Family, Home, Nature

New Harbor and Pemaquid: Familial Echoes

I recently spent a few days in New Harbor and Pemaquid, Maine, a favorite get-away spot. Every time I make this trip, ghosts and memories ride along.

Mom and Uncle Bud, 1930

My mother’s family spent summers near Boothbay, which sits at the end of a neighboring peninsula. She and her siblings regularly came to Pemaquid Point and I have pictures of her and her brother and later of her with my dad or with friends picnicking and playing on the rocks. Later in her life, she wrote about the delights of those summer visits, including excursions to Pemaquid:

When Cap’n Newell Gray could leave his haying he would load his boat, the Osprey, with people of all ages and take us to places like Damariscotta or Center Heron or Pemaquid and there we would scramble on the rocks, explore, and gorge ourselves on picnic fare. I was always amazed at the fact that Cap’n Newell could find his way home in a thick fog without any trouble. He would stop the boat and listen and he could tell by the sound of the water just where we were.

Mom and me, early 1970s

I first came here with my parents after a long drive east from Ohio when I was 9 or 10, then again as a teen. In the 1970s and early 1980s my parents spent extended summer/fall stays in New Harbor and I’d come for regular weekend visits from my Massachusetts home. 

Since then, I’ve come up every few years, sometimes alone; sometimes with friends. My last two visits, in 2015 and 2016, were with my sister. We rented a cottage on a cove with its quiet light and birds darting and swooping.

I haven’t been back since Barbara died; I expected to feel some sadness as I moved through spaces I’d shared with her. And I did feel the prick of tears as I drove north on the Maine turnpike, crossed over the bridge from Wiscasset to Edgecomb, continued north on 1 to the Damariscotta turnoff. But mostly I eased into—and was eased by—the familiarity and a sense of coming home.

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay Harbor

I spent a leisurely few days, revisiting favorite places and exploring some new ones. A highlight was a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where I spent several hours immersed in color, texture, and scent. 

And each day I made my way to Pemaquid Point—a big pile of rocks spilling into the sea, a lighthouse, a small cafe.

Pemaquid has long had power for me. I remember many years ago sitting for long stretches huddled against a sheltering pile of rocks, shutting out the sounds of other visitors and sinking into the crash of waves and the smell of salt and seaweed. I came there one evening when I was in my 20s and caught up in some sort of tumult—there was a full moon and a high tide—magic, an easing of spirit. I came again the spring that my dad died and 10 years later, the summer my mom died, needing the touchstone of a place that has familial echoes. 

On this visit I sat on a bench at the top of the rocks and watched the shifting moods of sky and ocean, the sun glinting a path across the water and as I sat there I imagined my mom and dad, my sister sitting with me, taking it all in. 

Garden, Home, Nature

A lazy, meandering month

I’m sliding in just under the wire with my August blog post—but that’s August for you, a lazy, meandering month, a doldrum month punctuated by storms. I’m sitting on the back porch; Mr. Bell lolls on the chair next to me. The overhead fan spirals the air down on us. Sun, high puffy clouds, just hot enough to still feel like summer.

We’re emerging from another heat wave—I think this was number four for the summer—last week’s temperatures were in the 90s with high humidity. I spent most afternoons indoors where it was stuffy but cooler. I felt resentful, caged, knowing that long indoor winter days are not that far off; brief ventures out to the garden quickly sent me back inside. A cloudy cool weekend brought relief and the local weather guru promises a more fall like pattern once we navigate the tail end of Ida when she sweeps through later in the week. 

August is a bittersweet time, a month of paradoxes, contradictions. Slow indolent summer lingers but days grow shorter, nights cooler, a few leaves show fall colors. I feel sluggish and irritable in the hot days but I also grasp at that summer heat; I long for autumn briskness and regret not savoring the long light of July evenings; I want time to speed forward and I want to grab hold of now, not let go.

The garden is weedy, phlox and clethra and cone flowers fade but still provide food for pollinators, asters and goldenrod are not quite ready to bloom. The overgrown cutting garden is the one spot of bright color—orange and scarlet nasturtiums overflow the raised bed, zinnias bloom hot pink and orange, Lemon Gem marigolds are a haze of bright yellow. I could harvest the nasturtiums and marigolds for salad garnish but I leave them be. 

