Falling In Love With Lilacs

February 16, 2009 — An Island Journal*

Eric and I found a lilac bush and a house to go with it. It was 1981 and we needed to move. For the past five years we’d moved around New England as Eric built his career in food service management. I didn’t care where I lived, as long as I was with Eric. I was a poet, I could write anywhere. The shifting landscape of Eric’s work had landed us in New Hampshire two years before. We rented a house and got married in the backyard. Adrienne was born in our bedroom. We settled in. But after a year the couple who owned the house needed it for her parents. We wanted to stay in New Hampshire, Eric had a good job, it was time to stop moving. We began looking at houses to buy.

Eric fell in love with the lilac bush by the front door of the house we bought, the only house we ever owned.  When we first saw the house it was a mess. Old, wide-reveal aluminum siding left smudges of white on your skin or clothes if you rubbed up against it, metal gleaming through in patches like a bald skull under thin hair. The rows of windows on the porch running along the south and west sides of the house had peeled to bare, raw wood, the glass barely held in place by dried caulking that flaked off in chunks. There had been a grease fire in the kitchen the year before and black soot still crawled up the walls to the ceiling, an echo of the flames. An old corner room had been turned into a bathroom, a toilet and free-standing sink and tub spread across the space. It was an upgrade from the two seater outhouse in a corner of the barn.

But the massive lilac bush was in full bloom by the front door and the air was sweet with scent. We stepped over the threshold into the living room and looked at each other.

“This is it,” we said to each other with our eyes.

In the week after Eric died, the lilac blossoms burst open and I sat on the porch, next to the bush, and wrote and listened and watched. The world was all new again, focused around absence. A catbird I wanted to believe was speaking to me for Eric sat on the wires crossing through the crown of blossoms, and sang over and over. The songs varied in pitch and melody, as if the bird was trying out for parts as other birds, other beings. A pair of sparrows was nesting in the yew hedge on the other side of the porch, and when the catbird wasn’t singing I listened to the chicks squawking as the parents brought them food. Birds became my porch companions. They occupied my grief and gave me a new language, one I didn’t have to write down or try to remember.

The passage above is from the The Island Journal, the first iteration of the memoir I recently completed — a book I intended to write only on islands, in a handmade journal David gave me in the first months we knew each other. There are many reasons there are very few traces of that original Island Journal in the finished draft of the memoir (the primary reason being that people who read it couldn’t figure out what was going on), but there are so many memories packed into that journal that come to me at different times.

Like right now when the lilac bush is coming into peak bloom. I still live in that same house, the lilacs still make me think of Eric, and I still bring a bouquet to Eric’s grave every year. I’ll bring one tomorrow.

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A Gift of Experience

 

Emilio at the Whitney Biennial

A week ago David and I finished the holiday gift I gave him for 2017 — a commitment to visit at least one museum and have one outdoor adventure a month. Experience gifts make sense — we already have so much stuff — and they’ve been a needed break from the dread and disgust that’s been too present for the past year if you’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening in the world. Which we are.

Early on we decided if we went someplace outdoors we’d never been before, that could count as an outdoor adventure. It didn’t have to be arduous. Just new. We also realized early on that there are a lot of museums near us. New Hampshire has a snowmobile museum, several rail depot museums, a telephone museum, a model railroad and toy museum, and a classic arcade museum that has pinball machines and electric games built no later than 1987. We didn’t go to any of those, but we did go to the NH Historical Society museum which has an old ski-doo snowmobile as an exhibit.

So what did our year of art and adventure include?

We trudged through snow up a hill in an orchard under a full moon. We camped in Evans Notch and hiked the Baldface Circle (very arduous!), slept on the front porch three times in the last month, toasty in big down bags, swam in the North Atlantic twice in September and in Long Pond during the second week of October. Wet suits are magic in cold water, but we came out a bit off balance from the cold affecting our inner ears.

 

We walked in Ireland and hiked in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Snow Canyon and Jenny’s Canyon (Utah is amazing) and lowered ourselves into lava tubes, caves hollowed out of old lava flows. We stayed in the Mitzpah Hut near the peak of Mt. Pierce and hiked to the summit of Mt. Mooselauke twice

 

Our museum visits ranged from interesting to mind blowing. The Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier, featuring impossibly intricate and detailed paper art, was a marvel. We took in the Whitney Biennial along with Adrienne, Emilio and Ava. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston twice, most recently to see a phenomenal performance of poetry read by Jane Hirshfield (her own and her translations of Japanese poetry) and music composed by Linda Chase. The three part piece was a collaboration written in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was masterfully done. Stunning music along with spoken words in the best weave of the two I’ve ever heard. And that was after being enchanted by the exhibit of wild and vibrant wall-size murals by Takashi Murakami.

