Category Archives: seaside

My haphazard phenology

Hemerocallis fulva/tiger daylily/ditch lily

I want to be a writer.

I’m not talking about someone who sits back while her muse serves up exquisite turns of phrase on a silver platter. I don’t daydream about an advance that pays the bills. I’m not thinking about getting an MFA. I’m thinking about Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote night after night, after her children were asleep, throughout her “tired thirties.” I’m remembering when I would rise at 5 to get in an hour of words before anyone else was awake. And I’m still sitting with this episode of On Being. It made me cry about eight times (about par for the course), including when Maria Popova remarked:

“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”

Campsis radicans/trumpet creeper

These early years of motherhood are startling in – nearly defined by – their paucity of uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, but it’s there. It’s there when I’m nursing my daughter in the pre-dawn hush, when I’m driving to the grocery store, even in that fraction of a moment when I take my first sip of coffee. I used to say I did my best writing in those delicious (and pen-less) moments, but real writing is something I can share with someone else. Real writing is a decision to push through the distractions and exhaustions that reappear as soon as I put the coffee cup back down. Real writing is work.

When I do the work, life is really good. I get words to look back on, hindsight casting a gentle glow on a time I thought I was stumbling through the dark. I get to wade through the mush of my mom brain and figure out what I really think. I get to talk to you, to other writers and readers. And that’s when a remembered bowl of corn flakes and a downpour in the grocery store parking lot and the quiet wilderness of my little backyard turn blogging into something useful: an instrument of encounter.

But when I don’t do the work, all that fades, like so many July blossoms.

Rudbeckia/black-eyed Susan

My haphazard phenology is as concrete a metaphor as I can come up with for why I want to write. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles, especially as influenced by available sunlight, temperature, and precipitation. The most valuable phenology happens at regular intervals and focuses on a discrete physical area – the span of backyard you can see from the bottom step where you sip your coffee every morning, for example, or the same 10-meter stretch of shoreline.

But even my amateur and slipshod observations have worth. They help me understand where I have landed. They help me teach my children about death and patience and wonder, lessons that seemed so easy when we lived on farms and which seemed so hard at first when we didn’t anymore. And these tiny heralds all around us – poison ivy’s first leaves, tiny and carmine; the first whelk egg cases to wash up along the wrack line; February’s robins puffing their feathers and settling into a westward position on bare oak branches to absorb the last of the day’s thin sunlight; even the cocklebur I step on and curse in the dunes during the dog’s morning walk – they tether me, at least for a moment, in time and in place. These years are tricky. My children are one day asleep in the crook of my elbow, the next day climbing the bookshelves, and the next day teaching themselves to read. They need water and toast and a new shirt and kisses and I have not had any coffee yet. She wants to whisk the pancake batter and he wants to know which species of sharks give birth to live pups and I struggle to gain purchase. But I pry the bur from my heel and drop it in my pocket and look it up online when we get home. I think that perhaps the whelk egg cases are a little earlier this year. I am not startled now to unearth a clutch of horseshoe crab eggs when we dig moats for June’s high tides to fill. Patterns emerge from the welter. I am reminded that life – marine and my own – is unfolding with a sound beauty.

Albizia julibrissin/mimosaMay I be resolved and stubborn enough to do more showing up, more noticing, more work.

Weekending

inside the block

A week ago Sunday I made myself a second cup of coffee and settled myself not into my spot at the end of the couch against the bay window, and not onto a warm patch of bayside sand while my children splashed, but into a patio chair on my friend’s terrace in the East Village. It was the last day of a sweet and chockablock week in the city, and after so much time climbing slides and eating bagels and chatting with strangers and boarding ferries and buses and subway cars, it was good to exhale. My son finished up his second bowl of corn flakes inside and called out to me his plans to make Minecraft weapons from an old egg carton. My daughter stacked and unstacked and restacked flower pots. I sipped my coffee and lifted my face to the hot May sun and took in the Sunday morning sounds of the East Village (church bells, bus brakes and engines, mourning doves, my son’s spoon clanking merrily against his cereal bowl). It’s easy to forget that the city ever slows down, but it does.

