On the Water

 

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A sudden shift to port, then a slow thud back to starboard, followed by a gentle swaying. The hanging lamp over the table sways, the view out the long, narrow porthole windows floats up and down, back and forth, the railing of the dock on one side, the neighboring boat on the other.  Water is my ground.  For four days I’m living on a houseboat.

We had trouble finding Hermitage Moorings when we arrived in London on Sunday night, but we had a friendly taxi driver who was fine about driving up and down Wapping High Street, not wanting to let us out in the rain and wind without knowing we had close shelter.  We finally located the address and John, our AirBnB host, came to greet us at the top of the ramp leading to the docks.  As we walked down I looked up.  Glorious — the Tower Bridge and the Shred building lit white against the black sky, just down river.

At the boat, Paul stood in the doorway and helped us get our bags on board and pointed out the steep stairs to our apartment, dark and narrow and low enough even I had to stoop.  Then I opened the door and stepped in.  “Oh, this is fantastic,” I said and I heard both John and Paul laugh in appreciation.  They love their Maxime and it shows in every detail of design and decor.  Boat living is tight, so smart, tidy arrangements work well and they’ve worked wonders.  Our apartment is both ingeniously compact and beautifully appointed.

After three days living on a boat I don’t feel cramped or annoyed by the pumping in and out of water for the toilet and shower, the small refrigerator and tiny galley, the way I have to squeeze between David in a chair at the table to get to the small living room space.  I’m not here to cook or do a living room chill, I’m here to enjoy London.

Which I have.  David and I have walked over 17 miles in the last two days, and I’m doing my half marathon training runs on top of that.  We’ve walked along both sides of the Thames, up river past three historic pubs, down river to the Tate Modern twice (the Alexander Calder show is brilliant), through Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus, past Buckingham Palace and through St. Jame’s Park, hunting down the Grenadier pub, with its 400 year-old tin bar and reputation for being haunted by a soldier who was flogged to death there after being caught cheating at cards.  It wasn’t easy to find, but it was fun, the ceiling plastered with US dollar bills with sharpie markings, mostly declaring the origin of the bearer but one unfortunately proclaiming “Trump 2016.”  I certainly hope not.

No, I don’t feel cramped.  I feel soothed.

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Tide fractured by wind
infinite ripples except
the river does end, flat
marsh then ocean.

Day Two — Seaside and Sky

 

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Steely water runs out of a creek, cutting a bank through sand before disappearing into the froth and fury of the ocean, blue beaten white as it crashes on the beach.  The wind is hard and cold, clouds low. David and I walk with our heads down, trying to keep the chill off our faces.

We gather driftwood sticks, feathers, black curled strings and bubbles of dried seaweed. I’m imagining a mobile of sailboats hung from sea bleached wood, feathers floating between the curls of seaweed. There are small white feathers, long broad gray ones, one with white circles on a dark background. The mobile will be for my father, a man who grew up on the ocean, who taught me to sail, who took me and my sisters to the beach during hurricanes so we could watch the surf smash over the seawall.  I’m making an ocean he can hang in the house, a beach above the table where he paints sailboats and marshes and waves.

We guess the distance from one end of the beach to the other. We get it right. When we turn to walk back the clouds open for a few minutes of sun and the warmth is startling, backs to the wind, faces to the light. The far shore is luminous under a sky the color of a new bruise, blue beginning to bleed into black.  No yellow yet.

By the time we’re headed home it’s so dark I feel lost.  I can hardly see the road, the early night so heavy we’re wrapped in blankness.  The tunnel of winter is coming, an approach I feel more than see.

My father is 91, he hasn’t been on the ocean for over a decade.  He never walks the beach anymore, though he sits by the harbor and watches boats come and go. He takes photographs and paints, creating a seaside. I’m creating the sky.

We Made An Ocean

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“I want to make an ocean,” Emilio said over a month ago, when I was talking to him on Facetime about his upcoming trip to New Hampshire for our family vacation.  I’d asked him what he wanted to do during his visit and expected the answer to be “swim, play baseball, play basketball,” — all activities he’s always eager to do.  I was surprised he had a project in mind.

“How will we make an ocean?  Will we need paper and colored pens, scissors, glue?”  I  envisioned some sort of construction paper creation.

“No, just water and food coloring.  We’ll put blue and green color in the water and then put in animals and it will be the ocean.”

“What will we make it in?  A bucket?  A glass?”

Emilio shrugged.  “Anything.”

We didn’t make an ocean when he was in Northwood in July.  We were busy doing what I’d expected — playing in the water at Jenness Pond, hitting the wiffle ball over the roof of the camp we rented, lying belly down on the dock and looking for fish, playing Sorry! on the screened porch.  The ocean project seemed to be forgotten.

Friday I went with Adrienne to pick up Emilio from his school.  On the way home I asked, “What do you want to do this weekend, Emilio?”  Again, I expected a list of games and sports.  Instead?

