Friday, February 29, 2008

What the wall told me.

On the way to piano this morning, I passed about twelve of these, all along the same road. At the end of the road was another heart, with "Check Your Back Pocket" chalked beside it on the brick. What was in my back pocket (I realize now that I finally have checked) was the grocery list from the ostrich burger outing two Sundays ago: apples, butter, cling wrap.

Who understands the ways of the world? I say, keep going toward your own unfathomable heart.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


That's not Call for Papers, all you academics in the house who just felt yourselves snapping to attention. It's a Call for Prompts.

Tonight I watched the eight arms of a string quartet working as though they were all attached to the same body, one with four separate but interdependent facial expressions, one where, had someone broken a string, a voice would surely have said, "Our string has broken," as happened back in November.

"I wish I had a quartet," I thought, not meaning that I want a group of musicians with whom to play (though perhaps that will come, too)--just meaning that I want a creative partnership. And almost as soon as that thought bubble swelled up and out, another one followed it: I'm not ever creating by myself, because I have you all. I'll send out a call for help! I thought.

But writing "A call for help!" sounds as though something dire is happening, when exactly the opposite is the case. I thought about "a call for interest," but somehow that sounded self-deprecating, and CFI doesn't have nearly the Pavlovian potential, for people of my ilk, that CFP does.

Here's my question: If I told you that I wanted to tell some stories, maybe longer stories than I've generally been able to here (or expanded versions of things I've told), what would you hope you'd get to hear?

I suspect that I can do this on my own, but I also suspect that it would be more fun to invite the participation of my small, faithful audience. Some of you have been with me in this venue for more than two years, after all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Solidarity when one least expects it.

Who would have thought that a lecture on Milton and singularity could feel so immediately, deeply, richly affirming? It was such a great lecture that I didn't even mind missing the sunset, and thereby having to swipe one of yesterday's shots in order to give you some loveliness tonight. (I did get some excellence this afternoon, too, but I'm going to use it tomorrow. Sometimes handing out images is so complicated, but always in a good way.)

I know it's not really a good idea to look directly at the sun, even to look at it through a camera, but last night it went down so hugely and goldenly into that copse of trees (which, in turn, metamorphosed into something like my home fields when I looked at the picture) that I just kept shooting.

And any day when I score nearly a thousand words of writing--that's a day that I'm going to feel good about having made.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The world's bright candles.

Today was sunlight and wind everywhere, high and gusting. We get minutes and minutes more light every day.

Then, in the middle of the night, this happened. I was, in fact, still awake to feel it, and it was just as strange and scary as the one I felt in Greece thirteen years ago. And these were not big quakes (I mean, the one in Greece definitely was, but not where I was experiencing it). Which makes me think that I should perhaps build some more emotional preparedness for disaster.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Should have saved yesterday's word.

Now this is incroyable. I need say no more. If you're a book fetishist, as I am, then go--and look--and cry with joy and envy-- Just covet, why don't you. Covet, even if coveting is wrong. Which it is.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Actually, nothing particularly incroyable has happened here today. I'm simply doing enough hovering around in the French language these past few days to want to pop that word in here.

If I could stay up for another hour, I could see the beginning of the Oscars. But if I saw the beginning of the Oscars, I'd be tempted to stay up all the way through the show, which won't end until at least 4 a.m. GMT. My diehard friends would do it,
even if (perhaps especially if) they did have to sit up all night. I'm showing my true colors: I'm mostly in it for the dresses, so I think I'll sit up and see whether I can catch the first round of images to get posted tonight--and then trust that the photographs tomorrow will be très magnifique.

All this decision-making requires some toast.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The long happy work of structure.

I had a rich and lovely day today, and before I left the flat at 7:15 to go to the closing night of Uncle Vanya in town, I'd only gone as far as my pigeonhole in the college all day. Some days are like this, and they're important ones. Today the framework of this new piece grew and grew, and every time I put in a new piece of the structure, I saw three more pieces that needed places. By the original parameters of my experience, I was meant to have finished drafting the essay by Tuesday or Wednesday. I will probably need an extension from myself. But not much of one, I suspect: once the framework is in place, I'll pretend I'm writing to all of you, and perhaps the fleshing out of this one will proceed more painlessly than usual.

Today's little parable: this morning, after I washed and toweled my hair and put my morning stuff into it, I left it alone until just before leaving for the play. Just left it alone and let it do its own thing, without worry. And it looks curlier and happier today than it has for weeks. "You're trying too hard again," my brother used to say to me when I'd try to be as funny as he is. He was usually right, even if I hated to hear it.

