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.

Rockport Wedding

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.

Bill Bird Consult

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.

Cat Sized Love

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I submitted this to the New York Times’ Modern Love column last August. It wasn’t the right fit for them, so I publish it here.

Cat Sized Love

The week Watkins came to live with me I took him to the vet for his shots. He was eight weeks old. As I filled out the forms I left the Name field blank, because I had not yet decided what to call him. The office manager glared at me as she wrote, Gray Kitty Gillis, on the top of his form. I felt so ashamed that I named him in the car on the way home. We were stopped at the corner of Lakeland Drive and Riverside. I had just received a postcard from a high school friend of mine, whose middle name was Watkins. I’d checked the mail heading out the door on the way to the vet and the postcard was sitting on the seat beside me. I turned around and looked at him peeking out of his carrier on the back seat. “What do you think about Watkins?” I asked. The light turned green and it was settled.

I got Watkins by accident. I worked at an answering service in college, and one evening the front office manager, a woman named Martie, showed up during the night shift with two kittens she was trying to give away. I told her to keep the cats away from me; I knew that if I played with one of them I would want to take it home. I went back to answering the phones. I did my best to ignore all the oohs and aahs as people passed the kittens around and played with their little faces. I was in the middle of a call when Martie walked up behind me and plunked one of the kittens down on my left shoulder. I was heart-meltingly furious. I was wearing a headset and continued the call, but got distracted when the kitten started licking my earlobe. I tried not to laugh. The call went on and eventually the cat got bored with trying to get my attention and lay down across my shoulders and went to sleep. I picked him up at Martie’s house the next afternoon and he came home to live with me.

That was seventeen years ago, and when Watkins died last November I had to get used to waking up in the morning without him, to coming home from work each day to an empty space next to the door where he always used to wait for me; to seeing what is not there, rather than what is. There was this perfectly cat sized hole in everything. I received a plaster impression of his paw from the vet after he was cremated and I couldn’t stop looking at it, remembering: the tiny kitten paws that crawled all over me when he was small; that skittered across the hardwood floors as he raced around the apartment; that deposited clumps of stray litter in the sheets; that swatted at shiny ribbon on Christmas morning and scratched many miles on his scratching post. I loved watching him lick his paws and then raise them to clean his face; and how they curled beneath him when he slept, or sometimes stuck straight up in the air. His paws felt like the pointed tips of a pick as he stood on top of my chest while I lay in bed or on the couch, before he settled in for a snuggle and a big long purr. And later, the distinctive sound of those wizened paws, the paws of an elderly cat plodding arthritically down the hall before climbing into my lap to sit with me awhile.

Watkins was part of the deal when I moved in with my boyfriend and we blended our households. Jeremy brought Buddy, and when all four of us moved into a row house in Washington, DC it sparked the Pussy Cat Wars of 2007. It was something different for all of us and, in time, we each discovered the rhythms of our new life together.

That was around the time I met Janet. She was a colleague at my new job, and she quickly became a friend. She always looked up from her desk whenever I walked by. “Hello there, handsome,” she’d say, a big grin on her face. Janet was not a fussy person, always to the point. She had no tolerance for other people’s bullshit. I liked that. You always knew where you stood with Janet. She rolled her eyes in meetings. She drew caricatures of people who talked too much; she would get up and leave if they went on too long. She deleted emails without reading them. She cared about our students, but had little patience for colleagues who annoyed her. I loved spending time with Janet. She taught me important things about living – not to sweat the small stuff, to make time for art, to drink another beer, to spend more time outside.

When Janet died, in May, I took a long walk around the block and then grief-ate a Starbucks old fashioned glazed doughnut. Then I sent her cousin a message. What happened to my friend? Did she suffer? Was it cancer? Why did she cut us so completely out of her life? I was desperate to know, but of course I didn’t ask. I offered my condolences instead, told her to let me know if there was anything I could do.

I hadn’t seen Janet in more than a year. I knew she was sick, but no one knew with what. She left work one day and never came back. Eventually she stopped returning phone calls and texts, stopped replying to emails. A year later she was dead.

Janet was sixty-four. She was an artist. She used to set up her easel in battlefields in Maryland and Virginia. She told me the story of how she once struck up a conversation with a Civil War reenactor when he wandered over to see what she was painting. “What are the craziest questions you get asked,” Janet wondered? There were two he liked best. Is that fire real? And how is it that all these battles took place on national park property? That was one of my favorite Janet stories. There were others. Like when she spoke on her mother’s behalf at the United States Croquet Association Hall of Fame induction ceremony (yes, a real thing); or how she would text me during Breakfast at Wimbledon anytime the camera panned to Roger Federer’s wife, for whom she harbored an inexplicable distaste; or when she took me to my first NHL game and told me how an errant puck once slammed into the very seat where I was sitting.

