The Wooden and the True

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As we feel our way into this new post-election reality, when things seem bleak, and all feels lost – progress, justice, hope for better – it felt like the right time to finish reading The Road. It’s a book of questions.

*How old is the boy?
*Where is his mother?
*Why are these two still alive?
*Why are they the only ones? There are others, of course: frightening aberrations in the distance; lightning struck man; man with a bow; bandits; pregnant woman crossing a bridge;
*Who are the good guys and who are the bad? What’s the difference, and how can you tell?
*And of course: what happened?

Questions without answers, mostly. And pure poetry that only a child, McCarthy’s son, and all the dust of West Texas could have inspired.

It’s a hard book to read. It is achingly beautiful. My brother gave it to me as a gift for Christmas many years ago. He’s not a reader, so when I opened the present and he said it was the best thing he had ever read, I sat up a bit at that. Still, it took me years to get around to it. I love few things more than starting a new book, but every time I found myself standing in front of the bookshelves I would see The Road sitting there, alongside other things I haven’t read yet, waiting. And I never brought it down. Or I did, and I re-read the jacket flap I’ve read a hundred times, felt the weight of it in my hands, and then put it back. I wasn’t ever ready. I didn’t have the energy for something so hopeless. That’s what I thought. It’s what I told myself.

But as we move into a world where President-elect Trump are words, real words, it suddenly felt like the right time. And what it’s left me thinking – having finally finished it after all these years, on the eve of an inauguration that will see an unqualified xenophobic megalomaniac installed in the most powerful post on the planet, an impending reality that is already showing evidence to cause grave concern, appointments of men – and they are all men – to positions of great authority and power who may surely put us on a path that could lead in very real ways to a reality not dissimilar from what Papa and the Boy encounter in The Road – what it’s left me thinking, because it seems like there is almost no other choice, is about the ability of language to transcend suffering, darkness, hopelessness, and despair.

I was teaching in Paris the morning after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, and as we sat down the following morning to begin class one of our students, near tears, asked if we could talk about what had happened. And we did. We set aside our lesson and spent a quarter hour hearing what people had to say, comforting one another, finding strength in our community. And then we got back to work. We turned back to the task at hand. We acknowledged how important it was not to ignore what had happened, but also how important it was – more important than ever, it seemed – to focus on our work, to do our job, and do it well.

The week before we’d met with Claire Verlet, who programs the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. She spoke about France’s national focus on art and culture as being a direct, deliberate response to the destruction of the Second World War, how having big cultural festivals that brought people together around art, theatre, music, performance, and dance helped them heal – as individuals and as a nation. (And now, according to a 2014 article, art and culture contribute seven times more to the national GDP than does the automobile industry.) Claire talked about how renovations to the Italianate building in 1968 – itself a complicated year – helped democratize the theatre, ensuring that there are no bad seats, no hierarchies, no impediments. There is no dress code and prices are reasonable; the building opens right onto the street.

When we think about what’s happening here today, in this country, about facing an uncertain future that is frightening, dangerous, and cruel (or at least a president-elect who is) – about who we just elected president – I think about what Claire said to us that day in June. “The theatre has to be more open,” she told us. “It’s the only way to fight the brutality.” Or as National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead put it recently, “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.” And art is not just the theatre, of course. We have to keep reading, writing, studying, painting, composing, marching, and debating. We have to keep creating, keep finding what’s beautiful, even in – especially in – the dust of these next years.

Which brings me back to The Road, and the poetry of a decimated humanity, a world wretched with ash. “He knew that he was placing hopes where he’d no reason to,” we read. “He hoped it would be brighter where for all he knew the world grew darker daily.” “They left the cart in the woods and he checked the rotation of the rounds in the cylinder. The wooden and the true.” Papa and the boy, whose grim reality now seems relatable in a way many of us hadn’t imagined a few weeks ago, our safety in question, our rights threatened, our very humanity under attack. Maybe we’re not without hope, but unsure, angry, frightened and, for me mostly, sad. It is that same book where we also read that Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.

