Portland Phoenix: Art Walk

The best part about art shopping is the wandering it requires. It’s not like buying a blender or one of those abominable Hatchimals, things you can just order off the internet or walk into a store, point and go home—quick, painless, boring.

Art is different. There is no MSRP, no UPC, and to find something you like takes time. It takes perusing galleries, developing a taste, seeing a lot of crap or plain work before you strike on something unique.

And my unique is different than your unique. A stroll through the Greenhut Galleries on Old Port’s Middle Street last week pulled me to a painting by Jeff Bye, Portland Harbor in oil marked by strong lines and colors that bled into one another. On the reverse wall another Bye piece, this one a painting of New York City’s Canal Street from the air, measured almost four feet by four feet. It puts the feeling of skydiving into traffic while wearing goggles smeared with Vaseline onto canvas, and it stopped me in my tracks. So did its $12,000 price tag. My gift giving is by necessity far less generous, but when else are you overwhelmed by arresting beauty while holiday shopping? At Target? At the Apple Store? No. Art shopping is its own gift, as much as for you as for those you’re shopping for.

And opposite Bye’s opus were four tiny masterpieces by Kathi Smith, six inch by six-inch landscapes bursting with color. Even upscale galleries have something for everyone—Smith’s wild rendition of Black Head on Monhegan Island, a fraction of the size and price of Bye’s work, fell much closer to my price range.

Portland is full of such gems: a few doors down the Portland Art Gallery had Bill Crosby’s seascapes, smartly smeared sand dunes and angular beaches. At the Roux & Cyr Gallery on Free Street, it was Sally Ladd Cole’s crashing waves and Dan Graziano’s restaurant scenes that stopped me. Shopping became a midweek art walk, the discoveries of an afternoon meander.

But maybe you’re more excited by the creative process itself than the clean quiet halls of city center galleries. Luckily Portland carries broad tastes. If you missed the First Friday’s street fair and MECA’s holiday sale there is always Running With Scissors, a studio tucked in East Bayside. Their print shop, ceramics studio and woodshop houses painters, potters, jewelers, furniture makers. Walking their halls is like roaming Santa’s workshop, with human-sized elves everywhere making, making, making.

And on Dec. 10 Scissors is opening its doors, holding a holiday pop-up sale that mixes art, food, beer, woodblock printing, painting and shopping. Artists creating in their spaces are also selling. It’s a chance to get drawn in, to become part of the process, as well as chance to take something home.

And with art isn’t that the point? To make, create, experiment, mess up and start over? Running With Scissors is a chance to buy prints, mugs, handmade maps and paintings, but it’s also a chance to watch the creative process in action, to shake hands with the hands that sculpt the art.

But there are also opportunities to become the sculptor. Here the wandering steps deeper, beyond the galleries and even the gallery/studios to the maker spaces, places never intended for public consumption. A walk back into town ends at the Continuing Studies department of the Maine College of Art, where anyone can sign up for—or gift—courses in drawing, ceramics, sewing, photography, glassblowing. For the cost of a handful of handmade mugs (or a fraction of the cost of an Elizabeth Hoy painting) you can give instruction and dirty hands. Art doesn’t just sit on the wall here. It’s blue collar work built on apprenticeship and years of training.

But it doesn’t take years to draw a portrait. It takes sitting still and looking deeply. These are rare gifts today. A weekend workshop transforms art from a noun into a verb.

Lastly, before we close we must make two more holiday art walk stops: Art Mart on Congress Street and Artist & Craftsman Supply on Deering. Whether you’ve signed someone up for a class or know a friend who spends nights drawing random scenes while bar-hopping, these stores carry paper, paints, pastels and glue, ink, xacto knives and easels, holiday gifts for anyone with a creative spirit. It’s hard to walk these aisles and not imagine the showpiece that might spring from your own hands.

One more wandering holiday step. And still not a blender in sight.

This piece appeared as part of the Portland Phoenix Holiday Gift Guide.