My beloved Lexingtonian asked me this evening whether I'm planning to do the second part of the Mondo Beyondo exercise that I started last month. The answer is yes (I will, and I will follow Superhero Andrea's guidelines)--but I'm happy to say that part of the reason I've delayed has been that 2008 has, already, been my year of writing (and of realizing that for me "a year of writing" won't mean completing an essay every couple of weeks--but will mean following ideas more readily and freely than I have in the past).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sundown on a big long day.

I'd already walked many miles today, but when I returned home the sun was doing its faraway thing. From my desk, it seemed to be glittering behind the college's trees; when I walked out to catch it, it turned out to be very far away indeed, and paler than it had seemed from inside. I heard birds and saw women rugby players. I had spent the afternoon browsing through a guildhall full of rare and antiquarian books, all of them beyond my means. For most of the afternoon, things were relatively unawkward--and then, just as we reached home, there was a quiet altercation over whether or not anyone could possibly enjoy collating books. (I have made my feelings about this matter amply clear for you in the past.) "It's just depressing," he said, speaking of a bookseller to whom we spoke for a little while. "He spent all that time collating that book, trying to figure out which printing it came from." "He might have enjoyed it," I replied, not even trying to be contradictory--just thinking back to all those hours I spent picking through the pages of rare books that summer in Charlottesville, and thinking that it would have been even more fun, probably, had we gone on beyond collation and started comparing our copies to other copies of our books. Within two more conversational rounds, he had asserted that he loves books, but that everyone goes to books for what's inside them, and I did have to counter that one: that's how you learn the anatomy of a book, I said. I'm telling you that I love collating. That's just depressing, he replied. Well, there's nowhere to go from there, I thought, especially if you're going to abuse a clinical term.

It was good that the afternoon was over, and good that the sunset was there to be seen out at the end of the footpath, is what I'm saying.

My piano lesson was utterly brilliant. It's not that I was utterly brilliant. It's that, once again, I received the true and enormous gift of having found myself a teacher who knows how to engage with my abilities and my mind at exactly the right levels, challenging my intellect and my technique and my emotions all at the same time. I was shy and proud when I finished playing her the Bach and she praised it; I was fierce and proud as we worked through sticky measures two notes at a time. I know--or else I wouldn't teach--that there's no real, lasting glory in getting things right the first time. The glory comes from working through toward rightness. Today's lesson felt like a glory, and not even just a small one.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alan's Disco Taxi.

As I walked home from a movie tonight--and yes, it is true that I skipped a chamber music concert so that I could see Juno before it closes at the local art cinema--I passed the city centre's taxi rank, one of whose waiting taxicabs was labeled Alan's Disco Taxi. During the rest of my walk (and even through my pause at the blissfully quiet grocery store), I mused on this find and came to a decision:

Alan's Disco Taxi will be my writing chariot.

The weather here has scudded back to such warm early spring bluster that once I was walking tonight, I could have kept on walking--but for the fact that it was 9:30. Tomorrow, I will get an excellently long walk because I will be resuming my piano lessons after a gap of several weeks (occasioned by my teacher's being out of town). Lessons continue to be a test of my ability to accept not having the time to master everything. On any given day, I'm doing at least two or three of the following: photographing, reading, writing, and practicing the piano. What this has meant is that the Bach on which I'm working can only come along slowly, and my Schumann still has the same broken and awkward measure that it had in late January. It is hard for me to move myself past worrying that I will have disappointed my teacher by not having practiced more. The pieces are better than they were, and that has to be enough for now.

Via that magic medium known as the videochat, I introduced the littlest Lexingtonian to the concept of seafood this evening as I ate my toast and honey. "Do you like seafood?" I asked, waiting a moment before showing off my mouthful of toast (even adventuresomely wagging my tongue). Her eyes widened, and then she grinned and did the whole-face blink of delight that she's started doing lately. Soon we were both pitching about in our laughter.

In a week where most of my immediately proximate relationships have suddenly felt both unnecessarily complicated and incredibly superficial--in the sense of their having barely scratched the skin of who I actually am in the world--being able to laugh and play peekaboo and clap with a nine-month-old who lives halfway around the world has suddenly become so much more important than ever before, as has being carried around the house by her mother just so that we can keep hanging out as she goes about her evening.

Tomorrow I'll take Alan's Disco Taxi for a spin and watch my word count mount.

[A postscript, two days later: Um, maybe Alan's Disco Taxi isn't my writing chariot.]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Second sleep.

