The Beaches and Their Stories

Now and then, you get glimpses of Old New England. Not the chic galleries and pride flags along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Not the farm-to-table fine dining with views of the coast. Not Boston and its history of Irish immigration. You get it walking on the beach on a windy day when no one is around, those windswept sand dunes undulating like the sea before a storm, and you start to picture what the Pilgrims saw when they landed in Provincetown in 1620. This fact gets lost in our Thanksgiving story—we Americans are so gifted at myth-making—but on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims came ashore on what is now one of the most LGBTQ-friendly, art-loving communities in America. They deemed the sandy shores too difficult for farming so they explored further inland, looking for a good spot to till and hoe. Five weeks later, they made their way to what is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, naming the location after the port from which they had sailed.

We spent last weekend in Cape Cod. It had been two years since our last visit. Haunting seems like an appropriate, yet overused word to describe the area. Cape Cod—and New England—is a region, but also a mood. Every time I’m there, I think of hardship and resilience, isolation and community, beauty and danger. A trite phrase often used in travel writing is to describe a destination as a “place of contrasts,” which you could say about almost anywhere. Cape Cod—and, really all of New England—is a study in cyclical conflict, made all the more poignant by its four very distinct seasons. Winters are exceptionally cold, brutal and long. By April, the land and sky soften and you feel yourself willing to forgive. By August, you sit on the beach enjoying a lobster roll picnic, and you can’t remember winter’s fury. In October, when the leaves turn, when the pumpkins are everywhere, when the air shifts, you know you’re in the most beautiful place on Earth, yet you start to wonder what the darker months ahead will bring, and if you’ll be prepared.

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Cape Cod reaches about 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, it literally looks like a flexed arm putting its fist up to the Atlantic’s many storms, protecting the rest of Massachusetts. I walked out on part of that flexed arm last weekend; a sign warned me about sharks and to stay away from seals, which get eaten by sharks. Looking out to the sea, you felt Cape Cod protecting you from all that happens in the ocean. Go past that barrier at your own risk; for centuries, this stretch has been dubbed an “ocean graveyard.” The National Park Service reports there are one thousand shipwrecks between Wellfleet and Truro, which is less than five miles long. The first recorded shipwreck occurred six years after the Pilgrims landed. Winter months, not surprisingly, were the worst, with an estimated two wrecks every month during the early 1800s. The region gets pounded by storms, blizzards, hurricanes. A category 3 hurricane hit the area in 1635, a force of nature settlers born in Europe had never heard of or seen before. The beaches, no doubt, could tell us many, many stories, everything from who showed up and when, to the horror unspooling in the waves, to the objects fishermen accidentally reeled in, to children scampering about getting a sunburn. The beaches have seen it all.

When I think about leaving the Northeast, I think about escaping New York City, but when I think about leaving New England, I hesitate. Jobs brought and kept us here, in New York, but New England pulls us away from all that. I grew up vacationing in Mystic, Connecticut. As a child, I remember being fearful of all those oil paintings featuring angry sperm whales attacking sailors. I got married in Vermont on the coast of Lake Champlain. My first newspaper job was in Dover, New Hampshire, the Granite State’s “Seacoast,” a 40-mile stretch of oceanfront. On my days off, I used to sit and chill on the sand in York, Maine, another beach that has seen its own share of shipwrecks. In fact, in 2013, a storm washed away enough sand to reveal the bones of sloop dating between 1750 and 1850.

Today, back in suburban New Jersey, I miss coastal New England. The gray weather here doesn’t feel intriguing like the gray weather there. Last weekend, on an overcast rainy day, I visited the Provincetown Library, an impressive building given to the town in 1873. The first thing I saw walking in was its “Mysteries” section. New Englanders love their spooky yarns. Stephen King is a lifelong Maine resident. Before King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts,—witch trial central—was writing about all the shit in the woods that could kill you, or, at the very least, emotionally scar you for life. Somehow, when you drive west and cross the Connecticut border back into New York and turn south to head into New Jersey, New England’s haunting beauty dissipates. It’s not going to compete with malls or the Manhattan skyline or traffic. You have to go there to feel it.

