I just started reading this book, by Joan Didion. She physically (and, as I read, emotionally/spiritually/whatever) reminds me of my friend Meredith, who I lost almost nine years ago. I was inspired to write to her, as I do often talk to her, in the garden, on the patio, gazing up at the stars and the clouds of Milky Way on dark, dark nights. Please bear with me as I write to her here, and no doubt jettison us off somewhere.
I was thinking about you just now, as I was reading the second chapter of “The Year of Magical Thinking”; have you read it? When I think of you, and of Joan Didion, I think of women very physically similar: tiny, thin like birds, blonde hair, great style, strong wit, indefatigable intelligence. But you were you and she is Joan Didion: after all, there is a Netflix biography on her, when, sadly, there is not one on Meredith Farmer. If I were to see Joan Didion at the supermarket, if I didn’t already know who she was, I would see someone like you: a middle-aged lady with simple elegance, beautifully-colored hair, probably looking with disdain at something in produce, ever in judgement of all the “normal” things.
You’ve been gone almost nine years, and life has ebbed and flowed and changed, moved around, wiggled, metamorphosized a wee bit (as my grandma would have said: she now gone 15 years, and that, another story). Ultimately, though, life is still the same: I am just more skilled at handling its curve balls due to experience and therapy and probably, my friendship with you.
There was a night about 6 years ago when I chatted with you off my front porch in Northeast Harbor, Maine, when I lived in the Dollhouse (or the Fishbowl, depending on who you asked) : the tiny house on the town parking lot in which my comings and goings were very public knowledge and everything in the house was so small. My closet was a pole that hung at the end of the bed, and the shower felt like I was hosing myself off on a dock somewhere with hot water. But, it was $650 a month and the landlords were dolls and I walked to work and to get breakfast sandwiches at Ben’s, and I had a wonderful, small garden of unruly morning glories that threatened to take over the house! I had many memorable conversations on that porch, on the picnic table that I stole from someone’s trash and DanBondo‘d so that it would survive, and I painted Seal Harbor Green after JRa and I put in the new path up to the front door, made from stone dust that we bought mostly drunk one day from the quarry in Trenton. That was where you and I talked, formally, the last time. Informally in between, many times. I don’t know what we talked about, but I am sure that I asked you questions and you laughed at me, in a loving way.
I remember, at your funeral, there was a slideshow of pictures of you. My favorite was a photo of you in college, cigarette in your right hand and an ERA button on your left lapel. Your hair was strawberry blonde and you looked so damned engaged. I feel, I wonder, do we lose those feelings as we get older? Do we blame husbands/partners/kids and is that bullshit? Is it just projecting like everything else: an excuse to disengage, to check out? What do you think?
I see you smiling. I feel like you are at the pool right now, but perhaps that’s just because I read a chapter in which Joan Didion describes her newly dead husband as having a daily routine of reading in the pool (reading “Sophie’s Choice“, no less) while she gardened, and of course that made me think of my small 8 foot cattle waterer pool that I bought after doing some work for the old lady next door and now I share with Cody almost every day, sometimes several times a day, despite his almost constant chagrin with me about how I let the leaves and flowers and bugs in, and he doesn’t.
Such is married life, to someone I am actually married to, rather than the first one, that you bore witness to, or to your 2nd, as I bore witness to. Marriages, men, children, time: rental houses and the houses we “own”. All the stuff within those houses, the boxes, the moving, the priority of sorting out the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. The conversations about Mama and Daddy and who built Mansfield Dam, what the role of all the boyfriends and husbands actually were. I look at your Carnival Glass dish, blue with a sheen of multi-color on it, as if it is coated with oil, all the time: I think of you wryly smiling at me, or of that day we went fishing on the dock of my neighbor’s house on the Croton River, when Steve and I lived with Brien and you came to visit and told me I was a witch because my garden grew so well!
I think, in the end, that the boyfriends and husbands are not as important as the memories of people as unique entities in and of themselves. I remember you as such: and think of you this way often. I find it funny, sweet, sad and ultimately, joyful, that you still are such a part of me: that we still talk. I wish you could see where I am now, as it is a very nice place (and the pool is pretty nice, too) and you would like Cody a lot. You would laugh at both of us, in a loving way.
