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Maine is Always Maine

Throughout the year, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities:  Fried clams.  The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950’s gas station.  “Lobstah.”  Locals wintering in “Florider.”  Lighthouses.  The Italian corner store.  Winslow Homer.  Dark, plump wild turkeys filing across a country road.  “Christina’s World.”  Old Town Canoes.  The 1,700-pound “chocolate moose.”  Roof rakes and ice dams.  A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.”  A boat and trailer in every other driveway.  A Portland Seadogs baseball game paused for fog.  A Dunkin Donuts every 10 miles.  A pruned maple hemorrhaging sap in the spring.  Maple syrup.  Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside cluttered with windfallen . . . camp wood.  The cottage industry of personal pickups with snowplows.  Roiling, whirlpooling, thundering, misting Maine rivers guided by granite through downtowns after a day of heavy rain.  Lightning bugs burning spark holes in a June evening. 

Meanwhile, Linda studied theology.  Her bedroom, which included a desk, easy chair, laptop computer, and inkjet printer, filled with texts, hardcover as well as paperback, on theology through the ages, including theological approaches to such contemporary issues as violence, incarceration, and LGBTQ rights.  Many of the texts, if their cover descriptions were any indication, struck me as unimaginably dense―the particle physics of faith and spirit―yet she tackled them with the same rigor she applied to the study of medicine.  Chaplaincy, not preaching from a pulpit, was her blossoming spiritual interest as, while a student, she enjoyed volunteering at a Portland hospital, the Cumberland County Jail, and the state prison in Warren.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, Uncategorized

Nor’easter

About the only thing I looked forward to in the Maine winter was the drama of a snowstorm, the possibility of a resultant power outage lasting a day or more notwithstanding.  “Nor’easters”―cyclonic air masses that spawn off the shores of the eastern United States, wicked combinations of cold polar air and warmer ocean air―produced the best snowstorms in Gorham. 

I loved the way the curtains of falling snow erased distances, bled the world of color, and wrapped the rare person afoot in town or country in his or her own world luxurious in its privacy.   Reducing traffic to a whisper―this as Maine’s intrepid road-maintenance crews kept streets and roads in remarkably good condition―the raging storms transformed the countryside into a 17th-century wilderness and the villages into ghostly hamlets.  The snow softened the naked branches and limbs and exposed rock of the countryside, buried the stains and litter in the towns and cities.  Come the clearing morning, in the wakes of the plows, the roadside snow piled steep, pristine, and voluptuous, its peaks and whorls masacara-ed with the blue of the dawn.

As much as I liked the prodigious snow, I also enjoyed taming it, keeping it at bay, assuming the manly role of maintaining our home’s safety, efficiency, and welcome.  During and after the storms I enjoyed blasting the snow away with my new heavy-duty Sears snowblower.  I cleared not only our driveway and the walkway to our front door, but much of our front and back yards, creating winter “pastures” for our four dogs so they could stretch their legs and enjoy some room to accommodate their individual relief habits.  None of us is immune.

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Autumn in Maine

Stating the obvious, fall in Maine was colors, primarily the reds, oranges, and lingering greens of maple and oak, swimming, exploding, dripping, and drooling everywhere.  Sure, the effervescent gold of the aspen and the muted reds of the scrub oak of the Southwestern high country, and the bright lemon-yellows of the cottonwoods in the Southwestern river valleys and arroyos, were beautiful, but nothing could surpass the sheer variety and abundance of New England’s autumnal palette.  The New England autumn weather, too, was nearly always delightful, thanks largely to the decrease in the relative humidity.  I welcomed as well the lowering temperatures, culminating in the first frost, that killed all the biting insects.

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New England Thunderstorm

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but undramatic systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train.  But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation.  After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink.  Then, a breeze would arrive from some indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard.  I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder.  Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where? 

In the desert Southwest, one could see storms approaching from miles away. Dramatic storms approached our heavily-wooded Gorham neighborhood like a low-flying blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar.  But arrive the storm would, bringing more thunder.  And lightning.  As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water.  The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

Vacationland?

Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s motto is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, had flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states to the south.  If you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91 degrees and the relative humidity 90 percent, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminated, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau). 

Indeed, nothing, not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico, topped an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80’s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling the New England of my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with fallen, fragrant pine needles. But the operative word here is “relaxing.”  On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat. 

And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the day’s accumulated heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms. 

Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I, although we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of Denver and, later, the Southwest.[1]


[1] Spoiled?  In July 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather.  It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that.  A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems.  Maybe that sounds familiar, too.  But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell?  A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer.  Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages.  According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones.  And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian.  No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.”  At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding. However, 3385 disagreed.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, southwest

Delivering Care in Maine

I resumed working, now not as a medical assistant but officially as a practical nurse with all of its expectations and responsibilities.  I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough.  Neither worked out. 

I then somewhat settled into employment at a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s disease.  I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents, exploding at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose, out of boredom and anxiety, from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with difficult-to-manage pressure sores. 

Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and, with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent, performed creaky gospel songs for the residents. 

I worked the swing shift.  Every shift began and ended with the necessary tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart.  On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England coastline night exhausted.  I lost 10 pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months. 

I then worked at a fast-paced family-practice clinic that employed four physicians, here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse.  I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

The Rain in Maine Stays Mainely

The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me. 

I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England.  Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain.  And rain.  And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain.  It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof.  In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared.  James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure.  Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.  

Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it.  Shrouded in my vinyl rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots.  (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.)  Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete. 

In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.

New England spring unlocked.

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Home in Maine

We closed on our fourth house at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the dwelling, on a dead-end road.  The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow.  Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place.  It was the first of a number of occasions in which Bruce, unbidden but greatly appreciated, would help us. 

Meanwhile, the slightest sounds seemed to echo against all these new walls of trees.   

After several days we established a modicum of order in the house.  The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style.  It had a second floor and an unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience.  The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch.  The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic. 

The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover; the remaining one-third was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―hugged and canopied our house.  Nearly all of the 15 or so other properties on our road were of similar size.  We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado; on the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy and solitude provided by the crush of trees.  



Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door.  Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.”  That is, the otter pond.  (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the New England accent would take as much getting used to as the woods.  And, yes, I came to understand that the Maine accent differed from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differed from a northern Maine accent.)  We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned.  We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track. 

It was a raw morning, the temperature 40 degrees, the skies leaden.  The air was still and fog filled the woods in places.  A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open field.  The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten ice.  It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling.  Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft.  The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog, a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, was a very popular canine in watery Maine. 

The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to thinking:  Some aspect of this surely inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, Edward Hoagland. Would this blanket of wood succor or smother me?  Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing?  Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?     

Soon we arrived at the pond, actually one of several ponds, where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush.  (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.)  The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that covered about 50 acres.  The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon lifted my spirits as Buddy and I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness. 

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

To New England

World enough and time. 

After nearly three decades, my wife decided to no longer practice medicine.  She had devoted her professional life to physical care.  Now, she wanted to study theology with the hope of providing spiritual care.  Her Christian faith was an essential part of her life.  She had been a member of church wherever we lived.  So we agreed: She would study while I continued to work in healthcare.

But study theology how and where?  We ruled out an online education, if indeed such a thing was even available in her desired field of study.  There were no seminaries in the San Luis Valley.  We also agreed that Linda would not live and study somewhere other than Alamosa while I remained in the Valley: My company and that of our dogs, now numbering four, were too important to her. 

Thus, we would sell our house and leave Alamosa. 

So, educational possibilities for my wife.  And geographical possibilities, once again, for me.  Though I loved living in the Southwest, for a decade I had fantasized about returning to live in my native Northeast, specifically New England.  It was, as I have written, a land that shaped me, touched me deeply, a land to which I owed much.  My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age 58, reengage with the spirit of New England?  Could I spend the rest of my life there?  I believed I could.

Somewhat to my surprise, because I thought she was a diehard Westerner, Linda said she could as well.

We researched New England seminaries.  Linda wanted to attend an institution with a progressive spiritual tradition, so her choices quickly narrowed to two: Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston; and Bangor Theological Seminary, which had campuses in Bangor and Portland, Maine.  While we continued to hold jobs in Alamosa, we made plans to fly to Boston and, from there, visit both institutions.

We landed in Massachusetts in October.  At the Hertz car rental desk at Boston’s Logan Airport, I penned in my journal: “Boston: Old, wet, dark.” 

We toured the campus of Andover Newton.  The admissions director of the seminary warmly welcomed, informed, and advised us.  I had no doubt that Linda would be accepted for study there. 

With a real estate agent, we then looked at houses in the Boston suburbs. 