We rented a condo in Provincetown, just two blocks from Commercial Street and all its wonderful restaurants and galleries, and every morning as I poured myself a cup of coffee, I would look out from the kitchen and see the Provincetown Cemetery, a few of the taller headstones poking up from a hill. There are stones dating to the early 1800s, also worn by Cape Cod’s mercurial weather. If you read the dates on many of these graves, you realize a number of people barely made it to age 45. Many graves lack a birth date because the information wasn’t available.

And that’s Cape Cod, and much of New England right now: orange and brown leaves blowing past old headstones; people curling up indoors reading a good mystery; waves and winds hitting the beaches harder; fireplaces going strong inside restaurants serving chowder because it’s getting cold and warming up takes more effort. And it’s all beautiful, even when it feels creepy.

Mai Tais With the Sun

Tomorrow is the start of October, and usually I love this month. It’s glorious. The changing leaves. The variations in temperatures. The sky is a different kind of blue. Autumn, and October in particular, is pretty, though I’m not a fan of everything suddenly becoming flavored with pumpkin spice (that starts on September 1 for some reason, when the American Northeast decides everything should smell and taste like pie).

This autumn, the changing skies feel more ominous to me. Today was a very gray, gloomy day in the greater New York City area. Everyone wore black and carried black umbrellas. It felt like a funeral for summer. Today reminded me of my three years living in Seattle. In Seattle, I would become very depressed starting every November, I’d stay balled up until about April, and then between May and October I felt fine. I couldn’t figure out why. Then we moved to Washington, D.C., where winter seems to last seven weeks, crocuses pop up in late February, it’s generally sunnier, and suddenly I felt okay.

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I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and last winter was my first winter managing things without medication. Folks, it’s hard. You feel dysfunctional for about four consecutive months, that’s one-third of the year where you don’t feel like yourself. It’s only September 30, and today I had to use my light box for over an hour. Just a month ago, I was on a beach in Los Angeles trying not to get skin cancer.

I do all the things they tell people with SAD to do: I sit in front of my light box, which I named Helios. I do yoga, I dance, I bike if the roads are dry, I lift weights, I don’t hide in the house all day, I meditate, I meet up with people for lunch/dinner/drinks. I go outside. Last January, I remember sitting on my front step in 25-degree cold sipping hot coffee just because the sun was everywhere that day. The lack of sunlight is more than just a mood thing for me; ongoing darkness sends my thyroid into overdrive, which sends my body into a state of stress, which causes my heart to sometimes skip a beat—usually while I’m trying to fall asleep—which sucks because winter makes my insomnia worse. No pun intended, but there’s a snowball effect, with the physical following the mental. Darkness makes me anxious.

I was born in the Snow Belt. I grew up in a house where everyone yelled, where fallen apples or too much snow covered the ground most of the year. I lived in upstate New York until I was 22 years old. Summers were hot and short; winters were long and bitter. I believe my restlessness and need for travel began there in my childhood home, two miles from that moody Lake Ontario shoreline; I can’t recall a time growing up when I didn’t want to be somewhere else. And now, on this overcast day, as I watch neighbors’ Halloween decorations go up, as I overhear people revel in that “crisp fall air” vibe, I feel incredible isolation, for all I want to do is head to Mexico before Trump builds that wall, eat tacos, read on the beach all day, and dance at the clubs all night. This year, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Bahamas and Cuba, two late-spring trips within just a few weeks of each other. Let’s just say the Caribbean (and Mexico) is medicinal.

Last October, I went on a press trip to Mexico and noticed a change in my body chemistry while there. The trip was annoying, but my body felt calm. Sunshine flooded me. I came home four days later, daylight savings kicked in, which meant it was now dark by 4:30 p.m., and once again, I was huddled on the sofa trying not to think about death.

When I say sunshine and palm trees give me the feels, I mean it—literally. We are looking to move to Los Angeles, but that won’t happen until 2018, so I still need to cope with the Northeast for another year and a half. I would probably do very well with a Colorado winter—that state gets so much sunshine year-round it’s like someone smiling at you all the time. As I keep telling people, it’s not the snow or the cold that bothers me—I love to ski! It’s the lack of sunlight, the cloud cover, even the lack of color in the sky. The heaviness of this kind of weather sends my serotonin tanking. Today, I had practically every light on in this house just to counter the darkness outside, and we’re less than two weeks into autumn.