My mother’s house has many rooms. One for Want, for Regret, one for Determination and Resignation, one for Hope, one for Money, one for Expectations, Children, one for Past, one for Present, one for Future; all adjoined, all empty.
Perhaps a chair appears in each room from time to time, near the window that shines white light. Looking out the window, again, you see nothing. All empty.
The curtains blow in a breeze that carries with it no scent, no temperature, no hint of its origins.
The chair creaks: does someone sit? Who is it?
Older women know that life is not what you think it will be: life is a river and we all must just attempt to stay in the boat. Many times, we don’t; we are thrown into muddy waters and just as you look around, desperate for the help that has for years been promised you, you find it gone. Alone in the house.
All those empty rooms: connected by time and consciousness.
There are tiles on the floor, decorated with twisting vines and flowers, emblems of kitchens, quotes and mottos. When you walk upon them, they begin to crack, to break apart, to tinkle under the feet like the sound of a windowglass shattering or a wine glass landing on the stone floor: broken, under your feet.
You wander between the rooms for surely there is something in one of them that ties you to the visions that were in the mind all those years ago. You sit on the chair, stand up briefly to stare out the window, look down and even the chair is gone.
No sounds, just the sound of your breathing. No one there to hold your hand. How would you hold one now, anyway? Time has passed and the muscle memory is gone. You can’t see the outside of the house: barricaded and entombed by walls as high as mountains. Looking out the window, you can’t see them. Within that empty light, you can’t remember that you built them yourself.
Gone are my long, wistful days of winter-spring when all I had to do was work a little bit and play alot, traipsing through my tiny town in my black Bean boots, staring at the wind and the sun’s movements across the landscape.
Now it is summer and there are flowers everywhere and the grass is green! The air is hot, sometimes, the sun shines bright, and the days fly by. Tomorrow is July 23rd? How is this true? It seems only yesterday it was the beginning of May.
A couple of hours ago, I walked out of the restaurant in which I work, into the darkness of almost-midnight, and felt a chill upon the air. Realizing, in that moment, that summer is halfway over, and that the chill is slowly returning,will be slowly returning as the light begins to leave us again, made me think of how strange it is to live in a place where the weather is so dynamic that as soon as you get used to one feeling in the air, it will change into something completely different.
My days, at the moment, are spent working at one of three places. I feel so behind on making jewelry!! I feel like time is just slipping out of my hands: there is not enough of it! But oh well, such is the way of the summer. Yesterday I went to an amazing part at the 10 Spot Labs on Islesford and spent the afternoon with friends, sitting in the sunshine and under the shade of fir trees. I walked through a door that was floating in between two trees, I watched a girl skinny-dip in the ocean, I stared at strange fertility sculptures that decorated the hallway leading to a bathroom, I received a lovely compliment from the Compliment Booth, I laid down on a dock in the late evening and fell asleep, surrounded by friends.
Despite its pace, summer is a lovely time, isn’t it?
“We take from life one little share, And say that this shall be A space, redeemed from toil and care, From tears and sadness free.”
I came here in June, sick and tired. I came here late at night, with a headache splitting my head in two: it felt as if an axe blade was lodged in the left side of my skull. My car was packed with belongings and I drove, forward, through the black night, past houses and the ocean streamed at my right side. That night I cried, cried, cried, and continued through days and nights as my head hurt and my heart ached at realizing I had made it away from a place of so much pain. After re-decorating that basement space that was mine, for a time, I stayed in bed for weeks, while shingles wracked my body, erupting on my face and eyelids and scalp, causing pain and burning and itching. As it healed and the nerves reconnected, I had a hard time sleeping because it felt like electricity was running through my skin. There were days when I would venture out to swim or to bike ride, and feel as if I almost had to crawl back inside the house, into bed, because I was so tired.
“And, haply, Death unstrings his bow, And Sorrow stands apart, And, for a little while, we know The sunshine of the heart.”
Time passed, and I began to feel better. In time, I ventured out more often, and was able to plant plants in the ground again, and be in the sunshine, take walks, swim across the lakes. Late in the summer, after a confusing but exciting trip to the Yucatan, during which I learned how to make pie crust in the tropics, became a certified scuba diver, watched a hurricane pass by, and learned that a special someone was not who I thought he was, I worked in a large, open barn with wooden sculptures everywhere. I started the day by weeding the granite paths in a flower garden, and passed the day helping children paint boards and wooden fish, and painted my own things, too. There was a moment on the third or fourth day when my head came back — my mind came back to my body and I felt reconnected again. It had been months since I had felt that way.