Someday I’ll write an honest story. An honest sentence. An honest word. Someday.

Sometimes driving I close my eyes. Speeding along the highway I pinch them shut and see how high I can count: one Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi… Sometimes I get to five. I’m always aiming for 10, but my fear invariably overwhelms me and my eyes snap open before I reach it. Maybe my car is a little out of its lane, but usually no. Usually I would have been safe for a few seconds more. Usually I would have lived.

I close my eyes and try again.

Reckless. Stupid. Crazy. I know. But I need it. I need it to remind myself. Because I want something different. I want control. I want to see the world, to know what’s coming, to understand it and be able to maneuver around the dangerous parts. I want to know everything speeding at me, to avoid the crash, to never be surprised, overwhelmed, heartbroken. I want my open eyes to be enough to live a life without hurt.

But it’s not. Open or closed eyes, I am going die. As fast as I may drive, it drives faster. It is coming for me, and that truth is one I’m scared of. I do my best not to be, but how do you hold out a hurricane? It is coming, and what it means I don’t know. I only know it comes bent on consumption.

So sometimes I close my eyes. Not to forget or to hide, but to make ready. Does it seem crazy, my closing? It is foolish and reckless with no possible gain. I know. I can agree with that. But it also may be my first honest word.

I love life. That is my honest sentence. I love the look and feel and sway of it, the way it kisses me awake in the mornings and slams me down some evenings. I love how the day brightens for me, how words like “precipice” roll off my tongue. There is so much amazingness, and its beauty overwhelms me.

But life is not within my control. It spins around me, a cyclone I somehow exist within. I am both part of it and at the same time separate, an inhabitant of it more than its owner. Life will never be mine to keep.

And neither is yours. Neither is anyone’s. With our eyes open we may become convinced otherwise, we may think we can wrestle some version of control, but that is the real crazy. We can’t steer. We can’t. Crazy thinking is we are in control. We can only watch the hurricane, our eyes our front porch.

I am crazy, and I am not crazy. I am only saying out loud what life whispers every day. Life is the crazy one. I am not its outlier. I am in its heart. As are all of us. This madness is all of us. You think yourself safe? Life will kill us all. Do your best to control what you will, but eventually you will see too. We will all see. We have no control.

It is terrifying, overwhelming, and freeing. There is an openness in closing our eyes and letting go of control. It carries a freedom: The freedom to be, the freedom to live, the freedom to love openly, the freedom to exist with our whole hearts. I close my eyes to embrace that vision. I close my eyes to remind myself, to see beauty, to let go of any demands and instead catch a glimpse of what surrounds me. Flying along through the madness I can see how little I need for my heart to feel joy. Suddenly perfection is everywhere, in you and in me. It needs no push, no refinement, no outside markers. It fills the room, spills into the hallway. It is overwhelming. It becomes the hurricane.

That is what I want. I do not want to control. I want to accept. I want to live. I want to walk alongside. I want to love, and to be loved, without conformity or comfort. I want to live in the wind.

I love you, and in loving you I want to control you. My eyes are open, and I want to see you, to know you, to know you will accept me and never be mad at me and never leave me. Most importantly that. I want to be loved like you want to be loved and I want to be free from hurt like you want to be free from hurt. I want. I want. I want.

But at night on the road I close my eyes. And I remember.

I do not want to control you. I only want to see you, to bear witness to who you are, to feel the pulse of your heart and the rise of your breath. To learn about you without the push or pull of my own interest. I want you to love me and only me and never anything else, but more importantly I want to not care about any of that. I want to watch you unfold, to forget your past and the future and see who you are, to be let into the guesthouse of your heart, to stand at the foot of your spinning life, to lie next to you in the whirlwind of time. No steering. No control.

For that version of love I need to be reckless. I need to fly down dark alleys and make it to 10, to 100, to 1,000. I need to let the winds come full force as I stand naked in the rain, feel the waves and blown sand rake my body. I need to let life overwhelm me and drown in its blackness. I need to let it all come, even hurt and death, and lie in peace. Let the silence slide over me. I need to lose. I need to forget. I need to fall.