This fall and winter, I am armed with more strategies, now that I have a sense of what to expect off-meds. We are going to Florida in December. I am visiting a friend in Arizona in February. I am chopping up winter into more bite-sized chunks, unlike last year where I thought stubbornness and focus would help me slog through the entire season. Instead, I huddled at home. Nature showed me who’s boss—again. This time, I plan to soak up whatever sunlight I can wherever I can, and store it like a camel. I’m even getting on a plane to seek out sunshine, and I hate flying, but I figure a trip somewhere will take me out of the spiral that is SAD. And then in mid-March, we set the clocks forward and daylight will start to stretch into 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. That’s when I feel the tension subside, negative narratives melting with the snow. Longer days mean more possibilities. The sun signals psychological relief, even optimism. And then we get to June when the sun lingers until 8 p.m. or so, like some dinner date where the conversation is going so well that you lose track of time, and you say “Yes! You’re still here! Let’s order Mai Tais!”

20 Years Later

On Sunday, I sat on a plane that flew from Los Angeles to Newark. Flying always shocks me. It’s the take off, really. No matter how many times I do it, I still sit there, strapped down, picturing the pilot moving the throttle. Nose up, wheels up, wings up, and suddenly we’re at some unnatural angle going some unnatural speed at some unnatural height, and every time I think “What a feat of engineering and physics!” I become jealous of those tuned out on whatever device they’re allowed to have on or whatever movie they’re trying to download or whatever book they’re reading. The plane levels off, and about 45 minutes to an hour in, I’m able to relax—sort of—and crack open a book, though I’ve learned that reading while doped up on Klonopin means not remembering what you read once you’re off the plane. If it’s a smooth ride, I relish the view from 36,000 feet.

I had to make this flight (I have walked away from the gate before) because on Monday, I was scheduled to participate in a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—West Village, to be precise. I had attended a reading at this venue last year. It’s a wonderfully classic Beatnik kind of space, a basement below a restaurant that is narrow and dark with a small stage draped by a red velvet curtain and doused with bad lighting. If the cafe allowed smoking down there, none of us would have been able to breathe, for there are no windows.

The participants were from the inaugural Cuba Writers Program; I was one of six readers. I read a piece that was recently published in Catapult about a waiter I met in Havana. His name is Alexander, and he got me cornflakes when I was feeling sick. We need more Alexanders in the world.

This was my first public reading. I was told I did an “excellent” job, and even came across as funny and engaging. People I didn’t know came up to compliment me. On stage, I could sense the audience was enjoying the piece, so I started to relax into my own words, and reading your own words aloud always sounds different than writing them. Whatever happens with my writing career, at least I can say my first public reading was in Greenwich Village to a standing room-only crowd, and that the audience liked me.

There was an after-party a few blocks away at this writer’s apartment. He organized the event and lived on Bleecker Street. If you don’t know New York City, Bleecker Street is, or at least once was, the heart of Greenwich Village. I lived at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Street 20 years ago, and as we were walking to this party, we walked past my old building. We also walked past the CVS pharmacy that I had once signed a petition to help keep out. The Grand Union where I used to grocery shop was gone. Bleecker still had record shops, a few loud bars, cafes, and a tattoo parlor, and maintained that noisy, gritty vibe I remember when living there. New York University is right there, so the neighborhood teems with students, and 20 years ago, I had been one of them, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.

The party was held in this gorgeous apartment filled with gorgeous mid-century furniture protected by several large, clean panes of glass windows overlooking Lafayette Street, a north-south road that takes you into Chinatown, Little Italy and the rest of the Lower East Side. The street is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and I wondered what he would have thought of this big, garish thruway with its giant billboard about a film that sort of, kind of makes fun of war, because those big, beautiful windows offered a clear view of that promotion.