“I have a project in mind.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“We’ll make an ocean.  We’ll put blue and green food coloring in water and put in animals and it will be the ocean.”

So today we did.  We started with the bucket a set of ocean animals came in, but once we’d filled it with water and mixed in the food coloring, watching the dye swirl into clouds of blue and green, then piled in all the animals, the bucket was so full there was no room for the whales and sharks and octopus and turtle to swim.  So Adrienne got out a long plastic tub and we poured the first ocean in then made more.  Water, blue, green, swirl, animals and rocks and coral and seaweed.

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Kitchen Floor Ocean.  It’s a great place to spend a summer afternoon.

Put Amsterdam On Your List

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If you have a travel wish list, and Amsterdam isn’t on it, I’d suggest you add it.  At the top of the list.  With its canals and bridges and beautifully preserved if decidedly tilting houses and classic European architecture, it’s lovely.  Bells chime all day and night (in the Jordaan district, where I’m staying, anyway), the sidewalks and canal banks are full of cafes that are full of people eating and drinking, talking and smoking (whatever they want) and there is the excellent coffee and fresh, diverse and tasty food you’d expect of any city.

What’s so striking though, is the way the element of bikes, as a mode of transportation as common as walking and more common than cars, transforms the central city.  Here, on the narrow streets, there are three-way checks for oncoming traffic all the time — walkers check for cars and bikes, bikers check for walkers and cars, cars check for bikes and walkers.  The dance of transportation has the extra element of bikes, which completely changes the steps for everyone.  Not only does it give pedestrians more clout in the jostle for street space, it changes the sound — fewer motors, more talking.

Then there are the boats, which are in abundance also.  The hosts of our AirBnB flat have a small boat on the canal in front of the building, and took us for a ride on Wednesday afternoon, one of the first sunny days in what has been a cold and wet summer.  Everyone seemed to be out, and it was a treat to get introduced to Amsterdam by riding in a boat, getting dropped off at the other side of the city, then working our way back, via many wrong turns and at least one circular trek, to our place.

Today we visited the Anne Frank house which a friend told me was “the best museum in Europe.”  It is quite astonishing to stand in the rooms where 8 people lived in hiding at the back of a canal house for two years.  The world knows Anne Frank through her diary. At the Anne Frank house you get to know her as one of the threads in a web of courage and horror and fierce kindness on the part of the Dutch resisters who worked every day to keep the hiding Jews safe.

Then on to the Van Gogh Museum, another outstanding visit.  The curation of Van Gogh’s paintings in a simple structure and design make the museum accessible, both as a way to understand Van Gogh’s development as a painter, and as a museum that doesn’t leave you on art overload.

And to get to all of these places we walk along canals and cross bridges and more bridges and more canals.  It’s a city of waterfront galore.

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And more.

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Small Stone #30

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Flat Meadow Brook has frozen over.  The water that was running open a week ago is now buried under layers of ice, muffled to a deep rumble.  I walked to the brook just to have a look, but what caught me was the fungus growing from a log fallen along the bank.  In the monochrome winter woods, I was captured by the shades of sage against snow.  Glorious color.  

Small Stone #21

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The exposed skin on my face aches and stings and my fingers are numb.  The trees look brittle and the branches I pass as I ski snap and break.  Another storm moving up the coast bruises the southern sky a deep purple, dark beneath the sun’s low ball of hazy light.  The woods are a different world than yesterday, when it was 20 degrees warmer, the snow was soft and wet, the sky blue between passing clouds, trees tossing off clumps of slush from the storm on Saturday. But Flat Meadow Brook is still open and I stop to listen to the tumble of water running, the music of motion through a landscape descending back into winter.

Day 2: Two Weeks to the Turn II

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Dark when I wake.  Darkness wrapping the house and yard, blackness a soft touch on my shoulders.  The new clock, all white, with feathers for hands, points from its small circle base, a straight, bright line on the wall: 6:00 a.m.  No light on the horizon yet, the first light the embers in the wood stove that I pump to orange with the bellows.  The kindling pops up in flame, then a log.  I sit in front of the glow and the darkness sits around me. 

Anne P. commented on my blog last night.  The new you.  Comprised of the past, but not consumed by it. Surrounded by happiness, it shines through you.  As the darkness recedes, crests, retreats once more.  Left on the shore with a new wholeness.  Life, surfing the waves.

David and his brother and I drove to the coast on Saturday, old people going for a drive, because David’s brother’s back and hip are too sore to walk much.  That’s life surfing the waves, getting to the pulse of tide however we could.  Little Harbor was brimming, tide as high as I’ve seen it.  Driving north, after a loop around Rye Harbor, we passed a stretch of marsh, grass golden between the pools of hard blue water chopped up by a cold wind, a striking contrast.

