"It's hard," I say to my boyfriend, "to come back." I didn't realize how cruel it would sound until I said it out loud.
The Office. Top Chef. The week-old Sunday New York Times. Sleep. Eritrean dinner with the boy--a tomato salad stung with lentils and red onions and lemon juice, then spongy inerja soaked with grease and spice, folded over hot chicken and onions, washed down with a Red Stripe. Sleep. Emails unwritten--apologies if you've been waiting. Sleep. Finishing Marilynne Robinson's HOME over a bowl of steelcut oatmeal. Buying three pairs of desperately needed pants, and one dress for a high school reunion. A party, a real party, with lit candles on the stairs and bottles of wine on the side tables and lots of people I do not know making glorious noise. Sleep. Sleep. A damn good poetry reading, with Eric Pankey and Brian Brodeur.
Ethelbert is worried about me. We are standing around the Writer's Center after the Board meeting, before the Poet Lore celebration, before my trip to Michigan, before the winter issue ships to the printer, before my DC reading. I've resorted to carbs to stay awake. I'm on my fourth bagel of the day. "Beasley," he says, you look tired." I am tired. "You know," I say, "I like to be busy, but I'm past the tipping point. This is too busy." It happens, about twice a year: things get out of phase, doublebooked, pins start to drop from their juggled arc and bonk me on the head. I look at Ethelbert in the helpless exhaustion of knowing things will get worse before they get better.
"When's the last time you got your eyes checked?" he asks.
"My eyes? Um...a few years ago." What's he talking about? Was I squinting at the meeting? Isn't it enough that I make it to the dentist twice a year?
"You read a lot, Beasley," says Ethelbert. "You gotta take care of your vision."
It's 7:30 AM. These are someone else's boots. As I stomp off the snow they come close to flying off my feet entirely. I am clutching this cup of drive-thru coffee for dear life. I'm in the office of Walt, morning host for Sunny 101.9. Walt's wife has an MFA and he has a soft spot for us writer-types. Usually when I do radio spots, it involves calm, NPR-styled exchanges with brief interludes of jazz. I'm not sure the morning commuter is my target audience. On the wall there is an animatronic...woodchuck? beaver? Some Marquette mascot? Oh. I'm a moron. It's the groundhog from Caddyshack. I take a big sip of coffee.
"So, what do you write about," asks Walt. After the first of two spots he goes to cue the computer-ordained music, and as he looks at the screen he winces. "Sorry," he says, as we are serenaded by New Kids on the Block. Oh, oh, oh oh oh. Oh, oh. Oh oh.
The department is paying for lunch at the local organic restaurant, and I get a dish that turns out to be a vegetarian catch-all--potatoes, onions, squash, seaweed, three-seed bread. It's under-seasoned but quietly addictive. I'm seated at the end of the table, as if to say grace or cut the turkey. All the faces at the table are about my age and the effect is lulling: I'm content to listen to gossip laced with names I do not know, making eye contact with the smiley baby being bounced on a fiction writer's knee. Then I remember my own MFA days, in which each minute of a Visiting Writer's time seemed somehow...precious. Charged with potential. I sit up straight, determined to talk. I'm not sure exactly what wisdom I imparted, though I did pass along the fact that platypus moms don't have teats, that the milk just excretes and pools in little leathery skin-gulleys. Um. In case you needed to know. I may have also said something about jobs in the publishing industry.
The workshop. I tell them about that month at the Millay Colony, living inside the book, my studio fluttering with pages on the wall. I've sworn off set answers to questions, and sometimes this gets me into trouble. In recounting the day I heard I won the New Issues Prize I premise it with "I was just getting back from a whirlwind trip to Switzerland--" and I can see the flicker of disbelief (Switzerland?) and part of me wants to stop and say no, no, they were special circumstances, I am not some jetsetting princess, but we're onto the next answer. I say the MFA thesis will not, more then likely, be the first book; it's the practice, the manuscript you have to write for there to be a first book. Again, a momentary deflation. Ooof. No one has any questions. Have I let them down? There should be questions. Austin asks me to treat one of my own poems as if it were a masterclass, dissecting, pointing out how I revised, and I start to answer that I don't do a lot of revision--the poems either come out right or utterly stillborn--but no, I will not give another flicker-inducing answer, damn it. I flip through pages until I find "Antiquity," read it through, palpate the lines as if I were a doctor, feeling for the pulse of old mistakes.
Walking down the hall to the elevator, I pass flyer after flyer--maybe a dozen--that bears my face, my bio. The photoshop job stretched my cheeks slightly, making a mischievous close-up seem...manic. Possibly deranged. It's only upon having that thought that I realize I must be nervous about this reading.
Bless the room full of people and good acoustics, the coffee ready to serve, the undergrads who say "Oh! I like that one," Tom with his video camera, the jokes that somehow land safely, the sestinas like suspension bridges that bearing up under car after car, long, wobbly, singing with strung tension. Bless that people in Marquette aren't going to a let a little ice and snow keep them from campus. People ask about the new work, and they buy books. Lots of books, so that the clerk from Snowbound Books is smiling. That never fails to amaze and delight me. Those are my heart-poems, in Theories of Falling, and I'm not the only one who thinks they are worth something. There is still conversation to come, back at the Landmark Inn, over sweet potato fries and pitchers of Bell's, with the faculty who will drift away one at a time, and the students who will linger. I will tell my embarrassing Alice Quinn story, because that is the job of a Visiting Writer: to admit that I, too, have had my flicker moments. And lived to tell the tale.
It's a strange ritual, this making of deep and fond acquaintances with people I may well never see again. You, making it work one manuscript at a time, in one midwest town after another. You with the parrot buried in Lake Superior. You with the ridiculously awesome brunette curls. You with the ready joke and the serious questions. You who wants us to all go snowshoeing at midnight. You who had me sign a poem print-out for your wall. Most people around me on a daily basis aren't lovers of poetry, so it's rare to have the kind of direct sharing and questioning of the work that I get on these trips. I am foolishly, helplessly, vainly grateful for the reminder that the poems are received and unpacked and considered. So if I take forever to sign your copy of the book, with a babble that seems 50% yearbook scrawl and 50% non sequitur, you know why.
These days. These wild, lucky, stressful, underslept, french-fried, borrowed-shoe, squinty-eyed days. Sometimes it all flows through this body like water. Sometimes, like lightning.