Farewell, Professor Wiesel

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Honored and grateful to have my essay published in the online magazine, The Rumpus.

“Memory is fragile,” Professor Wiesel said to us in class one day. But what is memory, I wanted to ask him, what is time, and how do I ever get off the side of that road? Sometimes I feel like I am still there, unable to go back and unwilling to go forward.

Original artwork by Elizabeth Schmuhl.

Middle Saturday in Provence

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It was several years ago that I discovered the brilliance of a two week vacation, and my two favorite words in the English language: middle Saturday. I’ve been in France for four weeks, but am just now beginning the second week of vacation in Provence.

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What I love is the quiet. It’s loud with an abundance of birdsong in the trees, all manner of birds I couldn’t begin to identify – doves for sure, because I can see them, their fat breasts puffed out, sitting like little Buddhas on the branch above the terrace, cooing. There’s what I like to imagine is an owl, although it could be any number of other things. It’s this silence, this full, vibrant, noisy silence that I love – devoid of all the things I spend my normal days hearing: sirens, endless horn honking, telephones buzzing and beeping and ringing. One night, the first we slept with the windows open, we heard what we imagined was the sound of sangliers rooting through the garden. I fell into a peaceful sleep.

The wind races over the hills behind the house and sounds like the roar of interstate traffic as it picks up speed and bends through the trees. This happens in the afternoon while I’m sitting beside the pool reading and drinking a beer. I worry that the umbrella might fly away, reach out and steady it, and then the wind calms down and I turn the page as church bells in the nearby village start ringing up through the valley.

There are singular pleasures to be appreciated here: the simple elegance of local women strolling through the Friday produce market with their baskets hanging from one elbow while they squeeze a tomato or kiss-kiss a friend they meet on the street. From one end of the basket drapes a gorgeous deep purple bundle of lavender while a warm baguette peeks out the other. I could never get away with it at home, taking my Provençal market basket to Whole Foods. But I still might try.

Since we arrived I’ve learned the words for bat, fly, ant, mosquito, and crickets; the difference between a côtelette and a brochette; what daube de taureau means; and the pleasures of sauce à l’échalote.

The changing colors over the Massif des Maures are more of a spectacle than anything streaming on Netflix – the pink gradients that suddenly appear low in the evening heat and then slowly but dramatically rise, leaving the massif to float below, bold and gray in a ribbon of blue. No wonder so many painters and artists have been inspired by this place. It’s a different picture with every passing quarter hour, bright and soft at the same time, and so richly textured it seems like you could reach out a hand and feel the mounds of paint.

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The mattresses are unfamiliar and my back aches; the sun is baking hot and it’s in the 90s by eleven; the drivers are crazy and the winding roads narrow and frightening; and the GPS is often unreliable. But none of it matters – because of the way the light hits the leaves and lands in a big shimmering bowl beneath the hills; how it rolls in glassy waves over the rounded roof tiles and bathes the lush green valley beneath our Mas, sitting grandly on its terraced hillside. Enough bread and butter can also fix anything. And the wine. Chilled local rosés, light and dry; crisp, minerally whites; round, chewy reds. I’ve come to realize that my days are arranged around where I’m sitting and what I’m drinking – early to mid AM: front terrace with coffee; mid AM to mid PM: pool with beer; mid PM to early evening: front terrace with Champagne Rosé; dinner on back terrace with a white or red. Repeat.

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At the end of the chapter, “June,” in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, he writes, “The sun was a great tranquilizer, and time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.” So we may go visit other villages or we may not. We may go shopping in Marseille or we may not. We may make it to Aix, or Arles, or Draguignan, or Grasse. Or we may not. With the view and the bells and the bread and the wine, it doesn’t matter. I’m being still. I’m luxuriating in the quiet and the light.

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Mary

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Twenty years ago I read Margaret George’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. I’d just started dating the first boy I ever kissed, which was a milestone and came, as difficult as it is to believe now, as something of a surprise to me.

