–when all the world’s a stage.
How nice that there are two opportunities a day to see the sky turn such seemingly surprising and ever-stunning colors, and that some days the sky is as brilliantly blue as it is today.
Yesterday morning it occurred to me that I’ve been in NYC 15 years this month, more then a third of my life. Later in the day I read My Awesome Place, a memoir by someone named Cheryl Burke. We both lived and drank in the same bars on the Lower East Side and in the East Village and Williamsburg and must have passed by each other a few times. She’d left her crazy working-class Jersey family and moved to the city to be a writer (and to be comfortably bisexual), got a little scattered and grew up and got sober and fell solidly in love and died at 38 from the medicine that was treating her cancer. Her friends, Sarah Schulman among them, published her book.
. . .
I planned ten days by the sea with a great sense of purpose: full-body communion with the ocean. I would breathe the sea air, watch the creatures of the sea from the shore or a kayak, eat other creatures of the sea, and spend as much time as possible submerged in the cold waves.
Montauk isn’t what it was, and what it is now is high-priced; it’s never been great for wildlife sightings for me. Cape Cod offers seals and whales and birds, but my favorite towns there are crowded and expensive too. Maine then, Georgetown Island, just outside Bath.
I’d spent a few happy summers on Georgetown’s Robinhood Cove—happy enough that it just might make me a little sad to go back to the same spot. Last year instead I rented an apartment just up the road from Reid State Park. The apartment was compact and clean, right above a protected inlet: easy kayaking, with the sound of breakers in the distance. I spied on eagles and ospreys and a night heron right from the screened porch; at Five Islands I ate fried clams and watched bald eagles tear apart gulls; at the state park I spotted porpoises and played in the perfect waves at the end of Half-Mile Beach.
That’s what I wanted again. That perfect little place has been sold, but I figured it wouldn’t matter much, as long as I was a short drive from that ideal, uncrowded beach. And so I took a cottage on the Back River.
And it rained and rained. And rained.
The beach was not much of a draw this year. Even when the sun made an appearance that first week, the beach was foggy, and the air was too cold to make the 54-degree surf appealing. Quite a disappointment, leaving me with two options: I could kayak, taking in the sea at a slight remove, or I could write.
So I spent the first part of my vacation miserable. Between the rain, the Internet going out, my (initial) disinterest in the books I’d brought and my reluctance to let TV or music drown out the sounds of the birds (and of the rain), it seemed like the universe was trying to bore or bully me into creative activity. I replied as one must to a bore or a bully: I refused. I spent several days in a paroxysm of resistance and guilt, knowing that I could be writing, wanting to write, not wanting to write, fearing writing, fearing not writing. And finally I wrote, or started writing again, diving into the brackish water of a project that scares me.
And then I could appreciate the rain a little more, and love the river and kayaking for what they offered during that wet week. The group of great blue herons I saw in the marsh the first evening were something of a taunt—with or without binoculars I couldn’t quite focus on them in the fog—but kayaking near a lone young heron during a break in the rain made for a nice meeting. This year’s solitary porpoise, the highway-perched osprey as drenched as I was, the young bald eagle hunting its prey, the chipmunks cavorting, the seals I could see from my cabin, the woodpecker, the summer tanager exceeding its usual range, the final two bright and burning beach days—everything seemed like a gift.
Frederick Buechner, my latest literary obsession, deems William Maxwell one of America’s great underrated novelists. I’m less than smitten by Maxwell, if largely because reading him shows just why The New Yorker’s fiction section has been so dull so long: Maxwell imposed his aesthetic of workman-like gentle revelation on the magazine from 1936 until 1975 and surely well beyond.
But one can see what charmed Buechner. Compare this, from Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, to that seagull passage from Buechner that I posted earlier:
“The great, universal problem is how to be always on a journey and yet see what you would see if it were only possible for you to stay home: a black cat in a garden, moving through iris blades behind a lilac bush. How to keep sufficiently detached and quiet inside so that when the cat in one spring reaches the top of the garden wall, turns down again, and disappears, you will see and remember it, and not be absorbed at that moment in the dryness of your hands.”