Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Though it was 27 years ago, I remember some things about my first piano lesson. I was very small, of course, which made the stone building at Daemen College in which my lessons took place seem all the larger. I remember climbing at least one curving flight of stone stairs with my mother. I remember that there was a long, lovely window, possibly even with a windowseat, to the right of the piano as I sat. I remember being asked to play, being told to keep my fingers curled lightly and my wrists suspended above the level of my hands. (Do I really remember having letters written on my fingernails and being told to curl my fingers enough that I could see the letters reflected back to me in the underside of the keyboard's cover? And what were those letters? HAND? STAR?) I remember playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and then playing it in variations. I remember that "run pony, run pony" was the most difficult variation: it took a familiar song and quadrupled the number of times I had to hit each key. "Bounce, roll, bounce," on the other hand, had a tantalizing pause over its middle note. And only one person I know will remember what the other variation was called. I have forgotten it.

I remember feeling nervous about whether I was doing things correctly.

My fingers remember what nine more years of that gentle curl, that carefully suspended wrist, felt like. There are things I never learned: how to use the pedals appropriately. How to read music fluently (this particular problem is not uncommon among Suzuki-trained children, apparently, which makes sense: I was trained to play by ear first, and I never made the transition). How to improvise anything. There are things I learned all too well: how to mark a recital's or a competition's date on my calendar and watch it coming closer and closer, until the moment when I had no choice but to start practicing regularly if I didn't want to look very silly. I never wanted to look silly.

I remember walking through a parking lot with my parents after a recital. I must have been about five. Each of them held one of my hands. On counts of three, they lofted my little self off the ground. The sky was grey.

I remember those strange, omnipresent sawblade spirograph symbols that were the Suzuki trademark. I remember getting to spend years and years in wonderfully close company with my mother: she drove me to every lesson; she sat with my teacher and me during every lesson for many years; she sat in a chair beside my piano bench while I practiced for many years. Sometimes she sat at her long quilt frame, and we worked together, she at her fabric and I at my fingering.

I know things now--about myself, about how my brain and body work, about the number of disparate pursuits I can keep going at one time, about patience, about motivations that are worthy and motivations that are not, about how to express and clarify desires--that I did not know in those long-ago years. I know about cognition, and I know about choice. I know how to do things for myself, how to want to excel for the sheer joy and gorgeous discipline of the thing, not for a ribbon or a certificate or a medal or a sticker.

I know about apprehension and worry. I also know about hope and eagerness.

How much difference that space of 27 years makes--and yet how little.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Upon further reflection.

You know, it's funny how a list of hopes works. It turns out that you have to look at it and remember what you wrote if you're going to make headway. I had a bolt-from-the-blue realization earlier that was so good that I acted on it without giving myself time to back away from it. That's all I'm saying for now.

Tomorrow, I will practice telling people "no" because I seem to have devised the perfect Thursday evenings for myself, only they're going to conflict with a reading group I thought I'd join. For goodness sake: as if my whole life weren't already a reading group.

Oh, Romola. I have been devoured, head first.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sing your melody; I'll sing along.

The good things you may have heard about the movie Once? They're all true, and then some. You should see this movie.

My epigrammatic writing will, I hope, expand again soon. For now, my head is full of widowers.

And of my flaming-sworded friend's birthday! She is extraordinary. She blazes brighter than the big tree by Clare Bridge. And does that tree ever blaze. Happy birthday, my friend.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

First day in the dark.

I know that we're not actually more in the dark today than we were yesterday, but when the clocks have rolled back an hour and the sun has gone down by 4:36 p.m., it feels as though the day has shortened measurably. (Which, in fact, it has: we lose nearly four minutes of daylight each day here, and our length of visible light is down to just under 11 hours.)

So: thank goodness for George Eliot, whose Romola (1862-3) is blowing my mind. I couldn't have known that I was giving myself a great gift for late October 2007 when I continued not-reading Romola for all those years. But I was. I was just saving my last Eliot novel for exactly the right time--which is now. I don't think it's where I'd tell you to start, if you were to decide you wanted to get to know her work. But it's damned fine.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Before there is a heart.

It's writing #700 here at the Cabinet, and I feel as though I should do something commensurately grand in celebration. But I'm having something of a lonely evening and don't much feel like writing, not least because I just reread the list I made in celebration of writing #300. (That might have been a mistake: I don't seem to have gotten very far with any of those hopes, save #6--though, to be sure, I didn't see Cambridge coming this time last year, either, and so the dreaming will continue!) And so instead we'll take a look back to a poem I discovered almost exactly a year ago and that rings every bit as true tonight as it did then:

First Vertical Poetry No. 27

Where is the heart I am calling?
Heart become eyelid
of an eye on its way to where I am.
The eye is not here yet and already I can see.
Before there is a heart I am made of beating.
I am calling in an open doorway.
I am calling from inside.