And it is so hard for me. It scares me so much. I want control. I want to never hurt, never be alone, never feel anguish or loss again.

So I close my eyes. I do it to let go of fear. I do it to recover myself, to reignite my spirit, to remind me that hurt and loneliness and anguish are just more sand, more waves. If I love you out of fear I love no part of you, not even the idea of you. I love the idea that someone might see me, accept me, nothing more. You are an apparition, a placeholder. That is the place where the crazy lives.

So I close my eyes. I let go, and in letting go I learn to love fully. I learn to seek and explore without fear, to question what makes your heart shine rather than question your motives for shining. There is a recklessness to it, a foolishness. Discovering your heart and yet ignoring the urge to stay safe, rejecting the urge to control, is its own version of night-driving. It is another risk, one without gain. It is crazy, lost, bleeding. We all want to be loved. And we want that love to be steadfast, enduring.

Maybe letting go is the key. Maybe rejecting control allows two people to grow in time: If I accept you then I can watch you shift and change without it threatening me. If you can watch me shift and change too without it threatening you maybe we have a chance.

I cannot control these shifts; not in you, not even within myself. And with time yours may diverge from mine. I want to celebrate them as I celebrate you, because in truth they are you. Your growth is you. Your movement and momentary expression in the world is you. That spinning movement of self is the miracle we call life. Your body is just a vehicle, one you both live in and never own. I do not wish to own it, or you, only to honor.

But that is not our pattern. We so want others to “be themselves,” like they are some fixed thing. But they are not. You are not. You are more complex than that. How much have you changed in the last year? The last five? What are you if not those shifts?

To love you I must let you go. I must cede control. I must strive to see the person you are, not who you were or who I would like you to be. I must find your heart, your never settled, perfect, dancing heart. And if you are you you cannot be who I want you to be. Unless I only want you to be you, who you are. I cannot want to change that, even if loving you as you are means together we veer into oncoming traffic. So I forfeit control. I close my eyes. I let go of the wheel.

And perhaps I find a perfect story.

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

From the Backseat: MECA, Me and Swirling Eddies

14444663_1636164186409660_5623119052921151833_oI’ve always loved the Porteous Building. The home of the Maine College of Art sits regal and square, a hub spinning eddies of creative energy into surrounding streets. Behind its department store facade hides an economic engine, a piston of Portland’s arts economy, sweeping windows and cascading stairways that breathe life to center Congress.

I first noticed it in 2001, the first time I moved to Portland. I was 20, dropped out of college a second time, working a warehouse shift at L.L. Bean. I lived diagonal from MECA crashing on the couch of my sister’s third floor apartment for token rent, woke each morning before dawn to catch a carpool to Freeport, home by early afternoon. Life was rote, routine, boring.

But just down the street MECA was a cauldron of creation, pluck and juice. There was an energy in the punk-style of the art kids who poured through her doors each day. A fire draped the work that hung in her windows. From my perch I could watch it stream past like artistic magma, stirred and prolific but too far to touch. I left Portland having never walked through her doors.

Four years later I was back, my second try at Portland aimed to finish college; this time as a double-major in political science and media studies. MECA’s creative curriculum wasn’t my syllabus. But I needed money and MECA needed models.

The first time I took my clothes off in a roomful of students was for an evening class. Painting. We were on the third floor in a room with the floor-to-ceiling windows that make Porteous so beautiful. I sat naked on a couch holding a 45-minute pose.

At first I thought I was comfortable. But after 10 minutes my neck grew tight. Soon my shoulder ached, my legs trembled with fatigue and my back cramped. By 25 minutes I was in agony, resigned to stillness among shuffling palettes. Sitting there naked I wondered if anyone outside could see in; if the glow lured peering eyes perhaps from some third floor apartment across the way.

