Monday, October 16, 2017

No longer do I only paint. Now I also rip out phone wiring, yank out nails, tear down ceilings, spackle holes, caulk cracks, and brandish a power drill.

And then I come back to the doll-house and do laundry, clean the bathroom, make dinner, and wake up at 3 a.m. after dreaming that a camel was blocking the restaurant door I was trying to open.

The upshot is: I'm tired. And today I have a desk full of editing, followed by more painting and caulking. This all seems likely to go on forever, certainly well beyond the day we move in. I think we will be lucky to have running water in that kitchen by November, let alone any usable surfaces.

Ah, well. I am comforted by the beauty of the freshly painted green front door. The paint chip calls it Gleeful. That is probably going too far, but it is certainly a great improvement over Shiny Electric Blue with Matching Plastic Shutters.

I am also comforted by the bounty of my new garden. Those peaked little greens I transplanted from my deck containers adore their sunny new home. I have an overflow of kale, chard, and arugula, and the perennial herbs are thriving.

Of course I'm also melancholy about Richard Wilbur this morning. The sage is growing, but the old guard is fading away.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

I slept till 7 this morning, which is blissfully late for me, and now I am quietly sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and thinking about John Brown. There is so much moral ambiguity in his story . . . not just within the man himself but also within his detractors and supporters--for instance, the Concord cadre, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson (himself a fervent abolitionist) recalled:
Higginson saw that, despite their different temperaments, [Thoreau and Bronson Alcott] took self-reliant action when it came to protesting against slavery. For them as for others, Transcendentalism bred not complacency but courage. Higginson enjoyed describing Alcott's intrepedity during the Anthony Burns affair [involving a fugitive slave being recaptured in a free state] and again after the Harpers Ferry raid, when Alcott offered to help go rescue John Brown from the Charles Town jail. Thoreau, too, combined quietism and pluck. As Higginson noted, "In a similar way Thoreau, after all his seeming theories of self-absorption, ranged himself on the side of John Brown as placidly as if he were going for huckleberries.". . . 
. . . Transcendentalism went hand in hand with a militant reform stance. Like Higginson, [Reverend Theodore] Parker was deeply involved in several movements, including women's rights, temperance, and prison reform. His Abolitionism started mildly, as indicated by his rational "Letter to a Slave-Holder" (1848), but flamed into rage with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Even as he kept up his pursuits as a multilingual scholar and minister, he took part in attempted rescues of fugitive blacks and endorsed slave rebellions. Praising John Brown's effort to spark an insurrection by blacks at Harpers Ferry, he wrote, capitalizing his words for emphasis: "ONE HELD AGAINST HIS WILL AS A SLAVE HAS A NATURAL RIGHT TO KILL EVERY ONE WHO SEEKS TO PREVENT HIS ENJOYMENT OF LIBERTY." 
[from David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist]
Higginson is most famous today as Emily Dickinson's mentor and editor, but he also "command[ed] the first African American regiment during the Civil War," and, as I discovered when I was compiling my anthology A Poet's Sourcebook, he was one of the first people to write down the lyrics of the spirituals he heard his soldiers singing. The ways in which these nineteenth-century figures intertwine are fascinating--almost as if the century were a small town. But I digress, for my central concern this morning circles around these quotations from Reynolds's biography, which are morally startling yet also inarguable. As someone who was raised in the Society of Friends, I tend to instantly fall toward pacificism. Still, as the institution of slavery has shown, peace-mongering may also be an easy way to avoid taking a stand against evil. It seems that pacificism, too, can be cowardice and selfishness--the opposite of righteousness.

Friday, October 13, 2017

This has been a ridiculously social week for me. On Tuesday I went for a long walk with a dear young person. On Wednesday I went north for band practice, then spent the night with the young person's parents, also dear. On Thursday I went north for a poetry/fiction reading and then had an impromptu dinner at the home of complete (but lovely) strangers. Tonight I'll perform at a Portland bar in front of a crowd of people I may or may not know.

Yesterday afternoon my college son called and asked, "How does it feel to have a social life?" I told him it felt peculiar. He agreed. He finds it peculiar as well, all this hanging out and talking to people.

I do have a few hours alone today to recover. But on the whole, I know it's good for me to climb out of my hole and mingle with my species. Sometimes, in these gatherings, I find myself sinking back into a teenage world of worry--you know, about stupid things like "I wish my hair didn't stick out so weirdly." But mostly I'm learning to forget them. Who cares if my hair sticks out weirdly? Who cares if my pants make me look fat? I'm 53 years old. What do I have to prove?