“Existence seems a summer eve, Warm, soft, and full of peace, Our free, unfettered feelings give The soul its full release.”
Time passed, and the fall began. I continued to work in the garden, weeding cosmos flowers and beets and kale and onions. I watched pumpkin vines grow in compost piles, and planted evergreens on a steep hillside and pondered how quickly lavender will grow in a place with such a short summer. I took drives in a 1970s Porsche into the hills of this island, and looked at fancy houses and ocean views. I housesat in a little house in Seal Harbor, where I had to walk one mile to the beach to use my cell phone and reconnect with those people in my life who felt, at that time, so far away. One afternoon, one of those days of golden light and warmth, I was standing on a roof deck of a beautiful wooden summer house on the top of a hill and looked out at the trees that grew all over the mountaintops, at the water of Somes Sound, and decided to stay.
“A moment, then, it takes the power To call up thoughts that throw Around that charmed and hallowed hour, This life’s divinest glow.”
Staying is hard for me. I am more apt to run: I am the world’s most skilled runner. Adaptable to any situation, a great and hard worker, friendly, I can fit in anywhere. I can come and go, and do, quite often, if I am unhappy. I find ways to escape: I am an artist that way. I am the Queen of leaving. Committing to anything is, well, plainly terrifying to me, and the decision to stay here, while I knew it was the right thing to do (I had originally planned to be in Mexico and had sold everything I owned toward that purpose), was scary. I felt I had to hide a little bit, hole up and re-evaluate, re-group. I rented a beautiful apartment, and then left on a huge trip across the country to see everyone that I loved. I documented that trip here, detailing all the themes that appeared in my mind and my life along the way.
“But Time, though viewlessly it flies, And slowly, will not stay; Alike, through clear and clouded skies, It cleaves its silent way.”
I came back, and fall passed quickly. The light changed, and faded away. It became dark, and cold. I spent much time walking and looking, looking and listening, writing and sitting. I made a lot of jewelry and tried to stay quiet. Christmas came and went, as did the New Year. Emotions ran the rainbow of possibilities: I felt happy, then sad, then elated, then scared, then passionate. Then suddenly, the miasma of the holidays, the painful memories and the excitement at that season, passed, and it was winter.
“Alike the bitter cup of grief, Alike the draught of bliss, Its progress leaves but moment brief For baffled lips to kiss”
Winter is a new experience for me. I have no frame of reference for this season. Yes, we all have experienced “winter” wherever we live as a cooling of temperatures and changes in light, but Maine winter is different. Maine winter is quiet. Maine winter is empty: you know the people are here, but you don’t see them. You see evidence of them in the glow of windows, and the sounds of snow plow trucks trundling past your house. Maine winter is three feet of snow that sits for weeks. Maine winter is going ice skating on a lake that a month ago was liquid water; now you can skate across the surface almost silently, watching ice fishermen wait for their orange flags to bob down letting them know they have caught a fish. Maine winter is watching people in canvas tents in the woods, nestled around woodstoves, escaping their daily lives for a day or so. Maine winter is cold, and the cold is biting. It freezes your toes and feet, and your hands. The wind whips around your face and stings your eyes and lips and nose. Maine winter steals heat from your body as you walk, sucking it out of the top of your head if you, stupidly, go without a hat. Maine winter is long, and it just began in earnest.
“The sparkling draught is dried away, The hour of rest is gone, And urgent voices, round us, say, “’Ho, lingerer, hasten on!””
For the last week or so, I have been taking an informal survey on “What Winter Means”. I have asked everyone that I know who has lived here for a while the same few questions: Why is it so different? Why do people go kooky after New Years? and Is it true that everyone will go nuts in February?
“And has the soul, then, only gained, From this brief time of ease, A moment’s rest, when overstrained, One hurried glimpse of peace?”