My favorite museum visit was to the Northwood Historical Society’s museum, open on August Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00. The town’s artifacts are housed in the small, square, brick building that was the Northwood Narrows branch of the library when I first moved to town. It’s around the corner from my house.

David wore his short wetsuit for that visit; we stopped at the museum when we saw it was open on our way to swim. The Historical Society volunteer staffing the museum that day didn’t pay any attention to the wet suit. She was too busy watching the two helicopters circling over the fields and woods of the Narrows, looking for a fugitive batterer, a man who’d come to town after abusing his girlfriend and then ran away from the police when they found him at a house on Blake’s Hill.

They caught him. It was an exciting day in the Narrows.

Boardwalk at Coney Island

Last Friday we walked the boardwalk on Coney Island, a good choice for our last outdoor adventure of the year. Closed for the season, the arcades and amusement parks were like huge broken toys. We walked with a cold wind at our backs, then turned and walked into it, along the gray water, the winter sun low in the sky. We walked for a long time.

I’m grateful to have a life that allows me to choose experiences like this, to take breaks that refresh and energize and inspire me. I hope to keep it up next year.

 

Lichen On His Stone

I hadn’t been to visit Eric’s grave for a long time. Six months? More? I’m quite sure there was no lichen on the rose granite headstone the last time I was there.

Now there is. I thought, this looks like an old grave. I thought, this is beautiful. Eric loved mosses and lichens, the small plants and organisms that add richness to the world’s green.

How long does it take for lichen to take root on granite? Or how long does it take before I’d notice that lichen has crept into the carving of Eric. And January. The Hebrew letters too.

The stone has been there since April 2007. Many lichens grow less than a millimeter a year, so these could have been growing on Eric’s stone all along.

I’d like to live in a room painted the pale sage of the lichen on Eric’s stone. It’s almost the color of Squam Lake water over white sand. Eric would love that lapping at his grave.

October Swim

Full wetsuit, bathing cap, goggles. Warm clothes to put on as soon as we get out of the water. A tentative wade off the small beach to make sure the water temperature hasn’t unexpectedly dipped into an intolerable range.

It hasn’t. Plunge. My face stings and the tips of my ears that aren’t covered by the swimcap ache. I keep swimming. Thirty strokes into the swim my two toes that don’t tolerate any kind of cold are numb but my face is fine. I look up and see David’s blue-capped head swimming up behind me. Back to counting my strokes, twenty breaths to the left, twenty to the right.

When I lift my face for air the hardwood trees along the shore are red, orange, yellow and gold against the dark green of pine. Face back down to pull my stroke the water streams a cloudy bronze as my fist punches bubbles under the surface. Face up again to the string of color on the shore. I catch a glimpse of blue sky as the fast clouds above break apart.

Across the pond and back, heading into a hard wind left from the front that blew through with rain this morning. It whisks the surface of the pond blue-black with white wave caps. I stroke harder.

When we get out the air is warmer than the water and there’s no wind under the pines on the beach. We’re not as cold as we expected, but there’s still a chill somewhere deep. We’re a bit off balance from a half hour of cold in our ears and tilt as we get dressed.

We go home and take hot showers. For a long time.

Clifden to Donegal

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Clifden Castle in Connemara

David and I love open air swimming, so we had it on our list of must-do’s in Ireland to get into the northern Atlantic at least once. Our second day at Dolphin Beach Guest House in Clifden we took our first dip. Nestled into the side of a steep ridge of rock, heather and gorse poking out the end of Connemara, the guest house has a small beach that is sometimes visited by dolphins and always tricky to walk on, as it’s all small rocks. There were no dolphins the day we went in, but I’d been running and was hot and the day was warm enough (in spite of mist), and the tide was high, so we went for it. Well, not exactly a swim. More like a dunk after hobbling over rocks.

