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Shedding the past, skirt by skirt


I’m not the woman in this photo anymore. See me pushed up against the wall by men in suits, my hands crossed, pant-suit legs together, and note my totally resigned grin. See me now: sitting in my Word Sharpener study as a blizzard rages outside. Everything I’m wearing is waterproof. There’s no standing around when the winds are howling. I have a wood stove to keep going and a home to ensure remains tight against the weather.

Perhaps the most different thing about me is my smile. I’m not trying to keep up appearances for the U.S. Treasury Secretary or my then-boss, Strobe Talbott. I’m smiling now because I’m warm, and feel safe, even in nature’s grip. This is my fourth winter in Maine and, though I haven’t fully adjusted to its storms, life up here has bared me to the essentials.

I’ve packed away and given to others most of the clothes that I used to wear. I have no need for that formal, buttoned-up look, in pants or skirts that never really let me breathe easily or break out. My Washington, DC wardrobe is not even current anymore. And, yes, some of the pieces no longer fit. When I visit DC or other urban centers for professional reasons, I dress simply, in clothes that imply nothing but comfort and grace. There’s really nothing to prove anymore.

Even my meetings in the Old Executive Office Building warrant no more than a newly knitted sweater and shoes that can manage those steep Eisenhower-era steps. My chores there are less-than-public. I’m merely behind the scenes as a Word Sharpener. For my corporate clients, I pull out an old designer jacket with puffed shoulders that can cover all my loose garb. I like to think that people don’t look at how I dress anymore.

Same with my hair. There’s no more cute flip and gradual shaping. My hair gets braided when I kayak; yanked into a hat when I ski; and otherwise manages to climb below my neck as one more layer against the cold. One day I will cut it all off and let it go the gray of tarnished silver.

For now, I enjoy the collection of corduroys and ski wear that keeps me covered through the weather and takes me as easily to my frozen Sampson Cove as to the more sociable Narrow’s Tavern. I have no problem with closet space. The only real bulk in my wardrobe are all the sweaters that I keep knitting with local fibers. My love of color hasn’t dimmed at all.

I’ve shed the past in many ways. But in the most meaningless — how I dress — I can somehow look back and see how far I’ve come.

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Things left behind

I have many more friends in Maine than I did in Washington. Perhaps that’s no surprise. This is an environment more receptive to the interpersonal:  basic, kind treatment of others. In these coastal Northern New England communities, people are our greatest resource, what’s sure to remain when the tide goes out. To survive here, I’ve had to unlearn behaviors accumulated in Washington and through childhood.

I’ve written here about things I carry; now I write about things left behind. Exactly three years ago I packed up my belongings, dogs, son’s detritus and moved to Waldoboro. I left behind family and friends, a job, a suburban neighborhood, and miserably hot summers. Yet I’ve managed to rake in — as I now rake for blueberries on my fields — the best of the Washington crop.

Many of my Washington relationships have grown much stronger in the past few years, as people visit me for quality periods of time or I return to Baltimore-DC and enjoy getting to know my new great niece and other family during long weekend visits. I’ve also been very lucky with work: many of my favorite colleagues have become wonderful clients, and my Word Sharpener business is booming.

Yet, just as I must winnow out the twigs and leaves from the ripe blueberries I rake in, I’ve had to reconsider many of the ties that once bound me to Washington traditions. I lived in DC for three decades, and grew up in Baltimore. I’d become so ensconced in certain behaviors that I’ve only just come to grips with getting rid of what hurts me.

For instance, my shy upbringing taught me to be accommodating. When a cousin emailed recently to say she would stop by at 9:30AM on Monday morning after visiting her kids for the weekend at a Maine camp, I cleaned my house, put work aside, and prepared for the visit. When it got to be 10:30, then 11, and finally, at nearly noon, I felt like someone had lobbed me with a mud ball. Turns out, as she puts it, “weather intervened.” It was raining.

Bottom line: I wasn’t high on her priority list of visits. In return, I’ve raked this cousin into my compost pile. Neat and simple. “We’ll make this work next summer,” she text-ed. That message, also deleted.

