To Begin With

 1.Your job over the next four weeks is to lead eight girls into the New England wilderness and keep them fed. It would be ideal if they didn't get physically banged up at all, but they are a radically uncoordinated bunch so just do what you can. You have nothing to worry about, as you are well aware, because this is entirely within your range of ability, you led the same trip last year, and especially with your newly acquired medic skills you are more than a capable leader. We'll tell you right now- and we're not spoiling any surprises because in terms of the girls there are no surprises to be spoiled- that you'll encounter three nose bleeds, two "sprained" knees, one partial thickness burn (boiling water, dinner, surprising it wasn't worse) and the normal amount of blisters and scratches. On day three in the White Mountains it will rain for eight hours as you march up and down four miles of exposed ridge line at a dazzlingly slow pace, but you and Liz do an admirable job at staving off hypothermia. There are two overturned canoes and, during one unfortunately synchronised spell, about eight times the amount of menstrual cramps you were prepared to hear about at one time. Absolutely nothing to write home about. We will warn you however, and not to spoil any surprises here, that just five days into the trip you'll receive a terrible piece of news- it will quite literally land in your lap- and after that a trembling, unfathomable sadness will slouch its way into your amygdala and dominate every thing you do, down to the last detail. 
2. The trip begins with a four day canoe trip across lake Umbagog and down the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire. Everything is serene and pleasant and the girls are doe eyed and eager and brand new at everything. You and Liz, but mostly Liz, teach them the practicals of camping- how to prime a stove and light a blue flame without blowing themselves up, how to get a fire going in the evenings and properly stake out a tent. Your imparted wisdom is less pertinent but, you contend, may be very important one day. It is important to keep a severed digit cool by wrapping it in wet rag and storing it in a waterbottle, you tell them over dinner, holding up a half full Nalgene and shaking it. However, do not submerge the digit fully in water, it will decompose. They gamely absorb this and other information you dole out, and over dessert they beg to hear your adventure stories. They think you're funny, one of the most exciting people they've ever met. If the world were comprised of sixteen year olds, you think to yourself as you hold a marshmallow stick over the fire, you would be a very famous person, although you're faintly aware that the full ramifications of that statement are not entirely positive towards you.

Love on water

You never should have spent that winter by the ocean
alone in the windstorms beside the slowed surf
where you went walking each morning
over frozen sand
the sun bled over a pale sky, the stars tired holes
you told you would arrange driftwood, down
on your knees on the armory of ice
the patterns you made would stay for days, and days.


I wrote this poem when I was in college and yeah, I know that 'armory of ice' doesn't make sense. That's why we pay money to go to creative writing school, so we can be especially proud of a line and then be told by a room full of blank faced sophomores that our brilliant imagery is flawed. Same thing happened to me with a poem about kids growing up in the country 'at ease with their solidarity.' Solidarity, I learned, does not mean solitude. Sort of the opposite, actually.

The University of Washington sits more or less on the shores of the stormy Puget Sound, but that poem is actually written about the Atlantic- the slate colored, frigid waters of my memory. For a kid growing up on Boston Harbor, there is nothing as vast or terrifying as the ocean. My mother would take my sister and I to peer over the wall at Fisherman's wharf and look at the alien jellyfish floating below, and I would have nightmares for weeks. Even the bright red lobster lollipops from the fish warehouse were concerning.

As a junior in intermediate short story workshop held by a completely hairless sports writer, I wrote a story about a light house keeper on an island. He spent too much time alone listening to the waves pound at the shore and grew convinced that the ocean was a monster that was coming after him.

Such is my preoccupation with the waters of the Atlantic, fueled by the dark music I grew up listening to. I'm not sure whether or not I've mentioned it here before, but one of my idiosyncrasies is my nearly fetishistic love of maritime folk music of Maine and Nova Scotia. It still tops my playlist after 25 years. Songs of fishermen lost and tall ships wrecked in the winds and schooners decaying like skeletons beneath the sea. The Atlantic that eats ships and sails and men, winds that pick up the elements of life be them good or bad, crushes them to sand and spins them out to sea.