There were many other aspects of our visit to Connemara that were equally thrilling, Just getting to the Dolphin Beach was exhilarating. It’s on a loop of road that climbs over and around the ridge, giving views in every direction. And those views are stunning. Sea, mountains, surf, wildflowers and the ever-changing show of clouds forming, racing, floating, opening, raining, and misting. The exhilarating part? That road is one lane with sheer cliffs on one side, so driving in and out from the guest house required total attention and occasional pulling over into small spots to let another car coming from the other direction go by.

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Connemara bogs

But we managed the drive, and all the other one lane roads around the peninsula that makes up Connemara. There are areas full of small loughs, or lakes — ponds, really — where there is nothing but peaty bog and pockets of water. Driving across it was like driving on a different planet. Lough Inagh sits in a fold between two mountain ranges and the road along its shore is dramatic, with mountain slopes falling to the water on every side.

From Clifden we drove to Donegal in northwestern Ireland. When we drove up the steep pitch leading to the Rossmore Manor B&B David and I were smitten. The view across the tidal inlet to rolling hills of green pasture outlined with the darker green of hedgerows is the perfect of image of Ireland.

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Rossmore Inlet

But Donegal County is more than rolling green hills. Again, there are vast patches of boggy land where we could see peat harvesting in progress. Slieve League, perhaps the highest sea cliffs in Europe (hard to say for sure because everyone gives you a different answer here) is on the southern shore and the day we climbed up beside and then over the top of the cliffs we were often walking through mist and then heavy rain showers.

But we could see that out at the end of the point there was sunshine holding on, in spite of the clouds stuck on the top of the Slieve League ridge. We headed for the sun. In Glencolumbcille, where we’d planned to do a small loop hike, we were stunned by more cliffs — only 200 meters, not the 600 meter cliffs we’d just seen, but still incredible.

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Glencolumbcille Cliffs

But we still weren’t in sun so we kept going until the road ended. Stunned again. We found ourselves at Malin Beg which we’d had no idea was a scenic spot. Below the parking lot was a long scallop of white sand in the curve of 100 foot cliffs, falling away from green fields. The water looked turquoise over the white sand. We climbed the many many stairs down to the beach to get a better look.

The sand and rolling waves were beautiful and the sun was out, warming us up after our chilly couple of hours on Slieve League. When we got to the end of the beach, where no one could see us because we were so far away, we talked about going in the water again. We had no bathing suits or towels, but here was the perfect spot. Sand under our feet instead of rocks, sunshine instead of mist, and the most beautiful beach either of us have ever seen.

We took off our clothes, left them in a pile under out boots so they wouldn’t blow away, and ran for the water. It was warm enough to be bearable, and cold enough to make us feel brave. We came out laughing and ran back up to our clothes so we could dry off and put all our layers back on.

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Malin Beg

Today we drive back south and tomorrow we fly home. The trip has been terrific in so many ways — scenery, being outdoors for most of every day, walking, walking, walking, meeting lovely people everywhere, eating local fish, meats and vegetables, and best of all, boiled new potatoes with butter and mint.

Nothing better than all that.

In and Out of Clouds

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Ireland is constantly in and out of clouds, so it only makes sense that David and I have been walking in and out of clouds.

On Saturday we crossed a ridge from Ardgroom to Lauragh, climbing a steep pitch off the road into a bowl of valley with a green field on the opposite slope where we could see sheep dogs rounding up sheep in a cluster that kept moving over the bright pasture. Mist threaded around us as we followed the boggy trail and heard water roaring in streams criss-crossing the pass. The inch and a half of rain the day before was rushing off the hills and everything was wet.

Everything is always wet in Ireland. I’ve come to think of it as the land of perpetual dampness.

We passed the Cashelkeelty standing stones, one of the many circles or lines of stones we’ve seen. The stones are aligned to mark solar occasions like the solstice or equinox and the fields and high passes on the Beara peninsular have many of these ancient remains — 3,000 years old or older. It’s impossible to fully understand what it means to see such ancient constructions.

Meanwhile, more modern stones stacked in walls covered with moss, fuchsia, ivy, brambles, and all the other green growth that makes Ireland seem like a jungle are everywhere, and often mind-boggling beautiful.

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Once we got to Lauragh we visited the Derreen Gardens, an estate transformed in the 19th century into a sub-tropical garden at the head of Kilmakilloge Harbor. The tree ferns and tree-size rhododendron made it seem we were walking some place much further south than Ireland.

