A Man Named Granny

dan photos september 2013 231Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

The man named Granny lives in a tiny house in the woods; surrounded by the homes of his close family, he lives in relative quiet and isolation from the surrounding, larger world. Granny’s small cottage is shingled in Maine white pine, finely landscaped, and when you drive past his house at the end of the day, the sunlight shines, flip-flapping, through the tall trees that border the sound.  Whilst driving, and seeing the little houses that are the homestead of the Toogoods, I wonder how it was that this man came to be named Granny.

dan photos september 2013 230A Summer’s Afternoon in Peggy’s Cove

The real story of Granny is actually one of his mother, who also was named Granny. I have often wondered what the elder Granny’s name actually was, or if she was simply a grandmother. I have often wondered what the younger Granny’s name is, too, since I only know him as “Granny”, as the man with white hair and a strong handshake that I sometimes meet when I walk into McGrath’s for coffee in the morning.

dan photos september 2013 232Lichen growing on an old fishing house

Diane Arbus must have been describing Northeast Harbor when she wrote: “There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Granny is another unique personality in our small town, our “island of misfit toys”. This is a town of women who walk down the center of Main Street with parrots on their shoulders, a town where heiresses marry the sons of construction workers, where grocery store employees drive black Cadillacs with the slogan “Touch of Class” emblazoned upon the back windshield, where people hula hoop on their way to parties, where people abandon apartments only to leave 14 desiccated cats in their freezers, where people feel their lives are in the midst of a very tiny, crowded, and misanthropic fishbowl. This is a town where one minute you can be disliked by many, and the next, defended by those same people who sought to run you down because people from away are trying to do something to shut you down. The old saying about freaks goes something like: she may be a bearded lady, a freak!, but she is our bearded lady.

dan photos september 2013 241On Deck: Lunenberg, Nova Scotia

And so it goes, life, marching on, one step in front of the other, and we all experience the orbit of our Earth around the Sun in different ways.

“We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all. We’re the tattooed lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, until everybody else is tattooed, too.”

J.D. Salinger

dan photos september 2013 242dan photos september 2013 246The Most Beautiful Scallop Dragger in Nova Scotia

Today is the one year anniversary of me moving to Northeast Harbor, Maine. I came here from Philadelphia, city of 1.548 million people, after living in Austin, city of 842,592 people, for almost 12 years. Northeast Harbor, Maine, is a town of 300 people year-round. In the summer, our population swells to close to 2,000, but most of the time we move along with only 300.

dan photos september 2013 247Rust, Paint

dan photos september 2013 248

During this time, I have learned how it is to be one woman in a small town. I have learned how to be beholden to strangers, and how accountability in a community works. I have learned that everyone talks about everyone else, mostly because it is more fun to talk about other people than focus on yourself.

I have learned the true goodness in people, and I have learned that some people will be nasty no matter what you do to make them see the light. I have learned that every personality has a place in our small town. I have learned that people help each other, even when you don’t necessarily want them to. I have learned to take a deep breath and not take things so personally. I have learned why it is good to be a person in a place, and of a place. I have learned how to live near my family without it feeling overwhelming. I have learned to say yes, and to meet new people, and to understand that just because things aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean that you should search, constantly and without end, for an unattainable perfection, a perfection that only exists in TV shows. I have learned that everyone you meet has something to teach you. I have learned that the peaceful joy that comes with sitting near the water and listening to loon calls at night is the most powerful antithesis of the stress of my previous life. I have learned the beauty of quiet, and the kindness of people.

dan photos september 2013 229Do You Think He’s Missing His Gloves?

I have learned about trust and openness, intimacy and fears. I have learned to put one toe out into the deep waters of life, and to hold it there, trusting that goodness will return from risk. I have learned about friendship and love, and how things may not always be the way they seem at the get-go. I have learned about beauty: natural and human. I have learned about adventure and calm. I have learned about quiet time and the importance of hearing your conscience. I have learned to sit and listen on long docks that jut out into the ocean. I have learned how to be a new person in an old place. I am trying to be patient and just to see all that is happening around me. I have learned to laugh, and to try to understand everyone and everything that cross my path, but not to take any of it very seriously.

dan photos september 2013 233Sitting on a Bench

I have learned to talk to the wild birds, to grow flowers, to appreciate the wildness of this tiny island. I have learned to forage nettles, eat rosehips, and look at yellow beech leaves in late fall. I have learned what sea smoke is, and why it is important to drink coffee and look out at sailboats, to drive for hours through the Maine countryside, to have conversations with new friends where each betrays one’s individual intricacies. I have learned that it is acceptable to fundamentally change the course of one’s life, and to be a friend to those who seek the same.

