Today the students worked on puzzle cubes and, mysteriously, more capybaras appeared on the drawing wall. Students right now are really into capybaras.
My friend who is in the hospital is doing all right and finally getting some dots connected in terms of care. It seems to me that if you were to have to navigate the US health system on your own, you would just tear your hair out.
I was thinking about one of my favorite times with my friend, when she and our another old friend stayed at an aunt’s house in Port O Connor. The house was just beautiful; up on stilts, you were at eye level with palm trees. The wind whipped perfectly, and one night we made dinner in the kitchen, mushrooms with pasta I think, and we told stories and we heard my friend’s whole story for the first time. It is not my story to tell without permission, but it involves all kinds of things that should be written in a book.
That night we had a fire in the fireplace, and if I remember rightly, it was cold in POC, which sometimes it was. I miss going down there although the last time I was there was only last summer. We should have stayed longer, me and my two friends and the dog.
This morning just as I was waking up, I had a dream. I was outside on a lawn somewhere in England, and my cousins were all around on the grass. I was sitting and they were standing but I was child high and all their kids were moving around. I realized it was at a pub so I went inside and my Dad, young with dark hair, was sitting at a small table and he smiled at me. He asked me if I was all right, if everything was all right. I couldn’t talk to him: the words wouldn’t come out and were completely hushed as if their air had been compressed right out of them. He smiled and then he was outside the window with a rolling suitcase. He waved at me and walked out of the windowframe.
Today, a friend told me that her sister’s name was Charity. I laughed a bit and said, “oh! She is a fellow virtue!” My friend agreed, and I started telling her a story from where I grew up, in Salisbury Cove, about the graveyard.
The graveyard sits at the top of the hill, and we “discovered” it as small children, crouching and crawling up the hillside that felt as big as a mountain in those days. At the top of the hill was a large pile of old timbers which we had to scramble over and were always afraid of falling between. Beyond the gravel drive was the small glen in which the graveyard lies.
All the old residents of Salisbury Cove are buried there, from the 1700s to two present-day people. My friend’s mention of her sister reminded me of Charity, one of the old citizens of the Cove, as well as Thankful and Eben, her husband. There are small gravestones and large ones. There are tiny ones for the babes that passed before they were even named. There are gravestones for men who fought in the Civil War, many miles away from this island in Maine.
The graveyard is always quiet, and the light is always dappled. If you go there at night, the quiet is amplified, somehow, as if the only sounds reverberate between the lichens on the stones, muffling them into a soft whisper that, I think, is mostly the movement of the needles of fir trees.
I have spent so much time there, tracing the names with my fingers, clandestinely smoking and thinking about my friends there buried, some for over two-hundred years! Someone comes and cleans the site, mows it, keeps it maintained and beautiful, although it always seems untouched and trapped in time.
It wasn’t until we were in college that all four of us realized that each of us had heard the people talking at the top of the hill. Each of us thought we were mad, or tired, or making something up, until all four were talking one evening about how, when you walk at the base of the hill at night, you can hear their whispers on the wind, rushing down the hill into your ears. You never hear what they are saying, just that they are saying it. Who is it to say that those that speak are they who are buried: perhaps it is their friends, visiting. Either way, it is a strange comfort to feel so many people around you, knowing that they walked where you are walking now. My favorite epitaph that I have ever found lies in the graveyard, and goes like this:
We took a walk on the beach one day, in the summer. It must have been late summer because I remember the slanting sunshine: the warmth of it. We walked along the beach in Salisbury Cove: the part of the cove that would later be left behind for the quieter end, off Old Bar Harbor Road. My father and I, probably five or six years old, walked the beach.
The beach in that part of the world is gray with shale and rusty with ironstone. The stone forms in thin layers and is cracked into a thousand million pieces with the roots of trees. While they crack the stone, the root hairs also hold its myriad pieces in space, braving winter’s storms and the shrinking-expanding process of freeze and thaw. The beach itself is made of tiny to large pieces of stone, too many to count. There is no sand here; the closet thing is tiny pieces of basalt that have been tumbled and thrashed for eons. Here and there are pieces of kelp, ends of rope, bottles, a jellyfish or two, sea urchin skeletons and so many mussel shells. Mussel shells are demure on top: brown, black and white, but reveal indigo or lavender pearl inside. I have always loved them and they were my brother’s favorites when he was a little boy. I have many memories of Carew carrying mussel shells by the dozen back to our cottage.