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Yesterday we crossed a ridge  of mountains from Lauragh to Kenmare, starting out in mist and walking into sheeting rain. We passed the Uragh stone circle, with a ten foot entrance stone, set on a hillock between two lakes. We felt particularly isolated and lost in time, as we stood in a pocket of rain and fog.

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Climbing our second ridge, the fog got thicker and soon all we could see was each other and the boggy path a hundred feet ahead. Thankfully the Beara Way is very well marked, and just as I would feel uncomfortable about whether we were still on the path, I’d see another sign post ahead with the familiar, bright yellow image of a walker and an arrow pointing us on.

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Nearly at the top of the ridge David and I talked about the views we were missing, wondering what mountains and hillsides we’d be seeing if the mist cleared. I looked across the open land to the top of the ridge on our right and realized it was clearer. Then I turned around and the mist was gone, revealing the last mountain we’d climbed, bright in the distance. I could even make out the gray of the Uragh stone circle far below.

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When we finally cleared the top of the ridge, there were the mountains of Kerry, patched with bright green fields ahead. It’s become clear that worrying about poor weather here isn’t productive and makes no difference. Days are sunny then cloudy then rainy then clear then misty then back to clouds breaking open to blue skies again.

IMG_8929In the moments of hiking, there is only what I see ahead of me, the sound of water finding its way downhill, and planning my next footstep to avoid as many muddy sink holes as possibleFullSizeRender (17).And then there are all the flowers.

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Ireland – U.S. Cultural Exchange: Craft Beer and House Painting

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Eyeries

The Irish have certainly figured out exuberant and charming paint color for houses. The villages we’re walking through on the Beara Peninsula have houses painted in over-the-top colors, but it works.

What doesn’t work is the craft beer. In Cork, and here in these tiny villages, people talk about the new craft beers from local breweries. I’ve been trying them all and have yet to find one that comes any where close to what I can get in the U.S. There’s a hollowness in the middle of the taste, with no complexity and or layering of flavors.

But then, houses are usually painted boring colors in the U.S. I think we need a cultural exchange. Brew masters and house painters from each country should travel to the other and exchange ideas and recipes and tips. Then we could all have flavorful beer and cheery villages.

Meanwhile, heavy rain is whipping past the window of our B&B, blown horizontal by 40 mph winds. We left Eyeries early this morning, knowing a storm was coming. We got about halfway to Ardgroom before the rain started, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. Then we traversed a ridge to come into the village and by then the wind was fierce. I got blown off my feet a couple of times, staying upright only by planting my hiking pole downwind and leaning into it. It was wild and exciting and a bit scary, then very satisfying to get to the B&B with a friendly hostess who put our wet gear in her dryer.

Today is the exact opposite of yesterday. We had bright, warm sunshine and gentle breezes as we crossed the Slieve Mishkish Mountains with Coulagh Bay below us. We sat in the sun for the second night in a row and watched the sun set over the ocean to the northwest, green green green everywhere we looked.

That’s what all this rain does.

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Coulough Bay

And We’re Off

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Derreenataggart Stone Circle

David and I have been in Ireland since Monday morning, but didn’t start our walk of the Beara Way until today. We spent Monday and Tuesday in Cork, which is a lively and scruffy-around-the-edges small city. We walked a lot, sampled a few pubs and had an amazing meal at Café Paradiso, a vegetarian restaurant that’s one of the most popular spots in the city. The new potatoes with butter and mint was one of the most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in a long time.

We visited Sin É, a highly recommended pub with trad music, eclectic customers, and a riotous display of posters (many of Led Zeppelin), signs and cards tacked on all the walls and the ceiling. We met a lovely young woman there, who asked what I was drawing and when I said I was sketching, trying to get better at drawing after a life time of writing, she agreed that it’s always good to be learning new things. She’s a photographer, cyclist, dancer, writer, and most importantly, a plámáser. A plámáser? It’s an Irish word that has no English equivalent: someone who can sweet talk others into doing what she wants them to, but not in a creepy or manipulative way. Kinder and more clever.

Yesterday we took a three hour bus trip to Castletownbere, which turned into a four hour trip when the windshield wipers on the bus stopped working and we had to stop in the small town of Dunmanway to wait for a repair van. David sat in the open luggage compartment playing his guitar and I had time to shop for a hairbrush, since I left mine at home.

Castletownbere is scenic and charming. It’s the busiest fishing harbor in Ireland, with the hills of Beara Island just across the water, creating a quiet space for boats and a small bay for mussel farming. From there we set out this morning to walk across the ridge of small mountains that forms the spine of the Beara peninsula, headed for Allihies.