-- Roberto Juarroz (trans. W. S. Merwin)

When we did the favorite poem wall in the officehouse for National Poetry Month, this one was one of mine.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Deep calleth to deep.

For the first time in many weeks, it seems, I have spent a day and its evening largely on my own (though with a gorgeous interlude spent with my beloved Lexingtonians). There was no question in my mind that this week I'd give a miss to Friday evening's family supper in hall; I am fond indeed of my community here, but what I wanted at the end of this day were the soar and shadow of evensong at King's, the silence of a solitary walk to the Wine Merchant to choose a gorgeous red to carry home in my purse and have with dinner, the purposefulness of a stop at a bookstore to pick up an order.

Today was a day of boundless feeling and slow, spreading realization. It's possible that I'm now writing in circles within the piece I'm working on; certainly, my forward momentum in terms of word count is starting to get swallowed because I'm converting draft notes rather than crafting entirely new language.

In my reflection in the darkened window, I can see how much more closely my new haircut follows the shape of my skull, the head shape my great-grandmother praised when she first met me, the shape she told my parents to preserve by rotating me in the cradle. This feels right: I too want to follow the shape of my skull more closely. I may be about to start paring away unnecessity, though I'm not quite sure what that would mean. For one thing, I think I may be getting fed up with all this resting. It might be time to be a little more rash, just a little faster. And yes, it does in fact say something about me that when I say a thing like that, I'm thinking of my work--that long love, the one who showed up and claimed me first. I have nothing if not a faithful heart.

And yet: coming home from town, I paused on the bridge to watch the water, sleek in the dark. Upstream, beyond Clare Bridge with its broken sphere (so many stories I haven't yet told you), I could see what looked like a moored punt lit with candles. I wanted so much for it to be so that I didn't even go to see what I had seen. I am crying out with my whole heart--hearts were calling and crying throughout tonight's slow, steady service, its form into which so much feeling can go, and from which so much feeling can spring. I am asking to be open to what is, to what might be coming. I am asking for openness actually to want what I want and to see it when it gets here. I am asking forgiveness for the fact that I want so much for it to involve something like the glossy purple silk evening dress I saw in a shop window on my way home. This is obviously not a paring down. This is a wish for the grandest extravagance, such outlandish happiness it can barely be described, joy so great that my cheeks hurt from grinning, and under all of it the ceaselessness of slow water making the sky over again in its image.

Tonight, three candles: one for those who have gone, one for the ones I love who are elsewhere, one for my own clarity's sake. It's taken me weeks to notice where the candles wait to be lit. Tonight, the unspecified prayer: please, let it. I'm admitting it, really trying to, even though I thought I'd admitted it long ago: I don't know how this works. So: my hands are up. My eyes are open. Please, let me.

And today: 620 words, all the sweeter because I was about to avoid them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fragments shored.

Slow fall, then faster: what I may or may not have known when I first saw them is how recently they were whole, how until 1687 the temple stood solid, housed church then mosque then Ottoman gunpowder, took a Venetian cannonball in September that year, fell in, fell to pieces.

Sunday morning, between the queue for tickets and the strange unspoken dance three who know each other only in pieces will make through galleries: a coffee shop, a slice of tart, a fat teacup of filtered coffee. An abstraction: how much of the weekend spent watching, listening, taking in another's ways of talking with those beside whom I am utterly strange, barely known. An abstraction: to fall away from self, from anchor, to plummet through the thought of just how much farther the world stretches than the limits within which I have been living, to find even my familiars passing strange: she asks about sprung rhythm, he talks Hopkins, I grab the words to myself like a greedy thing: Glory be to God for dappled things-- / For skies of couple-color

And I am cowed by this brinded crackling morning, I am stretched thin and taut, I am hoarding: counter, original, spáre, strange, fickle, frecklèd, who knows how.
Over my shoulder, out the door, a correlate I can only imagine after its sounds start: full bin of bottles lifted high, then higher, up only to be tipped, to pour out last night's clears and greens, and it keeps up an unthinkably long time: as I watch their mouths move, what I hear is the rolled roundness of glass finding its level anew.

Back in the museum I am on my own ground again, find myself finding faces, finding eyes that are left, that stare emptily to where other faces once were. And I am falling, seeing them again: I fall, gall myself, gash gold-vermilion before them, though no one can see or will know. Still the faces, still so many eyes, still so much silent missing, so much that I wonder how they sounded as they fell, as the ones who are gone sheared away, marble crashing to marble under stars, blown out beyond all recking beneath that impossible sun on that gorgeous unwelcoming hill.

So much is gone that what remains seems to emerge anew from the stone: field of folds yields a hand, smooth blank of skull grows an ear. Beauty is twinned with pain, presences made with absence: my mind is a-race with stopped stone: with swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dim: and yes I am praising though I know so little.

