitchen plans. We lie on the couch talking about garden design. The inside will be his construction site, the outside will be mine; but we imagine the place together.

Monday, July 10, 2017

from Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all--a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named--but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not.

* * *

So it looks as if a press editor may, in fact, really, actually be interested in Chestnut Ridge. This isn't to say she'll choose to publish it. But she seems to be reading it with engagement and curiosity; she's asking me questions about process and is altogether behaving as if the book is making an impression on her. I live in hope.

Shortly Tom and I will be toddling off for a meeting with our mortgage officer, and then I'll return to the doll-house and reinsert myself into the copyediting life.

I might look busy, but my imagination is still crowded with visions of book contracts and Japanese-style garden plans.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Outside on the prom, a mockingbird is singing and singing. A low mist hangs over the dew-sodden grass. I am thinking about backyard compost contraptions and teeny-tiny gardens and the singing in the local A.M.E. church. I am thinking about how to get the smell of five cats out of a house. I am thinking about Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and imagining what it would be like to teach a 10-week class on the essay and wondering why the Red Sox never give Rick Porcello any run support. I am thinking that I should buy another brand of coffee. I am remembering the king salmon and mashed potatoes we had for dinner last night and the late-afternoon flash flood swirling into the storm drain in front of the apartment house. I am missing my friends at the Frost Place and those sweet writing-seminar teenagers in their sopping-wet kayaks and my own dear boys forging through the city and the wild. I am sending comical-sentimental salutations to the man asleep in my bed. I am thinking about band practice and fresh tomatoes and the sunburn on my left shoulder. I am wondering if my deck-garden pansies will keep blooming until the nasturtiums are big enough to take over. I am thinking about three new poem drafts and the book I need to finish editing and the blurb I need to write for a friend's poetry collection and the thoughtful comments I need to make on another friend's draft and the reflection paper I need to read for a Frost Place grad student and the mortgage talk I need to have at the bank tomorrow and the fact that I may never get back to the three drafts that started this sentence. I am thinking about sunshine and rain and fresh strawberries and the giant ugly bug I found in the bathtub. I am thinking about you, wondering if you've made it to the end of this litany and, if so, where you would recommend edits.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Good morning! Sorry about this late post, but Tom and I have been busy drinking coffee, complaining about the road-race supporters ringing cowbells outside our bedroom window, and designing a kitchen. Tom has decided that he wants to replace the kitchen in our soon-to-be house before we move in, so we are having an enjoyable time planning it out. As he fusses over appliance and cupboard placement, I have been studying photos of 1940s-era kitchens to get ideas about period colors and hardware. Style magazines of the decade heavily promoted red and white as kitchen colors, although a peculiar slate-green also surfaces fairly often. They were also big on matching: as in bright red linoleum, bright white cabinets, bright red Formica counters, bright white housewife in bright red-and-white-checked apron.

Today will be a housework day, and a studying-the-home-inspection-report day, and a trying-to-comprehend-the-mortgage-paperwork day. Still, we remain cheerful, and I cannot wait to start reaming out the hideous overgrown flowerbed in the front yard. I've already discovered a sweet little stone retaining wall, and a peony and a lilac, and a few iris. The rest is a mystery waiting to be unchoked.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Here I am again, with another adventure behind me. Somehow I managed to kayak seven miles in two days, in choppy seas, with nine high school students, a photographer, and a Maine guide, while also making the kids read Whitman and Addonizio and Clifton and Beston and Dickinson and Hopkins and Tu Fu and Nivyabandi. What a lovely group of human beings they were . . . all of these kids with their hearts on their sleeves, all of them so game about the waves and the water--making rooster noises, and cracking jokes, and slinging teenage slang, but so kind to each other and so wide-eyed about writing and the world. At the end of it all of the kids unanimously announced, "This program should be longer!" So next year it will be.

