Sunday, July 10, 2016

Drifting



Walking along the beach, I came upon a most unusual find. A gnarled tree trunk intertwined with roots had drifted in with the tide, the largest piece of driftwood that I have ever seen along this coastline.

Driftwood is perfectly named. Propelled by winds, waves and tides, it is wood that drifts in the currents and washes up on the beach. Sometimes it provides shelter for birds and plants or becomes the foundation for sand dunes.

For me, the driftwood became a metaphor for a mid-July state of mind.

The start of summer brought with it a frenzy of activities. But by the middle of summer, like the driftwood, many of us yearn for unstructured time to just float along with no sense of direction. We crave escape, to hide from humanity for just a little while.

I identify these feelings when my creativity starts to wane. The words jumble together in my mind, and I have to push and pull them into meaning. I know I’m burning out, and I have to get away.

For our vacation, my husband and I head to New Hampshire and the sanctuary of the White Mountains. Like the sea, the mountains are a very spiritual place.

The pilgrimage reminds me of the biblical passage when Jesus withdraws from the crowds. In Luke 9:28, the evangelist tells us that “He … went up onto a mountain to pray.”

St. Augustine wrote that “the thought of You (God) stirs us so deeply ... our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

It is this peace my soul seeks.

I never tire of gazing at the mountains and listening to the surge of ice-cold streams tumbling down the cliffs.

I know this particular part of New Hampshire so well that I am no longer a tourist. Every turn in the road is familiar, and the wind in the pines a wordless prayer.

Reading in this idyllic spot, I find harbor in other seekers’ words; but for one week I resist the urge to string my own words together. My mind will lie fallow in order to replenish itself.

By the end of the week, however, my thoughts turn toward home. I feel that familiar ache for Fogland and the rush and rhythm of the waves.

“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering,” wrote St. Augustine. 

We are spiritual seekers on a quest filled with wonder. The place to begin the journey is within. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

'It's so good to be back'

Tightly furled leaves long to burst.

Every summer I reread “The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett. The first chapter, “The Return,” best explains what it means to return to a much-loved place after an absence. She writes:

“There was something about the coast town … which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages … Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore … and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges… These houses made the most of the seaward view … the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore … When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.”

It is the beginning of the long-awaited season at Fogland; and like other summer residents, my pulse quickens as I come home again. The shimmering Sakonnet, the well-kept cottages, and the sleeping summer house – all welcome us. Over and over again, we say to each other, “It’s so good to be back.”

Yet, there is much work to do. The summer house has been in a state of hibernation for nearly six months, and it is time for it to be reawakened.

We call in the plumber who climbs inside the well house and installs a new pump, and like the rhythmic beating of a heart circulating blood through veins, it sends the water coursing through the pipes. One frigid year the pipes burst, and the rooms were flooded. Consequently, we hold our breath until we learn that the old piping has survived another year.

Throughout the winter, we worried about the roof. We remembered what had happened some years ago when the ceiling had fallen into the living room, and we had to hire a carpenter to fix the roof, as well as put up a new ceiling. But this year, outside of some cobwebs, the summer house is intact.

Inside the sticking front door, it feels cold and lifeless. We pull up the shades and open the windows, and let the clean sea breeze stir the dead air. Sunlight bounces off the walls and illuminates the dust. We turn on the hot water and plug in the fridge.

My mother puts fresh linens on the beds, while my father carries in a trunk-full of food.

Outside, my husband mows the knee-high lawn, which always grows fast in this fertile, coastal soil.

Before long the summer house will be filled with shrieks of laughter.

“It’s so good to be back.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Misadventures -- The stuff our vacations were made of


I come from a family of adventurers. Before we bought our summer place in Fogland, we spent our summer vacations discovering America like other average American families. But unfortunately, there was never anything typical about our trips.

My father is a true pioneer, and each summer I would shudder to think what he had planned for us. He loved camping in the wilds and exploring terrain where no man had gone before. He considered pit toilets an amenity.

We blazed our own trail up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire in the company of millions of ferocious mosquitoes, and in the heart of the Florida Everglades, we shared a campsite with poisonous snakes and swam with a crocodile, although we were unaware of its presence until we got out of the water.

Perhaps our most memorable vacation was a trip to Montreal, Canada. Many families spent that summer at the World’s Fair. We made reservations at a Canadian campground called “Camping Robert,” packed the tent into the van and headed north.

When we finally arrived, we paid the fee for a week’s stay and were told to proceed to Site No. 15, which would be clearly posted on a tree. The van bounced as my father drove down the heavily-gutted dirt road. After passing over a tiny bridge, we spotted our site, which indeed was clearly marked. The only problem was that a little river ran through it.