It was a terrifying time, trying to balance this new discovery, this whole other person, the most important person in my life, who I was afraid to acknowledge when I saw him on campus but with whom I would clandestinely make out in the darkened language lab when no one was looking – trying to balance all the raging, delightful feelings with everything else, with what I thought of as my normal life. The closet does that. It makes you think – really believe – that you can go back and forth like that, which is impossible; which is why the closet is a killer.

He insisted that I read Mary. It’s the most amazing love story, he said, before reading me what had to be the most depressing poem I’d ever heard:

The wind doth blow today, my love, and a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true love, in cold grave she was lain,
You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips, but my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips your time will not be long.
Tis down in yonder garden green, Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen is withered to a stalk.
The stalk is withered dry, my love, so will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love, till God calls you away.

No surprise that he turned out to be an ass.

We never spoke again after I broke up with him three years later. He told me that life was like a chest of drawers, with only so much room. In order to accommodate new friendships, new love, old clutter had to be removed. At the time I thought it sounded callous, but with no self-confidence and even less experience, I convinced myself it made sense. Imagine my surprise when, re-reading Mary twenty years later, I came upon this dialogue, between Sir Francis Walsingham and his chief agent, Thomas Phelippes: “`And do you know what happens to something when there’s no place for it any longer?’ He jerked open one of the drawers and pulled out a letter. `This is outdated. Its contents are of no relevance.’ He tossed it out the window, where it landed in the street. Three horses in a row stepped on it and ground it into the mud. `That’s what happens. It’s very simple. We have to keep our drawers neat, Phelippes; we have to get rid of the useless.'”

So not only was he a dick, but also totally unoriginal.

Anyway, it was with no small amount of irony that, afraid though I was that someone would find out the truth about me, I spent the better part of a semester wandering around my tiny college campus carrying a 900 page novel the size of cinder block with a big queen named Mary on the cover.

It took me a good five months to get through that year, and maybe it was something about the symmetry of time – twenty years and all – that, last December, I decided to read her again. It took a little longer this time, with other commitments and distractions along the way, but I once again finished her story, her long winding saga, at the end of May. Shortly thereafter I was off to church camp to work as a counselor for the summer, and now I finish it just in time to return to France – Her adopted country, the country of her mother, of her favourite language, her sensibilities, her dress, her memories. I leave tonight, for five weeks. Back for new adventures in the country that nourished a queen.

M Train

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On a quiet Thanksgiving morning, I’m finding the space to finally watch the edited, televised Patti Smith interview on PBS that I saw live in early October. I’m struck anew, and on this day, by her gratitude. “I’m grateful all the time that Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women; I’m grateful the New Testament was written. I love books, and I love what the hand of mankind produces, whether painting, or music, opera, I just think it’s wonderful that we have that in our life.”

M Train is one of the most luxurious books I’ve ever held; it’s an object worthy of reverence, as much for its construction, for how it feels in the hand, as for what’s inside. I probably spent as much time running my fingers across the silky brown cover, just sitting and turning the pages for hours, listening to the wisp and scratch, thumbing the paper like money, as I did reading it. Anyone who thinks the book is dead should hold this one; touch it; take it in.

As Patti writes in the book, “as an object it had already manifested a sacredness …”

These are stories of movement and stillness. Her adventures – to graveyards in Japan, to visit Sylvia Plath, to the burial place, finally, of Genet, traveling to the North African seaside to present him a gift more than twenty years in the making – balanced by quiet moments in the corner of her café, along the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach, in a cold Tokyo hotel room, or buried beneath the covers in her New York City bedroom, fumbling with the remote.

What I wanted, and what I found, is this: Her images. Her words. How she sees the world.

Sylvia, in a cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return.

I sat quietly by the grave, conscious of a rare, suspended peace.

I slipped the photographs into my pocket. My mother was real and her son was real. When he died she buried him. Now she is dead. Mother Courage and her children my mother and her son. They are all stories now.

And rare moments of moral turpitude, the kind I love, when someone takes her café table. “I stood there mutely,” Patti writes. “If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage.” But then: “Such dark thoughts for the sake of a corner table. My inner Jiminy Cricket spoke up. Oh, all right, I said. May the world’s small things fill her with delight.”