Within an hour of waking up this morning, I found myself nodding off again over my book. I fought it for a few minutes and then decided that the fight was unnecessary. An hour later, I was awake again and fine. I have had a strange sequence of dreams about my body lately. In one, I borrowed someone's tape measure, only to discover that my measurements were unbelievably beyond what they've ever been; in another, swimming was on the agenda, but I wasn't really, shall we say, prepared to be out in public in a bathing suit. I have a pretty good idea of what these dreams are about. I also think that they might be compromising my sleep, and I object to that.

Now, when the clock says 4:35, the sun is still high.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I spent another day courting my ideas, sitting at the desk with them and letting them stir just beyond the corner of my eye. It seemed as though nothing were happening, but then I had a title for this essay, and the title showed me where I really wanted to go, just as where I really wanted to go showed me my title. So now it all starts: I just have to be calm enough to be here, alert and quiet and receptive, when everything percolates. Remember the little glass top on the percolator? If I had one of those on the top of my head, you'd be seeing my ideas bubble up, any time now.

There is a joy in this process that is, in no small part, the joy of knowing that it is my process and that my process doesn't have to be anyone else's--not my prolific neighbor's, not my peers at other schools, not anyone else. The people I love and admire most in the world are the people who are solid and secure enough to do their brilliant things in their own brilliant ways. My way is so celebratory of the unruly life of texts (whether they're books or films or whatever) that I can't even force myself to speed up too much and risk missing a turn in the story, a detail in the description.

When I'd first finished grad school and began teaching full-time, I remember saying to someone, "This is how I'm going to become sane." Something about the near-dailiness of teaching helped me to see that every single class session couldn't be perfect, and that everyone was still going to learn something if I just did my best, even if my best on a particular day wasn't quite what I'd have wished it could be. In the past week or so, I've gained tiny glimpses of ways in which I could be a sane writer. Most of those ways have to do with finally accepting what I actually do, rather than feeling, deep down, that I should be doing what other people do.

This light isn't today's. Today there was no sunlight. Yesterday, though, there was sunlight on tender willows' greening. I am in love with trees. Sometimes I think that I have collected half the trees in Cambridge, even though I know that's not true.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sky of gold.

When I arrived home at 5:30, after having walked to town to mail in the absentee ballot that arrived in today's post, it was still light outside. By the time I'd finished making my toast and butter and honey, the sky was downright gold, from ear to ear. I put my chamomile tea on the desk and sat down and opened a book, then looked again out the window and thought, you will regret it if you don't walk out to shoot that sky.

And so I did.

I regret that I didn't get more of the low fog that was coming up in the fields. And I regret that there's no way for me to explain what it was like to realize that I'd forgotten what winter smells like--and then to realize, even further, that this wet shivery bone-chill cold still isn't what winters smell like where I come from, because I can still breathe in through my nose, and because the air I'm breathing in isn't dry. And because as cold as it's gotten, it's still nowhere near as cold as it's been at home. Nowhere near.

In the midst of my processing last night, by the way, I forgot to tell you one other thing you might need to know:

If you carry an apple pie--even a covered one--into a taxicab to Trumpington, your cab driver might well engage you in a conversation about the best apples for cooking (Bramleys) and the best kinds of butter for baking (Anchor, Lurpak, that French butter whose name we couldn't remember). Butter from New Zealand, butter from Denmark. Unsalted butter. The advantages of butter as compared to margarine (too many to name). "How long before you get to go home for your roast?" I asked him. "An hour and a half," he replied. This morning I realized that I should have torn off a piece of the crust and given it to him, just like we gave the Corpus Christi porters one of our eclairs when my beautiful friend was in town. There wasn't a graceful way to share the pie, but that shouldn't have stopped me.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Just so you know.

If I see you in the bookstore and you're looking at (and even touching) an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, I'm going to tell you where to start if you're just getting to know her work.

And if you call me on the phone while I'm still in my pajamas and you say, "Do you want to go get food?" I will probably say yes, but if I'm perpetually a little sore at you, I'm probably going to take my sweet time getting ready and then also call the shots as far as where we're going to get lunch, which is how we're going to end up eating ostrich burgers outside in the middle of the market square, because I've never had one and I really feel like eating a sandwich. And there won't be a way to ask you whether you feel as awkward as I do, because I'll be trying to figure out why there's no one from whom to buy apples on a Sunday, and I'll probably be impulse buying a chocolate bar because it's rose-flavoured, and I'll be buying my cappuccino while you go look at fossils, and I'll see the coffee guy shoo the pigeons away with his foot, and neither you nor I will really have much to say to one another, which will keep on feeling strange to me, though I won't say anything about it because what would one say? Sometimes life is like this, and so I'll count my blessings that the apples and the organic butter I've bought are going to make a pie that I'll take to dinner with friends, people around whom I am not awkward and brittle.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I'm going to start thinking words like "drafting" to myself, quietly and calmly, so that when Monday dawns clear and cold, I won't want to burrow down under my quilts and blankets and duvet and pretend that all of my notes and my ideas aren't sitting on the desk across the room by the window. Only, I might want to burrow down simply because some nights, they seem to turn the heat down or off, and sometimes it's not quite fully warm again by the time I wake up. There's never any telling when one of those nights might be. The leaky weatherseal on the kitchen window doesn't help things much in that regard, though it is a fairly useful defect when the heat is flowing. Right now, it is startlingly cold in my generally pleasant bathroom; I will be hurrying through my bedtime routine tonight.