Similarly, I’ve had to really pick carefully through my crop of Washington friends and acquaintances. My life is here now. Between work, being on the boards of two great community organizations, enjoying the gamut of recreational activities from kayaking to skiing, learning to paint, and so much more, I can’t continue to invest in old patterns. That person doesn’t live there anymore.

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The boy next door

A young man pulled up to my house the other day and told me how he’d spent every summer of his childhood in the cottage next door, a structure now close to complete disrepair. He was sad about the abandonment, but I could see that in his mind’s eye, the clapboard nearly overtaken by weeds still lived in its glory days. His wife and two tow-headed boys joined us in a tour of his past. He looked beyond the torn-up floors and mildew to tell us how the main bedroom seemed enormous when he was small. He would send me pictures, he promised, to show me how the place was once well cared for and glorious.

He talked about the former owners of my home — Leon and Claire — and how he would run down to the shore across their fields nearly four times a day, often in search of what the clammers left behind, things like old rubber boots. He’d learned to fly fish where Sligo Creek rushes into Sampson Cove. He picked blueberries and spent hours on the high granite rocks. When he imagined what might have changed over the years, he knew the granite ledges would not ever disappear.

As he spoke, I realized that his childhood had morphed into my adulthood. All of his carefree roaming in the woods, pastures and the shore had become my current life. All of his enthusiasm mirrored my own.

My childhood was spent year-round in a small garden apartment bounded on one side by railroad tracks, another by old Baltimore, and another by suburban sprawl. My only escape was to venture onto tree branches and imagine myself as the captain of a ship. We had boulders too, painted bright yellow to keep cars from treading off the apartment complex roads. I used to leap across them, just as this boy next door had his granite forts.

Maine has brought out the child spirit in me, especially in the summer months. I can captain my kayak on journeys I’d only imagined from the tree tops of that Baltimore apartment complex. I run down to the water many times through the day and it’s never the same, just as the boy/now young man recalls.

Thoreau wrote something about the fulfillment of dreams when he spent those years on Walden Pond. How wonderful when that fulfillment also returns me to childhood.

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The Things We Carry

Just as on the Normandy beach this morning, glorious sunshine bathed the shoreline across the Atlantic in Maine seventy years after troops stormed the French side to defeat the Nazis. Back then, U.S. soldiers did not all land where they’d anticipated; many had lost their weapons. They scoured the beach to find makeshift weaponry and ammunition. They carried on, without hesitation. Seven decades later, I have the freedom and time to tally, picking up from the beach all the color I can carry.

I find arrowheads from the Indians that lived on Sampson Cove long before we invaded Normandy. The sea glass was probably discarded by lobstermen and clammers long enough ago to have become sanded by the ocean into smooth pieces I can stuff in my pockets. An empty horseshoe crab shell is merely a sign that evolution does not change all its creatures. I often find things when I’m not even looking.

It’s not just the debris that I carry on my morning jaunts over the rocks and sand. Yesterday I carried my brother Robert, as it was the anniversary of his death. He’s with me every day, of course, but yesterday he particularly grabbed hold of my heart and made me heavy all day. I carry my foolish youth far more happily. Those crazy years of living in transit every moment, never being able to simply reflect. The agony and the ecstasy of a professional life that has morphed now into something that I carry easily; my workaday life is wonderfully solitary and so much more productive than those years in the office.

I carry the joy of the moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rainy morning, or even an icy one, because I can see the far horizon even through fog. And I can hear the gulls: some laugh; some cry.

Then there’s what the dogs carry. When I turn to head home through the woods, Oscar inevitably runs past with something that looks like a deer’s tail, or perhaps something that once belonged to a snowshoe hare. Emma carried a dead baby groundhog this morning. It looked like it had drowned in the rain puddles and been found by her hound nose. She carried it to taunt Oscar. She carried it proudly; even relinquished it to me once we were home for disposal.

Yes, everyone finds treasures (or remembers them) on the beach.