Not only were the long views spectacular, the close views were too. When I imagined this walking tour I thought about the green fields and ocean views. I didn’t expect such an abundance of wild flowers. There are hedges of wild fuchsia, heather in multiple shades of purple lining the walking tracks, small purple flowers that look like pincushions, yellow gorse, and pink foxglove. Also many flowers I couldn’t identify.

Walking in such open land, with patched green fields and ocean views in every direction, and ancient standing stones along the trail, is magical. Walking is perhaps the best possible way to spend a day. We’re delighted we have many more days ahead.

Silver Water

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Though David and I have been renting a camp on Jenness Pond, a few miles from our house, for over a week now, we’ve only just started staying here at night. There’s been a wonderful assortment of people filling the camp — family, friends, and friends of family, including our children and grandchildren and our children’s friends and their children, lots of little ones from age eight to two. There’s nothing like the noise of children playing in water. There’s nothing like playing in the water with children, no matter what age.

With fewer visitors coming through the camp this week, last night we blew up the air mattress to sleep on the screen porch for the first time, something I’ve been thinking about since we did it last summer. Falling asleep in the night air is such a treat, and not having to set up, then crawl in and out of, a tent to get that sky-just-past-the-mesh feeling, is a highlight of this camp.

Except last night was the coldest yet this summer. Rain all day, wind, and temperatures in the low 50’s, by dinner time we lit a fire, the first time in this house, probably the first time in July. After an evening warming up by the fireplace in the living room, we went out to the porch to go to bed. Layered between two comforters beneath and three above, David in a wool hat and down jacket and me in a hooded sweatshirt, we fell asleep with a cold summer night all over us. What a treat.

This morning David and I sat on the porch couch, a comforter over our laps as we read. A pair of kingfishers spent the morning chitting from the trees along the shore, flying to the post at the end of the dock and the railings of the raft ladder, scanning the water for a meal. At one point a guttural squawk made us both look up. A heron was flying directly towards the porch, then turned and moved along the grasses on the shore.

Late this afternoon the noisiest event on the pond was the flapping and prancing of ducks, lifting themselves out of the water by the dock with a furious slapping of their wings. The sun and clouds traded places and the pond was silver and then black. There was enough sun to warm the air, enough that I probably won’t have to pull up the hood of my sweatshirt when I go to bed.

I’m so lucky.

 

Peony Porch

 

 

Home, on my porch, as gray storm clouds pitch across the sky and peonies poke through the balusters. For a change I’m not going to miss peony season in my yard. The last couple of years I’ve been away during the peak of peony blossoming. To extend the season, I wrapped buds in newspaper and stored them in the refrigerator. When I took them out weeks later, once I was home for awhile, they bloomed.

This year I’ll get to pick the heavy heads as they open their extravagant faces, petals tucked in petals tucked in petals in silky folds that seem like forever. The house smells like heaven. I have such peony bounty yesterday I brought a bunch to a family gathering in Massachusetts.

This morning I sat on the porch of the beach house my siblings are renting, watching sun begin to brighten the ocean out near the horizon, the never ending in and out of the waves, white water on white sand. Beautiful.

But I’m happy to be home. Instead of the hot, dry, empty, full ocean beach view, now I face a green world of rampant vegetation and peonies so thick they become part of the porch. I live in a beautiful place and it’s a treat to be here in the height of the light season.

I’ve been away a lot. Last week I was in New York playing with Emilio. We had a blast — a ferry ride to Fire Island, wave tag on the beach, ice cream every day, a DIY water park in the backyard with Ava, timing how long it took to round the bases of a ball field and run the smallest circle on the running track at the park. Short distance, Emilio is faster than me. Youth is a powerful thing.

Now I’m sitting still on my porch as the rain approaches and wind begins whipping the tall grasses in the field across the street. Most of the coming week ahead I’ll be home. Next week too. And the next and next and next until I’ve been home the seven weeks I don’t have to be anywhere else for longer than an overnight. I’m delighted.

I’ll bring in a fresh bouquet of peonies every day. Then it will be zinnias and cosmos, marigolds and nasturtiums, salvia, rudbeckia and poppies. Plus lettuce, kale, peas, beets, squash, cilantro, basil, peppers, and dill.

Yes, I’ll say it again. I’m happy to be home.