Today I tried to walk everywhere I needed to go by way of paths that allowed me to keep my face in the sun, something that was not always possible. But when it worked out, it was always worth the effort.

In the basement of Heffers, as I read a bit about phenomenology (you know, as one does), I heard a child ask his mother, "Mum, Mum, what is You: The Instruction Manual?" "It's a book about improving yourself," came her reply. "About including yourself?" he responded.

And there was the sun on one side of King's, and there was the sun on the other. And then there was the moon, as if everything hadn't already sat up and posed for its picture.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Here at the end of the day, perhaps in the face of my growing mastery of the subject matter I'm about to write about, little doubts start to crop up. Why this topic? they say. Why don't you ever write about anything normal? They say many other nasty things that I won't repeat here. I am going to sleep them off. I don't do things without reason; my instincts are sound. I'm going to keep following this particular rabbit.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Skeletons and skeletons.

In January, I was walking in the evening with friends, on my way to see I'm Not There, and happened to look to my left before crossing a driveway. And there, hanging weirdly in a building in the courtyard up the driveway, was the enormous skeleton of an animal I couldn't identify but assumed to be a dinosaur. I called my friends back to see it. Everyone--even the least impressible among us--proclaimed it the coolest thing we'd seen in a long time. Today, I finally made my way into the Museum of Zoology, outside of which that whale skeleton (a whale! of course!) hangs. We went in in order to see a photography exhibition that my Canadian friend had seen advertised in the paper. But we spent our hours there not because of the photographs but instead because of the myriad wonders housed in that strange, smallish place. Full skeletons, articulated and posed (sometimes alongside stuffed versions of their animals). Whole cases of, for instance, British birds. Impossibly light skeletons behind glass; impossibly huge whales' skeletons floating overhead; enormous crabs and preserved fishes in chemicals and glass and fossilized shells and antlers and teeth and so, so many bones, and so, so many different birds of paradise. It was a place of too much bounty; I needed to be there by myself and yet wasn't, and so it would seem that I have another place on my must-revisit list.

The hummingbird's airy bones were my sweet weightless valentine this year.

It would be difficult to explain how much reading I've done today, because I barely know, myself. Two nights ago I sorted through 1420 hits for a single word in a marvelous news database; yesterday morning, I printed some 223 pages (double-sided) of clippings. At some point tonight, reading through all of them started seeming less like a good idea and more like a way to numb my brain thoroughly, and so I started being more ruthless with my scanning for things that might matter, things that might give texture to the piece I'm working up. And now I am finished with both Pack I (174 pages) and Pack II (272 pages)--which means that I can turn back to the more dense but also in many ways more gratifying reading left to go before I'll feel ready to sculpt this block of material into what it wants to be. This stage has always, always felt like quarrying the marble: I'm in the pit, with the stone, feeling my way around, eyes open for the block that will work best. I'm touching faultlines, watching from the corner of my eye for signs of a contour that no one else sees yet. I'm getting my sense of what I want to create and am now waiting actively for the material that will help me realize the work--which will, of course, change dramatically in that very realization. And then, once the block is mine, will come the chiseling, the hammering and tapping, the breaking away of the bigger chunks, the revelation of the living thing in me, in the stone, in us.

In my dream last night, I wept at how swiftly my home campus had forgotten elements of its landscape that had gotten renovated and reworked right out of existence: a much-used, much-loved canal behind an old building, for instance. That is to say, the elements of this place's landscape that I won't be taking home with me.

Today it was not foggy, but today I didn't take any pictures, and so I'll give you yesterday all over again--not least because I wanted to give you this picture yesterday anyhow but then couldn't.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fogged in, fogged out.

You've seen these sights before; now, you can not-see them the way I experienced not-seeing them this morning.

