Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Three times as much snow as forecast. Canceled flights. Son with stomach flu. Such are the vicissitudes of late 2019.  Talk to you next year.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Last evening began at a coffee shop with a college friend and her sister. I hadn't seen this friend since 1986, so I was a little nervous about how it might go. But it went swimmingly: we talked about books and music and poetry and witches and bad relationships, and I, at least, left feeling extremely happy about reconnecting. Then I bustled home to my house full of boys, and we all went out on the town together. First, two dozen oysters. Then poutine and local beer. Then a ramble through town to look at at the lights. We ended up at the ferry terminal, and wandered down to the end of the pier, where a lobster boat was unloading its catch in the spotlit darkness and one of the fishermen was engaged in an awe-inspiring monologue about his drug-addicted sister. On and on he went, like the Ancient Mariner, spooling out tragedies punctuated with "It was a bona fide fuckin nightmare," and on the pier we four sympathetic ravenous artists longed to steal all of his lines. It was a notable moment . . . the Wedding Guest reveals himself to be my very own story-greedy family, the Ancient Mariner stands spotlit on the deck and turns out to be a 35-year-old exasperated pain-riddled fat guy . . .

And after that big deal, we went home, made a large caprese salad and toast, and played contract rummy.

Now it is snowing, Tom is getting ready for work, Son # 1 will catch a bus to Boston later this morning, and our family quartet will begin splintering back into everyday plywood life.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

I slept horribly last night, then fell asleep hard at dawn and bumbled through a funhouse of nasty dreams for the next two hours. So this morning I am groggy and unsettled, to say the least. Time seems to be prodding me with forks . . . an end-of-decade alert, perhaps.

Ten years ago, at the tail of 2009, I lived on 40 acres of old-growth forest in the middle of nowhere. I was 45 years old and had a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old at home. My dog was alive and my cat was unborn. I had just published Tracing Paradise. Here's what my blog looked like back then. I haven't brought myself to read it, but you can.

Now, a decade later, I am 55. My land is gone from me. My younger son graduates from college in a few months. My older son earns more money than his parents do. I read and write in a small house in a small city by the sea. In the intervening years I have published six more books. I have compiled at least two more unpublished poetry manuscripts and possibly an unpublished essay manuscript. In a few days I will meet with an archivist who wants to collect my papers. This is bizarre and unreal. How could I have produced all of those words?

Weirdly, I have accomplished, writing-wise, far more than I ever thought possible. Still, as expected, I remain unfamous and unstylish. My papers will get dusty in the archive, but, on the bright side, my kids won't have to clutter up their closets with my boxes of stuff.

Aging is a strange story.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Two boys at home! And, tonight, an impromptu party with some favorite young people! Chili, ice cream, board games! I am all of a flutter.

Meanwhile, ten thousand pounds of laundry await.

The sky glimmers in pale pink over the bay.

I am drinking black coffee and looking at the spines of the books heaped on our coffee table: Christy Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. John Guy, Queen of Scots. Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House and Other Plays. Morgan Parker, Magical Negro. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. William Wegman, Funny/Strange. Upstairs, Tom is reading Peter Mathiessen's Cloud Forest, and James is reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Words float around this house like dust. They leak into the street every time I open a door.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmas was lovely . . . relaxed and friendly, punctuated with a long mid-day walk and a glorious evening feast.

Today I suspect we'll mostly be glopping and gloping in small non-concentric circles, as one does on the day after Christmas, and you may define glopping and gloping for yourself.

For the moment, I am sitting at the kitchen counter brewing coffee. Next to me is a fat bio of the Queen of Scots. I am wearing an ancient sweater over my pajamas, and my hair is sticking up strangely. Next on my list of chores is to inspect the giant jigsaw puzzle and discover what can be solved in the clear light of day. As you see, the gloping is already picking up speed.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A quiet morning here in Amherst. A thin layer of snow ripples the rough ground. The rhododendron leaves are shriveled and limp. A squirrel skitters through the canopy of white pines and, below, the small pond is layered with grey-white ice. I'm the only one up. I've started the coffee, dropped a couple of pieces into place in the giant community jigsaw puzzle. I've got my tiny volume of George Herbert's poems alongside me, and here is one I've just read for the first time. I send it to you as a small gift of affection and hope and honor for whatever it is that reminds us to be humane.

A Wreath

George Herbert

A wreathed garland of deserved praise,
Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,
I give to thee, who knowest all my wayes,
My crooked winding wayes, wherein I live,
Wherein I die, not live: for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to thee,
To thee, who art more farre above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicitie.
Give me simplicitie, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know thy wayes,
Know them and practise them: then shall I give
For this poore wreath, give thee a crown of praise.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Later this morning the three of us will head south to Massachusetts for the holiday. Our older son is flying in from Boston and will meet us at Tom's parents' house. Tom's sister's family will arrive for dinner, and we will celebrate over my mother-in-law's restaurant-level cooking and eventually play a large loud card game.

We are a game-playing family, on both sides. There are always card games in the offing, sometimes a giant Monopoly roundup (Tom is a ruthless real estate magnate), sometimes the dictionary game with hilarious nephews, sometimes just a companionable crossword puzzle with my father-in-law or a Scrabble game with my unbeatable dad. Over the years games have filled many holiday hours. I always took this for granted until a friend told me that her family never plays games. What happens instead, I wondered. Arguments? TV? The great thing about family card games is that everyone shares a conversation, disagreements are channeled into formalized jousting, and young and old are equals on the field. In Massachusetts our card game of choice is oh hell. In Vermont it varies by fad and number of players but has lately been contract rummy, though we often reprise the popular game of my father's youth--five hundred--a version of euchre that I recall my older relatives playing rabidly at every holiday gathering.

Even alone Tom and I play games. Usually, after he comes home from work, we have a round of cribbage by the fire before I start dinner and he goes upstairs to work on his photos. All of the younger generation (five boys total, if I include both sides) are eager game players. Their ages range from 13 to 25, and all play cards as well as the adults do. It is a fine thing to watch a 13-year-old go head to head with an 80-year-old.

So as I embark on this year's Christmas journey, I send you much love and a pleasant competitive spirit. Shuffle your decks well, and deal everyone a good hand. Cheers!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Yesterday I went for a long walk in the cemetery and came across a set of three stones I had not seen before. On a large and elaborate monument these words are carved:

Alonzo M. Whitney
Son of
Merrill & Zebia A. Whitney
Born in Lowell Mass., July 18th 1845
Member of Company F.,
Sixteenth Regiment, Maine Vols., Infantry.
Lost in Battle at Fredericksburg,
Dec. 13th 1862.
His Body Not Recovered.

In front of Alonzo's memorial are two small, modest stones. One reads:

Zebiah A. K.
Wife of
Merrill Whitney
Died Aug. 1 1845.
Age 30 Yrs.

The other:

Merrill Whitney
Feb. 25 1815.
Jan. 24 1886.

The bare bones of this sad story: Zebiah (or Zebia) died less than a month after Alonzo was born. Alonzo was lost in battle at the age of 17. Merrill survived for two more decades, dying at the age of 71. Neither he nor his wife were in their first youth when their son was born. There are no signs of a second wife or of other children.

Merrill was wealthy enough to afford an elaborate monument for his lost son. But his own stone exactly matches his dead wife's modest one.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

I slept late this morning--past 6:30 and into the dawn, with cold pink light streaking the sky and the cat, for some reason, not biting me. Then I got up, came downstairs, tossed the pet outside, solved the byzantine thermostat-setting problem, washed boot tracks off the kitchen floor, made coffee, emptied the dishwasher, folded the couch blanket, turned on the Christmas lights, read a little news, and now I am feeling dull and suburban and thinking about the old days of livestock-water-hauling-in-subzero temperatures and stoking-woodstove-fires-in-frigid-houses and doing-it-all-while-carrying-an-infant-strapped-to-my-chest-and-snatching-an-adventurous-toddler-out-of-various-life-threatening-situations, and I'm wondering how things became so passive.

Anyway, here I am. A middle-aged town dweller, with grown children and a furnace. Reading Dante and a biography of Mary Queen of Scots. Sleeping in a white bed in a blue bedroom. Listening to the clock tick.

Last night the three of us drank some beer at a local bar and watched half of a football game, then went downtown to the ferry terminal and zig-zagged our way up through the Old Port looking at the city's various fancy holiday light arrangements (Portland takes an arty-Seuss-like approach to lighting design), then ate pizza in Longfellow Square (where statue Longfellow is wrapped in a special red scarf for the season because nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a warm poet), and then came home and fell into a pleasant doze in front of our small, purely decorative suburban wood fire.

I should probably stop kicking myself for being comfortable.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Yesterday,  as I was headed out to yoga, I had a surprise visit from a friend from the homeland, so instead of exercising, the central Maine diaspora (e.g., Paul and I) got to spend a chilly, chatty morning walking and laughing and eating and listening to Harmony-Wellington gossip.

Today I guess I'll do some housework . . . and consider the empty bookshelves in my study. Yes, you read that correctly: empty bookshelves. I have no idea what do with such a thing. Who has empty bookshelves?