I make the rounds of farm stands gathering peaches, blueberries, corn, greens, tomatoes, vegetables. A month of BLT indulgence, buttery corn delights, peach crisp, pasta with fresh tomato sauce, tender new potatoes. But peach season also opens a seam of sadness. I imagine my sister exclaiming over the juicy wonder of a sweet ripe peach or my friend Jean savoring the peach salsa I made for her August birthdays. To honor these peach scented ghosts, I slice up a peach, add some blueberries, warm in the microwave, top with sweet lemony ice cream. 

Friends, Garden, Home, Meditation, Nature, Writing

Spring and tulips and hope

Just as we lose hope
she ambles in,
a late guest
dragging her hem
of wildflowers,
her torn
veil of mist,
of light rain,
blowing
her dandelion
breath
in our ears;
,,,

From “Spring” by Linda Pastan

I’ve been reveling in spring days, especially sunny days when the gardens glow. I wander through lush grass dotted with dandelions and violets and grape hyacinth that have escaped from the garden beds. A couple of weeks ago I scattered seeds for blackberry lilies in one of the front beds. A friend harvested the seeds from her plants last year—they’ve lived in a pill bottle in my kitchen cabinet for a couple of months. Maybe they’ll germinate—on a tour of the gardens today I spotted a few green shoots poking up—but no matter what happens, there’s hopefulness in the act of loosening dirt, scattering seeds, covering and tamping knowing that rain is coming then more sun to warm the earth.

Tulips dot the middle and rear of various beds. I haven’t planted bulbs in a few years and don’t remember planting any in these particular places. Maybe some burrowing critters have done some garden redesign. I’m loving the surprise of tulips in all their fluttery white and orange striped and frilled purple glory.

Hope lived in the initial autumn planting of these bulbs some years ago. And as I key that in I remember my friend Fran planting bulbs in her last autumn hoping she’d be alive to see them emerge but knowing she most likely would not.

I recently found a piece of Fran’s writing when I was looking through writing files. Writing was one of the things that sustained her through three painful years living with cancer. She joined a writing group sponsored by Cancer Connection and faithfully attended meetings up until a few weeks before her death, scrawling her fear and hope and rage and wonderings onto page after notebook page. I had the privilege of reading through a few of the notebooks to help choose some pieces to include in an anthology of writing from the group.

In the short piece I stumbled on recently, she wrote about lying in bed, exhausted and ill, listening to the spring rain outside her window: “It said ‘Listen to me, listen to my softness, listen to my steady rhythm, listen to me fall onto the earth, soak the earth, cool it and refresh it and let it live.’”

Listening. One of my favorite places to sit and listen is at the top of a field in my neighborhood. The field, which slopes down behind a university building, is maintained as a bird sanctuary with mowed walking paths. I walk to the end of my street, across the top of another field and then up the long slope to a bench at the top where I sit and look out across the valley to distant hills. As I sit, and listen, some kind of stillness settles in me.

For a recent meditation session I chose a Tara Brach guided meditation that focuses on deep listening—to sounds in our environment near and far, to our minds, our bodies, letting ourselves be part of the world around us, just as it is in this moment. My mind skittered around—it always does—but I kept returning to that home base of listening, as I now listen to the words in my head, the images, the vague ideas that lead these words.

COVID-19, Garden, Home, Writing

Inviting Revery

As spring approaches I feel a quickening of spirit, a pull outwards to light and sound and life. The neighborhood sprang alive last week, little kids playing on one side, college students skateboarding and shooting hoops on the other side, people walking dogs, riding bikes. I chatted with Herbie from across the street, a widower in his 80s. I’ve seen him from afar this winter when he takes out the trash or occasionally pulls out of the driveway but we haven’t chatted in a couple of months. He says he’s OK but it sure has been a long winter. I agree.

First signs of spring

I started raking off garden beds last week, cutting back dried stalks of foliage, sweeping all the debris onto the old blue tarp and hauling it back to the brush and compost pile. It felt good to use my body in this way although I’m slower, more cautious, than I was when I first began gardening this small lot over twenty-five years ago. In those days I would have spent most of the day crouching down to cut stalks back to the ground, weeding, raking, edging, letting the shape of the garden emerge, plotting out what I was going to transplant, what needed feeding. I’d circle the garden with a cart loaded with organic fertilizers, one bag for acid loving plants, the rhododendrons and azaleas, the andromeda, and one for plants that appreciate a more neutral soil. 