A couple of strange things were going on in my head that night, and this is without wine or Klonopin. One, that just the day before, I had been in Los Angeles looking out at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory and palm trees through large windows long overdue for a cleaning. That had been my view for 10 days. Two, that I was a guest of a man who had lived in this stunning apartment for the past 23 years, and that 20 years ago, he and I and unknowingly been neighbors, unaware that in two decades, we would meet at an airport in Miami. I wasn’t invited to such parties 20 years ago, where accomplished people hung out, drank wine, talked about books, and could take in the view from wherever they stood because the view was everywhere. I was a bit of a wreck 20 years ago, very bitter about a family court battle I had been dragged through, completely broke, borrowing money from an ex-boyfriend generous enough to help an ex-girlfriend, struggling to make ends meet and to stay focused on my studies at NYU. In July 1996, I dropped out of the NYU journalism graduate program and got a job at a small newspaper in New Hampshire, basically applying my degree before I had it while earning a much-needed paycheck. I was 12 credits shy of finishing my master’s, and never went back to complete it. I do not come from an educated family, so no one was around to advise whether dropping out to take a newspaper job was a good idea or not, which means for a 23-year-old, I was quite free to chart my own course and make my own mistakes. And I did. No one stood around grooming me for success, as I see so many parents do with their children now, and as we gladly do with our 12-year-old daughter.

For years, I felt hugely embarrassed about being an NYU dropout, and for being the emotional and financial mess that I had been in my 20s. My roommate and classmates were A students from upper middle class families who summered in South Africa and Germany, who took unpaid internships at large-city newspapers because they needed experience, not cash, while I sold flowers for $8 an hour at the Union Square farmers’ market, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite jobs ever. At age 23, I lacked just about all the things my peers had to become successful. If my 43-year-old self could have talked to my 23-year-old self, she would have said “Chill, sister. It’s going to be a weird road, but an interesting one, and you’ll get there, just not in the same way your classmates might get there.”

Walking by all those purple NYU flags that dominate Greenwich Village didn’t affect me Monday night. It used to, whenever I was in Washington Square Park or bopping around MacDougal Street to meet a friend for lunch. I had enjoyed myself on stage. People whose names I don’t remember praised my work. I was a writer reading in Manhattan heading to a party at the fabulous apartment of another writer. I felt my own kind of take off. Either it was the jet lag or maybe New York was softening towards me. New York City is not easy on anyone: writers, actors, musicians, people in general. A colleague of my husband’s recently left New York for L.A., worn down by the city’s frenetic pace and stress junkie tendencies. We’re looking to move to L.A., too, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll be packing up just as New York decides to like me after all.

On Privilege and Travel

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This year, I had the privilege to travel to some fancy places where people live well. I live well now, but I didn’t grow up with money, and when you cross classes, when you weren’t born into the world you currently live in or the ones you occasionally visit, you feel that gulf more acutely. What people with money or born into money might take for granted is that money permits mobility. And sitting still sucks. Feeling left behind sucks. In high school, I was the only student in my French class who did not go on the bus trip to Quebec City because neither one of my divorced parents could afford to send me. There’s immobility for you—I literally sat at home while my classmates walked around Quebec, took in the sites, and practiced their French with very patient waiters at the city’s mid-level restaurants. In college, and during my twenties, there would be more financial troubles to come, including an expensive yearlong family court battle that would take a long time to dig out from. The household was too much of a mess to consider vacations or even weekend getaways. Travel—and really, experiencing the world in general—was not encouraged.

Which might explain why I couldn’t wait to get out on my own. (And how in a three-year period, we visited Quebec City—twice—and you should, too.)

Fast forward twenty-something years, and between March and May, I had a nine-week stretch where I went to four countries, one with my family and three on my own. This isn’t my norm any year. I visited Zurich, Switzerland; Positano, Italy; Exuma, the Bahamas, and Havana, Cuba. I came home wanting more. I am currently reading Elisabeth Eaves’ book “Wanderlust”, and early on, she references Thomas Jefferson warning his nephew that “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.” Jefferson seemed to be suggesting that travel triggers insatiability. After four countries in nine weeks, this feels painfully true. I’d like to say that I am enjoying a relaxing summer surrounded by the comforts of home, which I am, that I’m not in any rush, no planes, trains or buses to catch, but the reality is that on quiet, unstructured days, my mind drifts to where I’ve been and where I haven’t been. Sometimes I wonder if this is old wiring, of growing up in a household I didn’t want to be in, of not being able to afford things, and thinking about what to do and where to go next.

