Saturday, June 27, 2009

Portland, East End

I bought some art recently.

I had spent a weekday evening in Ogunquit, Maine, a sudden plan to take advantage of what looked like it might turn out to be a sunny day in New England at the end of this rainy June. Someone was looking over me, because the closer to the coast I drove, the clearer the skies appeared in the distance. I had reservations at an inn where I had stayed before, dinner plans at a favorite restaurant. My arrival gave me time to settle in Perkins Cove before dinner and sit within sight of the ocean and the start of the Marginal Way. I had brought a recent volume of Mary Oliver’s poetry and read some of her poems while I sipped a martini in the open air. Using my BlackBerry camera, I sent a friend a picture of the coast I was able to watch that evening in all its sparkling freshness.

I was excited about this venture.

I was not going to buy into a typical Ogunquit visit. I was not going to let anyone else set the agenda for this stay by the sea. I had booked a room that suited me and intended to be the one to enjoy it in the way I wanted that evening. I give myself credit for getting there and staying there and enjoying myself there. I smiled as I settled at a table on the porch of my bed and breakfast the next morning and ordered my frittata from the hosts.

My focus then became the trip to Portland and the gallery where a photographer’s work was being displayed.

The weather continued fine and strong and sunny as I parked in the Old Port section of the city and began to walk. I needed to get to an ATM, but this was a familiar city I covered in my stroll, the legacy of last summer’s visits with a friend eager to introduce me to lighthouses and restaurants and beaches. At one point fog briefly drifted in, and I realized that I had an image of Maine and its lure that the fog suited just fine.

And then the art.

The photographer is no one famous, but I headed to the gallery near the Portland Museum of Art and asked to see a particular work by him. What the photographer himself says is that the shot reminds him of a still from a black-and-white film, and I enjoyed the chance to enter into an artist’s perception of his own work. There were things I noticed on my own about his image of train cars in the East End of Portland – the different shapes of the cars, the different color and style of the lettering on each car, the background of trees and their branches and leaves against which those two single-gauge cars stand. In other circumstances I might have been more easily attracted to images in the gallery that showed beaches and fern leaves and a moon behind a steeple. I was aware, though, that I was looking at something different from the digital images displayed across this gallery’s walls. There was a softness in this print that only film and dark room could have produced.

So it’s mine now. Not yet free to travel from the exhibit where it is displayed in downtown Portland, but I am curious to see it on the walls of my home.

I suspect I will see more and more in it in the months to come.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What I Have, I Want

“It’s a writing cabin!”

The words were out of my mouth before I realized that I was saying them. In the stable building on the Saint-Gaudens estate in Cornish, NH, I had been strolling past antique carriages and wagons. I suddenly stood at the door of the stable hand’s quarters and saw a table and chair by a window. Laid out on the simple checkered tablecloth were food, books, light – nothing superfluous, nothing missing for a morning hour’s diversion, an evening’s engagement for a thoughtful individual.

The compact one-room quarters reminded me of the writing cabin of naturalist Edwin Way Teale. I had visited his 200-year-old farm in October 2007. Shortly thereafter I read one of Teale’s descriptions of his literary refuge:

As my eyes wander about the interior of my writing cabin, they encounter the broom, dustpan, poker, and shovel behind the open-faced Franklin stove; the rustic rocker where I read; the straight-backed chair beside a folding table – a table inherited from a forest camp in Maine – where I write; the lightweight typewriter that traveled with us through all the seasons in America and the pack basket made long ago by our son, David.

A measure of the impact of the space I visited that fall afternoon should be apparent in the title I gave to this blog and the photograph I attached to the heading and one of the first essays I posted. I concluded that early post:

When you acknowledge the role writing plays in your life in the way that Teale did, you dare to dream…

I’m getting ideas.

One of my friends and readers at the time tuned into the passion behind my identification with a writer like Teale:

I passed a small colonial brown barn on my way home. It sits about 75 feet back from the main road and is near but not attached to a colonial home of the same color... As I was sitting at the light, I looked over at the quiet barn and I pictured the brown barn doors slowly swinging open. There you were behind them, with a warmly-lit workspace behind you reflecting the barn board interior… a desk, chair… all the stuff that makes up the life you want all comfortably situated.