When the teacher called a break I collapsed, wrapped myself in a second-hand bathrobe I’d brought for modesty and walked to the window. I looked out at the street dreading the next pose’s 45 minutes of pain.
Then I turned around. In front of me ran canvas after canvas of bold readings of my body, interpretations like twisted mirrors of paint and light and skin tone. I wandered from easel to easel mesmerized by translations striking and alive, bound by darkness, light and mystery. And I was a part of all of them.

I walked back to the podium transfixed. Suddenly the next 45 minutes became a different dance: I now knew the creative fires being lit around me, and that knowledge steadied my pose. I sat engaged, part of the process, a willing actor, no longer concerned with who might look in. I wasn’t there for the money anymore but a witness to the creation unfolding around me, a central ingredient to its birth. I would not miss it for the world.
Two days later I was back for a drawing class. Then for comic class. Then another, and another. I had a front row seat to unselfconscious expression and every class was opening night. Porteous was hemmed by reckless creation and inspiration. And I sat in its center.

But all good things die. It lasted a year, then my modeling career came to an end.

This past Sunday I walked into Porteous once more, this time a student. I carried my drawing pad to a room where I once stood naked. Our model, a woman of perhaps 60, sat casually in the corner. When it was time she stripped her dress and took to the podium like a prizefighter, she the captain, the room her ship. I did my best to anchor her poise and certainty in charcoal, but untrained fingers tripped and fumbled. My renditions were colorless. Only she could do her body justice.

Porteous’ windows and stairwells, however, knew better: Mine was one more act of creation born within her walls. One more mesmerizing eddy.

This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

Climbing for Brian

Climbing for Brian

10553818_903535722993720_2619385696188103555_oTwo years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.

I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After a month traveling in Chile I flew home.

Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.

A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.

13172996_1480482645311149_7238612379710389030_oA few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”

We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.

But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.

13147451_1480754145283999_7137182934756421799_oJimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.

From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.

There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.

It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.

There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.




13458592_1515161745176572_1345580628585994972_oHow do you let go of control?

How do I let time become an ocean, trust its buoyancy, its random eddies, breezes and currents? How do I swim with them rather than against?

On Friday I caught a plane out of Fort Lauderdale at 8 p.m. EST. I landed in San Fransisco at 11 p.m. PST with the salt of the Caribbean Ocean still in my hair. I grabbed my car, which a friend had just driven from San Diego to San Fransisco on her own adventure, and drove to another friend’s house who had sent me a note a month before after 10 years of no connection. Barely a few hours before I’d been on a diveboat with two other friends, one new-ish, one brand new, who welcomed me to join part of their roadtrip from Maine to Colorado by way of the Florida Keys. We rented a houseboat, spent mornings practicing yoga on the roof deck, paddled kayaks and paddleboards into the gulf, shared conversations and splendid silence.


Life did that. Life brings magic. It brings connection and friendship and splendid moments. It brings awe and mystery and graceful elegance. This week I got to see it, first in the burning oranges of a sunset, then in the wings of a ray, and again in the smile of old friends.

People ask me about being on the road. “You’re living the dream,” they tell me. That happens a lot.

Whose dream? I often wonder. There is an aloofness, a loneliness to endless travel. There is tremendous emptiness, moments of overwhelming quiet no amount of Facebooking, texting, singing to the radio or laughter can quench. Over miles of stretching blacktop, or waiting at airport gates, or sick in a hostel surrounded by no one you know, the inherent solitude of life comes calling. It’s possible to drown it for a time, maybe with a random conversation, a run, someone else’s warm body for a night, but it comes back. It keeps coming back.

It comes back at home too, but at home it’s possible to pretend you’re building something, that all your running in place is working towards an end, that the empty quiet is outside, has not found its way into your heart.

On the road, however, it’s different. On the road you are bouncing, caught looking for flashes of beauty and moments of connection. There is no keeping out the quiet. It floods in, and you accept the drift of time, the buoyancy of life, trust it to carry you.

And in letting go, the world reveals itself. It reveals both the loneliness, the sadness, and the light. Everything exists in one place. It is overwhelming, painful even. Unsteady. Long.