I feel so extremely on-vacation. I have nothing important to accomplish, no work hanging over my head. We're talking about going out to a bar this afternoon to watch football, or maybe heading downtown after dark to look at the holiday lights. I've started reading John Guy's Mary Queen of Scots. I wouldn't mind going for a walk around Back Cove. It's strange to be so relaxed, brain-wise. For months I've been thinking hard. Last spring I wrote an entire poetry collection in a month; I  taught and edited all summer and fall, intensely, without any significant break. I've been traveling, for work and family, and even then I've been working or cogitating about work.

Sitting in a bar watching football seems about right to me . . . and I don't even like football that much.

Friday, December 20, 2019

I can hardly believe how un-fussed I've been, with Christmas rumbling toward us like a giant rock slide. I've filled out some cards, and done a little mild shopping, and made a batch of cookies. But on the whole, this has been a low-key week. Paul's been marauding among my books, and yesterday the three of us launched into a comic family critique of The Good Life, Scott and Helen Nearing's back-to-the-land brag-fest--a remarkably annoying polemic that somehow we'd all managed to avoid opening before yesterday. So there's also been family fun, Potter-Birtwistle style.

It's cold here this morning--9 degrees--and my standard red bathrobe/black coffee combo feels especially pleasant. I'm finishing up another rereading of Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden, and am thinking of starting a biography next--possibly Margaret Fuller's, possibly Mary Queen of Scots' or Eleanor of Aquitaine's. This is what happens when my bookshelves are revived: I have a sudden hankering to dip into fat histories.

Otherwise, I have nothing particular on the schedule: a little yoga, a little grocery shopping, some gossip with my kid, and an oversized volume or two. I hope your day is as peaceable.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Impeached. And nobody deserves it more.

Whatever happens in the Senate--and I am not optimistic, given McConnell's cravenness--we have this moment.

I take some comfort, too, in the dignity of the House Democrats who led us to this point, in the face of the shrieking faux-hysterics of the Republican members and the unhinged blurts of the so-called president. I've read that women are particularly attuned to this tonal disconnect because we recognize that cruel, domineering, accusatory, insulting voice all too well. I also know that, as a new mother, I struggled to cope with my firstborn, who was a screaming, angry infant. The screaming was not my son's fault, but my body and brain could not separate his wailing from some deeper flight response to intense, invasive noise. At least some of us are hardwired to run. And so the deliberate use of such intimidation strategies makes me very angry, and also afraid.

Still, as a lifelong progressive--little sister of the 60s, lover of the Clash, despiser of McCarthyism, former Greenpeace canvasser--I am shocked to admit how much I appreciate the restrained, law-abiding, cool-headed approach to the impeachment process. On the other hand, once my screaming child learned to talk and became the charmer he remains, I, too, changed. I learned to be a loving, attentive guardian who doesn't take shit. You act like a jerk; you are removed from the room. So thank you, Nancy Pelosi, for showing the world that mother skills can be the most powerful ones in the house.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Snow all day yesterday. I worked on compiling a manuscript, filled out many Christmas cards, baked orange butter cookies, and made a big chicken dinner. Meanwhile, Paul decided to organize my books. Not only that: he actually made me agree to getting rid of quite a lot of them. "Which biography of Keats do you actually read?" "Why are you keeping Ruskin if you hate Ruskin?" "Do you need two copies of Macauley's History of England?" "Do you think you will ever get around to reading this giant Herodotus?" I was very meek, and he was victorious.

Really, I swear, I did get rid of a lot of books before we left Harmony. But somehow I fell into a coma about the rest of them. It does seem hard to overlook two copies of Macauley's History of England.

Today P says he'll be tackling my poetry shelves. I feel the sweat beading up on my forehead already.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

For the past several months my friend Teresa and I have been experimenting with a monthly book-club-for-two. We choose a poetry collection, read it separately, and then talk on the phone for an hour. The result is half-chatter/half-book discussion, and so far it's been an excellent way to make sure we stay in touch, given that she lives in Florida and I live in Maine and we never see each other.

For January we are going to read one of Ezra Pound's Cantos, which I first read with my mentor, Baron Wormser, long ago in the 1990s, when I was trying to learn how to be a poet. I struggled with the Cantos then, and I will probably still struggle with them now, and that, my friends, is my story in poetry.

At least I am dogged. Maybe that is my poetry superpower.

As the year draws to a close, I find myself considering--as I often do at these ceremonial moments of time-passage--what exactly I'm doing with my life. Cobbling together ill-paying jobs. Keeping house. Reading books. Growing vegetables.

Regarding my writing and teaching, I could purvey a summarizing sentence or two, intoned in a gloppy artist-statement sort of voice. But I won't. The fact is that I can't know. Everything I do will likely fade into the forgotten, a kind of organic breakdown into the soil of literature. Waste and failure and nourishment. Not either/or but both/and.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Yesterday Paul and I took a blustery walk along the bay, accomplished some mild shopping, ate tuna crudo, and assumed the ownership of four pounds of local mussels, an expensive snow shovel, and a bottle of Inuit gin. Then later, as the three of us were playing contract rummy, two neighbor children rang the doorbell and gave us a cake pop they'd made. Little-kid holiday spirit is so charming.

Today is up in the air, schedule-wise. I have many things I could do and no idea if I will actually be doing them. C'est la confusing family-life vie, when everyone tries to chunkily readjust for everyone else who might need to go in the opposite direction and no one can figure out which mouths have to feed or be be fed or when or how, plus Christmas shopping. And if you think that's a horrible sentence, be assured that it was meant to be.

Thus, I am making coffee and writing you this letter and not worrying too much about anything. Tomorrow the snow is supposed to move in again, and I'll be able to try out my expensive new snow shovel--which may have been pricey but was also about $750 cheaper than a snowblower and, according to two interfering ladies at Lowe's, is worth every penny except that sometimes the handle gets stuck in the car trunk. I am forewarned.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The rain abated, the traveling son clomped cheerfully into the kitchen, the fog moved in, the dinner was served, the cat hogged attention, the books were piled high on the coffee table, the fire flickered in the stove . . . and now, on this dark Sunday morning, my house is once again filled with sleeping men. A happy holiday to you too.

I expect today will involve some low-level pre-Christmas semi-flurry . . . a little shopping, a little baking, a little wrapping, quite a bit of procrastinating. I ought to do some poem submitting, but that could easily fall into the procrastination basket. After a long and intense autumn, I am content to have a son in the house and zero work obligations. I don't care if I get anything done.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The weather outside is frightful--a torrential, whipping rain clattering against doors and windows and roofs. Son Number #2 is supposed to be home tonight, and I'm in hopes that this storm abates before he and his friend embark on their road trip. It is nasty out there . . . an excellent day not to own a dog in need of a walk.

On the morning of my first day of vacation yesterday, I became acquainted with a friendly person at yoga, who turned to out to be Portland's new mayor. That is the kind of a place this city is: you run into the mayor at yoga and the governor at a poetry reading. Friendly and small and arty and female (and provincial, and white, and push-button middle-class progressive, with a suffering underclass, and a giant homeless problem, and overcrowded refugee housing, and coastal climate-change heebie-jeebies, and a slavering horde of selfish, aggressive real estate developers . . . ). But I liked the mayor, who is a real person with real feelings, and I was glad I'd voted for her, and I hope she can maintain her course as she clambers into Portland's various circles of hell.

Today I'll be futzing around with this-and-thats: prepping for son arrival, assembling a set of movable shelves, baking a batch of pita, wrapping a few presents, filling out some Christmas cards . . . all of them solid, non-intellectual, rainy-day activities. Meanwhile, downpour sluices through gutters and drains, the stolid bay whitens under the hammering drops, holiday lights twinkle fitfully through water-glazed panes, the little house blinks and sighs beneath its vinyl siding and asphalt shingles, and far away up north a barred owl shadows a sodden glen of fog and firs that I'll never stare into again.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Here's a recent poem, "The Regret of the Poet after Sending Work to a Magazine," that's up at the Cafe Review. Yesterday I posted a link to the poem on Facebook, and among other kind responses I received a "Lovely!"  from the great poet A. E. Stallings, which completely made my day. I hope you pardon my small crowing.

Except for a couple of loose author ends to tie up on an editing project, I am now closed for the season: no teaching, no editing until January. Today I'll go to a yoga class, and then maybe do some Christmas shopping, maybe read some books, maybe sort through some poems, maybe bake some cookies . . .

Yesterday I whipped up a syllabus for a poet friend who is struggling with his work and thinks that a crash course in form might help him out. I had a really good time coming up with a three-month plan. I'm wondering how many other people would like such a class. I've conceived of it as a kind of exercise program for writers who automatically reach for free verse.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

I've got one more editing project to tackle, and then I can slip into my holiday recess. I love that the word recess connotes both a "break" and a "hole" because that's exactly what I want from this holiday.

Last night my son messaged me with the question "Is the adjective version of Barbie barbaric?" And now you know why I am so fond of my children.

