Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reasons to Believe

Change is on the horizon. I felt it so strongly yesterday, driving north along the eastern seaboard. Pulling onto the residential streets of Brooklyn, travel weary and over-caffeinated, I noticed the first dry leaves scattered amid the car tires. A week from today, I leap into a new adventure as a doctorate student in food studies. I've been wrapped up in logistics and planning, fretting and cleaning and trying to put everything in order around me, trying to stave off the inevitable messiness of life. It's always a losing battle. I should know by now, but it took a weekend away in Frederick, Maryland to lend a little perspective. I got a good long run in along back country roads, walked around a beautiful historic town, took a great yoga class (the teacher made me cry when she said "in this time of changing winds, it can be hard to find your balance"), and listened to a lot of oldies. But the real reason I was down in the mid-Atlantic was my dear friend Meredith.

This past weekend, she and her beloved Dan invited their nearest and dearest to gather around them and celebrate their incredible love story, their deep friendship and the start of their new chapter as husband and wife.

Barn from my run-- Frederick, MD
In my head, I've been imagining the toast I would have given to them. In front of a hundred people, it might not have come out like this. But here's the gist:

Mer and I are soul sisters of sorts. We knew we were meant for each other almost immediately when we met. It was a beautiful October day, and we were sitting at a patio table a month into my freshman and Mer's junior year of college. We were both pouring a lot of our energy into reproductive rights and sexual health at the time, and both had plans to deliver babies for a living. She had a smile that stretched from ear to ear, a bustling, infectious energy, and like me, a mom sick with cancer. Unlike me, though, Mer had already been seasoned by the rigors and roller coaster of care-taking, grief and fear that come with long-term illness. I was new to the game. I didn't know then how much her resilience and arms-wide-open approach to life would guide me through my own waves of grief and change.

Downtown Historic Frederick
We spent time cooking together and taking walks. We, along with a whole crew of wacky, fun-loving outdoors folk, got naked as part of Tufts Wilderness Orientation. We studied together. We checked in on our families daily, taking care from afar and going home often. We talked about how the fear of losing the people and structure that we've come to take as givens makes us want to fill up our lives with more love, more life.

On Valentine's Day of my sophomore year, Meredith sat with me for hours while we tried to coordinate  an ambulance dispatch to my mom's house in New York from our student center in Massachusetts, then drove me home in the middle of the night so I could be with my mom in the ER. The next afternoon, Mer was supposed to take a huge statistics exam. But the moment I started to fret over my interrupting her near perfect academic record, she shushed me and calmly explained to me that she'd talk to her professor about what had happened. She was sure she'd understand. Meredith's always had a little more faith than I.

Years have passed since then. Between the two of us, we've accrued two bachelors degrees, lost three parents and stood fast alongside eighteen years of cancer's and loss's Big Life Lessons. We've both loved a lot, and said bittersweet goodbyes. Separately, we've traveled. We've cooked. We've gone for runs, long walks, hikes. We've both done a lot of yoga. We've read novels and planted gardens and worked on farms. We've drunk a lot of wine. We've sat in chilly movie theaters and watched chick flicks and fallen asleep early. We haven't once lived in the same city since Mer graduated from college in 2006.

And through it all-- all the loss, and reeling, and grief and joy-- we've both hungered for love. The kind that builds you up and fills you out, makes you burst with a sense of belonging and recognition and compassion. We've yearned to nurture and also to be cared for. We've looked for kindness and humor, sharp minds and good looks. And we've both doubted its existence.

But two years ago, when she least expected it, Mer met Dan. The first time we spoke about him, her voice sounded different, calmer. She was already sure, she told me, using the words kismet and beshert. And this past Sunday, she married him.

Mer at her Tish, sounding ever so sage
on matters companionship,
love and marriage
There was an incredible presence of love, contentment and community under that tent, as the rain poured down over the vineyard. There was a lot of talk about God being present. I'm still not sure what I think on that matter, but I do know there was a palpable energy, a force-field of sorts, surrounding Dan and Mer and, indeed, all of us under the pavilion roof as they made their vows. I cried. A lot of us cried. And as soon as the ceremony ended, the rain stopped and a rainbow arced over the back fields. A sign of luck and love from those not with us if ever there were one (I was far too busy making friends to go snap any photos). Inside, we sang and danced the Hora and drank lots of wine. Feeling a little overcome, I walked barefoot in the rain-wet field and looked up at the stars.

