Saturday, January 20, 2018

Well, I'm back at Alcott House, all ready to spend my weekend painting a bathroom door and reading drafts of essays. For the moment, however, I'm sitting in a darkened living room, listening to the clock tick on the mantle and a breeze clack at the loose siding. The cat is staring at squirrels. Tom is sleeping. The government is shut down. I've been fighting a headache for a few days, and I wish I were a little thinner. Thus the first weeks of 2018, with their pettiness and their politics, wind to a close.

But the days are lengthening. I haven't yet heard the chickadee's spring song, but soon, soon. In the woods, nesting owls are dive-bombing unwary cross-country skiiers. Icicles drip from eaves, and dogs roll on sodden patches of bare yard. The washers of kitchen floors growl at the wearers of work boots.

I wonder what spring will be like here. I wonder about my garlic, and those tulip bulbs I planted last fall. I wonder how I should lay out the new beds in the front garden. It is odd to know so little about my land.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I am floating on a small cloud of good fortune . . . nothing major, no big prizes or grants or anything like that. But little things have been falling into place. A question about Frost Place staffing has been settled. I had a lovely coffee visit with my new teaching-artist colleague. I learned that my 10-week essay workshop is filling up, which makes me so happy. I received a class list for my 12-week high school poetry residency and am already charmed by the students, just from their classroom teacher's description of them. My mother-in-law called and sweetly begged me not to drive in the snow. Four people have come to see me at my new house within the past week. The lamplight in the bedroom looks beautiful against the polished floor. Like I said, little things.

Soon I'll be teaching twice a week: high schoolers and adults, poetry and essays. I'll be editing a book of short stories for a university press. I'll be prepping for the Frost Place. All of this makes me feel like an actual working writer. Of course I've spent my adult life as a working writer, but so much of my work was solitary. Being in Portland requires taking off the mask.

In the interstices of this work I'll be cooking meals, and beginning to imagine my garden, and learning to be alive in this new space. My friend, yesterday, walked through the house and mused about a sweetness that seems to rise from it. She's right: there is a sweetness. This is a good place, and I feel an odd sense of mutual gratitude, as if the house is as relieved as I am.

Tomorrow morning, when I climb into my car hours before dawn in order to drive to my early-morning gig, I'll try to hang on to this sense of optimism.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Yesterday's teacher meeting was an utter joy: I am so excited about this poetry residency I'll be co-facilitating this spring. My fellow teaching artist is a delight, the classroom teacher is a delight, and I already know several of the kids from last year's residency. Plus, this year I can walk to work among budding trees and riotous tulips.

For the moment, however, winter is still clutching at us, so today I'll be prepping for my Smith class and hoping that tomorrow's weather report is fake news. I really hate driving in snow. If things look truly terrible, I'll go down early, early on Thursday morning instead--another version of unpleasantness but perhaps a safer one. Anyway, we'll see what transpires.

In the meantime, I need to find something to read. I finished the Ishiguro novel, I'm bored of the New Yorker, and my house is full of boxes of books with no shelves to put them on. I'm loath to do too much unpacking at this point, but I might burrow into one or two and see what I find. Or I might just go to the library and see what accidental volume decides to fall into my hands.


Monday, January 15, 2018


Yes, that is a faucet you see there. Moreover, Tom has hooked it up to both hot and cold water, plus a drain. Though the dishwasher still sits in its box in the living room, we now have basic running water in the kitchen, after two and a half weeks spent ferrying fresh water and waste water back and forth from the bathroom. Plumbing in the kitchen! It's such a luxurious feeling.

Every little thing is going to feel like a miracle. I mean, someday we might even get countertops! And cupboard doors! [Please note: There is zero irony in this post.]

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I spent some time yesterday afternoon (after mopping many, many floors) listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos, eating bananas, and looking through Uncommon Places, a collection of Stephen Shore's photographs from the 1970s. Today I plan to listen to Parliament, eat Cara Cara oranges, and look through a collection of John Singer Sargent's paintings. In a house with so many art books and LPs lying around shelfless and un-alphabetized, the opportunities are rife for peculiar pairings. Just add fruit, and you've got an event.