“Living the dream,” they tell me. I’m not so sure. Their idealized vision of a life unsteady forgets the costs of carefree. It is a practice of accepting constant discomfort, accepting always not knowing. Just like their lives, mine is beset by fears, only different fears. Will the money run out? Will the next opportunity show up? Will I find a place to sleep tonight? If it is all a dream, it is a confused mess of one.

But it is one brightly punctuated, one so full overfull of emotion at times I wish life was a ride I could pause. Nights can be dark and overwhelming, but they can also be stunning, technicolor, so bright it is nearly unbearable. The richness I find over and over again, the connections I make, the fascinating complexity of the world I am lucky enough to bare witness, these are the gifts of living unstrapped, allowing the ocean of the world to carry you, allowing time to sway as it will. Seldom is this existence dull. Life on the road is raw to the quick, and every step is an experience. The only choice is to let go, to release myself into the stream and see where it takes me. Anything else would leave me drowned.

And maybe that is the dream—a life of feeling, even if the feelings run dark at times and always out of control—for all those people leading some different version. I don’t know. I look at my friends homes and growing families and I see the dream there too. A piece of it, at least, an experience punctuated by beauty. The differences between us, between their lives and mine, are few, maybe none. An illusion, perhaps, a dream. The one we are all living.

A Collaborative Dance

A Collaborative Dance

Moz-1020781Nothing gets accomplished alone.

We are a country of rugged individualists with celebrity dreams. We dream of making it big, succeeding, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, a metaphor that indicates we can create our own salvation.

But nothing happens alone.

I have amazing friends. Some are climbers, adventurers, others photographers, videographers, others writers, teachers, environmentalists, businesspeople. Massage therapists and waitresses. Nurses, engineers and retirees. Together they make my world.

I have big ideas. All the time. Once I came up with writing a book. It died on the vine. Once I tried to fly to Haiti after the earthquake. That didn’t go anywhere either. Another time I came up with another book idea. It ended the same place as the first. All of these were ideas I took on alone.

Once I had an idea to go to Iraq and work as an embedded journalist. This idea I shared with a friend who also happened to be the news director at New Hampshire Public Radio. “Alright,” he said, “let’s make it happen.”

Three months later I was flying into Baghdad, utterly terrified about what I’d gotten myself into.

But I wasn’t alone. That made all the difference. Three weeks later I flew home having done what I set out to do. Nothing else compares to that.

klementovich-20160531-_JCK2368A few weeks ago I came up with an idea. It’s an idea bigger than I am, one that has to do with writing, reporting, adventure, the environment, the future of the Earth and the human race. It’s an idea I don’t want to let go of, one I don’t want to die like so many ideas before it. It’s an idea I need help with. So while it was still fresh, instead of rushing headlong into it I did something simple: I picked up the phone. I called my friends.

My friends can do anything. I watched them climb mountains, write books, build rock gyms, start photography businesses, start nonprofits, reinvent themselves and then reinvent themselves again. I’ve watched them change the world. I’m lucky to have such friends.

But I never understood how they did it. I always looked at my efforts, looked at my ideas, how quickly they withered, and wondered what they knew that I didn’t, what they had that I lacked.

Then one of them asked for my help. She had an idea, a project bigger than herself, something involving climbing and mountains and scientists and conservation and a documentary and college kids, something overwhelming and beautiful. She asked for my help, and then she asked for help from everyone who would listen. And the project grew. It built speed, became something real, took off. There were setbacks, but she kept pushing. It was a beautiful, inspiring dance, one I was honored to have a hand in. It was so big, so complex and powerful and challenging and different, I couldn’t understand how she kept it all going. But then I realized: she asked for help.

Want to do something amazing? Don’t do it alone. Share your idea. Trust it with people who inspire you, with people whose vision matches yours. Let them water it alongside you. Loosen control. Let it see where it takes you. You will not be disappointed.

I am making phone calls now. And my friends, those people capable of doing anything, are answering. It’s almost as inspiring as my idea. Maybe more so.