I go a long time without taking pictures before a tiny scene of unseen tending catches at me, makes me want to have it when I go. But once I am shooting, things are easier: all things are easier: I have kept so carefully to myself, careful not to crowd my companions, wanting anything but to say the banal of these half-gone faces. Once I am gathering, glorying, I need be nowhere near.

The piece I cannot return to take is the one that shakes me most: stern Athena quiet and cool in triumph, having won her city with a tree. Wise Athena, headless, limbless, single-breasted. Silent stone rent where a heart would be.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sick and tired.

Tonight I'm a little of both. It is nothing to worry about, but it is a reason for me to be quieter than usual here, while this cold/flu/whatever lurks and tries to linger and (d.v.) gets vanquished.

Paul Guest has great news, courtesy of the same grand foundation that's bankrolling my year here (though I think his doesn't become official-official until a press release appears in a couple of days) (oh--there it is!). If you're not reading his poetry yet, you should change your ways.

Today: 1014 words, before I really started feeling like crap.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Giving a fig.

So relieved was I that my haircut went well ("That's a damned good haircut," my friend told me later--and indeed, the woman took her time and seems to have done it just so) that I went to the market in the afternoon, on my way home.

And there in the sun were my figs, my favorite figs, the fresh tasty figs I have admired for weeks. I bought a punnet of strawberries (some of which were moldy, as it turned out!) just for the privilege of asking, "May I photograph your figs?" "As long as I'm not in the picture, sure," said the woman who took my two quid. Yeah. It was like that here today.

Oh yeah, and there was some writing, but it was neither fresh nor tasty: 178 words.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Shifting reference points.

Today has been one of those quiet days: I spoke to the person at the hairdresser's where I have an appointment for tomorrow, and I said hello to the check-out woman at the grocery, and I requested first-class stamps for thank you notes at the post office, and I left a phone message for someone. Other than that, I've largely been rattling around in my own head, in part because an answer to a question I posed to the world last week seems to have bounced back to me with an answer of stunning simplicity--simplicity that seems literally to have struck me dumb for a little while as I sort out what it means for me.

And yet I suspect that the subject of both question and answer is less dramatic, would be less exciting for you to read about, than these words make it sound. And so here's an analogy that ought to be sweet, if nothing else: the littlest Lexingtonian has discovered the key combination of her feet and her flexibility and can now suck on her own toes. All of those things--her feet, her mouth, her hands, her ability to grab things and put them in her mouth and suck on them--were there before, but now something has clicked and she's able to use them all together to greater ends.

I'm not rediscovering the joy of sucking on my own toes or anything like that. Acutally, now that I see it written out, I'm skeptical as to whether this analogy holds in any way (though I'll leave it because I still think that the littlest Lexingtonian's development is sweet enough to share). In fact, all that's happened is that I realized I was asking the wrong question. At the same moment that that realization buzzed in, I remembered that I can choose to step off the narrative at whose edge that wrong question has poised me. So: rather than go on into that narrative, I've zipped up these black high-heeled boots and am striding away from it. It's not a good one for me. I don't want it anymore.

I'll be damned if it doesn't feel as though I'm taking stock of things at every turn this year. Maybe I'll have something concomitantly dramatic done to my hair tomorrow.


And in rolls my day's horoscope (here, I get them at about 10 p.m.):
The past is returning to haunt you or help you, depending on what you were up to back then. Karma isn't always as obvious as it is today, so it's a good reminder to stay on the universe's good side.
So: does realizing that I should short-circuit a masochistic pattern represent some kind of good karmic reprisal--say, for having lived through last year's nonsense? Obviously it's time to read some Derrida and fall asleep. Tomorrow my head will be lighter in all senses.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cleaving unto my own.

There are, as you knew there would be, stories to tell. Some of them are strange and startled. Some I won't tell you at all. Some are steep slants of light down the high sides of city streets. Some are shadows and fragments and statues and stars in spaces I'd never visited. Some are the sun straight on in my face, my hand making a tiny eclipse within which I can make my way to the Tube.

But rather than try to tell any of them tonight, I'm going to save them for this week and feed them to you, one by one, in the interstices of the writing that restarts the moment I'm back out of bed.

Some are falls of glass, sounding beyond a café's open door.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I could never tire of London.

And thus I could never tire of life.

I'm off to live the high life for a little while. You know: museum-going, meeting new people, eating and drinking too much, watching the Rugby World Cup, more eating and drinking too much, more museum-going. That high life.

With luck, I'll score a couple of bookstores as well.
I've topped up my mobile phone; I'm that excited about the trip.

In case you need to amuse yourself during my negligible time away, do be aware that The Daily Show is now all online--and searchable, no less.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fun for Freudians.

In this dream, I am in my last day of sight-seeing in a truly gorgeous place, a seaside place with an enormous Academic-Mayhem-style hotel and a frightening elevator that leads to an equally frightening train that then winds up a mountain (making many stops) until it reaches a summit affording views of unparalleled sublimity. It is possible that, as I wake up in the hotel for this last day of sight-seeing, I have been dreaming within my dream; there are strata of strange realization and pleasure that I now cannot place and suspect must have been happening a further layer in.