On the day of the walk, my father and I sat on the top of what seemed like a very tall rock, out on the edge of the beach. I don’t know how long we sat there, only that it was warm. Over time, the tide came in and separated us from the beach. In reality, the water was probably 2 or 3 feet deep, but I couldn’t cross, and my dad hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me to the beach, to safety.
My father has many stories. When I was studying for the GRE, which I never used for graduate school, I learned a word, legerdemain. Meaning slight of hand, I always thought it applied very well to my father. He is a gifted storyteller who holds his own cards tight to the chest. He plays no personal hand: very little is divulged. He is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a curtain.
During the process that I related to readers here, I realized that I had held guilt as my definitive characteristic for twenty years. It took hard and heavy realizations to see that I had to let that go in order to be happy and be in my present reality. It took risk and resulted in reward, but the path was frightening and new. I think that guilt such as this is ultimately useless, and a barrier between ourselves and those who would really love us. Nothing anyone has done, save very few barbarous actions, could result in someone not being worthy of love from those who choose to do so.
When I think of my father and his life, I can see a life of a world traveler, an instructor, a bridge jumper, an oil man, a golf player, a Mercedes lover, an eldest son, a highly sensitive person, a Vietnam veteran, an alcoholic, a rage-oholic, and a depressive. But despite all of that, my father is worthy of love. However, it would seem that he believed he was not, and so acted out so intensely as if to prove that fact. My mother, my brother, myself, his friends and his family are here to prove that otherwise, despite his faults.
I gave myself and was given forgiveness by those who love me. Forgiveness, like commitment, is freeing and highly emotional. It is the letting go, of staring off into a space of love and friendship, and stepping out into the mystery. As my father sits in the television room of my parents house, on the quiet side of Salisbury Cove, staring down at a coastline that we once walked, I hope to say to him: “I love you. We all love you. You have done nothing to disappoint anyone. There are no mistakes. This is the time to think about all the stories, all the adventure, all the things you have to be thankful for. Let it go. You are loved.”
(the remaining chapters of this most excellent book can be read here)
Being the adventures of the Bastable children in search of a fortune
TO OSWALD BARRON Without whom this book could never have been written
The Treasure Seekers is dedicated in memory of childhoods
identical but for the accidents of time and space
Chapter One: The Council of Ways and Means
This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we were not lazy about the looking.
There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, “‘Alas!” said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, “we must look our last on this ancestral home”‘—and then some one else says something—and you don’t know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is, or anything about it. Our ancestral home is in the Lewisham Road. It is semi-detached and has a garden, not a large one. We are the Bastables. There are six of us besides Father. Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don’t care because I don’t tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all. Dora is the eldest. Then Oswald—and then Dicky. Oswald won the Latin prize at his preparatory school—and Dicky is good at sums. Alice and Noel are twins: they are ten, and Horace Octavius is my youngest brother. It is one of us that tells this story—but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don’t. It was Oswald who first thought of looking for treasure. Oswald often thinks of very interesting things. And directly he thought of it he did not keep it to himself, as some boys would have done, but he told the others, and said—
‘I’ll tell you what, we must go and seek for treasure: it is always what you do to restore the fallen fortunes of your House.’
Dora said it was all very well. She often says that. She was trying to mend a large hole in one of Noel’s stockings. He tore it on a nail when we were playing shipwrecked mariners on top of the chicken-house the day H. O. fell off and cut his chin: he has the scar still. Dora is the only one of us who ever tries to mend anything. Alice tries to make things sometimes. Once she knitted a red scarf for Noel because his chest is delicate, but it was much wider at one end than the other, and he wouldn’t wear it. So we used it as a pennon, and it did very well, because most of our things are black or grey since Mother died; and scarlet was a nice change. Father does not like you to ask for new things. That was one way we had of knowing that the fortunes of the ancient House of Bastable were really fallen. Another way was that there was no more pocket-money—except a penny now and then to the little ones, and people did not come to dinner any more, like they used to, with pretty dresses, driving up in cabs—and the carpets got holes in them—and when the legs came off things they were not sent to be mended, and we gave up having the gardener except for the front garden, and not that very often. And the silver in the big oak plate-chest that is lined with green baize all went away to the shop to have the dents and scratches taken out of it, and it never came back. We think Father hadn’t enough money to pay the silver man for taking out the dents and scratches. The new spoons and forks were yellowy-white, and not so heavy as the old ones, and they never shone after the first day or two.
