Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Yesterday I went on my first local mushrooming walk. A friend took me to a wooded area in Cape Elizabeth, in search of miatakes, which we did not find. But she discovered some oyster mushrooms, and I picked some cadillacs and a handful of late chanterelles, which was thrilling.

For the past several days Portland has been enveloped in fog. My mushrooming friend calls this "island weather," which I think is a lovely term. The air is heavy with droplets; glasses fog up; hair stands on end; all dogs smell like wet dog; buildings and trees and water are draped in veils. Yet the wind is mild, the dampness exhilarating. Island weather is beautiful.

I do hope my John Brown autobiography arrives today because I have run out of things to read and have been driven to propping up the New Yorker in front of my breakfast plate. I have nothing against the New Yorker, but the fact that it's full of Current Stuff I Should Know is, for some reason, not a good-enough draw. I don't want to read a magazine. I want to read a book.

Monday, September 18, 2017

I drove up north yesterday afternoon for a band gig, spent the night in beautiful silent starlit Wellington, and then trundled home to the city to paint a ceiling. Next weekend will be more of the same: for some reason, we ended up with a bunch of fall gigs.

This week I'll be starting a couple of new editing projects, for private clients, on subjects I don't usually deal with, so that will be something new. I've got a poem draft burbling on the stove, and more ceilings to paint, and all of the doll-house housework to do. A friend and I might be going on a mushroom walk today.

But back to that burbling poem draft: it might be nothing, but I like how its sentences are rolling out of my fingers. If nothing else, it seems to be giving me the pleasure of composition and God knows that's not a given.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

I have been editing a book of academic essays, which the compilers have organized as a tribute to the work of the scholar David S. Reynolds, whose field is the American Renaissance--that is, nineteenth-century American literature and culture. I had no idea that Reynolds was such an influence among academics, but he has certainly influenced me. I think I have read his book Walt Whitman's America three or four times; it offers such an amazing display of the way in which Whitman absorbed his busy world into his work. As biographies go, I would put it on the shelf right up there next to Jackson Bate's biography of Keats.

So yesterday, as I was reaching the end of my editing assignment, I realized that Reynolds had written the afterword of the manuscript--I was going to be editing the man himself. And I was not much surprised to learn that he is a beautiful writer who required very little from me. The essay was about Lincoln and religion--gleaned, I'm assuming, from the biography of Lincoln that is his current project. So while I can't buy that book yet (and I will), I can buy the one I've been meaning to read for a while: Reynolds's biography of the abolitionist John Brown. That will fit beautifully into my current transcendentalist meanderings, as both Thoreau and the Alcotts sympathized with Brown's radical actions.

There is nothing like falling down the reading rabbit-hole, is there? Let us lift a glass to the libraries and the bookcases and the old falling-apart volumes and the books we meant to read and finally did and the books we stumble over with joy and the curious jolt of rereading the same book twenty times and the heft of a fat hardback in the hand.

Friday, September 15, 2017

We may or may not have rain today, but the air is heavy and the light is slow. Down at the wharf, the island barge is beeping and clanking. From the kitchen, Tom calls, "Ruckus!" and the cat gallops off to see what's what. I am nearly finished with the last of my trilogy of Alcott novels, Jo's Boys, and wondering what to read next.

I've been thinking this week about generations, of course. This was my first visit to one of my sons in a home he had made: not just a decorated dorm room but a living space arranged with another loved human being. And there was something so moving in that . . . in watching my son be a good man, a caretaker, a partner. It was yet another miracle, among the so many surprising miracles of life that I have never imagined.

Today I hope to find a small space for writing something that belongs to me.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Sorry I didn't drop you a line yesterday. I had company in the morning, and a chimney sweep in the afternoon, and two tons of laundry and editorial duties in the interstices. The good news is that the chimney flue in the new house is lined and usable. The semi-bad news is that the woodstove is overfired junk. It's an ugly little chunk, so we're not heartbroken. But it might have been nice not to have to buy yet another expensive thing right away.

I am feeling kind of lonesome for my son and his girlfriend this morning. The three of us had such an extremely good time together in Chicago.

But enough of such repining. I have a book to edit.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Last Day of the Travelogue

Yesterday James took me to the studio where he works as a camera assistant for the NBC TV show Chicago Fire. The place is enormous, taking up at least two city blocks, and the surrounding streets are jammed with trucks, security, catering setups, trailers, not to mention many city emergency vehicles. The buildings we wandered through house the stages for both Chicago Fire and its sister show Chicago PD. We'd walk through what looked like a basic backstage area and then suddenly be in an enormous fake bar, or fake locker room, or fake hospital corridor, or fake bunk house, or fake police sergeant office. The difference between reality and fakery became difficult to determine. Unlike a theater set, a TV set has to mimic the tiny close-up details that a camera will catch. The sergeant's office walls have to have chips on the wall where the actor leans back in his desk chair during a scene. The interrogation room has to have rusty stains that might or might not be blood. I'd linger in one of these hyperrealistic rooms and then walk into the next one, also hyperrealistic, but this time filled with crew killing time between shots: say, lying around on the fake bunks or leaning up against the fake walls. I began to feel as if I were at Madame Tussaud's and the guards were playing "am I real or wax?" tricks on me.