I am traveling with a female friend, someone I know well, though now I don't know who she was. We begin our ascent of the mountain, so that we rapidly leave behind the shore of this impossibly limpid water that now seems to be not a sea but a lake, perhaps some kind of Alpine lake, its bottom covered in stones. And it's possible that we're ascending toward yet another lake, that a hanging crater is part of the scenery toward which we're venturing. I am, as I am, terrified of rapid ascent because I am terrified of the prospect of falling. Some way up the mountain, we pause at a depot and there is time to look around. I have left my camera behind, or am carrying it but not using it because I need both hands to hang on to railings. We begin again.

When we re-descend (and what happened to all that meantime?), whales appear in the body of water at the mountains' base (mountains': I can see now that we have been traveling along ridges and through a range). Whales! One dives and surfaces and beaches himself but is somehow still safe. The whales are like whales but they are also like enormous catfish, enormous trout, enormous friendly fish, enormous like the funny dolphins I will see on lampposts if I make it to the Embankment when I'm in London this weekend.

When we swap passengers and I begin the ascent again, this time with another friend, I am my usual earnest know-it-all self, always wanting to make sure that my companions don't miss anything. Last time, I tell him, we saw whales: they were everywhere. We stand together and peer over the railings as we make the beginning of the ascent, and I point out their shadows, their dark forms, undulate over the stones at the bottom of the water's bed.


Last night at dinner, it happened again, though differently than it usually does.

Someone with whom I had only talked briefly before last night's dinner looked across the table at me, as we ate our dessert, and said, "What is your ancestry?" "I'm German and Polish," I replied. "Have you ever done any genealogical work on your family?" he asked, also inquiring about when my ancestors emigrated.

By this point, I knew darned well what he was thinking; it's actually happening more frequently now than it did when I was younger. At my left elbow, I could feel the air around my friend change, because he too knew what was coming: it formed one of our first conversations, nearly two months ago.

"I haven't," I said. "But I've thought about it a lot, especially lately." Complicated things followed: I don't know how I would go about starting this kind of research; I don't know whether any part of my family would have kept (or been kept within) records; I'm not in touch with anyone from my extended family, and I doubt that any of them would have been able to tell me anything useful anyway: if what I hope is true, it was covered up pretty skillfully generations ago, and the generations I know aren't likely to have attempted a discovery.

"You should ask the Mormons," my friend said.

I turned in my seat so that he could see my cocked eyebrow, because this sounded like the beginning of a joke. "Which Mormons?" I replied.

"The Mormons," he said, proceeding to tell me that, as far as he knows, the Church of Latter-Day Saints is known for being able to track down all manner of genealogical data for pretty much anyone who asks for it. "And so they'd follow through, and what you'd find out is that in the seventeenth century, your family lived in Lithuania--"

"Right," I said, interrupting him. "And what I'd finally find out is that I actually am Jewish." And I got ready to tell our companion across the table that that's the one reason I would actually undertake genealogical research--to prove, once and for all, that what I believe (and want to believe) about my family's past is true.

But before I could get any further than the word "Jewish," our companion said, with utter certainty, "Oh, you are." Because that is, of course, where his questions started in the first place; he just took us a more roundabout way than people usually do. "There's a whole group of Jewish people in South Africa [from which he hails] whom you look exactly like."

"Yes, I told her she was within days of meeting her," my friend agreed. "Or rather, I just assumed it."

I've lost count of the people who have believed this about me over the years. I've also lost track of when I became one of them; I think that it was right about the time I entered graduate school. I still discount what feels like some sort of bizarre instinct that I barely know how to name and that disturbs me by its very existence and persistence--is it a race instinct? and how troubling does that sound, even stated tentatively? But it's there nonetheless, one of the strangest and most inexplicable things about me. Maybe the time is arriving when I should stop simply living with it and instead get to work.


It's a strange morning, is what I'm saying.

Sometimes, when I'm having my morning coffee, I seem to take the mug away from my mouth before I've finished drinking from it. This just happened, which seems about right for today as it's been so far. Sorry about that, Roland Barthes. Fortunately my copy of Camera Lucida is mighty and resilient.

Anyone who feels like saying a prayer for the various clarities I'm seeking these days is welcome to join in. They're legion, I tell you.


What the day turned into:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An inconclusive catalogue of reds.