One of the grand things about being here is being able to adjust my schedule at a moment's notice--so that, for instance, when a new friend materializes on the catwalk "hallway" above my flat and says, "Hey, I have an hour, do you want to go to town?" I can say "Sure!" and grab the camera and go.

When the day has dawned foggier than any I can remember, the excursion is almost certain to be an excellent one, photographically speaking. Even knowing this ahead of time, I was startled by how vanished everything really was. From the public bridge, Trinity and Clare were invisible; from one edge of the King's lawn near the river, the chapel started to disappear; from the walkway where I stop and watch the cows in warmer weather, nothing was visible at all but the plane trees' bare tracing.

My day went mostly to what other disciplines would call a literature review: I have pulled in everything that has been written about what I will write about, and I am reading my way through. Half the day was for popular media, very short articles full of factual errors but also too many useful interviews and quotes for me simply to skip them (though who can be sure they're citing their interview subjects correctly?); the other half was for a range of articles at a range of qualities, some mind-chillingly banal, some sharp and theoretically intriguing. Data and ideas pile up and up, and at each turn I think I can see more ways that writing this piece will help me think through my bigger projects.

Some days, I work hard and with focus, and when they're over, I'm ready to stop. Tonight, had it not been Wednesday (and thus a formal dinner night), I could (and would) have sat at my desk for hours more. Either way, I'd have reached this point and have been ready to sleep--ready to let things process, ready to get ready for tomorrow and the more that it is there when I open my eyes to the world again (let it keep being there, d.v.).

And oh, was it cold today: the air too heavy to hold its water, the trees beading and shiny all day, no rain but everything wet, everything everywhere misted, buildings and people disappearing. In the morning, the library tower was invisible from my road. In the afternoon, I shivered in one of the library's reading rooms. Not once this year have I been so grateful for my college's way of overheating our flats: my room was a hot dry oven when I swept back in with my Big Insights and my desire for tea.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My new mission.

I've decided to try an experiment (or, rather, to let the experiment try me). Many times in the past couple of years, I've said, "Someday I think I'd like to write an essay about [fill in blank]." But I never get around to doing those essays. I have another one in mind now, something that was going to be a conference paper for (I hoped) this winter's Academic Mayhem--until I realized that I could use this one as a low-stakes trial, just to see whether I can in fact crank out an essay--one that I care about but that's not necessarily central to my career--in a limited amount of time. And then publish it, rather than sitting on it until December. I'm giving myself two weeks for this one. Maybe I'll even tell you what it's about, if you're lucky.

Tonight, I'm realizing once again how very much better at the "gathering cool stuff" phase I am than at the "processing cool stuff into prose" phase. Fortunately I get to enjoy the former for a little while longer, at least until Saturday or so.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A quiet busy day.

If I weren't so darned happy sitting around with my books and my notebooks and my pen, I would have more to tell you today. As it is, some Things are afoot, and I am puttering away at them in focused and happy fashion, thinking about bodies and subjectivity and points of view and why I write about the things I write about.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Today I rambled: to Coton, to town, to town again, home. In the interstices, through some of a book. It was quiet and perfect, except for that part where I had to leave a movie before it was over because even in the dark I could feel the color draining out of my skin as clammy waves of nausea lapped at me. That was not cool, especially when (in my hurry to get out of the theater) I ran smack into two women sitting in seats at the top of the aisle. In the end, nothing happened, but I felt grim enough to decide to go home--which means I'll be seeing The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly again soon, as I would have wanted to do anyway.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Wandering mind.

Pretty much from the moment I awoke this morning, I knew it would be a day for rambling: the sun was already high, the sky blue and the air clear; my mind was hungry and restless and wanted to stretch limbs and run laps and collect things and move other things around and generally behave in irrepressible fashion.

I am steeping a couple of small side projects, and today's wanderings and thinkings contributed to their progress. In a longer view, I seem to be casting my mind ahead to the 2009-10 school year, which will (I think) be the next time I'll teach my autobiography class, something I've not done for three years. This time around, I'm conceiving of it as having a much tighter chronological focus, one that kicks it off no earlier than, say, Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and thus makes it possible to come up to things just published. When last I taught the class, Persepolis's second volume had just come out in English and only volume one was in paperback already; when I next teach it, both the memoir and the film will be available. It's been a long time since I've really wanted to teach this class, so to feel excited about it is excellent indeed.

Today I've been dreaming of walking the Fens. Tonight I'm starting to dream about retracing some steps (which were themselves retracings), camera in hand. When I left home to come here, I didn't realize that I would come to love this part of the country. How could I have? I didn't know anything about this part of the country. But now East Anglia, woven through with water, layered under with eels, flat as anything and skyed wide and big, has my heart. It's possible that I really am going to have to hire a cycle for the rest of the year.

