For me, autumn is always a season of smoky nostalgia and lucid reckoning as well as new beginnings and optimism. This time around, I’m constantly verklempt, amazed at the richness, primarily the intense energy and brilliance and flat-out loveliness of my students, but also the way the past is resolving itself while I’m here in Iowa City.
Last week, Connie Brothers, who has been the heart and soul and prime mover of the Writers’ Workshop for as long as anyone can remember (yet still looks exactly the same), appeared in my office doorway. “Who in your family cooks?” she asked. “We both do,” I said. She handed me a big butternut squash from her garden with the warning that she couldn’t vouch for it; “It might be a little wan.”
I took it home and cut it open. It was not wan: it was a deep gold-orange. I peeled it and cut it up and roasted it in the oven with a lot of garlic, a cut-up onion, and three stalks of rosemary for perfume, then ran it through the blender with chicken broth and a bit of buttermilk, salt and pepper and cumin, until it became a rich, smooth, incredibly flavorful soup. While we ate big bowls of it, I reminisced about how Connie used to sit with some of us in the student lounge before workshop, the scariest, most nerve-jangling time of every week, and how comforting her presence always was for me.
Back then, as an aspiring MFA student in my mid-twenties, a quarter of a century ago, I lived 2 blocks from where we’re living now. I remember myself as intimidated, lovelorn, uncertain of my literary aims, and painfully shy. My friend Gretchen, an exuberant, intrepid, generous poet, whisked me off to country auctions, late-night truck-stop breakfasts, and a George Strait concert in Cedar Rapids.
Gretchen came to visit two weekends ago. Some of my Workshop students invited us to go bowling with them and their friends on Friday night. They were a stellar bunch of interesting people. Thanks to Gretchen, there were Jello shots (only half ironic) all around, and the jukebox played “Shoop” more than once, and everything felt sparkly and festive. “You’re great, too,” one of them said kindly to me, “but she’s amazing.” The next night, we played pool at the Fox Head, the old fiction writers’ bar. Afterwards, we came home and stayed up late, talking, on the porch. On Sunday before she left, we had a John’s deli picnic of salami, cheese, potato chips, grapes, sardines, and iced tea in the little park near our house. Having her here brought me back in a significant way to that real past, the one I actually experienced. When she drove off toward Chicago, I got a little misty-eyed. It’s a lucky thing to have a close, lifelong friend.
Last Sunday, a brand-new friend came to town, the musician Mary Chapin Carpenter, who is touring the Midwest right now with her friend Shawn Colvin. I was about to buy tickets when she emailed me and invited Brendan and me to the show as her guests; she asked us to come backstage to say hello beforehand. I had never met her before, but we’d written back and forth a bit. She read and praised my new book, which thrilled me no end; I am a lifelong fan of hers.
The instant I met her, I fell I love with her, the way you do with your real friends. She’s exactly the same person offstage as on: funny, thoughtful, filled with integrity, boundlessly generous of spirit. We hugged, and complimented each other’s work, and smiled at each other. She told us about the glamorous life on the tour bus (sleeping, eating, playing games on Iphones). I told her my sisters couldn’t believe she’d actually read my book. And then it was time to say goodbye, but next time she comes to Maine, I plan to cook her dinner.
Then we went out and sat in the audience and for the next two hours, we were enthralled and moved. Mary Chapin’s voice sounds more strikingly beautiful now than ever before, rich with experience and striated with twined ropes of feeling and unbreakably strong. Between songs, she talked about her new album, “Ashes and Roses,” and what inspired it: the death of her father, the end of her marriage, and a pulmonary embolism that almost killed her. These songs are deeply sad, gritty, full of pain, but they’re also beautiful and hopeful. Watching her onstage with Shawn Colvin (whose lifelong fan I also am), I fell in love with her all over again.
She talked about “song walking” with her dogs on her land in the Blue Ridge Mountains, taking long, meditative walks to work on whatever she’s writing. Then, in the magic hour between dusk and darkness, she sits on her porch with all her cats and dogs, her “people.” When she sang a song inspired by these walks and the dusk-to-dark hour on the porch, Brendan and I both were moved to tears. We both knew exactly what she meant.
A few days later, my independent-study student, Vanessa, came over for our weekly meeting. She’s in the poetry workshop, but she’s doing a side project with me that we’re both excited about. Because I love to feed starving writers, or anyone for that matter, I made lunch for her: a mushroom-leek-carrot frittata with gruyere, chicken Andouille, and buckwheat-buttermilk apricot muffins. She brought me a book: “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Cookbook,” published in 1986, the year before I got here. I opened it to the following recipe, which reads like a short, short story, an autumnal mediation on past, future, and resolution:
¾ cup split peas
½ cup lentils
¼ cup barley
in a pot of water and add a couple onions and a couple stalks of celery with all the greens—cut into a couple pieces so you can eat it later. (When I was growing up we used to throw out the celery.)
Let it go for an hour till the peas and lentils are soft and mushy. Add 3 or 4 carrots and cook till done. Sometimes I add a whole can of tomatoes or fresh tomatoes.
When you serve it, add ½ cup peas or zucchini. It’s important never to let the carrots get too soft. Never.