Words, words, words. I bumped up against two lines from the Inferno and I thought I might have a heart attack: they are so beautiful and bossy and mysterious--

But look down now and pay attention.
The river of our blood draws near.

Add in that they were translated by a poet I've always struggled against--Jorie Graham--and the bossy mystery deepens.

Yet in the realm of wordlessness, let us celebrate sleep . . . which I finally achieved last night: a full 9:30-to-5:30 dive into the watery unconscious after days of one-armed dog-paddling.

And now here I sit in the dusk of morning, busily transmitting words and no-words, dredging them up from my silent swim.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Driving to my class up north can feel like embarking on an Arthurian quest . . . my faithful steed Tina the Subaru and I pricking the plain, through fog and sleet and terrible roads, as the black night draws in and lurking spirits crowd against the road edges, their pagan eyes glittering . . .

And once I get there, it's like being in a castle in the wood. A giant furnished apartment, shining with newness and amenity. Nothing to do but read and write and stare out the window. Then the next day, a room filled with brilliant young people.

. . . And then the Arthurian quest in reverse: wind, rain, fog, terrible roads, and the lurking darkness.

The class itself was wonderful. We worked on exercises for stripping down poems, read work by Nezukamatathil and Akhmatova and Nigliazzo, listened to Stuart Kestenbaum talk about his blackout-poetry project, discussed hard questions about the ethics of art. These students are so thoughtful and funny and honest, and they are dead-serious about the power of the vocation.

Today: Back in the editing saddle. Walking alone in the cemetery. Making chicken curry for dinner. Hoping to sleep.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark--readings when knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.

--A. S. Byatt, Possession

* * *

I've been sleeping so badly these past few nights: waking abruptly in the black hours, my mind churning over unsolvable conversations, dull to-do lists, mortal terrors. At that time of night, dread is the identical twin of tedium. "Did I forget to buy lettuce?" carries the same weight as "What if I'm dying?"

* * *

Whoever's homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city's avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.

--from Rainer Maria Rilke, "A Day in Autumn," translated by Mary Kinzie

Sunday, December 8, 2019

I spent most of yesterday cleaning house, a job that I'm usually rigorous about but that I'd let slide a bit since before Thanksgiving. Cat hair was starting to build up, dust starting to film, weird bathroom grime starting to surface.

I hate clutter and accumulated dirt, and I'm much better at working and writing and keeping my temper if my surroundings are clean and neat. So allow me to complain about those stupid mantras aimed at women: "Every hour you spend on housework is an hour away from writing" and similar kinds of crap exhortations. Every hour anyone spends on anything is an hour away from writing. Why zero in on housework? And why assume that housework can't be a creative trigger? Who says, "Don't go for a walk! You should be writing!"? Housework is like any other physical-observational task: you can mine it for material, and you can use it as a contemplative space. To me, those anti-housework screes are borderline classist (artists are too high-brow to scrub a floor?), not to mention a historical insult (who's been cleaning our houses for generations?). This should not be only a woman's issue either: those generations of servants included the men who filled the coal cellars, the boys who blacked the shoes. Nonetheless, today's "Don't waste precious time on toilets when you could be writing!" memes do primarily seem to be aimed at women. Are there equivalent public service announcements for male writers--say, "Don't be playing hoops in the driveway when you could be working on a sonnet!" or "Put down that TV remote and think about characterization instead!" or "Fixing that broken pipe will destroy your novel!"?


Thus ends today's rant. Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

"All of us have things in our lives which we know in [a] brief, useful allusive way, and neglect deliberately to explore."

                           --A. S. Byatt, Possession

* * *

I've been thinking about Byatt's remark for the past couple of days. This deliberate gap in focus has worried me deeply as a poet. I know I purposefully avoid writing about certain things. For the most part this isn't because of prissiness, or fear, or laziness. The reasons tend to involve (with sex, say) an interest in the power of wordlessness: I like having a few things in my life that aren't framed with language. My elisions also relate to other people: e.g., whether or not I have the ethical right to publicly explore a situation that living participants may prefer to not share.

Nonetheless, these gaps become a habitual slip in concentration: "Oh, I'll pay attention to that later" risks becoming "I never figured that out." Word silence about physical matters risks a deeper inattention to cause and effect, to longing and weariness, to fervency and making do.

So I'm anxious about these neglected avenues, and my rationales for elision often feel inadequate, even false. Yet a mind cannot encompass everything, can it? There are days when I feel I have to stop looking at the world . . . the pressure of observation becomes so painful. And then, words themselves are a knife. Sometimes that knife opens a surgical route into truth. But sometimes it's a tool for slicing off the toe I can't cram into the glass slipper.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Success! I not only finished the entire editing project, but I also wrote and submitted the book review, and even found time late in the day to go for a slip-n-slide walk around my snowy neighborhood. This morning, after yoga, I'll ship the editing project, prep for next week's Monson class, and maybe, just maybe, steal a little time for my own writing. That would be a sweet end to a hard-pressed week.

In the meantime, I've started rereading one of my favorite books of all time: A. S. Byatt's Possession. And I've forked the Inferno out of my to-do stack and am ready to get back to copying it out. Monday, I'll be on the road again, and then the holiday season will start tumbling down like boulders on a highway . . . cooking travel boys travel shopping cooking boys . . .

Thursday, December 5, 2019

It's a cold morning here--down to 18 degrees after a dripping, snowmelt day. Surfaces must be slick out there, but all I can see through the pane are streetlights and gray shadow and heaps of pale shoveled lumps edging driveways and sidewalks.

Inside, my Christmas lights are shining and the cat is sleeping and the furnace is growling, and I'm girding my loins for another forehead-to-the-editing-grindstone day. I've made such good progress this week that I might even be able to switch desk chores and finally get started on that book review. Or maybe I'll just keep muscling through the editing project.

I'm still thinking about my embryo manuscript, still thinking about poems, feeling wistful about it all, as if I'm pressing my nose against a shop window. This not-writing is entirely different from writer's block. It's an embargo on letting myself go, until I get the paying work finished, and there's just no way around it.

Still, there's happiness in knowing I've got something waiting for me.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Despite having to shovel out the driveway twice, I did get a chunk of work done yesterday--not only editing but also some reading/commenting on other people's manuscripts. Today maybe I'll manage to slip in that book review as well.

We ended up with a total of about 8 inches of snow, but most of it arrived during the day. So I did some before-work shoveling and some after-work shoveling, and this morning my out-of-practice back is weary. But the snow glitter was lovely, children rushed by with their sleds, shoveling neighbors waved to one another, cats were horrified . . . and, according to Tom, the streets were treacherous and even his weighted four-wheel-drive pickup was fishtailing around corners.

I'm almost done with Woolf's Night and Day, which has been kind of a slog. It's a very young book, and there's something wrong with the character exposition: not enough early in the novel, too much crammed into the later action. I'm no fiction writer, but it feels as if there's a lack of balance in this book. So that in itself is interesting: to be noticing craft-wise what doesn't seem to be working, and then considering the complexities that this particular writer learned to probe later in her career. She fixed her mistakes, exponentially.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

My plan yesterday was to hunker down at my desk like an editing mule. Instead, the phone kept ringing, I stood in line at  the bank for eons, the cat would not stop pestering me . . .  Maybe today will be more productive.

The snow is arriving slowly. Overnight we got another inch or two, and it's supposed to keep snowing all day. Schools are canceled, plow trucks are bustling, but not much is happening as of yet. If I can get enough done at my desk today, and am not overwhelmed by shoveling chores, I'll take a walk out into the snowy streets and admire the scenery. This neighborhood has a lot of early twentieth-century houses that look postcardy in a fresh snow.

I woke up in the night feeling oppressed by not writing, and I am trying to push that fret away. What I need now, really, is some open time to sort through poems and tinker with a manuscript. I've got an enormous stack that needs to be winnowed and thinned into something readable. But there's no open time on the horizon. I've got lots of editing to do, teaching to plan, a day up north next week, and then the college boy comes home for Christmas. I may or may not need to drive to Vermont to fetch him; I'll certainly need to get him back after the New Year. And in the meantime we'll be in Massachusetts for the holiday . . .

In short: poems do not fit into the schedule. But they are kicking and screaming and complaining about it.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Last night, as I was heading to bed, the first flakes began to sift from the sky, and this morning there's an inch or two of accumulation coating sidewalks, cars, and roofs . . . not an impressive amount, but our first. The storm is supposed to ramp up again tonight and tomorrow, with wind and heavier snow--maybe up to eight inches, maybe less. I'm looking forward to it.

Yesterday I bought a tiny cypress, repotted it, and ensconced it on the Victrola as this year's Christmas tree. Though you can't tell from the photo, it's a dramatic reenactment of Canada: Mountie performed by trumpet-blowing tin soldier; Sasquatch performed by a lurking rubber King Kong; a cameo appearance by famous Canadian resident Santa, who is playing soccer because I couldn't find anything resembling hockey in the ornament box. Below are a canoe and a polar bear. I am considering adding a pin that says "Nice."