Beauty is so often about how one visual bumps up against what is next to it.  “No one travels to see flat land,” someone once said to me and it seems true.  People travel to see mountains and cities.  Or great expanses of water, which are flat but fluid, the contrast between firm ground and a sloshing medium, all movement, wash and warble, come and go, in and out.  A shore where we find ourselves, before, after, now.

When the light comes it’s gray.

 

Too Hot to Blog

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I’ve been busy, not that being busy is in any way unusual for me, but there have been deadlines to some of what I’d had to do this past week (consulting work), and getting things done that require paying attention, sitting at a desk, in a hot house, has not been easy.  Normally, I spend an hour or three at a time at my desk, whether writing a grant as a consultant, or doing a webinar, or doing my own work, editing poetry or writing an essay or pulling something together for one of the boards I’m on.  When I get restless, which happens a lot, I go outside and weed my garden for a while, go for a bike ride, a swim, a walk, or pick some of the abundance of wild blueberries this year, something outside and direct and physical.

Not this week.  When I needed a break from my work, I just walked around looking for a cooler space in the house.   Being outside during the day was impossibly uncomfortable and hot.  I did go swimming, but not much else.  I got my work done, went for a swim, then sat on the back deck at the end of the day with David, both of us basically panting, trying to stay cool enough to get through dinner and get into bed with multiple fans blowing on us.  My brain was on semi-permanent melt — work, eat, collapse.  What was there to say that would be interesting for a blog?

But I was paying attention to the forecast (another thing that is not in any way unusual for me) and kept seeing the temperatures predicted for Friday as being the highest of the week.  Early in my week of work, I decided to get what I needed done completed by Thursday afternoon so David and I could have a summer vacation day on Friday.

We did.  We got up yesterday morning and put the kayak racks on the car for the first time this summer, then loaded up the kayaks and a cooler of snacks, and headed for Squam Lake.  Squam Lake is a special place for me.  It was our family vacation spot for all the years from when Sam was a year old until two years after Eric died — 21 years. Kayaking on Squam was Eric’s favorite thing to do, the lake his favorite place in the world.  The day Eric died, as we were trying to figure out how to prepare his body for pick up by the funeral home, Adrienne, Sam, John and I agreed that nothing would be so fitting as dressing Eric in his kayak shorts and water shoes.  We considered putting a paddle beside him, to be tucked into the coffin and buried with him, but knew Eric would object to that as a waste of good equipment.

As David and I turned onto Metcalf Road yesterday, headed for the kayak launch spot on Squaw Cove, a wave of memory passed through me, bringing back all the years of getting ready for a week on the lake, all the years of Eric and I kayaking to favorite spots to swim and pick berries and relax, all the years of dipping our paddles into the clear lake water as we watched the march of the Sandwich Range mountains fading into the haze of summer days on the north shore.

Yesterday on the lake was perfect.  It was viciously hot in most of the country, but fine sitting on the fine white sand beaches of Squam Lake, half-submerged in water.  David and I paddled and swam and read and had a picnic and I wrote in my Island Journal, a memoir I’m writing that I can only write while on islands (more on that in a later post). We went to three islands yesterday.  At one point I asked David how he was doing (not an easy week for either or us, for reasons as easy to ascribe to the heat as anything else) and he said, “I’m great.  This is the essential ‘us.’  Getting out into the world and moving and being and enjoying”

We didn’t leave the lake until dinner time, driven back to our car by hunger.  We picked up sandwiches in Holderness and ate sitting on a dock, watching the light fade over the water.  Yes, maybe it was a week too hot for blogging, a week to hot for anything but getting done what had to be done.  But it was an evening cool enough for imagination, after a week soaked in the sweat of real life and obligation.  Time to let go.  Time to float into a weekend as the cooler air moved in.

Brooks and Prompts

Narrows Brook runs behind my house and I see it from the upstairs bathroom window, the kitchen sink window and the back bedroom windows.   I can hear the water hum from my deck or on summer nights through the screened windows.  I take a lot of photographs of this brook because I run by it almost every day I run.  I write a lot about this brook, because I’m so often prompted into my poetry through my senses, most commonly what I see, with what I hear coming in second.

In the last several months, I’ve been in a few gatherings of poets where we work with prompts — everyone throwing out two words to use in a poem, or describing the relationship between randomly selected objects, or bouncing out of someone else’s poem to write our own take on the subject.  I’m loving this.  It’s getting me out of my own fairly self-limited point of view and helping me write poems that stretch subject, perspective, images and language.

Which brings me back to Narrows Brook.  I live near it, so it shows up a lot in my poetry, and when I see it and start thinking about a poem in response, I say to myself, “it’s the same damn brook.”  Here is that line, from a poem that’s in The Truth About Death, but this last stanza didn’t make the cut.  On the blog, not in the book.  Still the same brook.

I am dutiful, it scares me, the 3. definition of demon
is zealous, skillful, diligent. I can’t stop, one for two.
It’s a choice, the dropping of the dam in spring,
the brook is full and beautiful, it’s the same damn brook.