After devouring a considerable amount of pizza, I fell asleep on the couch at 7 p.m. Now I have woken with a few notable muscle aches, a pile of emails to answer, a ten-week curriculum to write up, a book to finish editing, and a mortgage to apply for. I also still feel like I'm on the sea: my whole sense of balance is up and down and up and down. It's very strange. Maybe I will need to take Dramamine in order to read anything.

Yesterday the house inspector came to check out the new place, and we're mulling over the various insufficiencies he's pointed out--on the whole, nothing too shocking, given the age of the house, but certainly stuff that the sellers will need to address. I still can hardly believe we're so close to having a place of our own.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Believe it or not, we're about to sign a contract for a house. This explains why I've been out of bed since 4 a.m. and am now writing to you at 5:15.

Yes, it's the same house I mentioned in my previous letter, and, yes, you can laugh with me about our secret lives as icy-veined price negotiators.

So we have a contract in hand, except that Tom's name is misspelled all over it, but that is nothing new. Still, I don't think he should sign a document that claims his name is "Dirtwistle."

Everything may fall through with the inspections, but I am almost ready to believe that I might be planting daffodil bulbs in September.

The house is a small shabby cape, built in 1948, located in an old residential Portland neighborhood around the corner from a busy, ethnically diverse business district. It is an easy walk to the baseball park, a longer walk to downtown, a few streets away from Baxter Woods and Back Cove.

It has a sunny front yard, a shady back yard, a claw-foot bathtub, and a fireplace with a little Jotul woodstove; it has a dining room with a frosted-glass door to the kitchen, and it has a study for me and a study for Tom. For the first time in my life, I might have my own dedicated writing room! It has a badly designed kitchen and an unfinished bathroom and a low-ceilinged cellar and a questionable furnace. It has dog crap all over the back yard and a tumbledown stoop. It is a two-minute walk away from a Somali restaurant named Mini-Mogadishu, which advertises itself as serving something called "chicken sugar." I cannot wait to try it.

Meanwhile, Happy Independence Day. Or Dependence Day. I'm not sure how to think of it. Shortly, I'm told, the doll-house apartment will be surrounded by 100,000 revelers. Our downstairs neighbor says it will be "Woodstock with sparklers," which does sound exciting. Last night Tom and I went across the street to check out the Portland Symphony stage set up in the parking lot and to admire all the temporary fencing and convenient trash cans and portable toilets and such. We are ready for a spectacle.

You won't hear again from me until Friday because tomorrow, bright and early, I'm off to write 'n' kayak with a passel of high schoolers. No doubt I'll have some fine tales to share when I return.

Monday, July 3, 2017

I apologize for not writing yesterday, but on Saturday Tom and I immediately became sucked into house-buying drama. We went to an open house, decided to make an offer, and actually managed to get noticed and receive a counter-offer, which we did not accept. So while our original offer is still on the table, we're both assuming that someone else will get the house.

That would make house number 3 that we've lost, though we could have had this one if we'd been willing to pay more than the asking price. However, unlike our state of mind in the previous two situations, we're both pretty calm about this one. For me, still being on a Frost Place high has helped. I feel regretful but not at all hopeless. As I wrote to you last week, I think, finally, I'm beginning to move past my homesickness. And much of that grief was impelling me toward clutching some replacement to my heart. I'm settling into a broader sense of affection for where I am and perhaps that's also allowing me to relax. We will live somewhere, someday. And who knows? Maybe this house will come through after all.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Good morning, good morning!

The fog is thick here by the bay, and the air is heavy and warm. Dogs and their walkers traverse the sidewalks in slow contemplation . . . none of those brisk autumn trots today.

Today Tom and I will look at a house. Afterward I'll be washing piles of laundry, and baking some bread, and scrubbing the toilet and the floors, and listening to afternoon baseball. Meanwhile, the poem drafts I wrote in Aisha's workshop will rest in my notebook like sweet secrets.

Last night, over steamers and salad and lemon gelato, and I told Tom that maybe I'm feeling less homesick now. The moment was small point of happiness for both of us. And by small I mean important.