Mer, Dan and a handful of us stayed up late into the night. We laughed a lot, so hard our bellies hurt. New friendships were formed (not surprisingly, as the two of them only associate with the creme-de-la-creme of the human race, as far as I can tell), the ring of love radiating outward from the newlyweds.

Never, in my life, have I felt such faith. That things have a way of working themselves out, and life takes shape, curveballs and all. We can go along for the ride, or we can resist. Love morphs and ebbs, but, like matter, it doesn't ever disappear. Not really. As long as we invite it in and tend to it kindly, it'll tend to us as well.

So here's to Mer and Dan. To many, many happy years. Thank you for reminding us all of the reasons to believe.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Popping the Maine Bubble: Post Vacation Blues

At 4:30 this past Monday afternoon, a beautiful summer day, I was sitting in Western Massachusetts at my desk, reunited with my laptop after a week and a half of (blissful, and very necessary) separation. And I was panicking.

I'm was not ready to be back. Five days later, as the rain patters on my apartment's skylight in Brooklyn, I'm still not.

Trouble digging into his first ever crab
roll at Days
Just the day before, Trouble and I were sitting in a secluded spot in North Berwick, Maine, gorging ourselves on a wood-fired meal of braised chicken raised on site by my dad's cousin Pete, his wonderful wife Rebekah, and Rebekah's baby brother (and fellow food-writer/agent-sharer) Joe Yonan. Pete showed off the expanded gardens on the homestead, in a state of full late-summer boom, and then gave Trouble, me and Don and Samantha behind Rabelais a tour of the extraordinary house he built by hand. Rebekah and Joe had prepared an eye-popping feast, and neighbors and friends contributed sides, drinks and desserts. The conversation was easy, the afternoon hot and still (until a heavy downpour drove us stragglers indoors). Pete's sisters, Bonnie and Wendy, showed up en route north from New York late in the evening, having come from visiting Bonnie's daughter in the Bronx and my step-mom in Westchester County. We laughed and opened more wine, talked about youngest sibling-hood and the woes of freelancing. It was a wonderful, wonderful way to end a week in Maine.

the beehives at Pete and Rebekah's
North Berwick homestead
Pete and Rebekah's gardens
and greenhouse
Before that, Trouble and I had tentatively eased off Isle au Haut, lingering as we drove south, not wanting the luster to wear off our week of vacation. We stopped in Belfast to eat bar food and watch the Olympic soccer final, then passed Trouble's son and his friend off to another family (who was taking them for yet another week of Maine barefoot fun) and headed south to Portland. On the way, we popped into LL Bean to check out camping gear and then stopped for Maine popcorn shrimp and I fed Trouble his first crab roll at Days in Yarmouth. In Portland, where I was studying when we first met, we ate oysters and drank cocktails, then revisited Miyake-- the site of our first date-- for an extraordinary succession of sushi courses.

Already, it seems worlds away.

Our little boathouse-cum-garage and dinghy on the thorofare
But backing up. Isle au Haut. Right. That little spit of rock and pine 7 miles off the coast of Stonington, Maine in Penobscot Bay. I've been going since I was nine months old, missing only a couple of summers to teenage poutiness and busyness. My mother's parents bought a bright old cottage by the water back in the 60s, and it's been in our family ever since. To me, it is one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the world. More importantly, it's like sacred ground.  The little Isle contains so many family memories of parents and grandparents, firsts and falls, berries and pies and pancakes and lobsters and bee-stings. It's cold-water swims and starlit nights and sparklers on the porch. It's unbearable mosquitoes at dusk and foggy mornings that turn into brilliantly blue afternoons. It's long talks over tea and wine, games of Scrabble and Monopoly and lots and lots of reading.
The view from Mt. Champlain, the Island's highest point

It's the only place I know where I can fill up the days with nothing more than a good book, a long walk, and lots of cooking and eating. A nice swim is icing on the cake, but on a rainy day, even that seems like too much effort. It always takes a couple days to recalibrate the body and mind to the slower pace and nosedive in stimulation, but once you've gotten into Island Mode, it always seems as though the world's always been bare feet, blueberry stains and long, plan-less days.