The Road, and Everything Else

The Road, and Everything Else

IMG_7411.JPGThere’s something about the road.

It doesn’t matter how many times people write about it, how many times people say it, the truth of it always resonates: There is something about the road. Maybe it’s the unsteadiness of it, the unpredictability. It cracks people open, leaves them vulnerable, open to spark and tangents. It pulls us in unforeseen directions, leaves us with fresh perceptions. There is something beautiful about it. Something primal.

I was outside just after dusk last night. 100 steps from the house was silent, dark. Then a flash of green, and another. Slowly they multiplied, a sea of beacons blinking around me: fireflies. The first of the season? I couldn’t tell. I hadn’t noticed them before last night, but was that because they weren’t there, or because I’d been distracted? I don’t know. But seeing them was like magic.

How much to we forget to see? How often do we look at the world as mundane because we have grown accustomed? And once we’ve stopped seeing, how do was see again?

That is the gift of the road. It brings us back to our senses, to our sense of wonder. The things that we grow accustomed to at home become new again in our absence. The fireflies regain their spark.

I hit the road in a few days. A week of freediving in the Florida Keys, then out to California for some friends, diving and climbing, then up the Pacific Coast to surf, climb and explore the Pacific Northwest. From there I catch a flight to Belize where I’m working with high school students on a service-learning project for three weeks, then diving for a week. Then it’s back to the PNW, and who knows, maybe more climbing, maybe Canada, maybe drive east.

But as much power as the road has for revealing the richness of our existence, I’m still caught among a mixture or emotions. It’s strange to be preparing to leave again. Today marks two weeks since I got home, barely time to settle after two months of climbing, diving, surfing and friends, adventures that began on one coast and ended on the other. It’s been two weeks of family, friends, oceans, rivers and lakes, cliffs and mountains, coffees and laughter. There are so many things that make life rich, and adventure is but one of them.

Adventure, however, is the one I know well. My heart can throw itself into lost wandering at a moment’s notice, barely a change of clothes in hand. When I was 15 I started carrying a toothbrush, a towel and a fresh pair of underwear with me everywhere I went. I wanted to be ready to wander, always. It’s a habit I’ve only built on over the last two decades.

IMG_0400But there is another version of adventure, a kind that doesn’t require plane tickets and mountains; an emotional kind, a personal kind. It is standing in front of a roomful of people and speaking honestly about something that scares you. It is taking the stage to sing, talking to a friend and admitting you were wrong. Saying “I don’t know” in a roomful of colleagues. It is revealing your heart, your beautiful raw self, with openness and vulnerability, being your true you in a crowd. Those are a different kind of adventure, the kind that build build bonds not just to ourselves or to one another, but to society, to community. They are nature, but not as we normally seek it. They are us in our natural state, us as us.

Those, I find, are rarer on the road. They may be there with one person, or with a few, but to throw ourselves into the depths of our community and be our richest, rawest selves, we need society. We need a critical mass of humanity. We need room to be among the members of our tribe.

That is not the adventure I’m known for. That is the adventure of musicians, artists, dancers, not those we typically call “adventurers.” But it is in the same spirit, lives within the same reckless heart, that someone takes to the stage for the first time to act in a play. To climb a mountain is no more daunting. This is the full spectrum of “adventure.”

My life of late has been full of the mountain kind. It has been full of rope and remote places, plane tickets and passports, oceans and overhangs. Some call it “Living the dream,” but lost along the Pacific Coast Highway is only one kind of adventure, and many versions call. The Dream includes every version of risk.

The Road. That is one thing, and I will soon be back on it. It is a course I can easily take—my bags are still always packed. But the other version of recklessness—the vulnerable human kind—calls too. And to access it takes more than plane tickets, more than wandering. It takes people. It takes community. It takes a crowded room. It takes a willingness to cut through the mundane, to reveal things normally kept hidden. It takes a bold heart, one poised for emotional destruction, not just physical.