I've also had another interesting social interaction this week. One of my Frost Place friends, a young man who's just snagged his first university job, proposed an experiment: that we write a poem draft together, responding to one another's lines. He began by sending me five or so lines, I added five more, he added five more, and so on. We don't have the same writing or imaginative style, but we seem to be working well together--feeling each other out, riffing on each other's narrative moves. The project is becoming a fascination, and it also feels like a creative work-around for two people who have been so busy with other life requirements that we haven't been able to be poets. I don't know where this piece will go, but it's the most exciting poetic thing I've been able to manage this fall.

See you tonight, maybe?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yesterday I went on a 4-mile sunset walk with a young woman whom I have loved since she was a baby. It was a very sweet evening--watching for egrets, exclaiming at the colors reflecting in the cove, chattering in the way people do when they have known each other forever . . . which, as far as she is concerned, is the kind of person I am in her life. And for me, just getting a dose of beloved young person, with mine so far away, was revivifying. I came home and made dinner for Tom and told him all about my walk, and we were both so happy to talk about our friend and her plans. I love that these life links give him joy too.

Tonight I head north for band practice. And by the way, southern Maine friends, we are performing in Portland on Friday night, at the Thirsty Pig on Exchange Street, from 6 to 8. It would be so lovely to see you there.

In the meantime, I will do some editing and then work on a poem and then run over to the house and slap another coat of paint onto the stairwell. It's amazing how much better a wall looks when it isn't covered in a single coat of dirty, streaky mustard-color swiped over an equally dirty, streaky coat of Pepto-Bismol pink. Blah.

I will leave you with a fine quotation from the Cleveland Indians radio play-by-play guy:
"He's gonna open this thing wide open."
Ain't it the truth?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The doll-house is filled with wet light. Fingers of sun glint off wet leaves and roads, the park grass is speckled with seagulls, an old man is searching a trashcan for returnables, and some one has propped up the abandoned red bike.

Tom and I spent the entire long weekend working on the house (with a brief late afternoon hiatus for my birthday), and now Tom has to go do the same thing on other people's houses. It is an unfortunate state of affairs, and I wish I had more actual skills so I could take the burden off him. As it is, all I can do is be the queen of paint. I have now finished all three upstairs rooms--ceiling, walls, and trim--and have moved on to the ceiling in the landing and the stairwell. Today I'll do a second ceiling coat there and maybe a first coat of wall paint . . .

. . . I know this is dull talk, but painting is the only news I possess.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

I had a lovely day yesterday. We took a half-day off from home renovation and went for a long walk around our new neighborhoods . . . first down to Baxter Boulevard, along Back Cove, and then up through Payson Park and a zig-zag through the small streets along Ocean Avenue. We saw plenty of egrets, which made me happy.

We went back to the apartment for a nap, and in the evening, as the island fog rolled in, we ambled out for oysters at a new place on Washington Avenue. And then we walked another block for dinner and really good wine at the Drifter's Wife.

It was a sweet day, with many messages of affection from friends and family. I feel so fortunate to have you all.

Today we jump back onto the house-repair train. Tom's plan is to rip out and reframe the kitchen doorway and then install the new door. My plan is to paint pale-gray trim in the upstairs studies and eventually take a break to weed my garden.

In my reading life: John Brown is just about to commit atrocities among the proslavery yahoos at Pottawattomie, Kansas. In my radio-listening life: the Red Sox are just about to lose their elimination game to the Astros.

Outside the window a dump truck is loitering; kids are shouting about something or other. And now suddenly everything is silent, except for the sound of a small plane buzzing behind the clouds. Fog is hanging a thin veil over the bay, and the cat is sitting in the window, purring to himself.

I am writing these few words, and now I am remembering that I am a writer.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Today is my 53rd birthday, and I am sitting at my kitchen table in my red bathrobe, drinking coffee, writing to you, with a fat book at my elbow. Some things never change, even when everything does.

It's been a strange year. On my last birthday I was living by myself in Harmony. The house sale had evaporated. My dog had died. Everything was tragic.

Now here I am in Portland, preparing to spend my birthday painting the upstairs trim of the house we're madly trying to renovate before our apartment lease runs out. We're tired, and neither one of us has a speck of time for creative thought. But we're also having a comic romance together, one based around paint colors and new windows and the excitement of a thriving crop of greens in our slapdash new garden. As my friend Shonna said to me the other day, middle age is so funny. Whoever expected it would be like this?

I was so terribly lonely in Harmony on last year's birthday. This year I am not . . . though I am often still lonely for Harmony. That grief will never disappear. I lost my land, and I won't recover from it. But yesterday, as I crouched in the driveway hosing paint out of a brush, I was feeling peaceable enough about where I'd landed. And this morning, as I drink coffee and write to you, I'm still feeling okay. Last year at this time--even six months ago, even three months ago--I wasn't sure I ever would feel that way again.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Sorry today's post is so late: I had to rush out of the apartment first thing to meet the door-and-window delivery guy, who of course arrived an hour later than he said he would. Now, for a few minutes, I am catching up with emails and you, and then I will rush back to the house to show the woodstove to some friends who might want it for their camp. And then I will rush back here to deal with laundry. And then I will rush back to the house and spend the rest of the day painting.

