Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Stonington, ME

I drove into Stonington, Maine, for the first time under cover of night. Still on the interstate when darkness fell, I had no way of knowing what would meet my eyes in the morning. Night up in Maine makes a city dweller rethink darkness completely. When was the last time I had driven on streets without streetlamps? Only the car's headlights to guide me down the twisting coastal road of 15 South, heading to Blue Hill, then farther down and over the bridge to Deer Isle; down the eastern length of the island to Stonington at its tip. In darkness, the senses of sound and smell are heightened: rolling down the window, the aroma of pine came in on a current of cold air that carried with it also a chorus of insect song. Due to my late arrival in Stonington, keys had been left for me in an envelope in a box at the office of the inn where I was staying. Tired, I dispensed with the necessary bedtime tasks, turned off the overhead light, and saw a single rippling gleam on the water. I slept deeply, without dreams. At sunrise came the full-on shock of disorientation, of complete transportation—a surreal sense of having entered another world without quite knowing how—a result of my blind arrival. The journey had been long (about ten hours), but so much of it withheld from view that the transformation seemed instantaneous. I hadn't realized I was so close to the water, the piers. I walked around the tiny fishing village in the early morning, listening to hungry gulls and the sound of moorings. Low clouds made everything dull white and silver, diffused light bathing a landscape of water-washed rock, tall pine peninsula. Stonington is a hard-working community of commercial fishermen and also home to many artists; docks and galleries side by side. Worlds collide at the Harbor Café, where I'd go for coffee and poached eggs early in the morning (you were late if you ambled in at 6:00). Sitting at a table, waking up slowly with a notebook in reach, I'd listen to revealing stories, snippets of which I still remember: a young writer talked about her need for solitude and space, about learning to speak up for what her craft requires, rather than always getting "too wrapped up in my man"; at another table, a mature voice, strangely accented, advised the heartbroken wife of a fisherman that she "may as well give the presents to someone else; he's not coming home"; yet another said that although she'd lived up north by herself for a while, well, her husband . . . "You know what they say about fishermen, well, it's true. So I came on back to town." Commercial fishing is a tough industry, dominated by men; but from what I overhear, the women have it much, much harder. In a booth one morning, I saw four kids in their early teens, two boys with two girls. The older-looking girl sat next to her boyfriend, nuzzled and kissed him, tried on a cloak of sexuality—an inexperienced girl's idea of what a woman should be. The younger girl watched her closely, but I remember a sullen look on her face. Her eyes were ringed with dark blue pencil; she bit her lip and held her body at an uncomfortable angle. She would either stay in this town, or she would leave. If she stayed, she might follow the worn paths of the other women in the restaurant. Lives seemed difficult in Stonington, but the people impressed me as rugged and real. And in the end, it all came back to the island itself: the seascape and the sky above it. Thick fog rolling in off the bay, a terrific downpouring of rain and the sound of water striking water, the rising and swelling of the harbor, boats coming in. An hour or so later: fog dispersed, sun bright, time for chasing the slant of light on the pines, capturing it with paint on canvas, time for sunburns and songs, for black raspberry ice cream or wild blueberry pie. I returned to Stonington several times, though none of them recent, and I have to say it's a place I miss, a place I long for. A place where, in darkness or in light, in solitude or in company with others, you can find yourself reflected in the water that surrounds you—rippling, changing, flowing . . . and yet somehow providing a sense of the same.

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