But these days, with an older body to tend and nurture, I take my gardening in small sips and savor each moment. I choose a portion to clear, rake off the leaves and other loose debris, use the long handled trimmer to snip back the dried stalks, rake some more, then take a quick break to stretch before returning for a final round of clipping and raking. 

I uncover a few green shoots starting to poke through; the cat mint shows new growth hiding under last year’s smoky gray foliage, the pulmonaria sports a few blooms. I clip the dead foliage from the epimedium to make way for the delicate spring blossoms that will soon appear, tiny bells dangling from fragile stems followed by foliage that claims the space, holds its own. Eventually garden helpers will come in to edge, weed, and transplant. They’ll move through all the beds in a day, leaving them tidied and ready for summer, but I relish my slow start to clean up, my chance to say hello again to the flowers and shrubs, my old friends. 

I move more slowly through the rest of my life as well. This is partly pandemic lethargy. No need to hurry because there’s no place to go. Do I need to shower today? Not really. I pass a quick sniff test and the only living creature I’ll see in person is the cat. 

I lie in bed first thing, easing into the day. It’s hard to imagine being upright and functional but I’m soon out of bed and headed for the kitchen and coffee. The morning drifts along. I review my mental to-do list but have a hard time settling on a starting point—nothing feels urgent.

Friends and I talk about what we’ll do when we’re fully vaccinated, which for most of us will be mid-April. My dreams are modest: hug my friends, share a meal around my dining table, browse a bookstore. But even with increased freedom of movement and contact, I’ll need to navigate unstructured time, negotiate with myself about productivity, wonder what that means at this stage of life. 

At some point most days I catch myself staring into space, my mind wandering like those clouds that float in a summer sky, and I shake myself. Do something! Get busy! my inner critic chides. Then I remember the Emily Dickinson quote I used to have posted above my desk: 

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I breathe and stretch, throw a load in the washer, do a few dishes, amble around the garden before settling at my desk and inviting revery to wander onto the page. 

COVID-19, Home, Writing

Making space

I wrote an eloquent blog post in my head while I was clearing accumulated stuff off the dining table a few days ago. The blog post is gone along with all the detritus piled on the table. But maybe, by opening the computer, pulling up a blank document, and putting fingers to keys some of those thoughts will re-emerge. 

The piles had been there since spring. I’d periodically sift through looking for bills or other items that needed immediate attention; occasionally I’d make half-hearted attempts to organize and clear away. But I’d get distracted and abandon the task and the somewhat diminished piles would grow once again until my next brief attempt at pile purging. 

I’ve never been a neat and tidy person; my dining table has often sported teetering piles of paper, half unpacked grocery bags, a few stray articles of clothing. But at some point I’d invite friends in for a meal and the mess would disappear leaving an expanse of oak ready for placemats and cutlery, napkins, plates, bowls of steaming, fragrant stews or soups, cutting boards piled with bread, wine glasses glimmering, candles lit, maybe flowers in a vase, friendly faces, mingled voices. I don’t remember the last time I shared a meal at this table. Last February perhaps?

A major contributor to the mess was a big pile of fabric I’d used to make masks back in the early days of the pandemic. I’d spent hours researching patterns on the Internet, bookmarking YouTube videos of perky mask makers demonstrating their particular approach to cutting, stitching, pleating, fastening. I’d sacrificed an old bra and two unused half slips to the cause, snipping out their elastic to make ear loops. After several failed masks I produced two that I continue to wear. But with many vendors selling well-designed masks online I no longer need immediate access to all that fabric. 

My iron, a tote bag with sewing supplies, and the pile of fabric scraps are now cleared away—the iron is hanging next to the folded up ironing board, the fabric scraps are folded up in a bin under my bed, the sewing supplies stowed near the sewing machine in another room. All that’s left on the table is a small pile of papers to be filed or shredded.  

The empty table seems to be issuing an invitation but for what? An as yet to be discovered art project? A display of family photos and papers to stimulate my writing? A different sewing project? (I could use a new duvet cover.) Who knows when I’ll once again invite friends to gather around this table. 

This isn’t the post I drafted in my mind—I think I was playing around with a theme of “delights that ground me.” And I might write about that some day. For now, I’ll fold up the grocery bag that I plopped on the table yesterday and unfurl a brightly colored cloth.