And just like wandering the remote enclaves of nature, there is tremendous beauty hidden on these adventures, moments full of richness and light. But they are seen together, shared, not lived alone.

There is something alluring about that. As alluring as the road.

On Science

On Science

IMG_7944-1Yesterday I woke up to a bear in the yard.

He wasn’t doing anything really, just milling about. I watched him through the window, basked in orange sunlight as he snooped. Then I packed my things to go swimming.

I’m not much of a swimmer. I did a lap across the lake, pausing in the middle to lie on my back, float and stare upwards. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I let my wetsuit suspend me, limbs dangling in the water. When I exhaled I sunk. When I inhaled I rose. I watched clouds track overhead, felt the ripples as they brushed my face, then closed my eyes, floating. I stayed like that, motionless, just breathing, for what felt like hours. It may have only been a minute; I lost track of time. Then I turned into the water and aimed for the near shore.

Driving home my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. “Hi, this is Erik.”

On the other end was Gene Likens, the scientist who 50 years ago discovered acid rain. An ecologist and former Dartmouth College professor, his most recognized work took place at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, a site an hour drive from where I spent my swim. Likens co-wrote a book on the forest, and I thought it might be worthy of a story. We spent 20 minutes talking. He described the surprise of discovering acid rain.

“Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said, but “the very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” up to 100 times the normal levels.

What got them to look at rainwater? Curiosity.

“It was purely serendipity,” he said. “So much of science is this way.”

“We didn’t set out to discover acid rain,” he said. “It was there and we ran with it.”

A quote has sat on my desktop for several years:

The beauty of science is not in the answers it provides, but in the act of questioning. And each question leads to more questions. There are no answers, only infinite questions.”

It’s not a quote from some book or from anybody famous. It’s mine, just some musings I scribbled. I jotted it down one day when it popped into my head, something I didn’t want to forget, even though I’ve now forgotten the context it came from.

But yesterday I heard echoes of it in Likens. He was not studying stream water to prove some point. He was there to learn, driven by curiosity. It was a search of wonder, devoid of ego, even though it eventually made a name for Likens.

Science is built on such wonder. It is the act of questioning, of exploration and answers so tenuous they are subject to constant revision. But through the soft passage of time, through the constant brushstrokes of curiosity, a truth emerges. What emerges is the heart, the soul of our world, something foundational. But no part is so sacred it cannot be discarded, slain. Everything is open to more questions. There is something beautiful in that.

I can’t help but wonder if religion is born from the same roots, if at one point humans looked at the majesty of the universe and couldn’t help but exclaim, “Who could have made such a beautiful thing?!” and the answer they came up with was God.

That question is a perfect one. Who could have made such a beautiful thing? What could have led to this, to this world and this life? They echo the question scientists ask today. Look into the heart of the world. Whether your launch point is science or religion it is impossible not to be overcome by wonder, by beauty and grace and the perfect harmony of things larger than ourselves. How does the Earth spin around the Sun? How did life come into being? How did so much order grow out of seemingly infinite chaos?

Those questions were with me too. They were in the bear sitting outside the window yesterday morning, in the beat of my heart in my head, in the caress of the water and the color of the sky. They are questions I asked the lake lying on prone in the water, buoyed up by a force I will never fully understand, asked the sky gazing at clouds dotting a blue so striking it felt like more water. Neither revealed their secrets, but they shared gifts just the same.

Wonder. Beauty. Grace. These are both the heart of science and the heart of religion. Indeed, they are perhaps the heart of everything. The magic of creation is captured in a piece of music, a Van Gogh painting, in Shakespeare and Hemingway. In the movie that speaks to our hearts, in the play that touches our souls, in the book that we come back to and back to. Science, religion, music, art—it is all the same. It is all one thing, different versions of the same dance.

And that dance can take place in the world, with the Earth as your partner: the perfect wave to the surfer, the long winding trail to the runner, the sweep of immaculate stone to the climber. The friend that stands opposite you in dark times. The lover who shares your bed. Creations all. Art, science, religion, beauty all. Questions, infinite questions, too big to ever contain in something so small as an answer, all.