I have learned, ultimately, that just because it is random, unplanned, indescribable, organic, and dynamic, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the highest form of living, the one based on a vital interest, a serious, daily investment in the course of one’s life. Are we here to have fun and to help others have more fun? Yes. Are we here to notice, engage in, and expand all the beauty that exists in our world on a daily basis? Absolutely. Are we here to feel the viscera of experience and understand that the closeness of life’s twists and turns, and the impacts of those changes on us and around us are here to help us notice that time is fleeting and like smoke: we cannot grab on to time, only watch it pass? Undoubtedly.

Here’s to a year, and here’s to where it all began.

dan photos september 2013 325On a Canadian Ferry, Early in the Morning

Photodiary: Harbingers of a Maine Autumn…

We have entered the very beginning of the waning season: the light, less gold, more cottony-white, as I heard it described yesterday, slants sharply across the horizon and through the branches of trees. The swamp maples are already changing to red, the leaves are beginning to bleach, the seed heads on flowers dessicated, brown, crackled like bark or the wizened hands of an old woman, the reeds in the ponds are tipped with gold, no longer green from end to end.

Last year, one of my first posts here was of photos of my new, tiny town on the coast of Maine. Last year, everything was new and my life to come here was full of unknowns. Now, a year later, this place still surprises me every day with its dynamic change, its eccentric personalities, its size, and its amazing beauty. I think I am beginning to know it better.

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Carousel

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

– Virginia Woolf

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I recognize them by their trucks: the men of the town. Very few women drive trucks, but almost all the men do. Silver F-150s, blue striped GMCs, black and bright green Chevy’s, red construction and demolition Peterbilts. In fact, I live behind a demolition company and walk past their fleet of oversized red trucks every day.

Yesterday, I walked down to the harbor to have lunch and conversation in a truck. It was the blue striped GMC. Its interior was dusty and reflected the country life of its owner: green shotgun shell on the dash, Old Crow Medicine Show music playing from the tape deck, a pack of Marlboros shoved into a cubby hole, an iPhone, a can of Monster, old coats, older boots. The interior was that heavy carpeting of 1980s American cars: the stuff that binds upon itself over time and becomes softer but tangled, stands up from the floors and walls of the truck. As I sat there, I was struck by the memory of my mom’s Oldsmobile station wagon: our childhood car that had the same carpeting all over its interior, and velveteen and vinyl seats.

When we were kids, my brother and I would sit in the trunk of the car because there was a rear-facing seat in there and we could stare out the back window of the wagon and pretend we were driving backwards. I don’t think they make those seats anymore; I have a strong attachment to that memory. Houston, Texas, blue Oldsmobile station wagon, my brother giggling, my mother managing us, moving us across that landscape that was so alien to her. Streets of white asphalt that crunched under wheels and feet, dust, pine trees, humidity, intense heat. Pine needles turned golden as they fell off in the summer and fall, pine cone wars with neighbor kids, swimming, popsicles, Jello eggs.

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In high school, I spent much time in a town called Porter, Texas, which was about 45 minutes away from where I lived. Porter was home to my boyfriend’s grandmother, which is also where he lived most of the time. She lived on a few acres surrounded by a hurricane fence in an old, stationary trailer with an ornament of an eagle that hung off the pitched front window. In that kitchen I was served mashed potatoes and fried chicken and Kool-Aid and all kinds of other delicious things over about three years. There was a barn, too, and many, many rose bushes everywhere. She loved roses. There was also a large tree with a swing, a dirt road leading to the trailer, and whole lot of nothing else.

Porter, a town outside of Conroe and near Cut-n-Shoot, was in the piney woods of East Texas, on your way to Huntsville. The trees were tall and skinny, and shady. Despite the heat that seems to pervade all those memories, there was a calm in that shade, and I remember them moving in the wind. When it was very rainy, during the monsoons, sometimes, they would pop: literally explode from over-watering. They seemed to pop at different intervals, as if there were places in the trees naturally designed to expand into a large bubble of water and wood pulp. The smell of East Texas was strong, too: pine, and soil, and heat, and sweat. The sounds of trucks driving along the roads, lawnmowers, tractors, dogs barking, chainsaws. Raccoons lived there, in the woods, as well as copperheads and water moccasins in the rivers and streams. The sun streamed everywhere: I have so many patchworked memories of sitting in a patch of sun, on the dirt, on the ground, stirring it into designs with a stick, watching ants, playing with earthworms, drawing spirals and other shapes in the earth. I still do that, today.

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I am experiencing a feeling of returning and it is very disorienting to me, as if I have been spinning on a carousel for a long, long time, and it is finally stopping; as if the blur of pictures that you see whilst riding a hobby horse on a carousel are slowing down and coming into focus. This place, the country of coastal Maine, not my town exactly, but the places around it, remind me so much of those country towns of East Texas. The people are similar, they drive the same trucks, they do the same things with their time. There are fir trees here, not pine, but the smells and sights are so similar. Of course, in East Texas there are no beautiful granite formations or islands or the ocean, but the feel is there. It’s as if I have returned after a very, very long time. And I suppose, in some ways, I have. Thirteen years away from your family makes returning scary and challenging: starting anew, again, for the third time in a few years, living in small towns in a place with such a long, long winter. Exploring options, trying to forge a path.