My father cautiously backed up, but the bridge’s pitched slope made it nearly impossible to maneuver. Consequently, our van was leaning against one of the posts of the bridge. He immediately got out of the truck to assess the situation. If he attempted to move the van, he took a chance of damaging the vehicle, or even worse, rolling over into the brook below.

A man from a nearby campsite, chattering profusely in French, arrived with an axe. After a few thrusts, the post was in the river; and we were free. My father thanked the Good Samaritan, and we headed back to the office.

This time they assigned us Site No. 20, and the campsite was as nice as a piece of ground in the center of a huge city during a worldwide exposition could be. We were finally settled.

My father and little brother began to erect the tent, while my mother and I climbed the steep hill to the restroom.

Opening the door marked “Les Femme,” we were unprepared for what we saw next. Women were showering “au naturel” without a stitch of shower curtain anywhere.

As we made our way down the hill, we were not sure we were in Canada anymore. It seemed more like Yellowstone Park because there was a geyser in the middle of the campground. The amazing thing was that the water was spouting from Site No. 20.

Then we spotted my father, who was dripping wet with a very incriminating hammer in one hand and a very incriminating tent stake in the other.

Later, we learned that they used rubber water pipes buried only a few inches in the ground in these makeshift campgrounds. With my father’s good sense of direction, he had pinpointed the location of the rubber hosing; and the wall of water had erupted.

So, this was the stuff our vacations were made of…

Finally, after years of cross-country adventures, my parents decided to set down some roots in Tiverton. We pitched our tent in its turf, and the only thing my father hit with the stake was a rock. The mosquitoes at twilight were just as ravenous as their mountain counterparts so we also erected a screened tent. Thankfully, there were no holes in the ground harboring poisonous snakes, just the occasional garter. However, we traded crocs for sharks.

Now, we look forward to the new season at the summer house and wonder what new adventures it will bring. Having survived my childhood, I’m game. I just hope that pesky skunk that took up residence under the shed is gone…


Monday, April 4, 2016

Sea change


Early April, a month before we open the summer house for the season, and three to four inches of snow are expected with winds gusting to 33 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.

No matter the season, folks who live by the sea, respect the river in fair and rough weather.

We know better.

I knew an elderly gentleman, an officer in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, who assisted on weekend patrols in Mount Hope Bay and the Sakonnet River.

In the 1930s his family converted a small fisherman’s shack along Sakonnet Point into a summer cottage.

Coming of age there, he often sailed around the lighthouse or paddled his canoe up and down the coast, edging his way around the many boats in the fishing fleet.

He worked at The Fo’c’s’le, a popular seaside tourist spot, opening quahogs, shelling lobsters and peeling potatoes.

Then the 1938 hurricane struck without warning.

“We lost the house, and I almost lost my father,” he told me. “He was washed out to sea from Sakonnet Point all the way down to Taylor’s Lane. He watched five people drown, and he couldn’t save them. He had cracked ribs and was bruised all over, but he came out alive.”

Fifty homes in his Sakonnet Point neighborhood were destroyed.

It is the start of another season at Fogland, and I spy new construction dotting the lush green landscape that hugs the coastline. These homes are ideally situated and offer spectacular views, but many are at risk.

Scripture warns about the foolish man who built his house on sandy ground.

“The rains fell, the torrents came, the winds blew and lashed against his house. It collapsed under all this and was completely ruined.”

When my parents bought their Fogland parcel of land in the winter of 1969, they learned that their neighbor’s cottage had been beachfront property. Fifteen years earlier, Hurricane Carol had dragged it to its current site, three streets from the water’s edge.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob made landfall over Newport. When the water receded, one of the rental cottages along our beach had been torn from its foundation and set down in the middle of the salt marsh.

These days I marvel at the incredible beachfront homes that are constructed along the Sakonnet. With their multi-million-dollar price tags, they are indeed lovely to behold. Flood insurance protects the property and its contents, and in the event of a catastrophic hurricane, the house can be rebuilt and furnishings replaced.

Yet those who live by the sea have the deepest respect for their fickle neighbor. They cherish the calm demeanor and tranquility of their fair-weather friend, but they also know when it is agitated, slamming surf and kicking up sand, it’s time to get to higher ground.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

An Easter reminiscence: Rescue at sea


At this holiest time of year, it is natural to be drawn to the seashore. Many of the Gospel passages place Jesus Christ’s whereabouts near the sea. I am a believer, and I feel His presence here. This is holy ground.