Father was very ill after Mother died; and while he was ill his business-partner went to Spain—and there was never much money afterwards. I don’t know why. Then the servants left and there was only one, a General. A great deal of your comfort and happiness depends on having a good General. The last but one was nice: she used to make jolly good currant puddings for us, and let us have the dish on the floor and pretend it was a wild boar we were killing with our forks. But the General we have now nearly always makes sago puddings, and they are the watery kind, and you cannot pretend anything with them, not even islands, like you do with porridge.
Then we left off going to school, and Father said we should go to a good school as soon as he could manage it. He said a holiday would do us all good. We thought he was right, but we wished he had told us he couldn’t afford it. For of course we knew.
Then a great many people used to come to the door with envelopes with no stamps on them, and sometimes they got very angry, and said they were calling for the last time before putting it in other hands. I asked Eliza what that meant, and she kindly explained to me, and I was so sorry for Father.
And once a long, blue paper came; a policeman brought it, and we were so frightened. But Father said it was all right, only when he went up to kiss the girls after they were in bed they said he had been crying, though I’m sure that’s not true. Because only cowards and snivellers cry, and my Father is the bravest man in the world.
So you see it was time we looked for treasure and Oswald said so, and Dora said it was all very well. But the others agreed with Oswald. So we held a council. Dora was in the chair—the big dining-room chair, that we let the fireworks off from, the Fifth of November when we had the measles and couldn’t do it in the garden. The hole has never been mended, so now we have that chair in the nursery, and I think it was cheap at the blowing-up we boys got when the hole was burnt.
‘We must do something,’ said Alice, ‘because the exchequer is empty.’ She rattled the money-box as she spoke, and it really did rattle because we always keep the bad sixpence in it for luck.
‘Yes—but what shall we do?’ said Dicky. ‘It’s so jolly easy to say let’s do something.’ Dicky always wants everything settled exactly. Father calls him the Definite Article.
‘Let’s read all the books again. We shall get lots of ideas out of them.’ It was Noel who suggested this, but we made him shut up, because we knew well enough he only wanted to get back to his old books. Noel is a poet. He sold some of his poetry once—and it was printed, but that does not come in this part of the story.
Then Dicky said, ‘Look here. We’ll be quite quiet for ten minutes by the clock—and each think of some way to find treasure. And when we’ve thought we’ll try all the ways one after the other, beginning with the eldest.’
‘I shan’t be able to think in ten minutes, make it half an hour,’ said H. O. His real name is Horace Octavius, but we call him H. O. because of the advertisement, and it’s not so very long ago he was afraid to pass the hoarding where it says ‘Eat H. O.’ in big letters. He says it was when he was a little boy, but I remember last Christmas but one, he woke in the middle of the night crying and howling, and they said it was the pudding. But he told me afterwards he had been dreaming that they really had come to eat H. O., and it couldn’t have been the pudding, when you come to think of it, because it was so very plain.
Well, we made it half an hour—and we all sat quiet, and thought and thought. And I made up my mind before two minutes were over, and I saw the others had, all but Dora, who is always an awful time over everything. I got pins and needles in my leg from sitting still so long, and when it was seven minutes H. O. cried out—’Oh, it must be more than half an hour!’
H. O. is eight years old, but he cannot tell the clock yet. Oswald could tell the clock when he was six.
We all stretched ourselves and began to speak at once, but Dora put up her hands to her ears and said—
‘One at a time, please. We aren’t playing Babel.’ (It is a very good game. Did you ever play it?)
So Dora made us all sit in a row on the floor, in ages, and then she pointed at us with the finger that had the brass thimble on. Her silver one got lost when the last General but two went away. We think she must have forgotten it was Dora’s and put it in her box by mistake. She was a very forgetful girl. She used to forget what she had spent money on, so that the change was never quite right.