I was speaking with a friend about his new bathtub the other day, and how, when he took his inaugural soak, he was transported back to the bathtub in his parents’ house, a series of memories about forty years old. He said he remembered how it felt to be in the bath, how the walls in the bathroom looked, and the sensation of holding your breath under the water as long as possible. We all did that, didn’t we?

And yesterday’s lunch in the blue GMC, with its carpeting and velveteen-vinyl seats, transported me back to a childhood outside of Houston that, at many moments, I plain forget. I thought I had forgotten so many sights and smells and sounds and memories of growing up in the almost-country of east Texas, and yesterday all these things flooded back: the train track behind my high school where a friend of mine got drunk and passed out on the tracks and was run over, my best friend’s almost El Camino and racing boys in cars in it while smoking cigarettes and jamming to the Rolling Stones, my boyfriend’s 280ZX and sitting on his driveway in the afternoons after school. Driving to Huntsville to sit in the sunken rose gardens at Sam Houston State University, time spent at a strange lake house in Cold Spring when I was weeks away from graduation from high school. Camping in the woods in Nacogdoches, making forts in the woods with neighborhood kids, reading books on a blanket in the front yard and waving to the elderly lady who drove past me in her Cadillac each day.

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My parents left Houston about six months after I graduated, and so I never returned there as an adult to have these memories cemented into my mind. Funny how things come flooding back, as you sit talking about nothing in particular, on a cold spring April day, looking at the water move against the dock, in a 1980s beat up pickup truck.

digging in the dirt 2Houston, 1987

Winter Begins

Marie Sioux – Flowers and Blood

“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.”

hadlock pond sunny

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.

dans guest room

***The poem cited here is Winter Stores by Charlotte Bronte,

a woman who knew the isolation of winter better than most.”

But What About My Runny Nose?

rooster vintage image graphicsfairy008sm

Theirs was a very small town in New Hampshire: typical of the New England countryside, they lived in an old farmhouse with a barn out back. In many homes in New England, the barns and the houses are connected by a long, draughty hallway meant to keep you safe and dry during snowstorms, so you can feed your animals: count your chickens, so to speak.

On the top floor of their barn was a large, open, circular pen. Pigs? No. Sheep? Nope. Trick ponies?

Cock fighting.

Designed as a ring to train roosters, John’s father painstakingly dedicated himself to training the best fighting cocks this side of Vermont. John and his brothers, all of whom did not share their father’s love for cock fighting, watched and helped their dad as he brought up the roosters and watched them in action.

A rooster’s natural temperament is one of fighting, domination and violence: ruling the roost as we all know comes from a rooster’s predilection to hurt other roosters and his hens. But, John told me last week in the parking lot of the local gas station, over coffee, there are ways to get them to be even more vicious.

“You cut off their spurs, you know, and you put a sharpened razor blade up against their leg and tape it down til the flesh just grows right over it.”

After what one assumes is a bit of time to train up your fighting roosters in the circular pen on the top floor of the barn, John’s dad would take the roosters and his sons to fighting matches elsewhere in town.

John’s dad suffered from chronic allergies and was never to be found without 4 or 5 cotton handkerchiefs stuffed into all his pockets. His nose constantly ran, winter or summer, especially so when he was excited about the day’s cockfight. Fighting to the death, the roosters would set upon each other in a ring not so dissimilar to the one on the top floor of the barn. Farmers young and old would bet money and cheer on their favorite fighting creature until one lay dead, and the other, bloody, stood victorious.

Of course, cockfighting is discouraged in American society, even thirty or forty years ago the cops just didn’t like it. At the beginning of each cockfight, John’s dad would come to him and say,

“Ok, son. Now, if we get raided, I want you to hide here, under the floorboards, see? And after I get out of jail, I’ll come and get you. Now don’t you leave now, you just wait right here. I’ll be back for you.”

John’s dad was arrested multiple times for cockfighting, but of course, never stopped. He had a passion for the sport. Once, after a raid and subsequent arrest, when we can assume that little John was hiding under the floorboards of a stranger’s barn until he felt safe enough to run home, John’s dad ended up in jail with the cops who knew him and his family and his strong love for cockfighting. They took away all his handkerchiefs, saying that he might tie them all together and try to hang himself in the jail cell.

He said, “But what about my runny nose?”

They said, “Use your sleeve!”

He said, “But can’t I just take off my shirt and tie it up and try to hang myself?”

Despite their father’s love for cockfighting, neither John nor his brothers took up the pastime, seeing it as savage and cruel and not liking the death of so many beautiful, albeit bloodthirsty, birds. I asked him if he thought there were still cockfights around Maine and New Hampshire, and he said, “oh yeah…bound to be. They’re just hidden is all.”

petersens barn