Here's what the moon, in part and in full, looked like this evening as I walked westward. I didn't even doctor this image for you--other than by cropping out some of the immense sky.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Walk it out.

Look, here's a thing I realized tonight. When I tell you that I hate to write, or that I never want to write again, what I'm really saying is that I hate losing touch with my material--hate losing my feel for what I'm doing, hate not being able to reach my way to the next idea, hate never being able to relax into my prose.

This morning, I woke up so excited to write that I wasn't even able to do it for the first six hours or so I was awake. I was that sure that I would finish the book's new introduction today: I could taste it, and that foretaste was so sweet that I was nearly afraid to mess it up by discovering that I actually had yet one more day of work to do. I meted my sweet time out to myself: time in bed to finish Cranford; time to put innumerable upcoming events into my silver calendar; time to eat my cereal and read the news.

Time to read another chapter of Annie Dillard and to remember how she helps me: The Writing Life is all about the fierce spareness of writing, how it can whittle down what you see and what you do until all you see and do is the writing itself. It is a whole way of living in the world. "Push it," she exhorts. "Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength" (78).

By the time I opened the New Intro 2 file, it was after 2; by the time I got up again, it was nearly 5. Three hours is no long time, I realize, but in that time I'd slipped through that sheer barrier that separates me from the beautiful articulation of my most cherished ideas most of the time. Things that mattered to me, things that have earnest import in my life, were shaping themselves off the ends of my fingers, joining up to rest together and wait for their readers. By the time the sunset started looking extraordinary, I had already decided to skip a lecture (Simon Winchester, darnit) in order to polish this thing off. I strode out into the evening with my camera and a half-paragraph left to complete at home.

And I realized as I walked along the strangeness that is Rifle Range Road, the path-that-ends running alongside the college, that I miss my home landscape. I had forgotten my love of photographing grasses against sunsets. I could take the same picture over and over and over, with no regard of what anyone else might think of it later, simply because taking the picture repeatedly helps me to acknowledge where I am.

On the whole walk, I was attuned to pattern, shape, and curve in a way that has felt difficult for a little while here. The curls of grasses, the knots of wire, the tendrils of thorn: these are the things my camera and I saw. Occasionally, I did what I never do and shot without aiming, largely because I wasn't up for lying on the ground. Some of the night's best pictures involved the highest degrees of chance.

My new pledge to myself is that, when I start hating the writing again, I will remember that blocks come for good reasons; some things that I needed to know in order to write this introduction didn't click into place until very recently. It needs certain things that it does not yet have; it certainly has some things that it does not need. But I'm taking this victory and going to bed with it. And I'm remembering that this is why writers get editors.

Yes, I did just call myself a writer. That's the other thing I realized on my walk, right about the time I saw the little cocker spaniel that wiggled over to say hello but had a ball in his mouth and was shy to boot and ended up wiggling on along after all: when I say I hate writing and that I'm not a writer, it's mostly because I'm afraid that I'm not really a writer, which is what I've always wanted to be. The fact that, without giving it any second thoughts, I registered as early as possible today for a poetry workshop at an upcoming literary festival tells me pretty much all I need to know about whether or not writing is what I do.

Next time I start doubting my vocation, I'm going to walk it out.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

At the keys.

And then it hit me: I knew exactly where parts from my old introduction could get spliced into my new introduction, and then I knew exactly how it would end.

Things weren't quite that simple today, but they were a lot more smooth and productive than I'd had any suspicion they might be. Things went so well, in fact, that I nearly skipped my Thursday night concert so that I could just polish this blessed thing off. But then I thought of my piano teacher's excitement at the idea that I'd get to see tonight's performer. And I decided to go anyway.

By the time the concert started, I'd settled in amongst the Alfred Wallis paintings that fill the second level of the concert space, and my brain unwound just enough that by the time the Schubert sonata that was the concert's second half had begun, I'd started feeling my way around a couple of conceptual hurdles that had started rising up just before I left the flat.

Through the whole concert, I could hear the pianist breathing.

Each keystroke a grace, a soft power of touch.

I have packed in my next notes until the morning; if I give it space, my brain works out some of my writing overnight.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What's different at 4:35 p.m.