Goodness: one day's early writing makes it feel as though I've been away for an age. Certainly it's been long enough for me to have two picture-taking bouts, one last evening, when the sunset was striking (at 5:30 p.m.):

and another today, when our sky went strange and gorgeous in the middle of the afternoon:

Now, some amongst you will laugh at this next revelation, but one of my afternoon's tasks today was to buy a couple of new black shirts, now that I've finally found a place that has styles I like at prices that won't kill me. (You wouldn't laugh if I'd ever told you why I actually wear black all the time, but that's another story, and one that ends with my happily embracing monochromatic base layers.) Even better, I was able to acquire a new totally acrylic black v-neck sweater (one of my wardrobe staples; my old one is four and getting a little threadbare--not to mention short, which makes no sense to me) and a pair of gloves. While I was tempted to rock out the orange gloves, or the golden ones, with my winter coat (now that it's out and earning compliments again, now in its third year), the gloves I bought were also black.

It must have been because I knew I was about to buy a group of black items that I began noticing reds on my way to the city centre. By the time I saw my third good red, I started jotting them down.

First, there was the wild branch-and-berry bouquet my neighbour bore home in her bicycle basket; she was turning the corner as I was jaywalking across our main road, and we hailed each other merrily. This week has marked the shift to our all recognizing each other when we see each other on the street and in town; yesterday, as I walked home from the pharmacy, I seemed to see half of my neighbours also making their ways home (on bicycle, mostly), and we all waved and grinned at each other.

Then there was the red Haymills crane that has hung over the Clare College dormitories nearest to the University Library. I love this crane, though I've never gotten to see it in use. Last weekend, they left it hanging over our footpath. We speculated about why it was pointing that way, but none of us has any real knowledge and so we got nowhere.

Just under the crane, a man stepped out of the gate leading from the footpath to the UL--and under his grey coat, he was dressed in red from head to toe, right down to his red socks and shoes. His hair was white and streamed thinly to his shoulders. He had a white beard and a strange eye and a silent mutter.

A few steps ahead, a woman in a red coat stood beside a man; they both peered between the bars of the fence, looking at the construction site to which the crane belonged. She had her back to me. When she turned, she revealed a seven-month belly, her white shirt taut across it. Somehow, this sight made me smile, as babies and pregnant women do nearly without fail now.

For many steps, there was no red except the berries on the bushes-that-are-not-holly. And then, as I stepped onto Clare Bridge, a boy poled a punt downstream with speed like I have seen in no other punter. And the next punt I saw was a double-wide, bearing among its passengers a woman in a red puffer jacket.

On the next bridge downstream, the mother of a family wore a red fleece; her child, in pink, climbed out of the stroller and crouched while the family paused at mid-bridge. Just then, I spied the orange-red of the fleece jacket of another of my neighbors as she cycled past, on her way home.

Within the court at Clare, a stern-faced girl strode past me in a fluttering, draping red dress topped with an incongruous grey blazer for which I could not blame her; suddenly, it's cold here, cold enough that I bought gloves, cold enough that I wore them, even on the short walk home from dinner. (Someone left a window open during a lecture I attended this evening; it took awhile for my hands to rewarm.)

The maroon headscarf of a woman passing me. The worn rubber handles on a utility card inside Trinity Hall's always-locked gate. A red trench-coat on a swift cyclist. The red striped scarf on a woman who used her bicycle to keep an obviously interested young man at a distance, at least for now.

And then I was in the melée that is King's Parade and then the Market and the pharmacy once more, and the only reds I remember from that point are the red patent-leather wedge pumps in which a woman passed me, and the red leather gloves that I also almost bought before remembering that I don't really want to wear red and green together every day for the next six months, and all the little bits and pieces of red that dot the buildings here: red rosettes, red lips on the sun on one of the sundials on the sundial tower I love so well, red of all sorts on college shields.

All of these reds, I'm sending to you. Had I taken my camera with me to town, I would send you the evening sky, as well: by the time I walked home, I was taking in blues.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I am watching a magpie in the morning, perched on a chimney, flicking his tail. Shoulder-flash of white on wings out for landing. Silhouette gone black in this dawn-pause on brick. They are so often silent, these birds. This one will barrel his way past my balcony, will scavenge in drainpipe and gutter for grubs. Will duck his head and flatten under railings, hoping that others will have scattered crumbs

as I have. One night in the dark I stopped you on the bridge, called you quick from your story to see the geese coming downstream. One had cried out, or else I'd not have seen them. But there they were, paddling singly toward the bridge, one by one in a line on the water, its boats finally stilled for the night. And we quipped about something

but what I thought was another bridge, other geese. And darker water, and something that echoes back now as fear. And how, misted by looking toward falls we could not see, we went home to bed even though it was early. And how I could not sleep, could never sleep, and how he woke me from what would have been dreaming so that I could hear the geese flying far over my house, and how

it is taking so much time to learn to see the birds that sing here. How it is taking so long to know what to call them, how to say what it is I am trying to catch. How I am thinking I cannot tell them to you until I say them alone. And how precarious it feels

not to pause in a perch, not that

but to flick out the low quick-lit call to come back, to come see what I'm learning to watch. The geese, as at home, gliding near us in silence. The sweet frantic sanderlings. The niched pigeons on statues, the flustering lovestruck doves. That hedged robin on our walk, trilling light and solely to those not yet there.