Later in the day Tom decorated the fireplace with lights--including the wood box. I call it the Temple to Heat and am sham-threatening the cat with talk of augury and animal sacrifice. Thus are the holidays celebrated at the Alcott House.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Champlain Valley was lovely, draped in its frost cloak, with the Greens and the Adirondacks glittering on each horizon, and I had an especially good time with my hilarious nephews. But I am so tired of traveling, and so glad to have a full week at home before I head north again.

It's good to be back in the little house, ensconced on my comfortable familiar cat-scratched couch, with my white cup and saucer, and my black coffee, and my clingy housepet. The furnace is breathing and the clock is ticking and the sky is whispering snow. Today I'll do the grocery shopping and tidy the house and unpack a few Christmas decorations. I'll start working on a book review, and help Tom replace a window in his truck cap. I'll read Woolf's Night and Day, and carry in firewood, and admire my neighbors' holiday lights. I hope I'll talk to my sons.

Heat. Light. Food. Safety. Affection. I never want to forget how lucky I am.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

"For some reason, no one likes to be told that they do not read enough poetry."

                                                      --Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

Five Meyer lemons sit in a porcelain bowl on a slab of bluestone on my kitchen counter. A shy spaghetti squash lurks in the corner.

* * *

I meant to take Vita out for a ride yesterday, but editing and housework got the best of me. Today, maybe. The temperature is supposed to climb into the 50s, and I am almost done with a chapter. I need to run some Thanksgiving-related errands and clean the bathrooms, and then I'll be free to slowly pedal among the graves, alongside the silent frog ponds, past massive oaks and maples.

Tomorrow we'll head west for the holiday, and I'll be intermittent here. I hope you have a day of comedy, good cheer, and comfortable digestion but also breathe a whiff of melancholy for past and future.

This will be our first Thanksgiving, since their birth, without either of our boys. Sadness has its stories to tell, and time wanders a twilight road.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Yesterday was a beautiful, cold, damp, sleety, rainy day, which I mostly spent in front of the fire reading Virginia Woolf, doing a crossword puzzle, playing cards, and wrapping Christmas presents. Other than a brief foray out to the grocery store, I went nowhere. I did wash a thousand pounds of laundry, but I did not do any housework. I took a two-hour nap. I made a batch of preserved lemons, and cooked Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives for dinner. I watched part of a 1950s sci-fi flick called The Forbidden Planet, which was a sort of Star Trek-plus-Doris-Day mashup. It featured a robot named Robbie who arranged flowers. So handy around the house.

As a result of that nice day, I am now feeling rested and energetic: ready to edit and answer emails and run errands and get all the stuff done that I didn't do yesterday. And I've just found out that a reading group in Florida is going to be focusing on Chestnut Ridge this spring, which is exciting for me. If you belong to a group that might be interested in reading it too, please know that I'd be happy to share thoughts, answer questions, etc.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

On Friday night Tom and I went to Bennington College to watch the opening performance of Sam Hunter's play Lewiston, directed by our son Paul Birtwistle. This weekend's performances are the culmination of his advanced work at Bennington--a project that's been almost a year in the making, from discovering the play to finally presenting it on stage.

It's difficult to describe how moving the experience was. In many ways the play feels as if Paul could have written it himself. Its themes revolve around land, legacy, history, loss, class, family . . . all of which are touchstone concerns for him, as they are, of course, for me. The apple don't fall far from the tree with this one, though our methods are very different; and that in itself creates all kinds of emotions: pride, recognition, self-doubt--and I mean self-doubt in the best sort of way: a perpetual wonder: how and why: staring at a map of the forest floor and suddenly remembering the canopy.

The play was beautifully staged: a gorgeous set that was stark and spacious yet homelike; really fine acting from a top-notch cast; and behind it all the eyes and ears of our son, coaxing it forth.

Bennington's drama program regularly shows up in "best of" lists, and it attracts students who often have significant prior experience in the art. Many attend arts high schools such at LaGuardia in NYC.  That wasn't the case for Paul. He went to a mediocre high school in central Maine, where theater was treated as a second-tier extracurricular pastime. He did have kind teachers who mentored him, but the school placed no particular value on the endeavor.

So naturally there was anxiety and fear. But now, four years later, he has constructed this performance, in a theater filled with friends and colleagues from so many places and backgrounds. To watch him be lauded, be so respected within this rising cohort in the art: I felt as if all of us had walked a thousand miles to get here.

And yet others have walked farther, much farther.

The Natalie Diaz excerpt above appeared on a display Paul had put up in the lobby outside the theater, and I took its picture to share with you. Because maps are ghosts. We travel them, and they are veins and arteries, and our terrors, and they are the thin wail of a gull in a winter wind.

Friday, November 22, 2019

It's a grey morning, but damp and warmish. I slept in slightly late today, until the cat began using my chest as a trampoline. Strange dreams all night, involving terrible characters from the impeachment hearings. I was implicated in everything. There's nothing like waking up with a loaf of dread on your plate.

At least coffee and daylight can wash away dream crimes.

Yesterday I took Vita out for a brief spin to the library. I went for a walk with a north-country friend. I made minestrone and tried to force myself not to work, though I did edit for a couple of hours anyway. Today I'll be on the road again, off to celebrate my college boy's directorial debut. I am full of happiness and pride, and when I see him all of the tiredness/dream dread will vanish, and everything will be good.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Yesterday was an ordeal, driving-wise. Because of bad weather on Tuesday, I ended up driving north on Wednesday morning, running into some terrible roads toward the end. Then I taught all day, and then I drove home again. So 6 hours in the car, 4 hours in the classroom. Not an ideal proportion.

Today I'm pretty tired, but at least I have a break before I get into the car again tomorrow. And of course the kids were wonderful, especially when they were talking about some poems I'd brought in for them to read. They agree and disagree, get excited about characters and metaphors: they have such strong feelings, and it's incredibly gratifying to watch them get so hepped up about what they're reading.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Last sentence of James Joyce's "The Dead":
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Never, ever tell me that adverbs are waste words. Joyce will prove you wrong every time. I mean, "swooned slowly"? Just copying it out makes my hands tremble a little. It's so strange and exact and familiar and incomprehensible.

But of course the story itself is one of the most remarkable things I've ever read: how it begins as a portrait of a family holiday party and then, almost invisibly, morphs into a dense, delicate, charted journey into marriage and loss and young love and fear and devotion and self-doubt and time. Every time I finish it I feel as if I've been to the underworld, or to church.

I've loved "The Dead" since I was a teenager. I love it just as much now. It is the best story I know.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Today is girding-my-loins day. Tomorrow I'm off to Monson; home on Wednesday; then off to Vermont on Friday for my son's senior show; home the next day; then back to Vermont on Wednesday for Thanksgiving with my family; home the following weekend; and then back to Monson. I'm sure, in reality, this traveling will involve plenty of sitting-around-doing-nothing time, but at the moment I feel as if I'm preparing for battle.

So today: class prep, editing, yoga, cleaning bathrooms, going to a meeting of my poetry group. The weather is supposed to be nasty--cold rain, freezing rain. Already the cat has given up on the outdoors and settled into his yellow chair.

By the way, I finished Mary Poppins and now I'm reading James Joyce's "The Dead." Don't ask me why one seemed to lead to the other.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Up early again, though this time I can't blame it on the cat. On the whole I like the idea of sleeping late more than I actually like sleeping late.

I finished The Ambassadors yesterday afternoon and rewarded myself by inhale-reading, of all things, P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins Comes Back, while lying under a couch blanket and drinking a giant mug of tea.

Let me clarify: I loved The Ambassadors, and certain James novels--The Portrait of a Lady, What Maisie Knew, The Spoils of Poynton--are perennially important to me. I've read all three multiple times. But I've always struggled with the late novels: The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, and the like. The sentences are so serpentine; so many words framing a shrug or a glance. They wear me out, like Proust wears me out.

Apparently, however, James was perfectly aware of this. Writing to the Duchess of Sutherland, he advised:
Take . . . The Ambassadors very easily and gently: read five pages a day--be even as deliberate as that--but don't break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step--and then the full charm will come out. . . . Besides, I find that the very most difficult thing in the art of the novelist is to give the impression and illusion of the real lapse of time, the quantity of time, represented by our poor few phrases and pages, and all the drawing-out the reader can contribute helps a little perhaps the production of that spell.
Inadvertently, it seems, I was following HJ's advice. And while his letter to the duchess is certainly smug, I think it's also wise. My slow, steady reading did spool out the thread, did contribute to the illusion of the lapse of time, did reinforce my belief in aging Lambert Strether's innocent blindness to the "sin" around him.

And I also found this, near the end of the novel, spoken by Lambert's lonely friend Maria--
What woman was ever safe?
--a question that makes my skin crawl and my eyes fill, but also makes me grateful for James's deep, strange comprehension of what women endure.

