March 27, 2020

Hill of Beans

Hello, 2020. Weren't you supposed to finally be the better year? I've refused to change my Facebook profile photo since November 2016--the snapshot I took just moments after voting, relatively secure in what I thought that day's outcome would be. I was wrong. So many days since then have felt wrong, especially living just blocks from the nation's capitol, but when you're going through hell you keep going, right?

Now here we are. Last week, I watched a man at CVS steal a single item: a digital baby thermometer. It was the only thermometer left in stock, it was priced absurdly ($46.99), and I was not going to stop him. 

My silence has not been for lack of adventuring. Everything has felt in flux. I had a great trip to Tampa--followed by news that the MFA program where I have taught for six years is shutting down. I had a great trip to Knoxville--for a job I didn't get. I was in the 1/3 crowd that made it to the AWP Conference, in part because of sunk costs and in part because I so wanted to see a city that my father's family has always loved. San Antonio was wonderful, with its riverwalk and El Mercado and art and the Japanese Tea Garden and red-pepper mezcal cocktails and BBQ and bluebonnets and Friends of Sound Records. Going to Texas was a reset we needed. 

The conference was strangely intimate, with longer conversations, and yet also strangely distanced, with so many less hugs. In a different year, there would have been praise for the benches on the books fair floor and the banks of motorized scooters available for check-out. I hate to think of that momentum being lost, just as I hate to think about AWP losing the service of Diane Zinna. As it was, I was able to take part in "The Future is Accessible," talking in person with Emily Rose Cole and connecting with Jess Silfa and Alice Wong via Skype; I attended three other substantive panels and an offsite reading. That was enough. 

We got home safely, if nervously. That was before everything started getting truly strange. And to counterbalance all this anticipatory grief, one beautiful piece of news: meet Sal the Wonder Cat, who keeps me company while I work from home.

Now we are are hunkered down in our Southwest apartment, the three of us (poet / artist / cat), wondering what on earth we're going to do to pay rent and health insurance in the coming months. Usually, a weekday is punctuated by announcements being piped throughout the elementary school catty-corner to our building, but schools are closed. The red rocking chairs that ring the duck pond are empty. I try to get some fresh air every few days, but between my seasonal allergies and a history of severe asthma, the pollen bloom makes that a questionable proposition. No one wants to feel short of breath right now. 

Any in-person events for March, April, or May have been cancelled--and with them, that income lost. I'm hoping to keep leading spotlight discussions for Politics & Prose; a first session to discuss Carmen Maria Machado's memoir In the Dream House went well, and another discussion of Carolyn Forché's What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance is coming up on Wednesday of next week (April 1). Teaching online isn't easy; I have to multitask between so many different types of attention, and I'm still looking for an effective live-captioning option. But they're deeply absorbing conversations, and that's a bit of a godsend right now. 

The only in-person conversation I've had with anyone other than my husband was when one of the workers from Officina ran over with a bag of groceries. With their dine-in options shuttered, they're trying hard to stay afloat. He recognized me from my regular pop-ins to their market, where I usually buy fresh bread and pork sausages. Now they're selling me produce straight from the prep kitchen that might otherwise go to waste: bags of parsley and broccolini, Idaho potatoes, huge onions, and a whole brined hen we'll roast this weekend. 

Beyond that indulgence, we're sticking to what's in hand--pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, tinned sardines, bacon, and every imaginable kind of bean and pea. I got really excited because Cento is still shipping their basics. I have a huge jug of olive oil and a stash of white wine. When I was editing Vinegar and Char, I spent a lot of time thinking about the good, sturdy foods we deem essential in times of crisis. Yesterday, as I worked through preparing Made to Explode for W. W. Norton (the manuscript goes to the copyediting desk next week), I paused on this poem, an earlier version of which appeared in the Southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy~


Phaseolus vulgaris.
Forgive these mottled punks,
children burst 
from the piñata of the New World,
and their ridiculous names
of Lariat, Kodiak, Othello,
Burke, Sierra, Maverick. 
Forgive these rapscallions that 
would fill the hot tub with ham
while their parents 
go away for the weekend,
just to soak in that salt.  
Forgive their climbing instinct.
Forgive their ignorance
of their grandparents who
ennobled Rome’s greatest: 
Fabius, Lentulus, Pisa, Cicero
the chickpea. Legume 
is the enclosure, fruit in pod,
but pulse is the seed.
From the Latin, puls
is to beat, to mash, to throb.
Forgive that thirst. Forgive 
that gallop. Beans are the promise
of outlasting the coldest season.
They are a wink in the palm of God.