In the risen sun that magpie is blazing away. Are you awake yet to see it?

Today: 778 words (but none of them for the book).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Punts for all cattle.

Oh, has it rained here today, and oh, is my throat making overtures toward being unwell. And so, after a jaunt to town for a package of chili and cardamom hot chocolate (every bit as good as it sounds), I took to my bed, read myself to sleep, and napped for a good two hours. I'm planning another early bedtime. I'm planning a course of non-capitulation. Je refuse.

These cows are yesterday's. Today was too messy to take the camera out.

In moments, the Booker Prize will be announced. Ironically, the one year I'm actually in the country, I've made it through none of the novels. I attribute this lack of interest to my joyous upsurge of creative investment in the real project at hand.

Today: 1018 words (698 new, the others imported from the old version of what I'm writing).

Monday, October 15, 2007

In the glooming.

By 7:30 a.m., I was awake; by 7:45, I was up; by 8:20, I was writing. My internal clocks seem, after all these years, to be settling back and back and back. Who knows where they'll stop? I've already gotten ready for bed tonight, and will likely sleep as soon as I've finished Sigrid Undset's Gunnar's Daughter (1909), a twentieth-century version of Icelandic saga literature (which, as some of you know, is dear to my heart, though I've been out of contact with it for years). Tonight's early bedtime, I think, is mostly a function of having had a day of feeling a little off, striding around town doing miscellaneous errands--I mean, so many errands that I was grateful to have started my new little notebook so that I didn't forget anything. And the last one was to the grocery, to find ginger ale to heat up at home. What are my rituals for when I feel randomly unwell? Can I get the ingredients I need?

Turns out that grocery store brand ginger beer--though it looks all wrong--works just fine when what's needed on a dark afternoon is a hot drink and a warm bed. So too does the local tea purveyor's organic peppermint tea. By dinner, I was eating the salmon-and-mushroom crepe with aplomb.

Today: 778 words.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Faces high and low.

It's definitely fall, and today is definitively Sunday: a day for finishing reading, doing laundry, making a meal I can warm up for lunch after I write tomorrow morning, going to Clare College for choral evensong, stopping on Clare Bridge after nightfall to look for the Canada geese paddling down the dark river in single file.

A couple of backgammon games and a good mug of hot milk, and I should be ready to sleep.

If you had a vacuum cleaner that looked at you like this, you too might be in the process of changing your cleaning ways.

You might even, say, clean your entire flat in the warm afternoon, then venture out to purchase further cleaning necessaries--cleaning cloths, baking soda, dish sponges--with which to finish the job. And you might even find yourself looked at by even more faces while out: in Cambridge we are not at a loss for lookers.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


As in: what these Saturdays are for.

Today I have gone on great strides around town. I have gone in search of poetry. I have gone into markets for a lovely surprise food and come out with a handmade goat cheese in ash. I have gone through college and close, seen graduate after graduate walking the streets in their finery. I have sunk into Shakespeare up to my chin, paddled there lightly to keep myself afloat.

I have been in the breeze; I have heard the mourning doves; I am watching the leaves go gilded to the ground.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friend of a friend.

Look, look!

He's not the only one the likes of whom I'm glad to see again.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Winding down.

Because I will be at a symposium all day tomorrow, I am not planning to write again until Monday--though of course I am open to surprises and compulsions. And so it is that I can calculate my week's written labours: 4138 words total (an even 1000 today), some of which are signposts and miniature outlines for next week (and thus may not have made it into my daily totals up until now). My guess is that this work constitutes just over 1/3 of my introduction. And with this pace I am happy to live--not least because I do get to keep living while I produce this way. I'm at the keys for about two hours a day, and the rest of the time I can bury my nose right back in a book, or smash my eye up against my viewfinder.

I am deeply, profoundly grateful. One of my Clevelander students e-mailed me my week's pop quiz today, and one of its questions asked me what word I would coin to describe my time here so far. "Glorificatorious," I wrote back. Productive of or suffused by glorification (not of myself, I hasten to add).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Here's a downright wrong way to celebrate my parents' wedding anniversary (thirty-seven years! and forty of being together! they are not just living the dream--they are the dream):

I think that, for the first time, after a decade of trying, I've finally come to understand Paul de Man's "Autobiography as De-Facement." I still don't agree with him, but now it's not because I think he's wrong. Now it's because I think he stops short of the real challenge. But oh! to be able to articulate that difference! is not at all a bad way to go toward one's afternoon.

Happy anniversary, beloveds.

Today: 1046 words (many of them, I think, what we in the business would call "theoretically sophisticated"), to which I can only say oh yeah! it's not even noon yet!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

All I need to say.

My horoscope for today:
Today is perfect for starting new projects of just about any kind. You ought to get the support you need and it won't cost you much more than a smile. Life is good, if rather quiet, at the moment.
Yup, that sounds just about about right for this day I'm about to leave. Oh, has it rained today--not hard, but steady.