After the Resurrection, St. John writes, “Later, at the sea of Tiberias, Jesus showed himself to the disciples… Just after daybreak Jesus was standing on the shore, though none of the disciples knew it was Jesus… Then the disciple Jesus loved cried out to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’”

In another passage in the Gospel of St. Mark, he writes that “when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and (Jesus) was alone on the land. And He saw that they were distressed in rowing, for the wind was against them… He came to them, walking on the sea… He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear.’ And He got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.’”

Two thousand years later, I walk along the water’s edge and remember the many times I cried out to the Lord from this very place.

A young newlywed, I recall the night my new husband and brother went fishing and did not return. I still remember the anguish, countless prayers and call to the Coast Guard. They were towed in by the Tiverton Harbor Patrol around midnight, after being entangled in the ropes of a lobster pot near Nannaquaket.

Thirteen years ago, I drove to the summer house on a glorious sunny summer’s day. When I arrived, I was told that my father and brother had taken my youngest son out on the sailboat. But out of the blue, there was a violent lightning storm.

We immediately drove down to the ramp, but they were nowhere in sight. We followed the Sakonnet River by car all the way to Nannaquaket, but all in vain. At this point, my mother, my daughter and I began crying hysterically. I prayed incessantly, pleading for God’s help.

We called the Coast Guard who had great difficulty understanding our plight because we were crying so hard. I called my husband back at home who raced to Tiverton.

After what seemed like hours, the Coast Guard called to say that the Tiverton Harbor Patrol had found them. The sun was shining when they were towed in.

The following fall, my 12-year-old son told the story of his rescue at sea in a school composition:

“My uncle and I and my grandfather were planning to use our sailboat. We watched the Weather Channel to see the weather forecast and the water currents. It said it was going to be fine weather to go sailing. We went to the docks at 9:30. The sun was shining, and the water was choppy. It was very good weather to go sailing. We had a small, 14-foot sailboat. We put it into the water, and my grandfather brought the car to the parking lot. My uncle and I got in the sailboat and waited for my grandfather. He came and our adventure started. Once we got out there, the wind picked up and we were having a good time. Then it started to pour. We were out on the bay, and we could not see anything. We had no idea where we were going. Then it started lightning, and we needed to get out of the water. We had an 18-foot aluminum sail. It was just like a lightning rod. We came upon an island, and we waited. An hour passed, then another. We were so cold and wet. We decided to go even though it was still lightning really badly. We were on our way back. Lightning hit the water right next to us. The wind died, and we were stranded in the middle of the ocean. My grandfather was soaked. We needed to get him warm. After a while, the Tiverton Harbor Patrol found us. So they gave us a rope, and I tied it to the front of the boat. It took them a half an hour to tow us in. We finally made it to shore. My mother was crying because she didn’t know if we would make it back. Everyone was so happy when we made it. After this, I will never believe the Weather Channel again. I don’t know if I will go on the sailboat ever again.”

Sometimes, the Lord walks on water and calms the sea, as well as our fears. Other times, He sends his angels, the Tiverton Harbor Patrol, to rescue us.

On this Easter Sunday and every day of my life, I know He lives.

   

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bunny in a bookstore and other animal encounters

See the turkeys in the trees in our back yard.

These days turkeys outnumber the dogs and cats in our country neighborhood. They sleep in the 100-foot pine trees in our back yard, and flocks stop traffic as they congregate in the street. One brazen fellow recently ambled up the brick path to our front stairs, and I was waiting for the doorbell to ring.

Likewise, at the summer place, we have always been surrounded by a bevy of animals, seabirds and marine life. We took our pets with us, and guests brought theirs along. Families walked Fogland Beach accompanied by prancing dogs, and cats curled up on sunny cottage windowsills. A pesky skunk took up residence under a nearby shed. Seagulls soared overhead while sandpipers danced near the water’s edge. A giant sea turtle washed ashore. 

And the Lord God made them all.

But the most memorable creature was a rabbit.
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I used to pass a bookstore on the way to the summer house, and many times I delayed the journey to browse the bookshelves of this delightful, old-fashioned store. A half-hour later, I emerged from the shop with another book tucked under my arm and yet another opportunity to while away the hours at the beach.

In 1983, the old Nonquit Grange in Tiverton was converted to the Mill Pond Shops, an eclectic grouping of five businesses on three levels, including a furniture shop, toy store, pottery workshop, women’s clothing store and my favorite stop, Books From 4 Corners. Weathered shingles and simple wooden signs beckoned the shopper inside.