But everyone seems to love James, from his bosses to the catering staff, so that was of course delightful. He always has had the trick, ever since childhood, of knowing how to project public eagerness, curiosity, and good cheer. And the rest of his family has always been impressed and amazed, since we are not so good at that.

In so many ways, this whole trip has been a magical event for me. That noisy little get-into-everything boy has transformed into a smart, hardworking, funny, reliable, curious, and extremely loving man. How did I get to be so lucky to be his mother?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Yesterday we went to a circus and to three grocery stores, and then we made a long, involved snack meal of spring rolls and potato-kimchee salad and watermelon with mint and black pepper. And we talked and talked, and then we got dozy on the couch in front of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
My son's partner: People ask me, Is James really that sweet? And I say, Yes, he really is.  His whole family is that sweet.
James [smiling.] 
Me: [beaming.]
It was that kind of evening. I am very happy to be here.

On the docket today: a visit to my son's TV studio, a visit to the Museum of the History of Chicago, dinner at a Russian restaurant with my brother-in-law, who texted J to say he's in town for work. That was unexpected. Who knew coming to Chicago would end up being a family reunion?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Voyage through the Funny Plant Names in the Lincoln Park Greenhouse

* * *

P.S. We also looked at poisonous snakes at the zoo, ate a whole lot of Ethiopian food, sat next to Lake Michigan, walked about a hundred miles, and giggled.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

More Travelogue

From the window of the train from O'Hare into downtown, I noticed that the Evangelical Covenant Church is next door to Hooters. Also I sat across from a woman in a baseball hat, embroidered with roses, that read "Property of No One."

Finally I arrived in my son's neighborhood, Pilsen, where most people speak Spanish and the stores are stocked with unlabeled bags of some kind of food that might be pork rinds or might be pastries. I wish I knew.

We spent most of the afternoon walking around, looking at fading flower gardens and peering into crowded shop windows, and I listened to my son and his girlfriend tell fine old fashioned tales about incompetent landlords and bizarre tenants and an old guy in a top hat and an antique Oldsmobile who feeds the local stray cats.

Today, I hear, we are going to the zoo. In the meantime, I am lying here in bed listening to the elevated train rattle by. Also, a rooster is crowing. That is a peculiar combination of noises.

Friday, September 8, 2017


Here I sit, at Gate B33 at Logan Airport, staring surreptitiously at a sweet yawning baby. In this place the babies are the only ones who aren't staring at screens and/or consuming complicated Starbucks drinks.

You may be interested to know that, in order to get to the airport, my bus needed to drive past the following:
Necco Wafer Factory
Exotic Collision Services
Sign advertising "Visit the 35-Foot-Tall Madonna"(Jesus' ma, not the pop star . . . I think)
So far, that's it for interesting observations. Everything else in this airport is exquisitely dull. The overhead speakers have shifted from "Eine Kleine Nachtmusick" to Frank Sinatra. The carpets are grey with beige stripes. An employee is slowly rolling up a yellow extension cord. The yawning baby's daddy is wiggling a rattle. I am not wishing I were snacking on a Necco Wafer, though I would not mind seeing the Madonna.

Now I will eat my cheese and tomato sandwich and read Little Women. Stay tuned for more fascinating updates.

* * *

I have just returned from a trip to purchase a bag of shockingly overpriced almonds. However, given that I ate my lunch at 9 a.m., I suspect I may need some in-flight sustenance. So overpriced almonds it is.

In search of novelty, I have moved to a different seat in the lounge. Now I am next to the yawning baby's daddy, who is cooing into the stroller.

Daddy. You gonna get on that plane and stink the place up? [blows kiss] You gonna do that to Daddy?

Baby. [Yawp]

Daddy. What you trying to say, man? [giggle, giggle, blows kiss]. Aw, what you talking about? You talking to me? I'm talking to you. Are we talking to each other?
Baby. [Yawp.]
Seems like Baby and Daddy have a good life ahead of them.

* * *

Thursday, September 7, 2017

It is still raining. The dog walkers are huddled inside their boots and hoods, and the dogs are galloping over the wet grass. Bay and sky are identical, just a strip of island horizon between them.

Tomorrow morning, very early, I will catch a bus to Boston and from there fly to Chicago. So today will be laundry day, and "ugh, why are my clothes so awful?" day, and "can I bring this on the plane?" day, etcetera, etcetera. But I'm also going to venture out into the rain to buy the ingredients for Portuguese seafood stew: clams, mussels, linguica, potatoes. This stew is one of the most delicious foods in the world, and I love to make it, even in the doll-house kitchen.

With that hurricane barreling toward the coast, I am beginning to wonder about my return flight. Perhaps I'll be stranded in Chicago with my son. There could be worse things.