Unlike Ms. Eaves, I didn’t wander the world for years, and I applaud and envy those who do. I traveled in fits and spurts when I had some cash, often thinking “I didn’t yet go here” or “I haven’t yet tried that” but maybe my problem is that I’m still thinking like a 23-year-old. Maybe my 43-year-old self should just chill and say “Hey, look, at least you had the foresight to get up and see as much as possible whenever possible even while being discouraged to do so. Go you!” We need to learn to be kinder to our different selves. I am still learning this. I also need to recognize I won’t get to go everywhere, I won’t get to experience everything, but I have gone to many places and I have experienced many things, and there’s more to come. Did I backpack the world? No. Did I ever live without an address? No. But I’ve crossed socioeconomic classes and crossed oceans, and that’s more mobility than I ever could have predicted back when I was sitting at home, sixteen years old, waiting for my classmates to tell me how much they enjoyed Quebec. My daughter is twelve years old now, and, so far, has been to ten countries on four continents. She goes on class trips without issue. When she’s old enough, the world will be hers to backpack while I sit at home biting my nails, waiting for her emails and postcards. It sounds like such a simple middle class rite of passage, but to me, it will be a tremendous achievement.

I Stink At Blogging

It’s June 22, and I just realized that my last blog post was two months ago. Unless you’re a famous author like George R.R. Martin and know that you can blog whenever you feel like it, and hundreds or thousands of people will still read you, blogging is supposed to be more of a regular thing, something you maintain, like toned triceps or abs. My husband is good at this, this blogging thing, as is his colleague, Chuck Wendig, who seems to fire-breathe copy while I sit on my front porch, laptop open, shitting kittens over every word, fussing with phrasing, trying to recall everything Jim Shepard said when I was at Sirenland this past March. And maybe Chuck shits kittens over every word, too. He’s just more of a pro about it.

So the blog gathered dust (it’s also undergoing a redesign because I’m tired of all this blue). Meanwhile, I was traveling, writing, and getting published, so no complaints here. I had my first piece for AFAR, about camping in New York City. Then, there was an essay I wrote about a waiter I met in Havana last month. That same week, my first article for The Week was published, so I felt a bit splattered across the Internet in a short amount of time. Is this how Chuck Wendig and George R.R. Martin feel when their stories go viral (certainly more viral than I ever will), and when people they don’t know comment on what they wrote? It’s a cool, weird experience that I am still getting used to.

And while I haven’t been blogging, I have been reading—a lot. I finished Naomi J. Williams’ brilliant “Landfalls”, which I scored as a free gift for attending the annual One Story Debutante Ball. I didn’t know anything about Ms. Williams or the book; I literally picked it up at a table because I liked the cover—18th-century ships being bullied by moody green waves—and I love me a good journey story. I brought the book to Cuba with me last month, and had to keep putting it down because it was so good. Now I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s “LaRose,” which is equally gripping. In between, I tried reading Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s blockbuster novel “The Nest,” and got 104 pages in before I decided I can’t take reading about affluent white New Yorkers anymore and the shit storms they create for themselves. Same thing happened this past winter with Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s “The Ramblers,” though there, I only lasted 40 pages. Rowley’s blog is titled “Ivy League Insecurities.” I started wondering if I should have such an emotionally-charged, socioeconomically-loaded blog title, but only came up with “State School Struggles” before recalling that I had learned—after graduating from state school—that alliteration is for amateurs, and, really, just plain uncool.

I’ll try to blog more often for those dedicated 2.5 readers out there, but in the next few weeks, I have something I’m working on for The Scofield, a mega-thinky platform led by the intrepid Tyler Malone (thanks, Tyler!) and a few assignments about Cuba I gotta focus on, and writing about Cuba always makes me happy. I can’t explain it. I’m a blonde suburban mom who grew up in the Snow Belt, who studied French instead of Spanish, and I’m as gringa as they come. But Cuba feels right. Maybe I’ll blog about that someday.

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