Oswald spoke first. ‘I think we might stop people on Blackheath—with crape masks and horse-pistols—and say “Your money or your life! Resistance is useless, we are armed to the teeth”—like Dick Turpin and Claude Duval. It wouldn’t matter about not having horses, because coaches have gone out too.’
Dora screwed up her nose the way she always does when she is going to talk like the good elder sister in books, and said, ‘That would be very wrong: it’s like pickpocketing or taking pennies out of Father’s great-coat when it’s hanging in the hall.’
I must say I don’t think she need have said that, especially before the little ones—for it was when I was only four.
But Oswald was not going to let her see he cared, so he said—
‘Oh, very well. I can think of lots of other ways. We could rescue an old gentleman from deadly Highwaymen.’
‘There aren’t any,’ said Dora.
‘Oh, well, it’s all the same—from deadly peril, then. There’s plenty of that. Then he would turn out to be the Prince of Wales, and he would say, “My noble, my cherished preserver! Here is a million pounds a year. Rise up, Sir Oswald Bastable.”‘
But the others did not seem to think so, and it was Alice’s turn to say.
She said, ‘I think we might try the divining-rod. I’m sure I could do it. I’ve often read about it. You hold a stick in your hands, and when you come to where there is gold underneath the stick kicks about. So you know. And you dig.’
‘Oh,’ said Dora suddenly, ‘I have an idea. But I’ll say last. I hope the divining-rod isn’t wrong. I believe it’s wrong in the Bible.’
‘So is eating pork and ducks,’ said Dicky. ‘You can’t go by that.’
‘Anyhow, we’ll try the other ways first,’ said Dora. ‘Now, H. O.’
‘Let’s be Bandits,’ said H. O. ‘I dare say it’s wrong but it would be fun pretending.’
‘I’m sure it’s wrong,’ said Dora.
And Dicky said she thought everything wrong. She said she didn’t, and Dicky was very disagreeable. So Oswald had to make peace, and he said—
‘Dora needn’t play if she doesn’t want to. Nobody asked her. And, Dicky, don’t be an idiot: do dry up and let’s hear what Noel’s idea is.’
Dora and Dicky did not look pleased, but I kicked Noel under the table to make him hurry up, and then he said he didn’t think he wanted to play any more. That’s the worst of it. The others are so jolly ready to quarrel. I told Noel to be a man and not a snivelling pig, and at last he said he had not made up his mind whether he would print his poetry in a book and sell it, or find a princess and marry her.
‘Whichever it is,’ he added, ‘none of you shall want for anything, though Oswald did kick me, and say I was a snivelling pig.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Oswald, ‘I told you not to be.’ And Alice explained to him that that was quite the opposite of what he thought. So he agreed to drop it.
Then Dicky spoke.
‘You must all of you have noticed the advertisements in the papers, telling you that ladies and gentlemen can easily earn two pounds a week in their spare time, and to send two shillings for sample and instructions, carefully packed free from observation. Now that we don’t go to school all our time is spare time. So I should think we could easily earn twenty pounds a week each. That would do us very well. We’ll try some of the other things first, and directly we have any money we’ll send for the sample and instructions. And I have another idea, but I must think about it before I say.’
We all said, ‘Out with it—what’s the other idea?’
But Dicky said, ‘No.’ That is Dicky all over. He never will show you anything he’s making till it’s quite finished, and the same with his inmost thoughts. But he is pleased if you seem to want to know, so Oswald said—
‘Keep your silly old secret, then. Now, Dora, drive ahead. We’ve all said except you.’
Then Dora jumped up and dropped the stocking and the thimble (it rolled away, and we did not find it for days), and said—
‘Let’s try my way now. Besides, I’m the eldest, so it’s only fair. Let’s dig for treasure. Not any tiresome divining-rod—but just plain digging. People who dig for treasure always find it. And then we shall be rich and we needn’t try your ways at all. Some of them are rather difficult: and I’m certain some of them are wrong—and we must always remember that wrong things—’
But we told her to shut up and come on, and she did.
I couldn’t help wondering as we went down to the garden, why Father had never thought of digging there for treasure instead of going to his beastly office every day.
Having just returned from another Haystack weekend, this one punctuated by instructional time and seeing friends and delicious food and kinetic jewelry and assemblage sculptures, I am sitting here, on a cool spring night, thinking about the hidden things and secret places.
