Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Putting off my blacks

Two weeks ago Friday, I put off my blacks. That’s an old-fashioned phrase for an old-fashioned gesture, and it’s taken me a while to write about it because it’s taken me a while to work through what I feel and think about it.

After Lisa died, I wore black almost without thinking. It seemed the right thing to do, it suited my mood and my sorrow and it was a way of expressing those feelings without demanding that anybody else do anything about them. It was, I guess, a way of literally putting them outside myself: wearing my grief on my sleeve. After a week, I realized that I needed a ritual of mourning, something I could do for myself, and I knew almost immediately that I would continue wearing black. I would wear something black, not all black because I simply couldn’t afford that, but some major piece of black clothing, every day, and I would do it for a year and a day.

“A year and a day.” It’s an archaic phrase, too, and went with what felt like an archaic gesture. I found myself thinking of the folk song called “The Unquiet Grave” (or “The Restless Dead”), the first verse running through my mind over and over:

I’ll do as much for my true love
As any lover may
I’ll sit and mourn upon her grave
A twelvemonth and a day

In the rest of the song, the true love’s ghost rises from the grave to tell the lover to cut it out, but I wasn’t ready for that part yet.

So for a year and a day, I wore black. I bought a lot of black t-shirts, and was really glad that my warmest dog-walking pullover is black. Every day as I got dressed, I found some piece of black clothing, and thought of Lisa, and felt connected and comforted by the ritual.

And then, all of a sudden, it was May. And it was time to put off the black.

I was, I thought, ready. And yet it was hard to let go of the ritual, even though I was starting to yearn for color. I thought about keeping it going for a while longer, and I thought some more about “The Unquiet Grave,” with its verses about grief keeping the dead from resting, and the living, too, and I decided that it was, indeed, time.

So on the 4th of May, which would have been our 28th anniversary, I put on a bright blue shirt and blue jeans, and not even my socks or my shoes were black. And I wore color for the next few days, and even bought a new green shirt, a springtime, new-leaf green. It’s not that I won’t wear black again - both my good skirts are black, and I’ve still got too many black t-shirts to give them up entirely - but the meaning is different. It’s no longer a gesture, a ritual; I remember Lisa at different times and in different ways. I’m glad, so glad, that I did it, that I literally put my grief on my back every day, that I touched it and planned it and wore it until I wore it out, or at least wore it down. And I’m glad, too, that I reached the ritual’s end. I’ve put off my blacks. I will never entirely put off my grief, but it has changed, and I have changed with it. I am grateful.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Lisa on P'town

I found this not too long ago, as I was going through Lisa's office here at the house. It has to be about 10 years old (Austin's is long gone, and so is Gallerani's, and we had to give up the winter trip because of work), but it's so Lisa, and so Provincetown, that it seemed worth sharing.

There is something, some vestige, I guess of the Yankee work ethic, that comes over me whenever I go to Provincetown. It affects me more there than it ever does here in Portsmouth, which is, after all, located in granite-backed, Republican, lean-faced New Hampshire. But in Provincetown, artists’ colony, favored by artists because it lies on the same parallel as Florence, Italy — as well as for other reasons, obviously — in Provincetown, I can’t do nothing. I can do nothing in Maine, quite successfully, and have done so on more than one occasion. I can do nothing in New York City, even, especially before 10:00 in the morning, which seems to be the earliest anyone wants to do business, unless they’re doing it at 7:30. I can even do nothing in San Francisco, and can show you the photos to prove it.


I get to Provincetown, we unpack, and I want to be moving. The verb I keep coming back to is to see. No, I’m not making a pun on “sea,” as one might say I must go back to the sea again. There’s just so damn much to see in and around Provincetown that I have to be moving. I want to walk down Commercial Street as soon as I get there, see that Gallerani’s is still there, even though David Gallerani, alas, is not. I don’t particularly want to see that the deli that prepared our wonderful dune picnic last October is no longer there, but I do want to see what the new(er) store is like. Newer only in that it wasn’t quite open when I was down here in May, and I don’t venture much south of Boston during the summer months, it’s bad enough living in a tourist town without going to another one. I want to make something of a beeline (a short one) to see what the menu at Martin House is like, and then, straight on the Now Voyager to pick up some books for reading in, on, around the dunes, and next to the heater in the studio at night.

And I know that it’s only at night that I will read, most likely. Drives Melissa crazy, but I get to Provincetown, and I want to move, to see as much as I can. I want to go back to the National Seashore, up (sorry, down) in Orleans, and get not really lost on the paths that wind through wood and across Dutch landscapes, through more woods, and eventually toss you up onto the beach, from the land side, not entirely unlike being tossed onto the beach from the ocean. I want to slog through the Beech Forest Trail, and see the Audubon Sanctuary in Wellfleet. I want to walk down to the other end, the West End, where we stay, actually, of Commercial Street, to where the State Highway begins/ends, and go further, maybe venturing out on the breakwater — yes, it’s called a dyke, but c’mon, that’s too damned easy.

And I want to be doing this all the time, small wonder Melissa grows exasperated. I cannot sit still in Provincetown.