In my current state of existentialism and love-lost, I was eager to be heading towards Maine for a four day sea kayak trip off the coast of Acadia. It was the ideal time for me to navigate through rough waters, sit on the history soaked island, soak in salt spray and tap into my misery in a place that would understand it like none other.

But the Atlantic was nothing like what I had thought her to be. I found her to be resoundingly cheerful. My experience was something akin to my first drink:

When I was newly 21, something went wrong with a rent check or a boyfriend. Probably both because I didn't balance my check book and I was dating a big giant error in judgment. Either way, I went to the bar to have a drink. It was 2pm in the afternoon. I had never gone to a bar alone and never before 9pm. I was determined to sit there and be dark and morose. I hunched over the menu and ordered the first thing that looked decent and remained hunched until the drink arrived.

Which it did, promptly, served in a coconut, with a parasol and four plastic monkeys hung on the rim by their curling tails. The most fun, the most cheerful of all drinks ever to be served. My fault, surely, for going to Seattle's only Hawaiian inspired bar, but still a disappointment.

Now watch as I bring it back to my trip to Maine. I came to the islands ready to feel the darkness of the place. To feel the ache of fishermen losing their livelihoods and the widows and lost ships and the indifferent violence of the ocean that cares not for petty emotions. But the waters were calm and sunny and full of rowdy lobster men and seagulls. And the waves kept spewing heart shaped crap all over the shore, and I kept finding it.

There was more than this shell, of course, but it's the only thing I took pictures of. I tried to ignore them, the heart shaped rocks and rose colored sea and if those weren't obvious enough there was this. The girls were sleeping on the decks of their boat, there was nobody else on the island, no ships on the horizon, it was just me alone, taking a harmless walk along the shore, and I practically tripped over it:

Some previous visitor to the island had spent a long time on their hands and knees, carefully spelling it out above the intertidal zone where nothing could disrupt it, just in case some lone walker needed a mental pick-me-up.

That's it. All the cheerful omens of the universe are targeting me. Nowhere can I find my solitary respite to stew over the errors of my life and the love that blew away. I keep running across this stuff. Standing in front of the LOVE pile and feeling disgustingly inspired- I can't help it!- I had a grisly thought. It's only a matter of time before love shaped rocks turn into angel shaped kitsch. I'll begin finding inspiration in cherub trinkets and Precious Moments shit and soon it will be all over my house. I just know it. I'm destined to become a cheerfully oblivious older woman who wears lilac and shows pictures of grandchildren to uninterested strangers on airplanes. It's too much, it's all too much.

The last night, I retreated to my tent to escape the sea and all the pretty little tokens of love and hope it was spitting out. I turned on my contraband Ipod (I'm the only one who brought one, shallow to the core perhaps but no one is going to strip me of my right to listen to my sea shanties while in the Atlantic), stretched out on my sleeping bag and am pulled down by the most miserable song ever written. A song of women left behind by men who head out to sea.

What is a woman that you'd forsake her, and the hearth fire, and the home acre, to go with the old grey widow maker?

As someone who recently forsaken because the call of the river was just too tempting for someone- this really hits the spot.

She has no house to lay her guest in, but one chill bed for all to rest in, that the pale suns and the stray birds nest in. She has no strong white arms to fold you, but the fen times fingering weed to hold you, down in the dark, where the tide has rolled you.

The sea breeze was blowing over me and the sun was sinking. I felt my mood begin to plummet. I felt forsaken and insignificant. Finally! I was really starting to go through something when I felt a toe nudging me in the rib cage. I opened one eye. One of the girls was standing above me. She was holding a granola bar and hollering at me so I could hear over the music. "WE JUST WROTE A SONG ABOUT SEALS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO COME MAKE UP A RAP FOR IT?"

Gah. That sounded like fun. Cheerful little creeps.