This is where I am, filled with delight by the world’s small things: creamy vellum, a deckle edge, a handful of words, artfully arranged. Whether she’s in the whirlwind or in the eye, the book is filled with her patience, despite the fact that she – above all – knows that there is never enough time.

When she’s in motion, though, caught up in the rapture of something so simple as crossing 6th Avenue on the way to her beloved café, that’s when I was most captivated. Especially then. Because that’s where she did the hard work of doing what sounds so simple, and yet what becomes, here, divine. “I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café.”

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My bookmark is a ticket stub, admittance to the reading Patti Smith gave at Lisner – as I read her words it peeks over the pages like strange divination, an invocation. Like a dare.

Because the Night

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She had on a pair of worn, faded jeans, black boots, and a white t-shirt with maybe the name of a band on it. I couldn’t see it clearly because she also, despite the warmth of an early October day in Washington, wore an oversized calf-length burgundy pea coat, the pockets of which were bulging with objects: a glasses case, wadded up napkins scratched with handwriting, a small plastic bottle of water, and other trinkets that formed a towering pile when she emptied her pockets onto the table before changing into a smaller black jacket for the interview that had brought her to the library.

A few minutes earlier, waiting for her to arrive, I’d wondered to myself: do I say it’s a privilege to meet you? An honor? I’m so pleased? How nice? How do you convey the utmost respect, sheer thrill, and awe in a salutation? My colleague Beth and I escorted her and her publisher’s rep across the lobby toward the elevators. I love that you requested to be interviewed in a library, I said. I joined your fan club when I was thirteen, Beth added. Oh! Patti brightened. Then you must have received a letter from my mother.

A man I recognized but did not know got on the elevator with us, and as we rode up to the 7th floor he nudged me gently with his elbow and mouthed, is that who I think it is? I nodded professionally, the glimmer in my eyes giving it all away. As we stepped out of the elevator he turned to her and said, I have been a fan and followed your work since the ‘70s. I’m sure she hears this all the time, but she turned to him and said, quietly, thank you so much for telling me that. He turned to walk through a nearby doorway and Patti called to him. Wait, she said, what’s your name? Bill, he said. She held out her hand for him to shake and said, Bill, thanks for saying that. It means so much. She was so generous – with her time, with strangers walking up to her, with me having asked my friend the Communications Director (who set all this up in the first place) to nonchalantly intercept us so that she could (I had begged) take our picture!

Can I get a quick photo before we go in? Robin asked.

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Once inside, Patti quickly discovered that it was to be a television interview and not one, I suppose, for radio or print. She was not dressed for television, she said, so I left them to escort the publisher’s assistant back downstairs so that she could retrieve Patti’s suitcase from her waiting car.

Later I implored Beth to tell me: what did y’all talk about while I was gone? Beth, far from recovered, replied: I have no idea! Photo evidence of those fifteen or so minutes suggests that Beth asked Patti if she would like to look at some of the rare books they had brought out for her visit: beautiful, well preserved copies of Louisa May Alcott, Our Lady of the Flowers, others. I’m only guessing at what they were, but Patti paged through each one and had something to say about them all. She signed some of Beth’s personal Patti Smith Fan Club memorabilia, photographs and letters and zines. When we returned with her suitcase she threw on the black jacket and the interview began.

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At the conclusion of the interview, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later, she looked at Jeffrey Brown and said, I love talking to you. I love talking to you, too, he said. And there were so many things I wanted to ask you about. Bobby Fischer, for instance, to which she immediately replied: all true! Roll the tape! Brown cried. And they filmed another six or seven minute segment in which she told the story of meeting Fischer in the dead of night in Reykjavik.

When they called it a wrap Beth and I escorted Patti back downstairs. I could listen to you talk about books and reading all day, I told her, as we descended out of what felt like, to me, the clouds. When you go to Paris will you play the Olympia? I asked her as the doors opened and we stepped out of the elevator. She said she would. My partner and I saw you play the Olympia several years ago. What an incredible night! she said. I mean, not that I was incredible, but the whole evening. I agreed. You ended the night, I told her, by saying Paris! You fucking wore me out. Je t’aime! She laughed and said, I’m afraid Paris is going to wear me out again.