Artists at Work – MeCA
When I was in middle school, my brother played a lot of little league baseball, and despite my lack of connection to the game, I would attend all of his games and wander around the ballparks eating purple sno-cones. (Purple was my favorite color and flavor). I remember walking through dusty patches of ground, kicking at the sprouts of bermuda grass desperately clinging to life amidst the parched nature of East Texas summertime, I remember my red All Stars, and I remember how the grape syrup would leak out and around the waxed paper cone that held the ice and cover my hand with sugary sweetness: the stickiness would linger until I could find a bathroom in which to wash my hands.
A New Machinist’s Box
One afternoon, as the baseball games played on in the background, I found myself standing and staring down into a storm drain: one of those giant square openings in the ground that are covered in a cast iron grate with many square shaped holes. At the bottom, I noticed something glimmering in the Texas sunshine. I sat, then squatted, then lay on my young belly, All Stars pointed straight out, jeans collecting dust and dirt as I gazed intently downward. At the bottom lay something golden, that I was sure of. Always the fan of a challenge, I unlaced my shoes and tied my two shoelaces together to see if they would reach the bottom. They did, but no closer to my goal was I until I went to one of the snack stands and secured a paper clip from an obliging ballpark worker. Slowly, carefully, with much focus, I hooked the golden ring onto the bottom of the paperclip and edged it up, through the grate, and into my young hand.
The Beauty in the Simple – Copper Embossed with Miscanthus
Here was a golden ring, wide, a man’s ring to be sure, with a clear stone in the center. Its surface was brushed and dinged, as if it had traveled quite a distance and been smoothed down by silt and water and the innards of pipes. I put it in my pocket, and later the drawer in the bathroom that held mysterious treasures, and occasionally I would pull it out, look at it carefully, and hide it, again.
Many years later, as a lab assistant at a biotechnology company, I became friends with a person who came to work on Halloween with a purple tshirt on. The tshirt had a black P made with electrical tape and he had blackened his eye with shoe polish. When I asked him what he was, he answered, matter of factly, “A Black-Eyed Pea”. This was the beginning of a friendship that included motorcycle rides on a thin-bodied Harley Davidson painted with iridescent flames, camping trips in Austin, Mexican restaurants in downtown Houston, swing dancing, road trips through the deep South, visits to gem and jewelry shows, and my first experiences making jewelry. My friendship with this person introduced me to city life and all its hidden places: a coffee shop in Houston named Not Su Oh, dances at the Last Concert Cafe, midnight picnics in the gardens of the Contemporary Arts Museum, hula hooping at Stubbs Cafe, following music through Pace Bend Park to find a man with an envelope full of strips of psychedelic magic, and people with patios full of pots of baby peyote cactus.
Swoon at Space Gallery in Portland, Maine
Mere months ago, I reconnected with that friend after an absence of several years; in fact, we had not spoken to each other in probably twelve years. He called me during my last few days of living in the tiny house, and as we spoke, his voice transported me back to those days when we spent so much time together. I remembered his kitchen and making pasta in his stainless steel pots, his velveteen couches, his old Mustang with the hood pins, our visit to fortune tellers in New Orleans, and him teaching me the basics of jewelry making at a small bench in the corner of his living room. I remembered us making a ring together dotted with sunstones, three in an offset row. In fact, it was he who had the ring I had found all those years before appraised, only to find that my ballpark treasure was a solid gold ring set with a large diamond. Now, after many of life’s twists and turns, and the holding on to curios and treasures that help us mark time, but mostly help us remember the hidden and secret moments, I am struck by how important those little things are, those signposts that help you remember moments in your lover’s bed when the only thing that existed was the two of you and the rain outside and the brass bell cast in sand that lay on the bedside table, or the box covered with peeling paint and filled with prisms that was given to you solely because you asked for them, or the old mirror from India your father brought to you when you were five and you have held so many times in the same place that the enamel has worn off as if to mark the place your thumb belongs. These are the hidden places, the secrets, the markers that bear no explanation except as memories for ourselves. How do we know what is valuable and what is transitory? How do we know what is treasure and what is trash? We, as the magpies that we certainly are, cherish these tiny, priceless, useless, beautiful things. They make up the palimpsest of our lives: layers and layers of love and loss and memory and change. We collect, we gather, we hold up to the light: we categorize and place, carefully. We make a puzzle picture of a life, decorating it was we go with baubles: with strange and lovely secret things.