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When a Cold Stove is Like a Kid

My wood stove took center stage through the cold, stormy, dark days of winter, burning through three cords of wood to give me warmth, light, and a certain reliability. Off stage, my son Reid is preparing for graduation and a job. I can’t say that he’s always been reliable, but he’s given me warmth and an occasional light into the mind of a youth.

When I went to light my stove the other night, after it had been idle for several days, it surprised me how slow it was to spark into fire. All winter it ran like magic. I’d rake the hot coals every morning, put in the logs, and the stove roared. Yet during the in between time–not winter, not spring–even as the flame began, the black iron stayed so cold to my touch. I’d look away, and the flame was gone.

I made myself a Martini, thinking that I would have the fire going in no time and could get into a hot bath before dinner. I’d been skiing and my bones were weary. When Reid was an infant and I was finally able to put him down for a nap, I’d take a warm bath rather than a nap. Sometimes exhaustion needs to be doused by submersion in water rather than being placated on a mattress.

But the fire wouldn’t start, so I never turned on the hot faucets. I rolled tight paper balls and gathered dried twigs and leaves. The wood I’m using now is from my own property and isn’t as aged as perhaps it should be. Yet I arranged the logs perfectly over the nest of paper and twigs. Lit the match, again. Flames shot up.

Was the fire independent? I sat on my braided carpet and watched. The paper burned into black coils and the twigs became glow worms. I let more air into the stove, and watched the fire grow higher. But it wasn’t catching onto the logs. I put in more paper and more twigs and dried leaves. Let in more air. Waited.

We put a lot of energy into our children, waiting for them to take off. At some point we just know that they are ready. Same with tending a wood stove.

The fire looked impressive for about five minutes and then died back down to the withering twigs. I inserted a smaller log, put in some old dried wood that I’d dug up from the frozen ground. I was down to the B section of the Lincoln County News, full of spelling bee winners and other local champs, who all got stuffed into the stove. Match lit, again.

How much time did it actually take me to light that fire? I’d finished the Martini and the olive, and knew there would be no bath. I sat there watching until I was absolutely certain that the logs were fully involved with the flame. I sat there until the stove became warm to the touch and I watched the thermometer affixed to the stove rise. Even the sounds coming from the fire had humph. I could make dinner.

I’m not sure that Reid is fully involved with the life he’s about to undertake. But I’ve tended to him long enough, and he’s plenty warm to the touch.




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Friendship Arc

Nearly 40 years have scattered past since last we’d spoken of our ambitions and dreams; we picked up yesterday from exactly where that thread had remained, frozen deep in our hearts and minds.

We arrived in New York City on the same boat–so to speak–with our expired Eurail passes, no place to stay, and every intention of conquering the city. It was 1976. We met at the Second Annual International Women’s Film Festival. Both of us were 22. She’d graduated college in the northeast; me in the midwest. We swore that we would both be writers and live very exciting lives. I don’t remember if our friendship in the city lasted for weeks or months, but she eventually returned to California where she’d grown up and I stayed, for a time, in New York.

We wrote long letters to each other on typewriters. Not like Kevin Spacey typed perfectly to the president on his Underwood in the final season episode of “House of Cards.” We Xed out words and went off on tangents, meandering to capture all the adventures of our lives. She became a script writer in Los Angeles, TV and movie. I eventually moved to DC and covered Congress and social policy. We both had children: she married; me as a single mom.

I saw her briefly over the years, once in San Francisco and once in LA. The first time we were both too busy with our careers to really connect; the second time we were too busy with very young children.

Yesterday we met in Portland, Maine. At 60, we are both secure enough in where we are to resume that thread about life we’d started back in ’76. How wonderful it was to sit at the Duck Fat restaurant near the old port and eat french fries with a curried mayo, drinking local ale. Our children are the same age now as we were when we first met.

We talked about everything as if the friendship had never gotten buried by the rush of years. We could relax, because both of us have accomplished much of what we set out to do. That doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple ongoing projects for both of us, much grist for discussion, but we could put aside deadlines, the angst of our young-adult children, and writing for an afternoon.