So, look: it's great beyond great to wake up at 8 a.m., ahead of one's alarm, and feel buoyant and ready to get out of bed, and to feel even more that way because the sun is already up and visible. It's an entirely greater thing, for me, to have had the sun still be shining--shining!--past 4:30 today. I know I'm not supposed to believe that the natural world is actually reflecting my feelings, but it's difficult, when they match up so closely, not to grin at a plane tree, or at the line of Canada geese falumphing into the river and honking to one another to get out of the ways of amateurishly steered punts, or the tiny leaves budding out of hedges everywhere. Or at the unbelievable sounds of the birds I can't quite find in the trees and shrubs on my way home from the busy town, in the sun, in the late afternoon. Not reflection, perhaps, but certainly fit accompaniment.

By the middle of the summer, I'll be taking pictures of daylight for you at 9:30 p.m. Maybe this will be the year when I'll actually stop needing sleep--when I can just stay up and see and read everything.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Well, I suppose one could say that.

In the aftermath of my talk, which went on too long and felt like hell but was amply well-received (how does that phenomenon work?), particularly by the senior academics in the room, including the famous woman who served me lunch at her own house, I find this horoscope waiting for me:
Today brings an achievement, though it may not be one that you recognize immediately. At least one of your goals has been met, though, so it could be time for you to set a few new ones.
An achievement I can't recognize yet? I'm going to hope that it's a good one. I did work hard today.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The precise way in which I am not alone.

(what I see from my desk without my glasses)

From Erdmut Wizisla's Preface to Walter Benjamin's Archive:
Benjamin's mode of working is marked by the techniques of archiving, collecting, and constructing. Excerpts, transpositions, cuttings-out, montaging, sticking, cataloguing and sorting appear to him to be true activities of an author. His inspiration is inflamed by the richness of materials. Images, documents, and perceptions reveal their secrets to the look that is thorough enough. Benjamin was interested in the incidental. He loved to think in marginal areas, in order to push out from there to the center; he liked to use the phrase "most central." His capacity for immersion and his preparedness to make connections allowed him to discover essential things in details. Fragments recombined into new things; this researcher converted them into something distinctive. (4)
I feel excellent about invoking him as another godparent of the Cabinet, here on my 800th post.

I write this not in self-aggrandizement but in homage.

* * *


I have been picking and compiling and arranging all day, little hopping bird with a line of text from over there, a line of thinking from over here, eyes bright, scurrying. There are insights; I remember--I can see--how what I do is different from what has been done. The accompanying quandary:

In my field, when we say, "I have to give a paper," we mean, "I will stand up and read a ten-page paper." When I say, "I have to give a talk," knowing that the talk should last 45 minutes, I think, "I have to write a 6500 word prose piece." And yet my gut is telling me so strongly that, because I have rocked out for 45 minutes (and more!) at seminar tables on multiple continents, and because I have never once had a 6500-word script to read during those sessions of rocking out, I do not need to carry some 20 pages of prose into a Cambridge seminar room tomorrow. (I should note that my notes, at this point, are about 2900 words, and that's without a couple of things I still need to cobble in from elsewhere.)

And yet, and yet. I find myself thinking, something will go wrong, something will go horribly wrong. I'm not sure what I think this "something" is. The horribly wrong things that happen during talks are generally results of a) incompetence; b) lack of preparation; c) lack of interest; d) catastrophic sudden-onset illness; or e) open malice. B is the only one that I can get anywhere near on this list, and given that everything academic that I've done since June 2000 has led to this point, even I, even if I were in a totally self-deprecating mood, couldn't fault myself with that one. Yet I keep thinking, "Well, anyway, they can't fire me, because I don't work here." As if I'm in danger of giving a presentation that's so bone-headed that someone would think that I should be made to leave my job, here or anywhere else.

I don't think that I've ever given you this clear a look at what my head is like when I'm getting ready to teach. Because teaching is what this is--teaching when I haven't done it (formally) for awhile, and when I feel as though there's no way to keep my head around the matter before me and in me. The positive way to view this feeling--and so the one that I will embrace as I get back to work--is that I do know so much and care so much about what I know that I can't bear not to get a presentation like this right. I do actually want to give a presentation that will make the material texts around my audience suddenly start speaking up.

Really: this is what it's like when I work with a manuscript: I can almost hear it whispering, can almost hear the sounds of the writers and editors and readers and marginalialists thinking--as though they're whispering to themselves the things they're writing and reading, as though the pages in front of me are alive with talk. Given the things I work on, often the sounds they make are low keenings, little cries and insistences that someone hear them, that someone do the right thing with them, or for them--even when they don't always make that an easy task.

"I am," one of my correspondents wrote to the other, in the microfilm I was reading on Saturday, "still much in love with the idea of our publishing your book together."