This will be a busy week: a teacher meeting tomorrow, and then on Wednesday I leave for a teaching gig in Massachusetts. In between: editing and classroom prep and editing and editing and editing and dealing with whatever house eventuality arises. But I've written two new poems since Christmas--two new poems I like--and I am reading steadily. Creatively I'm feeling a bit like a middle-of-the-road phoenix, somewhat dishevelled and ratty around the tailfeathers, bleary and sneezing among the ashes, and dealing with an awkward stiffness in my wings--but rising, rising nonetheless, in my own awkward way.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Well, there is water in the basement, but it's not coming in from where Tom expected it would, so is that a good thing or a bad thing? Anyway, I'm not going down to look at it till he gets up. Then we can do all of our fretting at one time.

Yesterday's plan for pleasure and accomplishment was a great success, as I wrote a poem draft, read some books, and made a beef stew, boiled potatoes, and salad greens with garlic-anchovy dressing, followed by poached pears with ginger whipped cream. All this with no running water in the kitchen!

But Tom is growing weary of the no-water situation (that is, in the kitchen, as opposed to plenty of water in the basement), so he says he's going to rig up a faucet and a drain this weekend. That will be an exciting development. We also have towel bars in the bathroom. Things are really getting civilized around here.

* * *

Advice to young lovers: Your happiness will increase if one of you is handy.

Friday, January 12, 2018

In preparation for today's forthcoming torrential rains, Tom brought home a portable sump pump, so now I am on basement drain patrol. The plumber (long, long ago, when he once visited our home and pretended he'd be back soon) mentioned that he thought our drainage system is clogged; but given that he hasn't reamed it out for us, let alone done anything else, I'm glad Tom's figured out a backup solution for potential flooding. I'm also hoping I won't be regaling you with stories of water, hoses, and mayhem tomorrow.

For the moment, however, things are peaceable around here. The laundry is churning, and the cat is sleeping, and the tea is hot. The furnace is working beautifully, and ice has stopped falling off the roof. The breakfast dishes are clean, and the dining room is tidy, and the woodbox is full, and the couch pillows are plump, and the floors are swept, and I am standing at my desk in front of my two windows looking out into the gray day. I have a chapter to finish editing this morning, and then I'm going to turn my thoughts to poems. And after a while, after the rains begin, I'll go downstairs and light a fire in the stove, and I'll read an Ishiguro novel and make poached pears and beef stew. I plan to find comfort and joy in this wet day.

And on that note, I turn to the subject of our so-called president, poster boy for Shame and Disgrace. As I prepare my thoughts for the residency I'll be co-teaching this spring, a class devoted to the creative lives of young immigrants, some of whom were born in the nations you libeled as shitholes, I think of their bright smiles, their laughter, their powerful words and open hearts, and I think of you, miserable and unloved, surround by sycophants and self-promoters who use and manipulate you because you are a narcissistic dolt who doesn't know what it feels like to actually have true friends or colleagues. That someone so ignorant should dare to deride the value of these brilliant, hopeful young people. . . . Well, all I can say is, whatever punishment may befall you, in this world or another, you richly deserve it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Chunks of ice are crashing, sliding, crashing off our back roof, and every time a piece falls the cat jumps like he's been shot. I stepped out the back door this morning into weather that feels like March: 35 degrees and the air dense and damp.

I've started reading Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Buried Giant and am finishing the last sad pages of Emily Gillespie's diary.

August 16, 1881: . . . I sometimes think of words which different women have told me in my girl-hood--that--"woman is always lovely--untill her strength & beauty fails, then--she is--only in the way"--it seems almost invariably true, yet we will try to say & think--all is well. . . .

November 1, 1882: Tis 20 minutes past nine. [Her daughter] Sarah started at 5 minutes past nine . . . though I grieve that she has gone, I feel tis all right. she wants to do what she can to make money so as to get ready to try to go to College. . . . Yes, they [her children] are both gone. . . . O but I miss their society so much, though if I know they are doing well, I feel better about it. now I must go to work. . . .
March 27, 1883: I finish my night-gown &c. go to Town with [her husband] James. he feels better natured--I am thankful he does. I sometimes think tis a real disease that some people have to have a time every so often, they seem to get so full of some undefinable thing they must explode.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Yesterday I went out for a peaceable zigzag walk through the neighborhood--woods, narrow sidewalks, public library, bill mailing, stamp buying, that sort of thing--and returned home to discover that ice weight had torn the gutter and some siding off the front of the house, with the whole mess dangling over and onto the front stoop so that huge heavy chunks of ice were poised dangerously above the skull of any mailman who should happen to wander by, and thus Tom, tired after a day's labor, had to immediately climb out of his truck and fetch a ladder and patch up the damage in the dark . . . which he did efficiently and without the use of any curse words, and so I just want to say, "Happy birthday to the man who holds everything together, and may nothing fall off the house today and force you to stand under icy roof drip and try to screw torn vinyl siding into rotten soffit boards so that they can create at least a semblance of waterproofness until spring."