Of course, compared to Anthony and Alamosa, the Boston suburbs―such towns as Bolton, Clinton, Harvard, Hudson, Boylston―were densely populated.  After two decades in the Southwest, I wasn’t prepared for such inescapable density.  People, houses, businesses, and motor vehicles everywhere, with no safety valve of vast undeveloped public land―land, not sea―nearby.  All of this tumult was somehow summed up for me with the sight of a commuter train roaring westward during evening rush hour though the heart of a town whose name I cannot recall.  I hadn’t seen a commuter train since I left metropolitan New Jersey.       

Of course, with four dogs, an apartment in the Boston metropolitan area was out of the question.  Then, we quickly realized that housing was costly in the Boston suburbs, and that even a quarter-acre property upon which our four dogs might romp was unaffordable, if not impractical.  There existed no “small house in the country” anywhere near Boston for the likes of our family.  Thus, an education at Andover Newton was rejected.

We then drove from Boston to Bangor.  The drive took nearly four hours―long even by Western standards―including two hours to get to Portland, Maine’s largest city.  

Maine differed considerably from Massachusetts.  On the interstate north of Portland, we drove through mile after mile of nothing but dense, dark, monotonous pine and hardwood.  No luminous woodlands of piñon and juniper here.  Such prodigious verdure was autumn colorful, but murmured of a savagery that unnerved even my nature-loving sensibility.

We arrived in Bangor―at last, no longer just a name in a Roger Miller song.  (And Miller incorrectly pronounced it BANG-her; we would soon learn the correct pronunciation was BANG-gore.)  The city not even halfway up the length of Maine was stark, modest, and tidy.  After a pleasant tour of the Bangor Theological campus, we drove to the office of a local real estate agent.  

She showed us a newly-built house with a generous property.  The property was treeless, starkly so in this otherwise shaggy land; nonetheless, ideal for the dogs.  Yet there remained the reality of this city’s considerable distance from the commerce and culture of Portland, and, more unsettling, the certainty of Bangor’s long, cold, gnawing winters greased by vast, damp, howling places named Penobscot, Piscataquis, Aroostook, New Brunswick, and Quebec just to the north.

So we agreed: Bangor, too, was out.

Which left us with the Portland area.  The seminary’s “campus” was just a basement in a great old church in downtown Portland, but the classrooms, offices, and seminary library there were attractive and cozy. 

Portland, too, was attractive.  Like Boston, it had a picturesque harbor.  But it was one-tenth the size of Beantown and quickly spread into spacious communities, many of them semi-rural and even rural―an area obviously with room to wander a-foot in peace and solitude.  And Portland, despite its antiquity, appeared to be filled with people in their 20’s and 30’s; not that we socialized regularly with this age group in the Southwest, but this meant vibrance, progressive politics, and a guaranteed variety of better restaurants.  So we agreed: this place was it.

Time permitted us to look at only two houses.  They were both within the Portland city limits and their yards were much too small for a canine quartet, but we were informed there would be larger, affordable properties within a reasonable commute to Portland; however, they would have to wait for a subsequent visit by one or both of us.

And everywhere there was the charm, history, and tang of New England. The woods with their fireworks of autumn colors.  The gentle light.  The thick, humid air that nibbled on the bones at nightfall, but plumped and delivered enjoyable odors, including the sweetness of fallen leaves.  The ubiquitous water: rivers and streams that pulsed, lakes and ponds that bejeweled.  Yes, there were many, many houses, but the abundant wild and domestic verdure seemed to cushion the rattle of households.  And there was, of course, the cosmic, storied ocean, although my gaze was on those limitless forests and granite mountains, about which Thoreau wrote, for hiking and packing.  (I discovered my testicles when, as a kid, I boldly leapt into the frigid waters off the coast of central Maine . . . and felt that pair of cocktail peanuts climb for dear life up into my throat.  Joyce’s “scrotumtightening sea.”)  

After acceptance at Bangor Theological Seminary, Linda returned to Maine in the winter and selected a house in a semi-rural neighborhood outside of the village of Gorham. 



We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February.  Somewhat to my surprise, Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from the aforementioned Clinton, Massachusetts.  Thus, it was sinking in: Mexican-Americans were no longer confined to the Southwest; they were establishing families and powering our economy from coast to coast.

I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer, Linda drove the SUV, and we divided the four dogs between us.  Across an America on the cusp of spring.  We spent nights in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago; and Cleveland.  Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley.  As we let the dogs wander, I brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips.  New York!  Where I went to college, drank my first legal beer in a bar, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time.  Then, a night in Utica, New York.  Then, exhausted, several nights in Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived.

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