“How are you doing,” my friend Jill asked me the other night, sitting on her back porch drinking wine, “since Janet died?”

“I’m okay,” I told her. “I feel like my grief for Janet was something like my grief for Watkins.” Jill looked at me. I hadn’t realized I thought this until it came out of my mouth. Everyone expects you to recover quickly after the death of a pet, but a friend? “For a week after Watkins died I didn’t want to leave the apartment, I couldn’t stop crying, I day drank. And then I woke up one morning and realized that, with no lack of respect for the years we spent together, he was just a cat. That shouldn’t diminish my love for him or my grief. It’s perspective is all.” Jill refilled our wine glasses. “I woke up one day and instead of being sad I found myself feeling profoundly grateful that I had Watkins in my life for as long as I did.

“It was kind of the same for Janet. I am lucky to have had her as a friend, and I am grateful. But when you think about it, she was about as emotionally available as a cat. Whether that intimates a highly refined sensibility or deep psychological issues, I don’t know. I do know that I loved Janet. And, like Watkins, maybe she loved me back.”

There’s a crucial difference between the two, of course. I had to put Watkins to sleep. He needed me to know when it was time. Janet needed me to leave her alone; when the time came she went away to die by herself. It’s hard not to respect her choice, even though I can’t help thinking that it didn’t have to be that way. There was a whole group of us who loved her, who were her friends, who would have cared for her. William Maxwell is quoted in Alec Wilkinson’s beautiful book, My Mentor, talking about a distant relative, an aunt, “dying is something people have to live through, and while they are doing it, unless you are much closer to them than I was to her, you have little or no claim on them.”

No claim, but the questions, the insecurities, the doubt. What happened to her? Had I tried hard enough? Did she know I loved her?

During the last couple of years Janet worked on encaustics; she spread the heavy wax on thick slabs of wood. After her death I was able to select a couple of pieces from her collection. They were all different colors, deep orange and rust and blue inspired by her frequent trips to the southern west; yellows and reds and greens. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but the pair I chose, the ones that stood out to me and that I brought home, are a simple study in contrast: one black, one white. No frills, no fuss. Monochromatic gestures at darkness and light.

getting it down right

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It started with a gift. A Midori Traveler’s Notebook from my friend JJ. It comes in parts that, when spread out, look like this.

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I’m an instructions person; I read owner’s manuals back to front: for computers or stereo parts or our new bluetooth speaker, even for things I know how to operate, like vacuum cleaners, oscillating fans, and hairdryers. For better or worse, if there are rules, I’ll try to follow them. But the Midori Traveler’s Notebook didn’t come with instructions. What’s more, it’s a notebook. How much did I really need to know? Thank gods for Youtube.

There are a lot of websites and videos out there about the Midori. It took a bit of searching before I found my new online best friend, Brian Goulet from the Goulet Pen Company and Ink Nouveau. I love listening to this man talk. First I watched this video, and when I had more questions, I found this one. Both videos helped me transform all the pretty pieces into a beautiful work of art.

IMG_3841IMG_3839 IMG_3840 IMG_3838When I sat down with the notebook I wrote, Getting it down right. That’s the phrase that came to me. I knew I hadn’t made it up, but neither could I recall why I knew it or where it came from. I sat and thought about it for a while and, when that failed, I Googled it. And there it was. The collection of correspondence between Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell, edited by Michael Steinman, is called The Happiness of Getting it Down Right. What a great title, and what a fun reminder that it’s sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. And what a moment of serendipity, too, of equilibrium and alignment – because that book was also a gift from JJ.

Best

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I returned from France Tuesday night and my birthday was yesterday. I spent much of it sweating in front of an oscillating fan in ninety-five degree heat wondering why I don’t just go live in Paris. All I wanted for my birthday was for J to come home from work so we could install the window air conditioning units. I felt like I was 25, back when I didn’t even have a/c and was so broke I suffered through it and felt noble. An online quiz I took yesterday said my real age is 42. So I’m somewhere in between my impoverished days of enduring the summer heat and my online spirit quiz age: I turned 37. And in honor of that I received what has got to be the best birthday message ever. Birthdays might be about growing older, but they’re also about human connection, people reaching out. They offer us, usually in small, simple ways, opportunities to be reminded of the people in our lives who love us and whom we love. And I’m lucky. In the midst of jet lag and the insufferable heat, my best friend sent me a message that recounted treasured memories and shared things I never knew. It made me smile and laugh and want to strive in the coming year to really become the person she already thinks I am. What a gift. Excerpts below.