If Not Now, When? If Not You, Who?
Found Objects, Glass, Copper, Paper, Epoxy, Beach Stone
Strange tales abound here: this land of woods and rugged coast, of granite and fir trees and deep, cold, clear waters. In the waters, down at the harbor, seaweed and kelp stream from buoys and docks, pulled out and pushed in by a constant flow of tides. They flow out and stand, streaming, as if they are the hair of a strange and spooky spirit, barely tethered to the shore.
This place, this land of such long winter; right now, as I type, tiny flecks of ice and snow are hitting my deck and the rain is pouring down. It is 36 degrees, and it is April 12th. Hidden in these woods are old trucks, older houses, ancient bottles, middens: the remnants of lives lived here for centuries.
If you drive north of where I live, the land becomes level again, and then downright flat. The trees are spindly and lighter colored than the fir trees that populate this section of the state. This is the road to Baxter State Park, the place with the tallest mountain in Maine, Katahdin, and one of intense, majestic beauty. As you drive west from Millinocket, the flat roadway all of a sudden becomes intensely wooded again, out and up as you drive toward one giant mountain. I was informed the other day that the reason for this is a conjunction of two small tectonic plates: one that originates from the East, and one from the West. Each brings different rock, soil, and climatic features that inform the visage of this part of the state.
But today, the story is not about the lands north of Mount Desert Island, or of Baxter State Park, but rather, of Rome, Maine, a small town about 120 miles west of where I sit at this moment, typing while listening to the ice fall from a grey, cloudy sky. The videos linked below were made by our state media conglomerate, and I find them really fascinating. Mostly what I find fascinating is the attitude of the North Pond Hermit’s pursuers: they clearly knew of a person who was consistently robbing them of food and tools and other supplies, and had known of him for a long time. They also seem to have a fondness and a fascination for him, as if they don’t understand his behaviors but don’t want to make him feel scared. Almost, they want to protect him from others and protect him from himself, protect him from what sent him into the woods thirty years ago, while also understanding that if someone has burgled his neighbors close to 1,000 times over thirty years, that there must be some sort of consequence.
See what you think: each one is about two minutes long.
I am having trouble embedding the videos, so follow this link: Hermit Captured, Part 1. After watching Part 1, you can watch Parts 2 and 3.
At the end, when you are left with that mental image of a fifty-something man who has not seen his own face in almost thirty years, who lives in the woods of Maine in a nylon tent, who refuses to leave that tent during the long winter lest he be found, who spends his days reading and meditating, think about what that would mean for you. How would it be if your last conversation with another human being was in the mid-90’s? How would it be if your neighbors were the needles of fir trees, the birds that call in summer and migrate in winter, the rush of streams and rivers, and nothing else? How would it be if you hid, and I mean, really hid, away? And then, how would it be when you were finally found?
Do you think he is sad? Happy? Both?
“There is a chivalry, here, of a sort”, said Isak Dinesen in her book, Out of Africa, and that idea plays true here in the rural towns of the middle of Maine. People protect each other: it is the culture of the place. Never are you truly alone, even if you choose to live your life as if you are. Clearly, in the case of Christopher Knight, his isolation and his invisibility were protected both by his cleverness, but also by the people who surrounded him, even though they knew nothing of him. A strange cultural element of country life is that people are allowed to be here; encouraged by the spirit of Yankee independence, there is no one way to be.
“Knight remains at Kennebec County Jail, where he is being held with the general population of inmates.
He is not under suicide watch, according to jail officials, who said they couldn’t answer any additional questions.
“I saw him a couple days ago and I was pleased at how well he was adjusting,” Perkins-Vance said. “He was more social. He actually had expression on his face.”
She said Knight has been charged with the burglary of Pine Tree Camps, but noted that other charges also have been filed. She did not specify what those charges are.
“I think this is as much of a shock to him as it is to us to comprehend what’s going on inside his mind,” Hughes said.” (Bangor Daily News)
“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.
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?
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.”