That’s when it happened. Afterward I went upstairs and said to a colleague, Patti Smith just said the most incredible thing to me. Did she tell you she loved you? Tracy asked. Better! I cried. She turned to me just before she walked out the door and gently reached out and grabbed my sleeve, ran the fabric slowly between her fingers, looked me in the eye and said, I love that jacket.

I found it several years ago in a thrift shop in Paris and had worn it in her honor. I wish I had told her that, but she was gone. And besides, would that have been one step too far? Would that have been the moment I morphed from quiet handler into creepy stalker? I didn’t have to tell her about the jacket; she knew. And she reached out and gave it her own benediction.

The whole day had been like that, quiet moments of humility, observance, and gratitude. I had to speak that morning at a conference on teaching, so I awoke nervous and somber. Nervous because I’d been working on my remarks for several days and now it was time to give them, and somber because my grandmother had been slowly dying over the course of the previous two weeks. I went through all the familiar motions – I caught the bus downtown, declined coffee (nervous stomach), found my colleagues and prepped for our panel, posed for a quick photo and then, suddenly, we were done. It was during a workshop later that morning that my phone exploded. Missed call and voicemail from my brother. Missed call and voicemail from my father (who never calls me). Missed call and voicemail from my mother. Despite the fact that I was sitting a thousand miles away in a sterile conference room listening to someone speak about active engagement, the message was clear: my grandmother had died.

I slipped out the back of the room, called my mom, and then went over to the library to meet my colleague who was coordinating Patti Smith’s visit later that afternoon. I told her my grandmother was dead, and I sat with her and two other colleagues as they finished their lunch. I asked her to cheer me up: tell me the details for this afternoon’s interview with PBS, I said. I had been invited to be a fly on the wall during the interview. Robin explained how things would go: Patti will arrive around 2:30 (she’s a rock star, Robin said, so she’ll probably be late); she will be escorted upstairs to the special collections reading room where she will be interviewed for half an hour, and then she will leave. Who is meeting her when she arrives? I asked. Robin’s expression told me what I needed to know.

Do you think you can handle it? She asked. I had confessed to her my previous inability to remain sane in front of celebrities I admired, but this was the gift that my grandmother had given me: the lingering perspective of loss, which balanced any innate proclivity I might have had to freak the fuck out. As we waited for her to arrive, I said to Beth: I’m not sharing this widely, but I wanted you to know that my grandmother died this morning. I wanted Beth, the person who was alongside me for this incredible encounter, to know what I was bringing to it. And in some ways by saying it out loud, in that moment, it elevated my grandmother’s passing to something more than a going away, to something more than flesh and finitude, to a transcendence of things: time, loss, experience. When Patti Smith climbed the steps moments later and stepped through the revolving doorway into our presence, I felt like I could greet her not as a goddess of music and the word, but as a person walking through a door. A person who happens, like me, to love books.

That morning as I rode the bus downtown, I didn’t feel like listening to the radio, to any of the shows I normally listen to: Morning Edition, podcasts of Fresh Air or the Diane Rehm Show. I turned on my music instead, and began shuffling through the songs. After a while I stopped on the Ten Thousand Maniacs performing “Because the Night” off their 1993 MTV Unplugged album. Just like I’d picked my jacket for Patti, I listened to that song for her as well. It was the starting of a day that would turn out to be filled with sorrow and magic in so many ways. So it felt like a holy bookend when she concluded her reading that night, some thirteen hours later, by performing an a capella version of “Because the Night.” It seemed right, she said, because it had been her gift to Fred long ago, and because she’d just been talking about her wedding ring.

And so she sang, standing in the light at the edge of the stage, her voice rising through the dark auditorium. Then, at her invitation, right where we were, those of us in the audience, craving her energy, her melody, her every word, joined in and sang along with her.

paris by the bay

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Dear Friend, I thought you might like to know that while you were busy getting married, we were busy falling in love: with Rockport.