So, look: today's my father's birthday. I think that I've given you ample reason to believe me when I say that he is the best father I (or possibly anyone!) could have had in this life. He is the best man I know. I love you, Papa. Happy birthday.

Happy birthday, too, to my Chicagoan friend, and thank you for that gabby perfect end to my day.

Today: 657 words. (And attended two lectures.)

Monday, October 08, 2007


Today I am sunshot and sandsweep, elemental, alchemical. I woke up to myself before the alarm could even ring; I cooked my coffee, took my medicine, sat down at the keyboard, responded to an e-mail, responded to another e-mail, and then wrote and wrote. My goal, every day, is six hundred words. Anthony Trollope's motto was "Nulla dies sine lineâ": no day without a line. "I have been constant," he writes at the end of his autobiography, "and constancy in labour will conquer all difficulties." Six hundred. That's all I need, but I need it five days a week.

"Let me tell you a story," I say. "Now let me tell you another story." Because suddenly, yesterday, I realized that that supplication is part of what I do, as well. We don't tell each other enough stories. We forget to think about why we should. So, let me. Let me tell these stories. It's a request, a demand, a plea, an invitation. It's a come-on to myself, at least until those other readers arrive--the ones I'm hoping will get pulled in, seduced, won over by this work.

Today's total: 1092, and a starting place for tomorrow.

Today, also: the day I discovered everything else that's happening at Cambridge: the Geoffrey Hartman symposium I'm attending on Friday (whose registration deadline was today); the seminar series in which I will speak (which starts tomorrow); the lectures and talks I want to attend; the evensongs and organ recitals I can make it to at King's. In the space of an hour, I'd booked myself all up with afternoon excitements. Mornings are mine, indoors. Afternoons are for learning and meeting. Evenings are for eating. Nights are for resting. It's not so complicated.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


When I was a child, we spent one week each summer on the Gulf Coast in Alabama. It wasn't our first time seeing the ocean, my brother and me; we'd gone to the Atlantic in April 1984, stopping in St. Augustine, Florida, to camp on our way to Disneyworld in the Airstream. I remember (not least because I've seen the picture) standing knee-deep in the saltwater, my grey corduroys rolled and pushed up, purple winter jacket zipped against the still-cold spring wind. Even at eight, I spent a lot of that time on the beach just standing and staring into the waves, staring out to the horizon, thinking about how massive a force was tickling me, thinking about how I wanted, above all, to be thinking. Thinking poetically, I might now say, though I wouldn't have phrased it that way then. I also remember going down to the beach in the dark the night we arrived. We'd put the Airstream into its space and then picked our way to the wooden catwalk that led down to the sands and out to the shoreline. I'd never heard such a sound--because there is no other sound like it.

Somehow, I was born a water person. My mother tells stories about my early swimming classes at the YMCA: how, as a very small child, I was dropped off diving boards, caught by swim teachers, put on the edge of the pool and taught to hang on there. She tells stories about how much I loved baths, how I would try to put my face under the faucet. When my memory comes into its own, I remember the lessons when I actually learned to swim--when all the moves suddenly coordinated and I could keep my body moving and my head above water. I remember reaching the bottom of the ten-foot-deep diving well at the subdivision pool for the first time, when I was about five. (I've told you some of these stories before.)

When I was six, my parents enrolled me in winter swim lessons at the local Jewish Center, and so one night a week my mother and I would drive there and I would learn something new in that massive, white-tiled pool. I'm not sure what she did during my lessons. I do remember, very clearly, how we sat together in the sauna, resting on hot, dark wood, breathing that impossibly high, impossibly glorious heat, after my lessons were over.

And then we moved to a land-locked state, and to a town with no indoor pool. I swam on a team during the summers and basically lived at the swimming pool in the afternoons and on weekends. But my family had been cut off from the water in a fundamental way. My father suffered this change particularly, I think; he had sailed in Detroit and in Buffalo, and suddenly the nearest still body of water to us was a manmade lake an hour away. On the occasions when I've seen him looking at vintage Cris Craft boats, and on the occasions when I've looked at the photographs of him--at my current age and younger--grinning with his sailing freinds, I've gotten small, wordless glimpses into what left his life when we left the Great Lakes.

As I walked the beach this weekend, I realized that one effect of my not having grown up in close enough contact with the water I love is that I didn't understand tides--how often they come in and go out, what their pattern is, exactly how to be careful about them. In Gulf Shores, Alabama, there were tides--I know there were. I remember feeling them, and I remember warnings about riptides. But they didn't have a profound effect on the beach's size. At Holkham, on the other hand, tidal knowledge is all-important, because the sands are so enormous that the difference between high and low tide seems (and maybe is) a matter of miles, not feet--and England is common-sense-oriented enough that you're sort of on your own out on this expanse of sand, given just a minimal warning at beach's edge about crossing to "this side of the channel" when the tide starts flowing in, but not told precisely to which of many possible channels the sign might refer.