What woman was ever safe? The question is too sad to answer.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Of course the cat raked me out of bed at 5:30 on a Saturday sleep-in morning when I was in the midst of a complicated dream involving a farmhouse, some mysterious visitors, and a vegetarian who suddenly started eating meat.

Now here I am, awake in the prosaic light of day, such as it is, unable to discover why that dream kitchen was so murky and ill-lit (are there no overhead lights in dreams?) or what we were going to do with all of those onions I was chopping up.

Well, at least my real-life coffee is hot.

This weekend I must do housework, and I must start Christmas-shopping, but otherwise who knows? Yesterday it warmed up, briefly, into the 40s, so Vita and I went for a quick bike ride until my ears got too cold. Today I might have to stick to walking.

I'm thinking of making chicken paprikash and dill dumplings for dinner. I'm thinking about what I ought to read once I finish The Ambassadors. I'm thinking about how Tom and I wandered down to the docks yesterday evening, after consuming a giant delicious Greek meal, and took a gander at a hulking container ship a-glow in the harbor. I'm thinking about the cheerful Uber driver named Mohammed whose car radio was blasting Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" as he drove us home. I'm thinking about the Star Trek episode we watched after we got under the couch blanket: the one where Spock has a romance with Mariette Hartley in a sexy, red-lit Ice Age cave, and I'm like "Ew! I can't look!" because Mr. Spock kissing girls is just wrong.

Life is so funny and strange.

Friday, November 15, 2019

All of my desk plans actually came to fruition: I did finish that book review, and I finished editing a chapter as well--a surprising turn of events in this week of slow plodding. Also notable: I deposited a paycheck in the savings account. Yes, shocking but true--I earned money that we do not have to spend instantly.

Today I'm going to a morning yoga class, and then I'll turn my thoughts to a smaller editing job and then maybe to school prep. Or maybe I'll clean the house and let the school prep stew a bit longer. Or maybe I'll stare at that Descartes poem I've been working on. Or maybe I'll just take a walk.

I've got another poetry collection to read and review, and I'm on the home stretch with The Ambassadors. And this morning I'm mulling the possibility of writing an essay about Margaret Dumont, a regular Marx Brothers sidekick, famous for her repeated roles as a stately, obtuse, middle-aged moneybags with an inexplicable crush on Groucho. Her acting is reminiscent of Mr. T's--which is to say, it's not really acting at all but is ridiculously perfect for the situation at hand. I think she'd be a fine subject for a meditation.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Another cold morning. I haven't driven my car in two days, and it is still filmed with icy snow: we haven't had enough sun-power to melt even a thin layer off a windshield. But the house has been warm. Now that I'm not rationing firewood, I can light a fire earlier in the day, and keep it going into the evening. Someday we might be able to afford a better stove--e.g., one with a bigger firebox and more subtle draft control--and seriously cut down on our furnace use. For now, this tiny one lets me keep the thermostat low-ish while reprising the Harmony pleasures of winter basking. A psychological aid, one might call it.

I've barely seen anyone other than Tom all week. Instead, I've been head-down, snout-to-the-grindstone at my desk-- edit edit edit, edit edit edit. This morning, as a change, I'll be switching over to book review book review book review, in hopes that an early morning start will give me the oomph to finish the piece. The process is turning out to be a challenge--mostly, I think, because I haven't been in a prose state of mind for a very long time. I'm having to reconnect the essay synapses, and that's been slow. Still, I'm sure it's good for me, as I'm sure engaging with new poetry is good for me. So I'll keep clomping along.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Yesterday, as I was chunking through my editing hours, I got a phone call from a friend who runs a large annual poetry festival in the state. Generally the day hours of the festival feature local poets as panelists, workshops leaders, etc. Then a big-name national poet reads at night. But given that 2020 is Maine's bicentennial, she had the idea to keep the focus entirely here: on our history of poetry, our current state of letters, our hopes for the future, that kind of thing. So instead of a big gun at night, Baron Wormser, Betsy Sholl, and I will read and speak about our own histories together as well as the history of poetry more generally.

Both Baron and Betsy are former state poet laureates; I am the baby of the group (a comic note, don't you think?)--a former student of Baron's, a long-admirer of Betsy. It will be, of course, intensely sweet to share a stage with these two friends, and I hope my perspective of them, as an apprentice to their art, will be a way to celebrate everything they've done for Maine poetry. But I also feel tremulous--as if I'm trying to climb stairs while wearing someone else's unbuckled galoshes. It's a manifestation of the "who am I anyway?" question, the one that jabs me in the kidneys every time I start to get above myself. Ye olde Puritan shiv.

Enough of these maunderings: let's talk about weather. It's 14 degrees here this morning. Stoops and roofs and cars and grass are coated with a sugar-crust of snow, but the house is warm and bright. I do like winter, once I get used to the idea.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Here I am, sitting on a grey couch, wearing a thick red bathrobe, drinking black coffee from a white cup, and thinking about winter and the muscles in my back I seem to have yanked at yoga class. So far the precip is just a haze of cold rain, a few fat snowflakes, a skim of ice on the back stairs. Nonetheless, the air is cold, and will get colder, dive-bombing into the teens tonight--a sudden taste of February in November.

Not velocipede-riding weather, that's for sure.

Well, no matter what plops, drips, or flutters from the sky, I've scheduled today as a cooking day: e.g., simmering a giant pot of chicken bones and roasting a couple of whole squash to strain for pies and pumpkin bread. And maybe I'll light a fire early and move Editing Central down to the couch, where I can soak in the heat and coddle this ornery back. I've got a library book to return. I've got that book review to wrangle. I've got that draft poem to suspiciously revisit.

I'm still working my way through The Ambassadors, slowly but apparently surely. Late Henry James is such a project.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I guess we'll have some snow later today . . . or sleet, or freezing rain, or plain old rain. Nothing seems clear in the forecast other than cold mess.

It's a standard Monday in our household: work day, not holiday. I'll be grinding through an editing project; Tom will be building cabinets for a new house. Yesterday I managed to get some raking done, bagged up sticks and limbs, more or less prepped the place for winter. The garden is still producing arugula, parsley, and cilantro, but any kind of snow weight or stark temperature plunge will doom them. We're approaching the end of the line, harvest-wise.

I've been fretting about a poem draft--a piece a reader loves but that is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I understand that poets know nothing about what they're writing, but still: I'm having a hard time trusting his enthusiasm.

I need to start working on a book review this week: and prep for Monson next week: and get this editing project moving: and do the housework I ignored over the weekend: and, ugh, Christmas-shop. The next two weeks will be insanely full of driving--once up north, twice to Vermont--and I am starting to feel my jaw clench up and my teeth rattle. I need to figure out how to be a relaxed person.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I had such a good visit with my sister . . . an uplifting one, really--those deep constants of childhood that resurface without effort. My sister and I don't have the same sorts of adult interests; we don't keep in constant contact when we're apart. But when we're together, we're happy to be together.

Well, today will be Emily Dickinson's black cake day: yes, the annual event has rolled around once more. I'll have to make some recipe adjustments as, for some reason, I couldn't find any golden raisins at the store. So I'll use dried cranberries instead, which I've done successfully before. Last year I candied my own citron, and I still have some left in the freezer, so that's one step done already. The cake itself is extravagantly full of ingredients but not difficult to put together. The most boring part is cutting parchment paper to fit the baking pans. Last year I tried to pretend that the paper wasn't necessary, but the cakes crumbled more than they should have. This year I won't skip that step.

After the cakes are done I'll rake a few leaves, and then Tom and I might try a second bike outing together. Yesterday we took the velocipedes up to the cemetery; today we are considering the loop around Back Cove. He rides much faster than I do. He never decides to walk his bike up hills. As cyclists we are not a match made in heaven, but we knew that already. Yet another marital adjustment.

Here a poem for autumn--"Canto"--set in beautiful, mournful Evergreen Cemetery, ringing changes on Dante, sending to love to my favorite headstone--"Our Darling Ralph."

Saturday, November 9, 2019

It's 20 degrees here this morning. Winter has arrived with a thud. A few days ago I was riding Vita in a sweater. Yesterday, out and about with my sister and a friend, I wore a heavy coat, a hat, a scarf, gloves. Today I might consider long underwear.

It's been such fun having my sister here. Last night we planned an Eastern European meal: a nod to our Polish roots, and heightened by chatter with our Hungarian friend and the sight of Lithuanian kielbasa at the meat market. I fried some fresh cheese pierogies I bought at the Polish deli; whipped up a casserole of sauerkraut, kielbasa, apple, onion, potato, and caraway seed; and shredded carrots and radishes for slaw. It was simple and fun, and next time I'll make the pierogies myself.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Puddles filmed with ice; leaf litter, brittle and thick; and now the day opening into brilliant blue . . . into the kind of sky Keats might call a firmament.

I'm still reading James's The Ambassadors, now adding a pair of collections I'll be reviewing for the Beloit Poetry Journal, itching to return to Dante . . .