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Front Beach and Rockport town, from our porch

I hope you were having as much fun as it looked like you were, the times we passed you in the street, or waved from the porch, or saw you walk dazzlingly into a room. What a social tightrope, tricky to navigate and difficult to balance: wanting to monopolize all of your time, to catch up and reminisce and celebrate! And wanting to leave you alone, out of either necessity or goodwill, because so many people needed little pieces of you that I feared – rightly or wrongly – picking you apart, one little snatched moment at a time. So it goes with reunions, though, especially weddings.

So instead we went to lunch! One day at the 7th Wave, overlooking the harbor, enjoying a glass of crisp white wine and getting to know people better, and one day at the Lobster Pool, where we ate seafood on a sun-drenched lawn while listening to the clever announcer call numbers: number eighty-four, walk through the door; number seventy-seven, seafood heaven.

We stopped in at least twice to Two Brothers Coffee Shop for lattes, sandwiches, and a homemade donut; dined in the morning at Flav’s Red Skiff; ate scrumptious Gifford’s ice cream out at the end of Bear Skin Neck; and became accomplished porch sitters.

One morning we walked into the Toad Hall Bookstore, housed in its studly, squat old granite bank. I always like to shop in local bookshops, and I like to look for the work of local writers, or books somehow situated in whatever place I happen to be visiting. In this case, it was a crime novel, a murder mystery with the local reference librarian as the prime suspect: Murder on Bearskin Neck – how could I resist?! I asked the proprietor whether or not she had read it, and she had not. (She had also not, so I discovered, figured out how to use the ‘new’ credit card reader, but see also: local charm.) It turns out that, on closer inspection later that day, the local Annie Quitnot mystery may have been self-published and it most certainly has a typo on the back cover, but whatever: art requires sacrifice (even if that sacrifice – a real one, to be sure – is a proper publisher and punctuation).

Someone else who knows about the sacrifices we make for art is Renata Fryshara, with whom we spent a fun quarter hour in her small gallery on the main drag, looking at her collection and talking about the challenges of the abstract and contemporary art market in Cape Ann, where all anyone seems to be interested in are seascapes, boats and, most of all, Motif No. 1.

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We passed you on your way up to the Headlands for morning yoga and deep breathing, and I snapped this photo before we headed off for a couple of hours relaxing in the sun on the glorious powder-sugared sand of Wingaersheek beach – walking out as far as we could onto the sandbar at low tide, marveling at the cross-hatched beauty of the waves as they slurped over the bar from different directions, creating delicate, shimmering, frothy chevrons on the sand.

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To the Headlands!

We spent a couple of hours walking in Halibut Point State Park, one of us contemplating a swim in the quarry despite all the posted no-swimming signs, the other of us anxiously plotting an escape route up the steep, slippery sides in the unlikely event he fell in (you figure out which was which). We walked on the rocks along the roiling coastline. It was a gray, windy day and the sea was alive with bombast and pull. It drew us towards it, despite the menacing waves, and we were delighted by the tide pools leftover from high tide and the brave and dazzling yellow flowers standing singularly among the wet rocks.

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I also had a private consultation with a gull.

And then, of course, the celebrations! From our B&B to your harbor-front apartment, the Community House and, finally, to the kiosk! The people gathered, our stories merged, then blended into view – and what we saw was this: magical moments, friends and family, affection and delight.

Rockport Wedding

Rockport Wedding

Mary Bill Rockport

Rockport Wedding

Rockport Wedding

Rockport Wedding

Rockport Wedding

Rockport Wedding

We only scratched the surface; ours is a singular, superficial view, as this little travelog goes to show. What I hope it also shows is that, if we are a reflection of the people who gather around us, who rally and celebrate and elevate and love, then yours is truly a life of wealth and connection. What a privilege to be a part of such an amazing group of people who care so deeply for both of you – for many different reasons and in many different ways. I count myself lucky to be in their number, and to share with such joy in their company. They did that for you. And you did that for all of us.