A frequent customer, I wandered into Books From 4 Corners and was greeted by the gracious lady proprietor, who had retired from a teaching post a few years earlier. Stepping gingerly on the polished wide-plank floorboards, I admired the old cast iron wood stove and antique desk that decorated her shop. The woman told me that she filled the shelves with only those titles that intrigued her, a selection of very different and unusual books.

One sleepy Sunday afternoon I found myself once more searching the shelves of Books From 4 Corners. As usual, it didn’t take long to find a book I longed to read. 

While waiting in line, I felt a furry animal jump on my bare legs. At first I thought it was a white dog, but then I noticed it had big floppy ears. I tried to ignore the excited rabbit, but he really seemed to like me. It was then that I noticed an empty cage on the other side of the room with its door ajar.

As I handed the proprietor a bill, I felt the rabbit’s teeth dig into my flesh. He had bitten me on the back of my leg. The lady was shocked. 

“Eliot’s so gentle,” she told me. “It must be a love nip.”

Dropping my change on the counter, the lady chased the hopping rabbit into a corner, lifted him into her arms like a baby and locked him in the cage. 

She then opened a bottle of peroxide; and with the efficiency of a school nurse, she ordered me to hold still while she lightly dabbed the two bloody teeth marks in my skin. By this time the area surrounding the gashes had turned blue.

I left the store with the sound of her profound apologies ringing in my ears and an unusual throbbing in my leg. I no longer felt like lying on the beach with a good book – I just wanted to lie down.

Back at the summer house I limped over to the nearest chair and surveyed the damage. Swollen and bruised, I bore the imprint of Eliot’s romantic interlude.

Early the next morning before work, I reported to my doctor’s office for a tetanus shot. I explained to the nurse the source of my affliction.

“I know this is silly,” I told her, “but I was bitten by a huge rabbit that hopped on the back of my leg.” 

She howled with laughter. 

“It must be mating season,” I said. 

I returned to the office wearing two Band-aids, one on my arm from the shot and the other covering the bite on my leg.

Many years ago Books From 4 Corners closed its doors forever, and since then an assortment of diverse business ventures have claimed the space. I miss the joy I used to feel when entering the extraordinary little bookstore, the warmth of the knowledgeable proprietor, the strange and wonderful books that I found there – but I don’t miss Eliot. I still get hopping mad when I think about his last embrace.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

'Water, water everywhere'


Water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and is vital for life.
       
In the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the lyrical verse chants: “Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.”

Jutting out into the river, our slice of heaven at Fogland is a peninsula with the swirling Sakonnet on two sides and the brackish water of the salt marsh on the other.

Oftentimes, the air is heavy with moisture – the mist and fog so thick that it is a palpable thing, the water enveloping us like our first nine months of life afloat in amniotic fluid.

Yet, in this community of cottages, water is a hot commodity. With many of the dwellings sitting on 50-foot lots, there is little room for both a well and sewerage on the tiny plots. Consequently, many of the neighbors share wells, which are grandfathered to successive owners.

My parents bought our property in 1969. It is one of the larger parcels with 150 feet of land abutting farmland in our backyard.

We spent the first year camping in a tent and carrying fresh water to the site. Then we hired contractors to put in a point well and lay the intricate galley septic system.

From then on, the water flowed abundantly, and my father often remarked how sweet-tasting it was, compared to the chlorine-treated water back home.

On April 20, 1990, the Rhode Island Department of Health tested our well water; and a couple of weeks later, my parents received the following letter:

“Enclosed is a copy of the water report containing analytical results of the water sample collected from your well. The results indicate the presence of Temik and other carbamates and by-products with concentrations higher than acceptable. Research data indicates that you should not use your water for cooking or drinking. You will be monitored periodically by the Department of Health.”

There was trouble in paradise. Our water was contaminated by a chemical we had never heard of. We had to educate ourselves.

We learned that Temik is a restricted-use pesticide which is used to primarily control insects in crops. It is closely regulated because of its toxicity to humans and animals and its potential for ground water and food crop contamination.

Shortly, thereafter the Department of Health ordered that a filtering system be installed on our well. My parents never received a bill for the equipment.

A year later, the water was tested again, and my parents received a letter with the news of the positive results:

“We are pleased to say that no traces of Temik were detected in your sample. You will be monitored periodically by the Department of Health.”

To this day, I never drink water from the tap. After the scare, it just made sense to drink bottled water, although we use well water for every other use.

Over the years at the summer house, we have endured many natural threats, including catastrophic hurricanes, killing red tides, mosquitoes infected with Eastern Equine Encephalitis and deer ticks carrying Lyme disease.

But there was nothing natural about the contamination of our water supply.

In paradise, lush green plants can bear forbidden fruit.