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Almost 30 degrees this morning, at 5 a.m. The weather has been so strange. I am sitting on the couch in my red bathrobe, in front of the dark fireplace, listening to the hum of the humidifier and thinking about sunshine. Tom and I discovered that our house is very close to the side entrance of Baxter Woods, and I am looking forward to walking there today in the thawing slush. Baxter Woods is a 30-acre nature preserve, mostly pines and oaks . . . not my 40 acres of Harmony woodland, but something nonetheless. It's sweet to have it around the corner.

I have been prepping for a few upcoming teaching gigs. As I've done for the past couple of years, I'll be leading a January-term session at Smith College that focuses on teaching K-12 poetry. My 10-week essay-writing class for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance begins at the end of this month. Starting in March, I'll be co-leading a 12-week Telling Room poetry residency in a local high school ELL class. I'll also be judging the state Poetry Out Loud competition in March. So much busyness this spring

Today, however, I'll be editing, editing, editing. Gradually my little study is gaining comforts: adequate lighting, for instance, and a chair for the cat so he won't bother me while I'm working.

Someday, I suppose, the plumber will come.

Monday, January 8, 2018

On reading diaries

One's sense of the substance of history is turned inside out. Where one habitually thought of "ordinary lives" forming a vast background to historical "events," now one's vision is of the great events dimly passing behind the immediate realities that comprise an individual's experience. In diary after diary events like the Old Pretender's rebellion in 1715, or the battle of Waterloo a century later, float by like rumours. Indeed, the very notion of an historical "event" becomes obscure and begins to seem like an abstraction, a fantasy. In the foreground is the individual consciousness, absolutely resisting the insistence of future historians that it should experience itself as peripheral.

--from Robert Fothergill, Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Eight below this morning, but the winds have died down. Everything outside looks stiff and still in the fading dawn. Inside, the old clock ticks on the mantle; the furnace kicks on; the cat dozes; the coffee cools in its white cup.

I went nowhere yesterday, but today I might venture out for a walk or for errands. I need to do a little painting inside an alcove where Tom wants to set up his stereo. Otherwise, my day is unstructured . . . unless Tom has a plan of action he hasn't shared with me yet.

In and among floor washing and laundry and dusting and pot scouring, I did copy out some Philip Levine poems yesterday. I finished reading a history of our section of Portland, which was once its own city, known as Deering, until it was annexed in the 1880s. I started rereading "A Secret to Be Burried," the diary of Emily Gillespie, who was an unhappy midwestern farm wife during the second half of the nineteenth century. I have also been working my way through Camus's The Stranger, which I last read in high school French class and am now revisiting in translation. Gary Snyder's Turtle Island is sitting on my desk, waiting to be opened. The jumbled nature of these titles reflects the jumbled nature of unpacking. Everything looks so interesting when it's no longer neatly arranged in alphabetical order.

I wonder if we have any chance of getting kitchen plumbing this week?  I wonder if the temperature really will rise into the 40s by Friday?

By the way: I should remind you that I'll be leading a 10-week essay workshop here in Portland starting later this month. I'd love, love, love to see you there.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Six a.m. with a temperature of minus two and falling. When I stepped out the back door with the ash bucket, I could feel the winds beginning to swirl. It will be a brutal day for the squirrels and the chickadees.

Though I've mostly resisted lighting the woodstove until the evenings, this morning I started a fire immediately. It's not rational; the oil burner does a fine job of heating the house, and the stove is too small to do much more than heat the living room. I just crave the sight of the flames.

We still have no kitchen water, but we're managing. Book storage and closet space are conundrums. Eventually the dining room will also be the library, but we don't have enough bookshelves to start unpacking book boxes yet. In Harmony Tom had filled our bedroom-loft with built-ins, but we're seriously lacking infrastructure here. The bedroom has no real closet, so the one in my tiny study has to hold our clothes. Most of the existing closets (such as they are) don't yet have shelves in them. Several of the rooms don't have electrical updates, so we have to be careful about how we use the outlets. Except for the kitchen, the place remains an unfashionable, inconvenient little postwar house and the basement smells like grandparents. But I am so happy to be here, and so is Ruckus.