One of the precious things about resuming that conversation–one of dreams, hopes, ambitions–is that we have so much to build upon. The foundation of friendship has a graceful arc.



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Trial by Ice

Barely 24 hours into being fully transitioned into Maine life, after completing the sale on my Maryland house, I came face-to-face with the real north: frozen pipes. I was so happy to only own one wonderful home with a wood fire at its core. The frigid cold made for powdery snow, perfect for x-country skiing. And that’s what I’d done, gone with Laura across the frozen pond bordering her yard, into the nicely groomed snowmobile trails that wove through the wilderness of Waldoboro. All we saw were moose tracks as we slid along. We finished with some homemade hard pear cider, and I went home. Something was wrong. Something was blocking the drains from the kitchen sink and the bathroom off the kitchen. Ice.

Living in Maine for nearly three years now, tales of frozen pipes are part of the scenery. Until it was my house, until the temperatures plunged to 15-20 degrees below zero, I hadn’t felt that grip. Now, if I still lived in Maryland, I’d immediately call the plumber or some such. In Maine, they expect you to do everything that you can do first. So, first thing the next morning, I ventured down to the small crawl space under the bathroom where the main water pipes lay behind layers of insulation. But the new layer of insulation outside the space had shut off the door. I couldn’t reach my pipes without heavy knives.

That’s when I started making phone calls. I called Mike who’d done the insulation of my study; I called Josh, a local builder; and I called Laura’s husband Brian, since I knew he was handy with frozen pipes.

After returning from errands an hour or so later, I found a car in my driveway. It could have been any of the three — since all were more than willing to help. Lucky perhaps that it was Mike, since it took him nearly three hours to crawl into every space under my house, and help me discover the wonder that is my pipe system. Turns out that my main drain pipe was wrapped in heating tape, but it wasn’t plugged in.

I woke this morning to working drains. Something tells me that it won’t be the last time I crawl under my house to check on pipes and freezing, and other things that I don’t care to consider.

Mainers expect me to take matters into my own hands, and fix these things myself. But the beauty is that there’s plenty of people to help me.

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Turning Sixty, Only in Waldoboro

A week or so ago a local fellow walks into the Narrows Tavern and lays an urn with his mother’s ashes on the bar and orders a beer. Only in Waldoboro. No one locks their doors in Waldoboro; we carry with us what we are, our value.  Or, in this case, his mother.

Living here is a daily adventure. Every morning I set out on my daily walk with the dogs; the fields, shore, and woods before us are a blank surface. Especially with the snow, and drifting, footprints disappear so fast. I can’t imagine a more beautiful way to start each day.

Robert Frost had it wrong. So many paths cross in the woods. If one is not taken, we may return there again, as I returned to Maine. How fortuitous that I have friends in Friendship, Maine and Bates was wooing Reid. How lucky that I retraced my steps and found again the magic of this craggy-yet-open coast.

So turning sixty in Waldoboro feels so absolutely right and so powerfully rich. As I stroll this magnificent land, I carry with me the love and thoughts of all the friends, relatives, and people who have touched me. I think about the people I’ve not yet met, but look forward to knowing their smiles. I think about the people I’ve lost, but who I retain nonetheless through memories too vivid to ever disappear.

Life is an adventure, and I’m careful to figure out where I’ve gone on my morning walks, so that I can return home again to the warm fire and to breakfast. If I stray too far, there are markers to bring me back.

There is so much work left to do. I edit brilliant words by brilliant people (mostly economists) and try to make them understandable to those perhaps less brilliant but equally insightful. Pages and pages cover my desk and I know I’ll get through them, just as I find my way home every morning.

This is my last day of being 59; a winter storm is forecast. Reid and I will snowshoe across frozen Sampson Cove, or perhaps head to Camden Hills. I’ll have my birthday dinner with my friends in Friendship. One of them I knew when we were both in our twenties. When she smiles (and she is just over sixty), she still has that look of awe that I so well recall from our Manhattan years.

I have no qualms about starting this new decade of my adventure in my sixties. If it is anything like that decade I only barely remember: BRING IT ON.