I can tell you that winter is a lonely time, if one is alone. It is cold, and you want to cozy up next to someone to get warm. Winter’s coldness is felt inside your body, down to your bones and further inside. Winter is scary because, in January, you realize that it will be like this until March or April, but most likely, April. Winter draws out before you with the promise of ice and snow and bright sunny days and deep cloudy ones. Winter causes you to question yourself, and realize that you do not know exactly what will happen to you in a place of this much cold, this few people, this slow of a pace.
“No; while the sun shone kindly o’er us, And flowers bloomed round our feet,— While many a bud of joy before us Unclosed its petals sweet,—”
On Monday, I rode in a small steel boat to the outer islands to interview to become a substitute teacher in a two-room schoolhouse for 9 students. The ride out was cold, but it had the hopefulness of morning, and the water was deep blue and turquoise green and the smell of diesel is comforting, in its own way. People kept busy reading their mail, playing games; I spent the time knitting and chatting when I could. First we stopped at Great Cranberry, and I looked at the pileons all covered with bronze seaweed and barnacles. We pulled away and across the straight to Islesford, where I embarked and walked up a narrow road, perfectly snowplowed. Snow two feet deep was on either side of me, and most of the houses, summer places, were empty. The field that, last summer, I used to play volleyball with two friends from Philly lay vacant, vast, white and empty. Everything was silent with the empty echo of winter: the sound of silence and of hunkering down. This is survival time. I spent the day in the school, visiting with children and adults and a dog named Ruby, and then took the same steel boat back to Northeast Harbor. The sun set over the mountains as we rode in, all orange and red and salmon pink over deep blue mountains. It was cold, colder than cold on that boat, and everyone seemed to be adjusting to it well but me. I walked up the gangplank to the harbor area and felt colder than I have ever felt. Walking into town, I began to panic thinking I would never get warm, or I would get sick again, or both. I slipped on ice and sank into snow, feeling colder by the minute. In that cold, your head hurts with the cold air, your eyes water, your hands and feet ache despite boots and gloves.
“An unseen work within was plying; Like honey-seeking bee, From flower to flower, unwearied, flying, Laboured one faculty,—”
I went to a friend’s house then and bemoaned the cold and he laughed and said he was at least happy that I understood that he wasn’t kidding when he said the cold was serious. I sat, practically hugged, the woodstove, took off my shoes and socks and he handed me steaming hot coffee and eventually, my warmth came back and I stopped panicking about the winter, about the cold.
“Thoughtful for Winter’s future sorrow, Its gloom and scarcity; Prescient to-day, of want to-morrow, Toiled quiet Memory.”
And just like that, the deep cold left us that very next day. The next day, the sun shone on our town and the snow began to melt and temperatures that were in single digits and teens all of a sudden were almost to 40. The snow melted into water and dripped off the eaves of buildings into the street, making slick patches of clear ice, impossible to see but easy to slip on, and catch yourself before a fall.
“’Tis she that from each transient pleasure Extracts a lasting good; ’Tis she that finds, in summer, treasure To serve for winter’s food.”
Despite our warmer week, the winter’s chill has taken hold and taken effect on people. People are changing. I wish to record these feelings here so that I remember them in a month, when winter is really in full swing, and in its depth of experience. People are spending less and less time out, more and more time in their homes. I, too, feel the desire to curl up inside and surround myself with blankets and fabrics and sewing projects, and other creations of comfort. I seek to design and build things that reflect those aspects of life that I miss: warmth, light, plants, flowers. I dreamt the other day of a place where the plants are still growing, where leaves are unfurling and flowers are in bloom. I remembered the pink oleander in front of my old house in Austin that still grew and even bloomed, sometimes, in the winter of central Texas.
“And when Youth’s summer day is vanished, And Age brings Winter’s stress, Her stores, with hoarded sweets replenished, Life’s evening hours will bless.”
So what will Winter bring? I have no idea what is coming toward me, except a distinct sense that my perception and interaction with my environment will become even smaller than it is now. It is hard to imagine that a year ago I was living in a large American city, and now my world has shrunken so. In the cold, even though the light is returning to us, I envision a time of watching, and waiting. My new motto is “don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide — don’t do anything but wait.” Henry James must have spent a winter in Maine as an outsider, and spent much of his time just watching how people’s restlessness magnified, how all people turned inward to the coziness of houses and hearths.