When I arrived on Friday, as I've said, the tide was on its way out. This much was clear: each wave left a bit more sand (and rocky, shell-filled detritus) bare. But I had no idea when the tide would turn, or how I would know when it did. How close to low tide were we? The beach is so enormous that it was hard for me to imagine that we weren't right at the turning point. The North Sea, like any sea I've ever seen, is vast enough to impress upon one a sense of her vulnerability; my superadded lack of knowledge about how said sea comes and goes only intensified this sense, leading to a wee frisson of near-panic toward the end of my first day's walk. What if I got trapped on the beach? What if I disappeared? Because let me tell you: if you were going to disappear, Holkham would be a good place to do it.

I didn't disappear--though there were further moments of perplexity and near-fear when (though I knew the path I was on would take me where I needed to go) I wondered where I actually was--and then saw strange wild animals that didn't key to any wild animals I know. (I think that they were some kind of English deer. I feel like a big dummy even writing those words--but I'm not sure who was more frightened, me or these animals, and so taking pictures was not in the question. I think they may have been Muntjac deer.)

I am being more digressive than I'd like, here, because what I really want to tell you about is what I learned about tides. When I got up on Saturday morning, I expected that we'd be back at high tide. To my surprise, the tide was (as you can see from the bottom of these Friday and Saturday pictures of the boats in the sluice outside my B&B) even lower than when I'd returned the evening before, when I'd thought it was pretty low.

(Friday afternoon)

(late Saturday morning)

Of course, the tide had--as they do--gone all the way out, come all the way back in, and gone nearly all the way out again in the time since I'd left the beach the night before. By the time I arrived on the sands in the early afternoon, the tide was already halfway back in--but I thought it was very, very low, because where I had seen water the day before, I suddenly saw only sand.

(All of those little dots are people.)
When faced with so much sand, the only logical thing to do is to start walking. I couldn't even hear the waves when I arrived at the beach; the water's edge was nearly a mile away. And so I started to walk, fixing a distant, enormous green buoy (like one I'd seen in King's Lynn on my trip up) as something like a goal.

I walked north (away from a coastline that runs east-west) for a good twenty minutes before I reached the water in front of me (as opposed to the water cutting a channel, east of me). And there was my buoy:

Wisely, I chose not to venture onto the peninsula you see here in order to get a better look at said buoy. It was right about this time that I watched closely and could see that the tide was, in fact, coming in rather than going out. I turned and headed back toward shore, where I had my encounter with the boy who needed a bag. And I set out toward the west, the same way I'd walked on Friday--but, I now knew, considerably further out from shore than I'd been at that higher point in the tide's pattern.
The astonishing thing, for me, was to realize just how swiftly it does come back in. I was in fact able to see exactly how quickly I would have been moored on a new island had I not turned back to shore when I did. Which is not to say that I was actually in any danger--I had too much respect for where I was and for how it all worked, and too great a sense of my own ignorance, to push my luck, and though some of these pictures make it look as though I was the only person out where I was, I wasn't. So too did I find myself in a state of radically heightened awareness of the details of what was happening to the land- and seascape around me: the way the water pushed back into the sandy ripples it had bared only hours before, the way a broad peninsula grew steadily narrower. I was off the peninsula with plenty of time to spare.

But here's the thing: within 90 minutes of my coming closer to shore, I returned to the point from which I'd embarked toward the green buoy and found that whole world underwater.

In this image, all those tiny dots (which you can barely even see, even if you click on the image and enlarge it) are the buoys; my green buoy, the one I nearly reached, is the one on the left. As I headed back to Wells along the mile-long beach road, I was able to see that all the boats that had been high and dry three hours earlier were now floating once more, water rippling in the wind where children had splashed and squelched in the low tide's mucky sand.

The things I'm showing and telling you tonight aren't the loveliest of what I observed while I was away, but they were the most powerful, the changings and observations and fears and realizations from which I learned the most. So much of life is slower than I ever knew, so much more a matter of watching quietly and patiently--in the knowledge that I will have to return and watch again, rather than in the desire for a swift, stellar mastery. So much of not disappearing is a matter of embracing and inhabiting a kind of patience that is acutely attentive, ready to sense the ripples and accretions that suggest that danger is on its way, and to walk a different path in order to avoid that danger. So much of what I want in my life--as I'm coming to figure out--relies upon some kind of slow, steady structure that hasn't been there for years and years. Instituting an early bedtime and an early arisal has been a revelation; eating dinner at the same time every weeknight has been even more of one. I now find that I want to wash my dishes, that I want to do my laundry before the last second. I find that routine might actually be something I want in my life, though not something I hope I'll ever fetishize.

The other realizations and findings that seem poised to follow in the train of these basic ones are too enormous for me to consider yet. They are more than tidal.