“Dear, dear Bill,

I wanted to remind you of a few things your presence on earth has made possible for me. You are a joy, and it is a privilege to call you my friend. I would not be the person I am without you.  Without you I wouldn’t have:

  • had the courage to come out in college.
  • rocked the concrete.
  • laughed so hard I actually peed myself a little…and more than once.
  • survived my family.
  • learned to love my family.
  • taken the chance and gotten married.
  • made it through my divorce and come out a ton better on the far side.
  • done a hurkey in the middle of Ptown.
  • learned to write for the sake of curiousness and exploration.
  • come to accept myself as I am.
  • become a good storyteller.
  • known so many amazing people…like the ones we’re going on vacation with in a month!
  • known that I can be amazing, too.
  • clipped the wings of a chicken.
  • laughed every time I think of fake meat and its being on sale.
  • started saying “I did” in a particularly Southern accent and picturing China Town, SF.
  • been the me that I am.”

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Friends!

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Now that she’s gone, I’m looking for evidence that she was here: strings of text messages exchanged over long mornings watching Wimbledon or the US Open; blog comments and Facebook likes, photographs and emails. William Maxwell is quoted in Alec Wilkinson’s My Mentor as saying, after his wife’s death, “It’s the strangest thing. When I’m awake I keep asking myself, `Where’s Emmy?’ It’s not any particular kind of grieving; it’s just the mind trying to find her.” Which is, I would argue, a particular kind of grieving. Or a particular stage of it.

I found the last email Janet sent me. She resigned last year while I was on sabbatical, so one day I left work and I just never saw her again. We had a good friendship outside of work, but once she got sick, or whatever happened, she subtly and slowly cut most of us out of the daily workings of her life. That’s what makes this so hard, in a way, so difficult to comprehend. Just as there are different stages of grief, there are different stages of goneness, too. When I heard she had quit I reached out to her, and this was her reply. I was in Paris when I received it. We had recently connected via Facebook (I am not FB friends with anyone from work, so we had only just connected there). The subject line reads: Friends!

” … I could find neither the energy nor enough devotion to duty to tackle it all. So I bailed. I fled. I feel much better mentally now, not having anyone depend on me for anything.

“I am playing around with my art and relaxing and reading and loafing. It’s great. Your post on practicing sabbatical (a ‘ceasing’) was most timely for me. How to switch gears gracefully and with confidence. To also accommodate the nearly irrational need to ‘have something to show for it’. I’m still noodling all that over. I am not sure how it all shakes out. But I am also not crazy-worried about it.

“I am quite enjoying your blog postings and pictures. (The pictures are very pro!) Thank you for taking the time to do that. It sounds as if it’s been a satisfying experience for you so far. The group you’re with is lucky to have you.

“Love+kisses, your new Facebook Friend (!)”

Wilkinson quotes a long passage from Maxwell, in which he writes,

“I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I heard that Aunt Beth had cancer and was in the hospital. I felt I ought to go see her. I thought my mother would want me to. My Aunt Annette was in Florida and there was no one to enlighten me about what to expect. I went from room to room of the hospital, reading the cards on the doors and peering past the white cloth screens, and on the second floor, in the corridor, I ran into her. She was wearing a hospital gown and her hair was in two braids down her back. Her color was ashen. She saw me, but it was as if she were looking at somebody she had never seen before. Since then, I have watched beloved animals dying. The withdrawal, into some part of themselves that only they know about. It is, I think, not uncommon to any kind of living creature. A doctor passed, in a white coat, and she turned and called after him urgently. I skittered down the stairs and got on my bicycle and rode away from the hospital feeling that I had made a mistake. I had and I hadn’t. She was in no condition to receive visitors. But I had acquired an important item of knowledge – dying is something people have to live through, and while they are doing it, unless you are much closer to them than I was to her, you have little or no claim on them.”

I don’t know much about Janet’s final year. I wish I did. I invited her to our Christmas party and received regrets. I sent her a Christmas card. I texted her periodically and never heard back. I can’t say I forgot about her – just two weeks ago I was around the corner from her apartment buying t-shirts at the Gap. I thought about sending her a message and then decided not to. I didn’t want to bother her. She’d made it clear that things were different now, even if I could not understand why. And then last Thursday, and the news that she had died, and it all welled up: the questions, the insecurities, the doubts. What happened to her? Had I tried hard enough? Did she know I loved her?

At one point Maxwell wrote to Wilkinson’s father and said, “There is no adequate way to thank you. It isn’t even very sensible to try. I mean, you don’t thank people for being your friend, you thank God for your good fortune in having them as a friend.”