This morning, though, Tom said, "You might want to open my birthday present today instead of tomorrow." His present turned out to be a sweet little wood-encased radio so that I can listen to baseball playoffs while painting. It's a good thing I've already resigned myself to being a Cleveland fan because the Red Sox ain't going nowhere in this series. But at least I can hear them choke in excellent audio.

I'm still working my way steadily into Reynolds's John Brown, Abolitionist. Here are a few passages you might want to mull over . . . perhaps as you consider your own interior thoughts about progressives and deplorables and violence and righteousness and evil.

John Brown treated these . . . black families in the area on terms of complete equality. He worked with them, surveyed their lands, and socialized with them, often visiting their homes and taking them into his. Lyman Epps, Jr., would never forget the kindness Brown showed toward his family. Epps recalled Brown as "a true friend of my father's," adding, "He'd walk up to our house on the Table Lands and come in and play with us children and talk to father. Many's the time I've sat on John Brown's knee. He was a kind and friendly man with children." 
* * * 
It mattered little to [proslavery] Senator Atchison and his ilk that interstate voting was illegal. As one of his Missouri confederates, General B. F. Stringfellow, said in a speech, "To those who have qualms of conscience as to violating laws, state or national, I say the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, since your rights and property are in danger. And I advise you, one and all, to enter every election district in Kansas . . . and vote at the point of the bowie-knife and revolver." . . . 
By all accounts, the [Missourians] were a scurvy bunch, well deserving of their moniker: border ruffians. One Free State man described them as the most "rough, coarse, sneering, swaggering, dare-devil looking rascals as ever swung upon the gallows," another as "groups of drunken, bellowing, blood-thirsty demons." The New-York Tribune portrayed the typical border ruffian as tall, slim, hairy-faced, wearing a dirty flannel shirt and dark pants held up by a leather belt from which protruded a bowie knife. 
* * * 
But John Brown would soon be making use of his weapons [in Kansas]--most memorably those menacing two-bladed broadswords he had brought from Ohio.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

This afternoon I will drive north to band practice, and perhaps along the way I'll see the leaves starting to redden. Here in Portland, all I notice is a vague yellow shriveling more like August drought than October color.

The humidity has ticked up, and a warm breeze is blowing into the doll-house from the bay. I spent yesterday in a meeting about an upcoming teaching residency, then editing some manuscripts, painting closets, and trying, without success, to stay awake to listen to the Yankees-Twins game. I also found out that, no surprise, I did not win the Autumn House Prize. On the other hand, I was invited to judge the state Poetry Out Loud competition next spring. And my parents sent me two boxes crammed with wrapped birthday presents, so now the doll-house looks like Christmas.

Today I'll edit, and vacuum up cat hair, and listen to a bunch of songs we might be working on at band practice. I'll try not to fret about my manuscripts.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I'm heading off shortly for a meeting at a school where I'll be working later this winter. In the meantime, I'll leave you with these couple of John Doe poems, just out at Scoundrel Time. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Well, I'm starting the week off feeling as if I need a weekend, but c'est la vie in the home-recovery business. I've now got second coats of paint on all three upstairs rooms, a closet completely done, and an alcove first-coated. This evening I'll prime two more closets and the hall ceiling and put a second coat on the alcove, which, being yellow, may need a third.

This is dull conversation, I know, but I'm trying to put off wailing about murder. Trapped in paint as I was, I managed not to hear anything about the terror attacks in Edmonton and Las Vegas until this morning. And now that I know, I am gnashing my teeth and pacing around and asking, What the hell?, just like you are, I suppose.

And yet I am also reading the biography of a terrorist.

Here, beside the doll-house, drivers sweep around the corner on their way to work. That abandoned red bike is still locked to a post beside the park. Chilly walkers rush down the sidewalk.

In five days I will turn 53. I wonder what world I was imagining 50 years ago.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

"On winter evenings the family often sat in the living room by the huge fireplace, ten feet wide with oversized andirons and a crane with hooks that held kettles. John Brown would gather two or three children on his lap and sing hymns or discuss national affairs." --from David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist

* * *

The image of John Brown cuddling "two or three children on his lap" is very startling, but also very moving. I had not imagined him to be such a loving father, and yet he had 20 children (not all survived childhood), and he was intimately involved in their upbringing.

The other night, as Tom was washing dishes, he began talking, with sudden joy, about our sons--the great pleasure he has in knowing what decent human beings they have become, his equally great pleasure in their entertaining company. Tom is not an emoter, so his burst was notable. I of course beamed and agreed with everything, and so now I am thinking of John Brown and those "two or three" in his lap with great tenderness for both the children and their parents. I did not sing hymns to my boys, but I did sing.