Well, I know I won't be writing to you first thing tomorrow, but I expect to send you plenty of updates from the places I'll be visiting--for instance, the waiting area at Logan, where I'll be idling for a few hours. As far as I know, the only entertainment plan my son and his girlfriend have made is to go to the circus on Saturday. Given that the tickets cost a mere $5 each, I am wondering if it will be a flea circus. You can be sure I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

All the news is bad: DACA, North Korea, hurricanes. Meanwhile, the fog hovers over Casco Bay. It is not at all like Sandberg's little cat feet. It is more like a large broody hen puffed up to fool a hawk. The air is thick with moisture and foreboding.

I finished Wolf Hall and have been reading Maurice Manning's startling collection Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions. And yesterday I took an omnibus Alcott out of the library, as something to read on the plane and in airports. It seemed to me that the educational philosophies of Bronson, as delineated by Louisa, might be just the ticket. I have no idea why I find those novels so comforting, but I do.

Given the weather forecast--thunderstorm, thunderstorm, thunderstorm--I doubt I'll be doing much gardening today. I'd like to walk down to the fish market, but that may not happen either. I do have a pile of editing on my desk. I do need to make appointments with the burner-service guy and the chimney sweep. I should figure out how to get from O'Hare to my son's apartment.

But I also have a kind of loose aimlessness in my thoughts . . . a sensation that often precedes writing. So maybe this day will veer into a different world.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Well, I'm back in Portland for a few days . . . until Friday, when I fly to Chicago for a holiday with Number One Son. I'm hoping that trip won't be quite as wet as this past weekend's was. Moving Number Two Son into his dorm room was a soggy adventure.

I checked in on my new transplants yesterday and they were flat, thanks to the weekend downpour, but I think they will rally. Of course I forgot to take photos for you. Perhaps I'll remember to do that today.

Today there's no rain, not yet anyway, but the breeze is brisk and the humidity is high. I have a long list of itchy this-and-that things to do: edit a gnarled manuscript, design a syllabus, research oil-delivery companies, remember to buy my sister a birthday present, and so on and so on.

This is the month that I will learn I did not win the Autumn House Prize for Poetry. I cannot imagine it will go any other way. Still, I am waiting to hear.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

If By Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chain'd

John Keats

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter'd, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain'd,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain'd
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

* * *

I am here sitting here, in my little doll-house apartment, on the second floor of an elegant Victorian overlooking the sea, mooning over the memory of the half-imaginary garden beside my shabby little cape, with its ugly vinyl siding and its view of other people's backyards. And for some reason, the phantom of John Keats has floated in through the closed window . . . John Keats, that stumpy little commoner, so deeply enraptured with the earth and the words. He was no gardener, of course; he was a city boy through and through. Yet his eye caressed the world. He was always attuned to "pained loveliness." The sonnet I just shared is not one of his best, but I like it anyway: I like that it shows me how his mind was working, how he was thinking his way through the task of making a poem. I am all about making these days.

* * *

You probably won't hear from me for a day or two, as I'll be on the road, taking the boy back to college. But I will try to remember today to take some pictures of the garden-to-be . . . the first draft, ripe for revision. I'm not a very good photographer, and mostly all you'll see is dirt. But dirt has its beauties.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The temperature is in the 40s this morning, and a huddled-up crow, looking windblown and disgruntled, is perched on the tip of the "Founding of Portland" obelisk across the street from my bedroom window. We are beginning the down-slope to autumn.

I have had the sensation of small bursts of words behind my skull . . . nothing at all like a poem, but a gathering-together of tools, an accumulation. I am beginning to imagine I could be a writer again. Still, mostly what I am is a landscaper. Yesterday I finished spreading the new soil in the garden beds and began digging up flagstones from the side-yard wasteland. Once, long ago, somebody had an idea about a patio. But the flags sank into the earth, and then someone dribbled gravel over them, and then everyone forgot them. So now I am prying them up and loading them into the wheelbarrow and trundling them out to the front yard to create paths and step stones inside the beds. As soon I finish that arrangement, I can lay drip hose for irrigation, and then, finally, I'll be able to think about fall planting.

Needless to say, all of my garden muscles are shouting, "Hello! We thought you had forgotten us!" My hands hurt and my shoulders ache and the backs of my legs are weary. I've got a bruise under a fingernail where I bashed it with a rock, and bruises on my thighs where I bashed them with the wheelbarrow. Still, it is lovely to rediscover my sturdy old body. We've been friends for a long time.

One thing that's so different about gardening in town instead of the country is that I'm constantly on view. All of my gardening in Harmony was a strictly private matter. But on the Street of the Transcendentalists, everyone gets to watch the show. There I am, in the front yard of a tiny residential street, houses packed close together, and I'm recklessly yanking around rocks and soil and hauling away piles of weeds. So everybody notices, and half of them drop by to say hello. [Thus far my favorite conversation has been with the second-grader across the street, who appeared suddenly to hang out and tell me about her cat, Jack. You'll be interested to hear that he has staring contests with the dog on the other block.]