This sky is made for poetry . . . chill and bright, cerulean, gleaming with rime and glory.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

It's November, and it feels like November. Trees stretch their bony arms into a grim sky; each dim morning portends snow. Up north the maples and birches are mostly bare now. Here, in southern Maine, the canopies have thinned, but leaves still cling. Everything is more transparent, though. Steeple glimpsed through maple limbs. Train lurching through ash twigs. Here and there are shifting. What was distant or invisible is now the landscape.

My sister arrived yesterday afternoon, and we went for a long walk into the cemetery. Later we spent the evening with Tom laughing over a hotpot meal at Sichuan Kitchen, where I also ran into one of my favorite local teachers. Portland sometimes feels like a small town masquerading as a city.

Today my sister will head off to her conference, and I will muddle around with desk work, and Tom will side a house. Rain will start to fall. We'll reconvene for dinner. I'll make steak and mushrooms, and fried kale, and maybe Yorkshire pudding. And later we'll watch the first fat wet snowflakes puff and vanish on the streaming pavement.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

My trip up north turned out to be quite unrelaxing as (1) my living quarters had no heat for much of the evening, (2) my dad ended up in the emergency room so I was teaching while monitoring updates all day, and (3) I had to drive for 3 hours in the pouring rain. The kids themselves, of course, were magnificent: no worries there. They are a dream team, for sure.

The good news is that my dad is fine. And while my parents won't be visiting after all, my sister will still be coming, so that's good too. However, I have a splitting headache and a general sense of having been buried up to my neck in an ant hill. Here's hoping a coffee/ibuprofen cocktail will soon do its work.

In other good news, Tom bought a bike while I was up north. So now Vita has a friend: a pleasant older gentleman of late-1980s vintage. Naturally, it's forecast to snow this weekend. But maybe they can squeeze in a date or two before the terrible weather really sets in.

Monday, November 4, 2019

I fell asleep on the couch at about 5, woke up at quarter to 8, ate some takeout pizza, and then went straight to bed and slept the entire night. True, I stuffed a lot of yardwork and housework and biking and walking into this weekend, but still.

Anyway, I feel well rested this morning. It's cold out there--low 30s, with a granite sunrise stretching over the roofs and chimneys. I'll be heading north later today for tomorrow's teaching gig, and I'm going to try to treat my overnight stay as a small writing residency: bring books, bring intention. I'll have a whole apartment to myself, and I may as well let myself enjoy the luxury.

In the meantime: editing, laundry, all the regular things. It will be a crammed week as my parents and sister will be arriving on Wednesday. I am trying to pretend that everything will be accomplished smoothly and cheerfully, but mostly I am just aiming for cheerfully.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

I've got a Ruckus poem out in today's Portland Press-Herald, and here is Ruckus, ready to take your applause.

Yesterday turned out to be an excellent day for getting stuff done. I picked up sticks, raked, tore out exhausted plants, coiled hoses, stacked flowerpots, brought freezables in from the shed. Tom chainsawed limbs and repaired the busted fence. Ruckus and his best friend Jack jumped cutely in leaf piles. Later I went for a bike ride with my new basket and mirror, and Tom went bike shopping, without success. We're feeling as if we were unwontedly lucky with Vita, given how hard it's been for Tom to find anything similar.

Late in the afternoon I lit a fire in the stove, and we drank stout and played cribbage; and eventually we ate tuna steaks, buttered chard, and carrot and couscous salad for dinner. And this is why I love to be home.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

It's November 2, and we've had our first frost. I'm still not accustomed-enough to southern living to know if that's normal, but it feels very late to me. I keep expecting the early-October rime of the highlands, not this long seaside idyll of late flowers and clinging leaves.

So I'll spend today tearing out the finally-withered nasturtiums and cosmos, bagging up the latest batch of fallen branches, dragging the giant limb off the collapsed fence in the backyard, and other such chores. We're supposed to have a high in the mid-40s, a jolt after yesterday's humid 60s.  Suddenly snow seems possible.

As a respite from yard work, I'll offer you a bit from Henry James's The Ambassadors--a taste of why it's worth slogging through these late novels: because you can run into a gem like this:
Gloriani showed him, in such perfect confidence, . . . a fine worn handsome face, a face that was like an open letter in a foreign tongue.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Ugh: one of those mornings when Tom forgot to set his alarm and forgot to run the dishwasher; when I forgot where I'd stored the spare parts for the coffee pot that's not in the dishwasher; when the cat was horrified by rain and kept screaming in and out of the house beneath my slippery feet as I tried to drag trash to the curb in a windstorm. Suburban angst, c'est moi. I should move back to a place with real trouble. I'm getting soft.

Anyway, here we are at Friday again: first day of November: mild and humid, windy and watery: maple leaves stuck on windshields like Post-it notes: dogs trotting by in embarrassing raincoats: half a bowl of Halloween candy playing come-hither on the kitchen counter: wet pavement and old tea leaves perfuming the air.

It feels like a day for spirits, of the Dickensian sort, or the Wrinkle in Time sort--the blowsy kind who buffet the parlor ceiling and trail scarves and shawls, who can't stop jingling their keys and clanking their shoe buckles. Their hair is rat-tails and frowst; their noses are red; they tip over tables and clonk into doorframes. Some are apologetic; some never notice their mayhem. Unromantic ghosts, with baggy trousers and shapeless house dresses and holes in their pockets. They're all over the neighborhood this morning.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Baseball season is finally over. And now winter is looming. Long months till April, but wood-fires and lamplight are a solace.

Today will be another onslaught of rain, and the wind is supposed to kick up to gale-force again tonight. What a blustery season we're having. It's a good thing that Vita and I went shopping for Halloween candy yesterday. Otherwise, Tom and I would have nothing to snack on while trick-or-treaters aren't showing up at our dripping door.

Yesterday I hauled firewood, did some garden cleanup, raked, picked up sticks from the last windstorm. Today I'll be limited to inside tasks, mostly desk work, but maybe I'll make a pear pie too. I'm progressing with the editing, progressing with my poem draft; and I've got a lot of reading to do. A journal editor reached out to me yesterday, asking if I'd be interested in doing regular book reviews for their website. I'm thinking about it. I need another unpaid job like I need a spike in the head, but I still might say yes.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

It was dim and cloudy all day, with an occasional overlay of raw drizzle. Nonetheless, Vita took her first shopping trip and came home with ham, bagels, and milk stout. Yard work was a different story: which is to say, I didn't do it because cold wet leaves equals cold wet gloves, and blah. Instead, I lit a fire and read Henry James and edited a manuscript and messed around with a poem. Without the lure of Vita, I would never have left the house. See how good she is for me?

I'm slowly, slowly working my way into The Ambassadors. Although apparently I'm halfway through the book, I still feel as if I've barely got a handle on the portentousness. Every half-smile, every slight nod is a moment of magnitude--or, at the very least, a glimpse of the abyss. It's maddening and also kind of like having a rash: every twitch is an itch. But of course I'm enjoying it too. Henry James drives me nuts but I love him anyway. His sentences are life forms, coiling across the page, stretching their antennae, hesitantly moving this way and that. I may not know why or where, but I delight in the syntactical animal.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

I took Vita up to the cemetery yesterday afternoon, and we had a beautiful ride on the small roads among the plots. Now my legs are sore from using bike muscles I haven't really bothered with since I was 15. But that's good; and the uphill climbs are good too. Biking is so much better than running because the uphills are balanced with downhill coasts--a sweet reward, to feel the wind in my face and the street fly under me.

And I did manage to ship out another editing project, which leaves me (for the moment) with just one on my desk. Today I'll finish the vacuuming, and start editing the new manuscript, and, I hope, work on my Descartes draft. I'd like to do some yard cleanup and ride Vita, of course. Dinner tonight will be beef-noodle soup and warm apple-cabbage slaw. Then baseball . . . maybe the last game of the season, if the Astros win. I don't really have a dog in this race, but I'm finding myself leaning toward the Nats--not least for their fans' fine taste in impeachment.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Yesterday was rain and rain and rain, so I couldn't show Vita around the neighborhood. Today I should have better luck, as long as I can get my editing project finished in time.

And today is my younger son's birthday: 22 years old; tall and strong and bearded; sweet and funny and sorrowful; brilliant and driven, with a memory like a trap; a lover of small animals and, like his mother, an inveterate second-guesser of his own motives. I send him surprise and joy and so much love.

I wanted to let you know that my mother, Janice Miller Potter, has a new poetry collection out-- Thoreau's Umbrella, a verse biography. I've been reading it this weekend, along with Murdoch's Nuns and Soldiers. I haven't yet finished James's The Ambassadors, though I'll get back to it. And Natalie Diaz's When My Brother Was an Aztec just showed up in the mail, so now that's in the pile too. So many books . . . so little shelf space . . .

Sunday, October 27, 2019

I am now in proud possession of the first bike bought for me since I was in high school. That one was a cheesy imitation racing bike from Sears. Later I had my mother's cast-off Schwinn, but I hardly ever used it because it was heavy and too small; plus Harmony, land of speeding log trucks and pitted gravel roads, was a terrible place to ride a bike.