At least.... not until sunset. When I can sit at the little round table in the studio, and gaze out the broad, high paned window across Robert’s fantastic garden (I hate him, really I do), to the sunset and get a little melancholy. I watch the neighborhood cats perch in the most unlikely place all day, get up, stretch, and hop down, heading for home. Or I’ll wander to the window on the other side of the room and look out to the harbor, where the sky has turned a gray-violet that, by golly, Joel Meyerowitz does know how to capture. And then, it’s pretty quiet, at least the times of the year we go there, and night falls. And we get ready for dinner.

And I start moving again. It’s very dark, and very bright, on Commercial Street at night, slightly less of both on Bradford. To your right (remember, we stay in the West End) is the harbor, a dark mass streaked by the lights at Wood End, and beyond, the wealthy harbors of Wellfleet, Truro, and Dennis. I try to fit my walk between the aimless meanderings of the tourists and the purposeful but not necessarily fast strides of the year-rounders, of whom I desperately want to be one, all the while not willing to give up what I like about where I live now -- I job doing what I love, and a music scene that doesn’t spell words funny, and that rewards talent and hard work, not just good intentions. I want to look like I belong, so maybe I don’t investigate everything I would like to. I still haven’t nerved myself up to go to a tea dance at the Boatslip, if you can believe that. I try to walk casually, as if I’m not thrilled to pieces to be back here, but I try to walk firmly, as though I belong. And I don’t make fun of the straights, I really don’t, though they do walk funny.

Martin House is usually our first stop on any trip. Martin House, with George the cat who knows when the fishermen are returning with the fresh oysters, and I’ve seen this cat waiting under a garden pergola in the rain, waiting for that damned fisherman with the same expectancy as the women at the other table who have ordered the oysters, and have told the waiter that he can bring them along whenever they get there, no matter if they’re on their dessert course. We contentedly settle down to our meal, since Melissa got the last of the original batch of oysters, and all is well.

We are creatures of habit, always open to a new experience, but not willing to let an old, good one, go. And that means that, dinner at Martin House duly taken care of, we can scan the Women’s Week program book to see when we’re going to go to Austin’s. The phrase “Going to go to Austin’s” is best uttered in a playground sing-song. And different restaurants in Provincetown inspire that reaction in different people. For my sister, I think it was Inn at the Mews, and for someone else, of course, Ciro and Sal’s. But Austin’s won our hearts when we first went to Women’s Week. I think it was the bread pudding, but it might have been the best smoked chicken I have ever had — a Willy bird, which is a terrifically rude name. Last year, it was our haven when we escaped from a musical event that didn’t quite live up to our expectations to go to Austin’s champagne and shellfish extravaganza. Upstairs, in this cozy attic/bar, with windows and skylights and not a lot of light, Melissa focused on the oysters, and I went for the tiger striped shrimp. $10 for a glass of very nice champagne and a respectable plate full of shellfish. We stayed there quite a while, thank you. Not a lot of movement. I could sit still for this. Try me.

You know, you can tell that Joel Meyerowitz, long may he photograph, spends his summers in Provincetown, because while I see intimations of that light in the autumn and spring dusks, that light is nothing like the light you see at the end of December, on a bitterly cold day, when the sky is a blue so intense that not even the reflection of the ocean can keep up with it, so it fancies itself up in a mass of whitecaps. And if you hit the dunes at the end of Snail Road (canola oil, by the way, I have it on good authority, isn’t any good for dune surfing), the contrast between sand, water and sky will take your breath away. As will the wind. If a man (or woman) may stand here and put all of America behind him/her (thank heavens), this is also a place where the winds seem to converge and crash together, a little Good Hope. So, after an invigorating morning’s struggle up the dunes, we retreat to the beach at Herring Cove, somewhat more protected, and settle down there to listen for the loons we heard last May when we went down there for our anniversary, to stare at the water and grin like fools because it is so damned gorgeous. And big. I remember on December day, standing near the water line, but above it, wind burning my ears off my head, and growing dizzy with the perception that the water of the ocean was actually above me. That I was below it, and that perception was only enhanced by a tide that rose very, very swiftly, pushed by the searing wind that sent sea-foam scuttling across the packed, icy sand.

There’s also a sense of stillness, of expectancy, in his photographs that I also recognize from a spring dusk, having drinks on the deck at the Red Inn, trying to ignore the Guppie group, men and women both, sitting next to us and talking loudly about money and cars... it’s not just the straights. And I told you that dusk was the one time I’m comfortable being still in Provincetown. But I go to Provincetown two, three times a year: in October, for Women’s Week (and the last whale watches of the season); in December, between Christmas and New Year’s (a much better tradition than working at the MLA!), and, if work allows, in May for our anniversary. And two of those times don’t allow for much sitting still in the dunes and letting life wash over you — try it, especially in December, and you’ll be there until you thaw out in March!

The place gets inside my heart, and makes it swell, and I sometimes have to listen to a Boston station we can pull in to bring me back down to earth, to return everything to everyday size, to remember that my life lies elsewhere.