I am in love with getting these ideas right, but as with love in other guises, I am also terribly, terrifically, stupefiedly impatient, and unwilling to misstep. I suspect that getting ready to misstep is going to put me on a fast track to getting un-impatient, as well.

Sunday, February 03, 2008


What doesn't show in this picture is the set of words on the paper behind the flower. These words are before me as I try to write:
As I photograph with my little Leica, I have the feeling that there is something so right about it: with the one eye that is closed one looks within. With the other eye that is open one looks without: one sees the shapes, the living quality of what moves one to photograph. Without passion, without working with the emotion of the heart and the enjoyment of the eye, nothing vital can be put down.
Bless you, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

* * *

At the head of a book chapter I read today, I found a past reader's pencilled note: "Chef seasoning--the broccoli some do not care for." I have no idea what that means, or even whether I think it's wonderful. I mean, it's a wonder, to be sure--but that's not always a good thing.

* * *

Plagiarism is never a good thing. But at least sometimes it's a funny thing.

* * *

For me, the pleasure does not lie in the synthesis, the production. The pleasure lies in the gathering, the amassment, the accretion. The detail. The pile-up. Drawing up one more version of a seven-year-old set of ideas makes me realize, once again, how long I seem to be taking to make this thing happen, and how much every airing of it now makes me feel a bit belated.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Day out.

When the alarm told me it was time to get ready to go to London, I was pleased (or as pleased as I'm ever going to be at 7:30 a.m.) to see that the sky was striped in rose, the sun about to rise. By the time I'd showered, the sun was out. I timed my walk to the station just so: 40 minutes there, 5 minutes to get my ticket from the machine, 7 minutes to wait in line for a coffee. I boarded the 9:15 express to Kings Cross at 9:12, took my seat, got out my book. A few minutes after 10, I was on platform 1, striding back to the British Library.

Time works differently when I'm researching. I sat in front of a microfilm machine, transcribing letters from 1893-4, and then reviews from 1893, for four hours straight. Just when I thought the clippings of reviews would never end on the reel, they ended, and I left for my last bits of bookwork, which took so little time that had it not been for the microfilm, I'd have felt silly about going back to the library at all.

Unless, of course, I'd gone on to have the evening I had in the Charing Cross Road bookshops anyway. There's one shop whose whereabouts I've been trying to remember for a long time; I found wonderful Virago editions there in 1999, in a basement full of good-quality, well-priced paperbacks. I thought I'd found the store again earlier in the month, when I went to London with one of my Clevelander students, but the basement in the place we visited was not even slightly very nice.

Henry Pordes Books, on the other hand, is very very nice, and it still has that basement. I left with three more Viragos for my set--and one of them might well be the subject of a piece of writing sometime in the near future. Used bookstores have often been my best research sites.

And then, and then, in Blackwell's, just as I was about to turn and leave, my eye fell on this piece of astonishment. I downgraded my dinner plans immediately and afforded it.

I am chattering tonight because someone I know is facing something difficult, and because I have to write a talk for Tuesday, and because these two things, combined, have me on edge.

The man who sat across from me on the Underground had meticulous fingernails. The boy who'd sat next to me earlier was sending text messages from two phones at a time, one in each hand. I fantasized that he was texting himself, as we hurtled there under the ground.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Gusting toward spring.

This morning, we woke up and my lovely friend said, "Oh, the sun!" We realized that though this was her second visit to Cambridge in this academic year, it was the first time it hadn't been cloudy and vaguely grim.

Grim today certainly was not. By 3:30 p.m., we were returning from the city centre bearing excellent things: glorious new scarves, a box of eclairs, her new hare, my bunches of tulips, her old friend. The sun was still up and bright, the wind still strong and cold. Our faces were pink and cheered. We made short work of transforming my room of beds, as we'd been calling it, back into its compact and multipurposeful self.

When she'd left, a few hours later, I realized once again just how different life is when you're surrounded by people who know you only the slightest bit, when it comes right down to it. How lovely to wake up and sit in companionable silence reading near someone dear. How big a space is left when you're back to just yourself in your flat. How much more hollow and scraped strange awkwardnesses seem.

It's not precisely that life has gone on hold. It's that this year has finally put my life into a centrifuge and started spinning out its various components so that I can see how I'm really made. I think I'm starting to get it. More bright lines are appearing: I want this; I don't want that; I will not have that.

If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you somewhere. I'm figuring out where I'm going.

Speaking of goings: my Canadian friend flew back from North America yesterday and brought us conversation hearts. I regard this one as a (good) sign of the times--so good a one that I said, "I'm going to keep this one." Because she knows that I don't mess around, she said, "Go ahead!" And so I did.