But now I have Vita! She is purple with black trim, a plain and basic bike for city riding, and I am smitten. I can't wait to get a basket for her: she is the kind of bike who will go on picnics and quick trips for bread at the market. I will ride all around the cemetery with her, and explore shady neighborhoods.

Unfortunately the used-bike shop (a fine emporium) did not have a bike in Tom's size, so he will need to keep checking back in as fall consignments arrive. In the meantime, I will get used to an activity I have not done much of since I was 15. And maybe, by the time he gets his, I'll be brave enough to venture out of the neighborhood.

Perhaps you are wondering why her name is Vita. Well, her brand is Specialized, and her model is Vita, and that word is painted right on her frame. A convenience in naming, certainly. But in adopting such an obvious monicker, I am, of course, nodding to Vita Sackville-West--novelist, blueblood, gardener, and lover of Virginia Woolf.
On gardening: “I like muddling things up." --Vita Sackville-West

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Did a session of hard yoga, bought a cartload at the grocery store, mailed two loaves of banana bread to the college boy (he turns 22 on Monday), drove home, edited, worked on my Descartes project, fell asleep for an hour, made lasagna, watched some baseball, fell asleep again, woke up blessedly late, made some coffee, fed the cat, and here I am again.

Today I'm hoping we'll get a chance to go bike shopping. But it's supposed to pour rain all of tomorrow and I have lots of yard work to do, firewood to move, etc., so maybe the bikes will have to wait till next weekend.

I'm slowly, slowly catching up on my editing: I've had so much of it lately, and there's more waiting in the wings. Now I'm getting requests for some winter school gigs, at a site located an hour south of me. But Monson is more than two hours north of me, and I don't know how I can fit all of this driving into my days. I like teaching but I dread the driving, especially in bad weather. I've been meaning to design another teach-from-home 24PearlStreet class, maybe a shorter one this time, but I haven't figured out how to schedule it among all the rest. I guess this accounts for why I slept so much yesterday.

Ugh. That paragraph is a mess. Kind of like my calendar.

Anyway, today: Sticks, leaves, firewood, garden cleanup. Maybe a bike. I'll be happy to do nothing more than muddle.

Friday, October 25, 2019

I did do some writing yesterday, and I did use the trigger I'd bought in Chicago: of all things, a slim copy of Rene Descartes's treatise Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628, published in 1701). I am the world's worst philosopher. Under most circumstances I am actively repelled by the anti-physicality of philosophic prose, and my mind wanders off into distraction as soon as I bump up against those sentences. But I was at a used bookstore with my son: he was buying a book of Dali paintings and The Golden Bough; I was buying a Murdoch novel and . . . wait, what's this weird title? I dug out the slim tome and we peered at the cover. Well, I thought. I might be able to use a title like that. And so I bought it.

Rules is broken into 20-something sections, each of which opens with an abstract of the rule under consideration and then proceeds to horse around with not only/but alsos, ergos, and therefores. Yesterday I started copying out each rule, deleting the abstract nouns and adjectives and filling them in with gaudier talk. And after an hour or so, I found myself outlining a list of instructions titled "Rules for the Direction of the Chambermaid," most of which involve (1) how to figure out if your mistress is having an adulterous affair and (2) to whom you should be loyal (mistress, master, visiting lothario). Of course this is a silly project, and it will likely go nowhere, but inventing it is fun.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Yesterday was another beautiful day with my high schoolers, but a two-and-a-half-hour drive home after a day of teaching is not relaxing. Still, when I got back, there was Tom, with a baguette and two bags of local mussels. A magnificent dinner; a good day spent with thoughtful, giddy, curious, engaged young people; plus baseball on the radio. Things could be worse.

Today will be a regular home day--editing, laundry, garden cleanup, and such--though I'm hoping also to do some writing. One of the poems I wrote in Maudelle Driskell's workshop last summer just got picked up for publication--the piece about Ruckus: my first public cat poem. When I submitted it, I wasn't quite sure what I thought of it, and I'm pleased, and a little surprised, that someone else liked it.

So, on they go . . . the days and the weeks, the months and the years. Chore and gift. Dread and innocence. Comedy and terror. Love and consequences. The deliciousness of sleep.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

I'll be on the road again this afternoon--heading north for tomorrow's teaching gig. This time I'll be staying overnight at the artists' residence and also having dinner with them, so that will be interesting. I'm looking forward to learning about what they're all working on in their studios.

Till then: some desk work, some vacuuming, maybe some more yard rescue. I've been reading James's The Ambassadors and Murdoch's Nuns and Soldiers and catching up on things around here-- mostly just trying to pull myself together. I'm not that good at traveling; the transitions wear me out. Last night  I was scheduled to go to a poetry-group meeting, or I could have gone to the movies with Tom, but no: I spent the evening on the couch. I think it helped. Sometimes I have a hard time giving in to physical laziness. But then it sneaks up behind me and grabs me by the throat and says, "Couch blanket."

Monday, October 21, 2019

Yesterday was an intense travel day, compressed between 3:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and involving no coffee or real food. But I made it home, fell asleep, woke up, made dinner, fell asleep again, and here I am, still groggy but at least I've got coffee now. There are a million things to do today: desk work, housework, grocery shopping, and the mess that is my yard. You may recall that I left home in the middle of a cyclone? Well, on the bright side, all of the branches that came down were relatively small. On the pain-in-the-ass side, many, many branches came down, and the gale whipped them everywhere. My garden is knitted with tree parts, the dahlias are flat: the place looks as if we were hit by a hurricane, which I guess we essentially were.

But my trip to Chicago was completely lovely. I think I haven't told you about Jane Eyre yet. It was enthralling. The Joffrey performs in a gilded, doo-dadded, muraled hall built in the 1890s and kept in tip-top shape. The acoustics are wonderful. We sat in a box, which made us feel fancy even though the tickets were cheaper there than other places.

And the ballet itself was stunning: not just the dancing, but also the sets (mostly scrims with Yorkshire-ish abstractions) and the lighting design. The choreographer did an amazing job at storytelling, and also maintained that strange Brontean mix of melodrama, anachronistic female agency, and sex-versus-God tension. The cast was enormous, and included a strange but effective troupe of male dancers who served as representatives of Jane's internal demons--an extremely elegant way to deal with the wordiness of the novel. The result was both spare and lavish, enormous and minimal. I am a person who usually hates movies based on my favorite novels, and I loved this ballet.

And what else happened in Chicago? Exhausted teachers on trains, carrying picket signs and holding the hands of their children. A small girl singing songs on the bus. An aging mariachi band, in full black and silver regalia, packing up their van after a show. My darling young people, walking together alongside a windy lake.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

We spent most of the day north of the city, at the Chicago Botanic Garden, glorious and fading in its October mantle. I got to ride on one of those double-decker commuter trains, which made me happy as I am a hick who has never been on one before. Afterward we went back to the same comfortable bar we were at the evening before, where we listened to Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and ate, of all things, tater tots, which are a strangely compelling poison.

Today: the ballet. And then tomorrow: the airport at 4:30 a.m.

Friday, October 18, 2019

I left our house at 5:15 a.m., in the midst of a cyclone. Tom had to drag downed trees out of the road to get me to the bus station. Needless to say, I was terrified of this trip. However, the bus driver managed to calmly pilot us to Boston, where the wind had died down considerably. My flight wasn't delayed at all. And now here I am in Chicago.

Yesterday we walked all over the neighborhood, went to a used bookstore (I bought Murdoch and Descartes), drank beers at a beautiful dingy bar with a Merle Haggard soundtrack, ate cactus tacos from the church food truck, and fell asleep watching The A-Team. A fine day with a fine son.

Today: botanical gardens and double-decker trains and who knows what else.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Well, I did it: I finished that editing project, meaning I can leave for Chicago with a semi-clean work conscience. Picture me catching an early, early bus to Boston, in the black and pouring rain, and fretting that the storm will be messing with my flight. Whatever the case turns out to be, you'll hear from me only intermittently for the next few days. Let's hope it's not during a 24-hour stint in an airport lounge.

Today: an olio of desk, house, and packing chores. But for now: black coffee, grey couch, the rumble of a furnace, the squeal and hum of a passing train.

I have not spoken of current events here lately, other than my own. But I am horrified about the Kurds, so much so that I can barely frame words to speak of them. Our so-called president is a stupid, lying, vicious, impulsive bootlicker with a thug-crush and a maggot soul. Not one of these epithets is an exaggeration. America cannot go on like this.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

My white geranium is blooming bravely at the window. It's been an outside plant all summer, and I'm hoping I can keep it alive in the house over the winter. I get so lonely for flowers during the off-season. Meanwhile, the outside flowers just keep blooming. No frost yet, so dahlias and cosmos and marigolds continue to riot in the front yard. Here in the little seaside city, summer is refusing to wave good-bye.

In two days I fly to Chicago, and till then editing has me by the throat. Still, there's a chance I might get this manuscript done before I leave. I think my plans for next week's Monson class are mostly set (a Jane Austen-based writing exercise; a Natalie Diaz/Kerrin McCadden-based writing exercise; and, I hope, a guest poet visiting the class).