The bunkhouse with our little blue Jeep Comanche
Black Dinah-- this way!

This year was a supremely lazy one. The spring and early summer have been so jam packed with travel and logistics that it felt perfectly delicious to just rest. I didn't get as much exercise as I thought I would and didn't get through half the pile of books I had lugged along for the trip. We went to my friends Kate and Steve's fabulous chocolate shop, Black Dinah Chocolatiers, several times for coffee, pastries and chocolate. I let Trouble and my brother, Pete-- who joined us for three nights midweek-- take the helm at the stove as frequently as they were inclined to, and I happily washed and dried dishes as often as needed in return.  I baked fewer pies (but more crisps) than I usually do, and wrote almost none, save a few scribbled notes here and there. But we all took naps, Trouble competed in his first triathalon, we saw a few shooting stars, and we read aloud a lot.

Jason's lobsters, hands down the best
in Maine (and the world, if you ask me)
I could tell you about the meals we had (and there were some really triumphant ones, including a batch of cochinita pibil slow-cooked by Trouble in anticipation of Pete's arrival and eaten in "hippie tortillas", or the blueberry crisps and pancakes, lobster straight from my old friend Jason's boat, or even the fried calamari we made with freshly Island-caught squid our final night), but I don't much feel like it. I'll let some of the photos speak for themselves to give you an idea.

On Isle au Haut, the meals feel as essential to the day as brushing your teeth much more than they do any sort of hype-worthy climax. On the Island, everyone cooks-- there's no other choice. No restaurants. No bars. Just home kitchens. And we like it that way. But furthermore, when it comes right down to it, especially when I'm trying to maximize my time hiking in the woods and being barefoot on the lawn, I don't want to be stuck poring over recipes. I'd rather breakfast on ripe peaches and blueberries and have a cold lunch of leftover cole-slaw and pork than fuss over something new.
Leaving the Island on the Miss Lizzie in morning "pea soup"

Molly Wizenberg's August 9 post on Orangette resonated deeply with me. She was describing a few summer treats she had whipped up, but then followed up with this: "It was all tasty. But to be 100% honest, none of it made me feel like writing about it. The truth is, I think I like a bowl of raw blueberries, or a few slices of peach, or a pile of plain roasted zucchini, more than anything interesting that I could make or bake from them. The Life Lessons of Molly Wizenberg, age 33 3/4".

Being on Isle au Haut is one big life lesson, at least when "life" means this tech-crazed runaround existence we all seem to be so caught up in these days. On the Island, life slows down. WAY down. The mail boat comes and goes, measuring the hours. The sun rises, the gulls call, you make coffee and listen to the lobster boats chug out of the thorofare. And then, somehow, before you can even quite remember how you've passed the day, you're turning off the last light to fall into the deepest kind of sleep, uninterrupted by planes or lights or the rush of far off (or nearby) highway traffic.

But here's the startling thing. You leave the Island, and so much of that seems to slip away. Some of the magic remains, as long as you stay in Maine, but for me, crossing the border at Kittery back into "lower" New England is a surefire reminder that fall is coming near. Today, as Trouble as I wound back through the roads of Western Massachusetts, having taken as many diversions as we could, we found ourselves looking at each other with a quiet sense of dread. I looked up from the book I was reading aloud in the passenger seat.

"I feel like the summer's over," I said.
Me pedaling the generator bicycle in the
Mass MoCA Airstream installation

"It is," Trouble replied, eking out a half smile.

We stretched out the feeling a bit, with Trouble skipping out of work early one day for ice cream and an early movie (we saw Ruby Sparks, our plan B when our first choice was sold out-- I loved it!),  and then, the next, for a long drive across Massachusetts and into the Berkshires to visit Mass MoCA. It was all fun, and felt spontaneous and fancy-free, but it wasn't quite Maine. The bubble had burst.

I know I should be grateful for the time we had. For the peace of mind and the break from the whirring of the world. And I am. Really. But right now, back to my apartment and cooking for one, with the air conditioner pumping away to keep the oppressive heat at bay and the school-year just around the corner, I can't help think about how fleeting the time and places we hold most dear always seem to be. And wishing-- though I know it's fruitless-- that we could hold on a little bit longer.