I imagine that my friends will probably have the Waldoboro volunteer firemen set up the Pink Flamingos again on my snowy yard. There better be sixty of them.

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The urban environment offers little buffer between home and hoards. Not so in rural lands where hills, dales, shorelines and wildlife put considerable distance between homeowner and not. Here on Sampson Cove, I believe in roaming the land in the cooler months when the southerners/summer people are gone. The cove is surrounded by empty “estates” and caretakers who are used to my roaming. One homeowner was not.

My philosophy is that land is meant to be softly used. With Oscar and Emma, I walk across lands as did the characters in a Jane Austin novel. All property is still open to walkers in the United Kingdom. The concept of private property is somewhat an American innovation. Mainers who hunt and clam often ignore the rules and have been known to drive their four-wheelers across fields to reach clam beds or good hunting grounds. I merely stroll the fields, leaving footprints that might deter those with other purposes.

Last winter, after snowshoeing across the fields for several days, a clammer asked me if I was “big foot.” He’d noticed the signs of my activity and wondered if he should be concerned. I often pick up trash and remove debris. Whatever I see, I report to the caretakers.

So I was surprised a few days after Thanksgiving to be confronted by a woman who kept repeating her name to me, as if I should be daunted by the sound of the homeowners’ fabled surname. I explained that I often strolled that way and kept an eye on things since I, unlike her, was a year-round resident.

“My husband is hunting with my son at the point right now, so you better be careful with those dogs,” she told me point blank.

Emma and Oscar were covered in blaze orange. Only a really stupid hunter would aim at them. But I decided to politely turn and walk back toward my property. She’ll be gone soon enough.

Later that day, we entered a long “neck” of property that juts into Musgongus Bay. A gate cuts off the public from the very large compound. After parking along the coast, walking into this property is easy and worth the trip. Every house boarded up and not another soul in sight. Only islands in the mist. I’d been to this compound in the summer months for dinners and drinks and knew many of the residents. Was I wrong to return in winter and stroll?

I live in the midst of magnificent natural beauty every month of the year. I see no reason why I can’t enjoy all the views while others live out the colder months in a more urban southern environment. Leave the land to those who don’t fear the blizzards.

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Hunting Season

We walked our normal autumn/winter path along the water and across neighboring fields, onto a scenic point that juts into the water with a view of the sleeping town of Waldoboro and the lobster boats pulling up traps. Except that bird hunting season seems to be in overdrive. Hunters in boats raced through the high water in search of a good duck blind. Guns could be heard from nearly every side. Taking this cue, Oscar and Emma bagged a wild turkey early in our jaunt, mostly through their collective speed and luck.

My successful hunters didn’t want to leave their catch, especially after they yanked every feather off it. I tried to tell myself it was simply a rubber turkey as I grabbed it by the long legs and threw it into the water.

I didn’t expect my cold water hating pup Oscar to suddenly decide to swim out after the bird. But that Labrador instinct proved tougher than his concerns with water. He dove in and swam, bringing me back the rubber-like turkey.

I threw it again. Oscar retrieved it, again. This went on a few more times, when I finally managed to get in a good throw. He looked out at his bobbing bird, but agreed to continue our walk. Full of himself now, he ran circles around Emma and led the way across the fields. We forged a stream, and went to the next property, weary of guns and hidden hunters.

On our way back, that darned turkey was still floating in the water. Oscar went right in and pulled it back, more proud than ever. I tried putting it up high on a branch, but those wings and feet were hard to balance and it fell. Tried again on a bigger branch; it stayed.

I headed through the woods on the final stretch to home, and Oscar came running down the trail with the turkey dangling from his mouth. He clearly wanted to take this thing home. No way.

Taking it from him in a final definitive grab, I put the turkey up as high as I could in the pine needles of a large evergreen.  Unless an Eagle or Vulture swings by, I’m afraid it may be there when we head out again. With luck, a hunter will find it and throw it in his bag.

But Oscar is drying off by the fire now. He’s ready for another round.

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