My friend’s terrace looks out over the inside of the block, a motley vista of fire escapes and ivy and air conditioners and unlikely trees. It’s such a comfort to me to look out over these bones and muscles of city living. It’s not a quiet place to live, of course, and daily life with small children anywhere is full of questions and bumps and tears and fart jokes and throwing, so much throwing. But sometimes there’s a moment when the exigencies have been deftly met or benignly ignored, when your children are immersed in their own work and you are not needed. I guess that’s going to keep happening, isn’t it?

Sunday though, I didn’t fret about how fast they’re growing. I looked at bricks I’d looked at a hundred times and wondered for the first time whose hands had laid them. I noticed a pigeon in a flower pot and wondered if she had a nest there. I saw an empty six-pack on a fire escape and smiled, thinking of that passage from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about the people who go to early mass:

Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things.They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late – until late mass anyhow.

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.

We’re home now. Horseshoe crab spawning season, one of the most magical and curious times of our year, is upon us. I wrote a post a couple weeks ago but never finished it and thus didn’t post it, in which I talked about how much I like easing past the first lusty weeks of spring, all frogsong and snowdrops and cracked open windows, and into spring proper. But in our week away another shift happened. The daffodils that were just past peak are now fully wizened on their stems. There’s a fine film of pollen on everything and we keep the windows open 24/7 except when it rains. And of course the farm goings-on are full tilt.

Here’s to spring’s wild rumpus! Here’s to my Mother’s Day breakfast in bed and a long solo morning, to our favorite beach bar opening back up, to muddy kids and hungry red knots and strawberries just around the corner. To picnic dinners at the bay and all the baby pigs and even to mosquitoes. To the familiar feeling of it all. To home!

(I may pop back in here and add some of our NYC photos, because I know I’ll be glad to look back on them. But for now: hello again!) 

(joining Karen and company)

The same cheerful hurly-burly

raised bed

It is tempting, sometimes, to call this neighborhood less wild than the other places I have called home in the close to ten years since I left New York City. There are stop signs and water mains and dogs accustomed to their leashes, tidy sod lawns, fences every hundred feet or so that say this is mine and that is yours. I do not watch the fireflies flirting in the marsh a hundred feet off my back deck. The goats do not call to me at milking time from their spot under the enormous old oak at the highest point on our old farm. There is no Virginia creeper or bittersweet snaking its way up our front porch.

But there is a small brown rabbit that sits and chews quietly between two of our raised beds most mornings. The cardinals here fill their lungs just as boldly and sing the same cheerful hurly-burly hurly-burly hurly-burly as I make my coffee. Here they call from somewhere in the spiny sanctuary of holly all around. Last year they called from the mulberry at the edge of the marsh, and in Virginia it was the sycamore outside our kitchen window. Neither the plantain nor the clover will be beaten back, for all my mowing. On the nights when I walk the dog, I regularly nearly trip on a toad that must live under the porch, and last week a young garter snake eyed me calmly as I hung the diapers. I keep forgetting to roll up the car windows and the most exquisite spider webs appear on my dashboard overnight. A few months ago a mourning dove made its nest in our gutter. The dragonflies right now are a marvel to me and they touch down everywhere: clothesline, tomato stake, radio antenna on the car. These creatures, I am reminded, don’t discriminate. They find some food, and find a mate, and make themselves at home.

I sat on our back steps with a glass of iced coffee late this morning, eye to eye with an inchworm swaying on its silk escape rope, and I thought how our suburban street has more than a little in common with all the farms I have known. We humans harrow and mow and mulch and build, hoping to coax the land into providing us food or shelter. But we are always just a step ahead of the bindweed, or the bean beetles, or the crows, and that’s only if we’re quick enough and lucky enough. The lawns will always need mowing, and the shingles will always be battered by the wind off the ocean, and some pretty bird will always be eager to make its nest in our gutter.

And of course: the bay. It is four hundred yards from porch to surf. We leash the dog and set off, stopping perhaps to talk with a neighbor about the mosquitoes, or how big the baby is getting, or Ninja Turtles. We walk on. We slip off our sandals and climb the dune and then there it is: broad like the sea, glassy and lazy some days, other times fierce and grey. We right overturned horseshoe crabs. We inspect sea lettuce and graceful red weed and knobbed whelk egg cases in the wrack line. We identify laughing gulls, semipalmated sandpipers, snowy egrets, and at least a half dozen others that we will look up when we get back to the house. Here more than anywhere, I am reminded: we are only scratching the surface. Sure as the plantain and the cardinals, we will be at home here soon enough.

horseshoe crabs