I've been imagining that I'll write a bit while I'm in Chicago, but I know that isn't likely. What I'll actually be doing is loping around the city with my dear boy, and that will feel like the best thing in the world. I bet I won't even think about poems.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Island weather. The cat steps out the back door and vanishes into cloud. In this still-black morning the fog is nearly invisible, except where headlights and window-lamps quiver like bog-beacons.

I have a good housewife feeling this morning because I got all of the things done yesterday that I meant to do. I cleaned out dresser drawers and closets, I planted bulbs, and I put away the outside furniture. I made an apple pie and froze a batch of endive and roasted a chicken. I updated my resume and cleaned up the pages on this blog. Meanwhile, Tom installed a new dryer vent, tore out a bunch of strange old wiring (at least two generations of ancient landlines, plus other mysteriousness), put up  basement clothesline, and filled my car tires with air. All if this sounds dull on the page, but in fact it makes me feel accomplished and orderly and ready to turn my attention to desk work.

Today will be a regular work day for both of us: no holiday in this household. I'll be editing and working on my Monson syllabus, and then running errands in the afternoon. My Thursday trip to Chicago is looming, and I'm anxious to get this project off my desk before I leave . . . though I fear I may be editing on buses and in airports. Ugh.

I think I forgot to mention that, on Saturday, Tom and I watched The Heiress, a late-40s film starring Olivia de Haviland and Montgomery Clift, and based on Henry James's Washington Square. It was compelling, and I can't stop thinking about it and wishing I could read the novel. I don't own it, however, so instead I've started rereading James's The Ambassadors. It's been a long time since I've been in a Henry James mood, and I'm glad he came around again.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

On the weekend of November 1-3, I'll be leading a poetry workshop at the arts center 26 Split Rock Cove in Thomaston, Maine. The title of the workshop is "New England Bards: Discovering Voice, Discovering Place," and it will center around work by the poets Jane Kenyon and Hayden Carruth, which we'll use to jumpstart our own conversations, writing, and revision.

The cost with lodging is $475, $325 without, and the workshop is limited to 10 participants. Events will begin Friday evening at 5 pm and continue through lunch on Sunday.

Included in the weekend are two classes and two revision workshops, as well as plenty of writing time and group sharing. Friday dinner, Saturday and Sunday breakfasts and lunches are included in the price. For a more detailed schedule, please contact sandy@26splitrockcove.com or call 207-596-7624.

Thomaston is a beautiful coastal town, late fall in Maine is stern and glorious, and it would be such a treat to spend a weekend with you.

* * *

Today I'll be planting tulip, alium, and daffodil bulbs; reorganizing closets and drawers; roasting a chicken; maybe going bike shopping. But this is what I did yesterday.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

[H]e laid on the table a new publication--a poem: one of those genuine productions so often vouchsafed to the fortunate public of those days--the golden age of modern literature. Alas! the readers of our era are less favored. But, courage! I will not pause to accuse or repine. I know poetry is not dead, nor genius lost; nor has Mammon gained power over either, to bind or slay: they will both assert their existence, their presence, their liberty and strength again one day. Powerful angels, safe in heaven! they smile when sordid souls triumph, and feeble ones weep over their destruction. Poetry destroyed? Genius banished? No! Mediocrity, no: do not let envy prompt you to the thought. No; they not only live, but reign, and redeem: and without their divine influence spread everywhere you would be in hell--the hell of your own meanness.

* * *

It was windy and rainy in the night, but not unduly. This morning, the streets are streaked with wet leaves. A steady, lingering breeze ripples among the maples, taps the bright dahlias, skids twigs along the sidewalk. Passing dogs pause to lift their noses. An airplane coasts upward, invisible behind cloud.

I'm thinking about the staunchness of time, the mutability of space, the evanescence of ambition, the rigors of love . . . but not in any Great Man sort of way. Despite the bigness of the words, the sensations are modest, even meek. I bow my head to them, let them take charge of the story. I sweep the kitchen and fold the shirts. I don't know what else to do, or how else to do it.

That Bronte passage I just quoted:  Yes! I want to say. But also, What are you really telling me?

Friday, October 11, 2019

We've got a big storm brewing off the coast today--already the wind has picked up and the air smells of excitement. I'm hoping this won't make trouble, as our trees are loaded with leaves and gusts will be high.

I'm still reading Jane Eyre, and there's so much wind in the book. It's like Wuthering Heights that way: weather as emotional state. O, those sisters on the moors. Narrow and pale, faces opening into the gale. They seize my heart.

My son is having a love affair with a book of poetry: Natalie Diaz's When My Brother Was an Aztec. I'm so happy for him. A love affair is a glorious thing.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yet another wondrous day with my Monson kids. It was only our second session, but already the bonds are strengthening. Kids are laughing and talking and sharing, playing games, speaking seriously of craft and hopes and dreams, writing hard, cheering each other on. I am thrilled.

And I had a beautiful birthday celebration with my friends in Wellington. We picked raspberries and wild mushrooms in the gloaming, as the maples arched brilliantly against the dimming sky. My heart overflows; this life is so sweet; my dumb-luck is so lucky.

There was one more good, good thing. While I was away, I got word from the editors at the Beloit Poetry Journal that they're going to publish the entire first section of my diary manuscript, A Month in Summer. That feels huge to me: a quarter of the book will appear in the journal. Crassly, of course, I am hoping that full-length publishers will take notice. But more importantly I'm really, really pleased that editors of this caliber saw these verses as something more than tiny, quiet, feminine maunderings.

Today, I'll charge back into the editing stack, and also try to catch up on all the housework I didn't finish last weekend.

"Poet Cleans Toilets." Someone has to do the dirty work.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Yesterday, despite all prior arrangements, ended up being weirdly hectic, though nice. Scoundrel Time happened to release three of my poems that morning, so in addition to getting many birthday greetings I received a number of poem greetings. And the phone would not stop ringing. Still, I did manage to write a small lyric that wasn't terrible, and I felt surrounded by affection. Both those things were good.

Here are those poems, in case you're interested. The journal's poetry editor, Daisy Fried, referred to them as "startling." That feels like a review anyone might want to receive.

This afternoon I'll be heading north, and tomorrow I'll be teaching all day in Monson. My intense over-busyness is returning. I still have piles of editing on my desk, and next week I'm flying to Chicago, and I've got so many teaching obligations lined up . . . At least things are pretty well set with Frost Place planning, finally. But everything else feels liable to crack my skull open.

Anyway, enough of this repining--which isn't even repining so much as trying to whip myself into order. I'll talk to you on Thursday.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Well, today is my actual birthday, but yesterday felt like my ceremonial one, as Tom spent most of the day concocting a glamorous feast, and I spent most of the day happily flopped on the couch reading Jane Eyre. I did a few other things, too, like go for a walk in the cemetery (I found some beautiful puffball mushrooms) and concoct plans for my Chicago trip with my older son (we've decided to buy tickets to the Joffrey Ballet's performance of Jane Eyre; are you sensing a theme?).

But today is the real day: I'm 55 years old, with a bit of incipient arthritis in one finger, and chronically sore feet, and trifocals, and a fat streak of grey hair . . . but, on the whole, pretty lively--still able to do planks and walk for miles and dote on my children and invent stories about the cat and make my husband laugh.

I'm 55 years old, and so far I've accomplishing nothing and everything, which I guess is the regular human condition.

I live in a little house in a little city, with hot and cold running water, and heat, and windowpanes, and clean sheets, and trees and flowers, and snow and rain and wind and sun, and a tea kettle.

I've written a lot of books which hardly anyone has read, but mostly I've grown out of being distressed about it, and that seems like progress.

I have a circle of friends, people like you: generous and comical, quick to sadness and joy--a gift of the finest sort.

I'm glad to be alive.

I love being alive.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Close, but no frost yet . . . the pink dahlias are still bravely blooming along the roadside. Yesterday, while I was ripping out detritus, two cars and a bicycle accosted me: "Hey, those are the most beautiful dahlias I've ever seen!" One driver was so excited that she almost caused an accident. Beautiful dahlias may be too dangerous to grow.

When I'm not wearing my bathrobe, I'll go outside and take a picture of the autumn garden for you. The sunflowers are gone, and the tomato jungle, and the destroyed Brussels sprouts (damn you, sassy groundhog, for wrecking my fall crop), but the greens and most of the herbs are still cheerful. I managed to plant garlic and shallots, harvest a batch of kale for the freezer, finish reading Gatsby, spend some time with Cavafy, make chicken-and-tomato soup, listen to the Yankees trounce the Twins, and open some birthday presents early because I am bad at waiting. (Present update: Tom's getting me a bike!)

Today I'll be hovering around the kitchen while Tom makes a feast, and maybe I'll be planting some daffodils and tulips, and doing some chores, and finding another book to read. Tomorrow will be my writing day, and I'm looking forward to turning on the word faucet again. But today I just want to be happy in my house.