What a Difference a Year Makes

dan photos september 2013 114At Rockefeller Gardens

I have a neighbor named Jill; she and her boyfriend are about to go to Florida for the winter, but she came over to chat tonight and betrayed The Secret, the thing that you are not supposed to say out loud when you live here: she said, “this place is hard when you’re alone, by yourself, that’s for sure.” (Her boyfriend, Bobby, is already on his way to Florida and she has been solo now for about a month. She also said she’s staying til November 20th and at this point, has no idea why.)

The stores all closed this past weekend, the weekend of Halloween, and many of the year round places are taking some time off. This is not hugely significant to me, as I spend most of my time at my house or at my friend’s houses, but it is strange to think of this island, so abuzz with activity all summer, as literally shutting down: closing doors. I keep noticing the dark curtains pulled close across all the windows of the summer houses and interpret it as a metaphor for this place.

What does that mean? I honestly have no idea, just am mulling over the loneliness factor of living here for a second winter. People here pair up, hardly anyone is single, and I think the reason is that the starkness and the harshness of staring down the barrel of a long, cold winter, is just too much for any one person to seriously be able to handle. Perhaps people like the North Pond Hermit love the loneliness and isolation, and I do, too, for many, many hours and even days during the winter.

But I miss strangers, strangely. I miss the surface level interactions you have with people in cities: with the guy that works at the coffee shop, or the bartender at the pub. I also miss seeing people on the street and smiling at them or just saying hello, knowing that will be your only interaction with them for the rest of time. Here, in winter, you know almost everyone to the point of being actual friends, and having conversations every time you run into them. Now, this may sound magical and sweet, and it is, but sometimes I just want to be anonymous as I walk around the towns, and there is no anonymity here. You, your business, your quirks, are all on public display and a topic of public conversation.

To meditate for too long on one’s existential loneliness is probably not a good idea, but places like this tiny island do force you to think about the Big Ideas, the life issues that we all must confront at some point: what gives our lives meaning? What messages are we putting out there for all the world to see? What does accountability mean? How do we really communicate with those we love? What is community? Family? Truth in relationships? How do you balance independence and a desire for companionship? Are you doing it right? The last question is, of course, a joke, but these are the questions floating through my mind tonight, a night of cooler temperatures, a rare solar eclipse in the morning, and our first snowfall coming sometime tomorrow.

Today, whilst driving through the park, listening to the hum of a very loud engine, I saw hundreds of naked beech trees. Silent, tall, skinny, with knobby trunks, they are deep grey with black blotches. Growing in stands, or groups of trees, they dazzle the eye with their sheer number and monochrome. Beyond the stands of trees are great granite outcroppings, covered with lichen in various shades of green. Almost gone are the colors of spring and summer: green and grey are highlighted in the fading light, in the absence of leaves and flowers.

from school laptop 2012 093From Outside, Looking In! Photographer Unknown

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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