So it should not surprise anyone to learn how moved I was one morning this past week when I stood by the door of one of the rooms where I now live. Fresh from a shower and ready for breakfast, I saw the checkered tablecloth on a table by the window, the open laptop on the table, the simple white curtains on the window, the bookcases, the bowls and mugs and glasses, the lamp on the deep window sill – my breakfast space was a writing cabin!

I had moved into a writing cabin this past year – without initially calling it that, without realizing that this simple suite of rooms could do for me what the one-room log cabin had done for Edwin Way Teale fifty years ago: provide sanctuary, provide space for thinking one's own thoughts, provide a regular place where one could write.

Sitting with coffee and thoughts this morning, I understood the ambush of the question that tries to elicit the answer: “I have what I want.” Much better, much healthier the perspective that looks at the days and the hours and the rooms and the conversations that make up life these days and can prompt an individual to say: “What I have, I want.”

And I do.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sending the Message

My voice is mine, and what I do with it is – literally – my business. Verizon has agreed twice, once last May and again yesterday afternoon. For a year now I have been the owner of my conversations and the sole keeper of the record of those conversations.

I stood in the Verizon store at the end of the work day yesterday, egged on by weeks of emails and brochures alerting me to savings available to me were I interested in an early upgrade of my mobile phone. My first name now appeared on a screen near the ceiling that listed the order of customers due attention from the staff, most of that staff comfortably decades younger than I.

I knew what I was looking for in the way of accessories and capabilities and size. It helped that my browsing had led me to the very phone that Tim, my eventual sales representative, took out of his pocket and showed me as his own choice for the past several months.

Between rebates and discounts I was going to walk away from this transaction without any significant expenditure or increase in monthly outlay. I was going to have a phone that allowed me to do things that till then I would have considered the proper domain of my laptop at home. I was a satisfied customer.

Yes, Tim said, it would take him only ten minutes to transfer the contacts from my old phone and load my pictures onto a memory card and then onto the new phone.

No, he had to confess, the text messages I asked about keeping from the old phone could not follow me onto the new.

And then I stopped. I nodded my acquiescence but knew I was about to lose words that had carried me through the last twelve months, texts carefully preserved by a strategic deletion of other messages along the way. Messages on my birthday, from Christmas morning, from a Saturday in the spring that seismically shifted the feel of my inner landscape – I was facing the erasure of all that communication on the part of people who had wanted me to know I mattered in their lives.

I was standing amid customers who simply wanted a new phone. At the imminent dismantling of a bank of memories, I wanted a new way to remember what had kept life feeling real at times in the months gone by.

“Show me how to make a call to one of the contacts you’ve just transferred,” I requested when my transaction with Tim was almost over. I gave him a name.

I walked with my shopping bag to the door of the Verizon store and spoke into the phone: “Remember the call I made to you the day I bought my last phone? I just bought a new one.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summer Plans

Two close friends arrived in Paris yesterday. A text message from one of them at two o'clock in the morning attested to that fact. In our final visits together before their departure, amid the talk of travel-size toiletries and Paris restos that I might recommend for their lunches, the topic came up of my joining them. There was a lament on their part that they had not arranged a way for me to be in their travelling party.

Another friend is planning by year’s end to be on a boat down (or up?) the Amazon River. I have photos of him on the Great Wall of China from a few years back and others that he took in India in 2007. He is serious in extending me an invitation to join him in South America if my work schedule in the next six or seven months permits it.

Recently, a day does not go by without a friendly query on someone’s part about my “summer plans.” Someone just stops by my office door and figures a question about travel is one of the easiest entrees into conversation.

It has taken me a little while getting comfortable admitting that there is no plan.

A July weekend in a nearby Benedictine abbey, an August trip to a colleague’s wedding in Pennsylvania, a couple of days with a New York friend – these somehow don’t weigh in as the kind of vacation that people are asking about.

There is no plan.

I’ll confess to a combination of apprehension and relief at that prospect.

I am unlearning certain patterns these days, and it may take time to discover the kinds of pleasure there are in ventures that I didn’t need or get to attempt a year ago. In the months ahead, I might be caught attending a concert alone or occasionally eating a meal at the bar of a popular restaurant.

That happens, I can lecture myself, when there is no plan.

No plan, no expectations, no well-traveled pattern, no clearly defined goal tugging me safely onward.

