Putting my poet’s shoulder to the wheel

Cities are supposed to be overwhelming, at least in contrast to small-town slowness, but over the last week or two, I’ve felt the opposite. For our family-vacation-ending-in-a-modernism-conference, we rented a flat on a particularly lovely Amsterdam street–Bosboom Toussaintstraat–and all the museums, good food, and friendliness were nourishing. (I wondered, as I strolled through islands of pot-smoke, whether the whole city was getting a subclinical dose of herbal mellowness.) Now, not only am I jetlagged and flattened by heat and transitioning back to the faster work-pace August brings, but Virginia has made international news as a hotbed of white supremacy. That’s not a surprise to anyone who lives here and has her eyes open, but the neo-nazi violence, and various disavowals of responsibility for it, are crushing anyway.

I have no great words to offer about this particular catastrophe, at least for now. As Ginsberg says at the end of “America,” I’ll just keep “putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” My work as a writer, teacher, and citizen seems puny sometimes, but it’s what I can do. All the good art I saw in Amsterdam really did hearten me. It can be so solitary and dispiriting, to keep doing your own stubborn thing in your little office in your little town, with just very occasional acknowledgments from readers and editors to cheer you on. On canvas after canvas, though, I saw others striving and searching, and it restored my sense of laboring in good company (disregarding the trivial constraints of time and space, I mean).

Above are poetry murals from Leiden, a beautiful university town we visited on a day trip from Amsterdam. Doesn’t it seem like the world could use more of those? And below are a few more pictures from our various adventures. That’s Ferdi’s “Wombtomb” from the Rijksmuseum plus Dubuffet from the museum’s sculpture gardens, and a Van Gogh I loved from a special exhibit on forests. We adored being on the water, too, and on bikes north of the city. And oh, those sunsets on the rooftop! The poor kids are feeling the comedown, as well–delayed flights meant arriving home at 2 am and Cam got a migraine from the sleep disruptions, but he was back to high school this afternoon. Madeleine’s junior year at Wesleyan doesn’t start for nearly 2 weeks, but she pulled it together to drive us all home last night when we were a sleep-deprived mess (we decided the proper term is “womanned up,” but these challenges all seem smaller to her after Siberia). We’re gradually getting unpacked and sorted out, restocking the cupboards, paying the bills, and the stray suitcase the airline lost was just delivered, hurrah! Wish us a good night’s sleep tonight, because there’s work to do.


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