Today we'll unpack and run errands and sort and clean and do all of the regular people-who-have-just-moved stuff. I also want to do some writing, or at least some poem-copying, if I can. I've had so much editing this week that I haven't been able to snag any private time. On the bright side I did receive offers for two upcoming teaching gigs, so that was good news. Eventually I'll want to get out of the house, though for the moment I feel as if I never want to leave.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Shoveling out from a storm that dropped a foot or so of drifting snow is a great way to meet your neighbors. It also makes everyone jealous of the guy down the street who owns the snowblower. Fortunately, he is aware of his special status and offers to clear the sidewalks of panting strugglers. So far, so good in the residential neighborhood manners department.

After an hour and a half spent clearing snow, hauling trash and recycling, and carrying firewood, I am feeling less fearful about falling into imagined traps of urban complacency. That was hard work before breakfast.

The rest of the day is likely to be more cerebral. Reams of editing await.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Already the winds are picking up, and tiny flakes swirl among the tree trunks and roofs. The sky is low and grim; the streets are empty; the neighbors' cars are hunkered in their driveways.

Tom did go to work this morning, but the shop isn't too far away, and he expects to be home early. I hope so. Portland is under a blizzard warning, with 50 mph gusts and a foot of snow in the forecast.

If we don't lose power, we'll be eating chicken noodle soup tonight. I roasted a chicken yesterday, and my plan is to make fresh broth with the leftovers this afternoon. If we do lose power, then we'll have a chicken and rice salad.

Thank goodness for a woodstove and plenty of firewood; for running water [in the bathroom]; for plenty of provisions and a warm cat.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Liz Taylor would have greeted Richard Burton wearing a slip and a whiskey sour, but I was wearing old leggings and a horrible sweater when Tom walked through the door last night. Nonetheless, I was beaming because, as I immediately told him, "It's your first night home for dinner!"

Dinner was elk chili . . . a pound of ground elk, courtesy of a hunter friend, simmered with ancho peppers and beans and tomatoes and fried cumin and cilantro and lime, and it was spicy and tender and delicious. Cooking in a kitchen without running water turns out to be irritating but manageable, made much easier by the fact that everything else in the room is shiny and beautiful and designed specifically for me as a cook. It feels like the most wonderful love gift: getting a brand-new kitchen from a master carpenter who also happens to be my husband.

Tonight's dinner: roast chicken, probably with a side of roasted rutabaga dice, maybe with some basmati or farro, and then a cucumber salad, or maybe cherry tomatoes, or maybe something else I haven't thought of yet.

Otherwise, today will be an editing day, followed by a bout of unpacking and closet angst and a round of floor cleaning, punctuated by a walk and a spate of firewood hauling. And writing and reading, maybe. Or submitting poems, even. Anything could happen.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

I rang in the New Year by staying up for almost 24 hours straight. And I can tell you one thing: I am too old for that kid stuff. But all went well: I did not drive into any trees or fall asleep onstage, and now here I am again, back in the cottage and ready to start my first work week in my new study.

I am also alone in this house for the first time since moving here. The furnace is grumbling comfortably; the dryer is ticking; the refrigerator is humming. Otherwise, the only sounds I hear are my fingers on the keyboard.

I am standing at my desk, looking up at a clean blue wall, looking peripherally at snowy gardens and fences and sheds and roofs and the thick ridged trunks of enormous old maples. In a moment I will say goodbye to you and do some editing, but I am loath to stop lingering here. It just feels so good to be alone in my quiet room, writing whatever words I choose to write. It feels so good to know that later I will go out for a walk in my new neighborhood, and then I'll unpack some boxes, and then I'll venture out for groceries, and then Tom will come home, and I will light a fire in the wood stove, and cook our dinner on the new range, and we will listen to music and complain about not having enough closets and laugh about how charming the tiny brass frog looks in its new home on the range hood.

Here are two more in-process photographs . . . first, the island of civilization--a dinner table--in the midst of chaos (seven unpainted doors, a vacuum cleaner without a home, old plywood shelves waiting to be lugged to the basement, plastic containers full of who-knows-what. . . . )


This is a not very good photo of the refrigerator and the pantry, and pardon the banality of the subject matter, but I am thrilled to have a place where I can see all of the food in the house without crawling on my hands and knees to poke around in the back of cupboards or balancing on a step-stool to dig out whatever might be behind the stuff in front. Also, notice that Tom has made a recess for the refrigerator so it is not sticking out into the room like a snorting behemoth and getting in the way of everything else.