I need for there to be no plan now. I need to be able to say that I don’t know what my life will look like a year from now. Some things can only happen – important things, I suspect – if I admit that I don’t know what I will be writing about next June.

And what, after all, is so bad about that?

Photo of Paris river cruise from ninemsn

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

White Lilies

I am sitting with white lilies these mornings.

I am rising at five o’clock, showering and getting dressed a little earlier than usual, and then sitting for close to an hour with coffee and thoughts.

The great white faces of the flowers are waiting near the leather love seat where I park myself, sometimes prayer book open on my lap.

I turn on the floor lamp, and I read verses from the psalms that can stay with me for the hour:

If you find your delight in the Lord,
he will grant your heart's desire.
(Psalm 37)

Summer is approaching.

Photo of Oriental lilies from White Flower Farm

Monday, June 8, 2009

Light in Stone

Who buys a lamp he cannot read by?

What could be the intention of someone walking alone through a Portland, Maine, gift shop on a summer afternoon, setting his sights on a lamp when he has no obvious room in which it can cast its muted light?

Some light is the light of hope and wonder, and the steps I was taking a year ago this summer were steps of hope and wonder as I focused on creating a new home. No, I did not expect to read by the light of the luminaire lamp. Its stone etching suggested sunlight through the trees of a forest, like the Sanctuary Trail at nearby Prouts Neck. I expected something would happen by that light, but it was not what I could talk about with any confidence or logical rigor. It involved an act of faith, and I was not accustomed to acting out of faith in myself or my dreams.

I am honoring this time of anniversary by turning that lamp on each evening, knowing that I will not do anything by that light that bears comment or commands attention from others. I am willing to let a light shine, though, through a room that did not know twelve months ago what I might be attempting within its walls each night, the ease and the re-creation that sleep can bring to someone starting a life over.

Image of lithophane lamp from The Porcelain Garden

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Claim on My Life

There are certain delights that you plan and others that seem almost to waylay you.

The drive north along the Connecticut River this past Saturday morning was matching turn for turn the route prepared by Google maps. The last time I had headed to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH, I was approaching south from a summer workshop at Dartmouth College. The online itinerary was instrumental this past weekend in helping me find once again the beautiful nineteenth-century home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens with its surrounding gardens and studios.

A friend had recently viewed a PBS documentary about the American sculptor and the Cornish Art Colony that had sprung up around him after he settled in this corner of New Hampshire. Familiar with other sites maintained by the National Park Service, I was prepared to be delighted by the visit. I was not disappointed. In fact, I ended up taking pleasure even in the antique smell of the rooms of the eighteenth-century inn that Saint-Gaudens had transformed into his home. How many visitors leave a home like this with a similar longing to return and smell again one day that deep presence of the years?

There’s another moment to record, though, from the day. Most travelers driving north would have been completely focused on the property that the online itinerary suggested was only four minutes away. Nothing should have distracted a driver intent on locating the signs for the turn-off on Route 12A that would lead to his destination.

But there was a white clapboard church. And an old cemetery. A bend in the state road should have swept travelers past both of them. But within seconds the car was parked, the camera retrieved, the roadway leading to the reconstructed Trinity Church followed in the sunny morning stillness.

At another time in my life I would not have stopped here, would not have delayed an arrival that had been the focus of a morning’s efforts, would not have believed that anyone else could have entered the mood of that sudden roadside apparition. With each step, though, I knew that this was right. I might have planned another venture, but this one was waiting for me, for my history, for my heart. This one said, “Yes, someone knew you were coming. Welcome.”

My eyes stayed alert, intent on taking it all in. I was being given a gift, and I would not miss any of it. Looking up, looking in, walking along, walking behind – I felt a space was opening up around me that felt fine with my being there.

Stepping among the old gravestones in the churchyard, I read inscriptions, one after another. The activity was familiar, comforting, quieting. Absorbed, I did not expect what I would see when I turned around at one point, but suddenly there was Mount Ascutney. A deep, long vista leading to the Vermont mountain and the clouds behind it seemed to open up. Lifting my camera, I hoped the steadiness of my aim would do justice to the moment.

I could have stayed there a long time. Aware of the attentiveness to beauty that had made this sudden, unplanned stop, I was ready to let it lay claim to my life.

I learned something afresh about my heart that morning.