I wrote the piece on Likens today. It will never do justice to his story. But his answers are not the point. He is a scientist; the point is always the questions.

Stories, All

Stories, All

The PointIn families there are always stories. Some become legend, told and retold until every cousin knows them by heart. Others become myth so intertwined with hyperbole they only shadow the truth. And many become lost altogether, victims of time.

But some are held close, private, only whispered until poised to disappear. Their details seem so outlandish they hint of fiction, unlikely tales spun under the veil of the past. But they’re not.

Louise Royall died on a Monday. It was the first of June. She was 89, a mother and grandmother. She had lived in East Boothbay for five-and-a-half decades, died in the house where she raised two sons, the house where countless friends and relatives convened for birthdays, holidays and celebratory dinners. She volunteered her time and donated to charities, hosted card games and observed weddings, births and graduations. She was the matriarch of a sprawling family, the last monarch on a street literally named for her clan: Royall Road.

But that is one story, and there is always another.

In July 1956 Louise Royall was none of these things—mother, matriarch, monarch. She wasn’t even Louise Royall: her name was Mrs. Louise Townsend Booth. From Long Island, N.Y., she lived in Paoli, Penn., with her husband Samuel Babcock Booth Jr., an engineer. The couple was newly married, wed the November before. Louise was 31, and she was eight-months pregnant.

It’s a story told in news clippings, yellowed and torn, stored in a photo album from her youth.

Her children and relatives knew snippets, but nothing complete. There was no full account of what happened on July 7, 1956.

But the clippings’ headlines are stark:

“Man dies, wife hurt in Long Island plane crash.”

“Son is born to plane widow.”

“Gives birth to son, learns Dad’s dead.”

And the newspaper accounts themselves are grim: “The baby was born just a day after Samuel Booth, 28, plunged to his death in his light cabin plane in the water off Sea Cliff, Long Island. Knocked unconscious in the crash, Booth drowned while rescuers pulled Mrs. Booth from the plane.”

“Heroic action by a quick-thinking young lifeguard who picked up a shovel, swam to the wreckage, and beat a hole through the roof of the cabin saved the life of the woman,” another news story says. “The 22-year-old lifeguard, with the help of others who had arrived, dragged the woman from the submerged cabin by her hair.”

But even stories told in black and white can be part myth.

“I’m not a lifeguard,” said Donald Mortimer, 81, the man who 59 years ago pulled then-Louise Booth from the cockpit. “That’s why I grabbed a boat.”

Mortimer lives in Mattituck, N.Y., just 65 miles from Sea Cliff, where Samuel Booth crashed. He, like Louise, has lived a lifetime since that day. “I tried to run it through my own mind,” he said. “I had a few blank spots.” But the story is still there.

“I heard the airplane overhead, and it was sputtering,” he said. Mortimer’s father ran a beachfront swimming pool in Sea Crest. The single-engine Piper Cub Booth had rented for the day from a local radio announcer was running out of gas. The Booths, on Long Island visiting Louise’s mother in nearby Plandome Manor, were onboard.

Mortimer watched the plane fall. It buzzed the beach then went out to sea, where it nosedived, “maybe 1,000 feet from shore,” Mortimer said. “I said, ‘Call the Sea Cliff Fire Department!’ I ran down to the beach, and for some reason I grabbed a shovel. I have no idea why.”

The news reports say Mortimer swam to the plane, but he wasn’t that strong a swimmer. He grabbed a nearby lifeguard boat, threw in the shovel, and rowed. When he got to the plane he climbed aboard and started bashing at the metal topwing with the shovel. “We broke the roof, and a little dog jumped out,” he said.

The terrier is mentioned in several of the news accounts. Mortimer said the dog swam ashore as they worked to get Louise and Sam out.

The newspapers said Samuel Booth drowned as Mortimer worked to extricate Louise. Mortimer said others came to help, and once the hole was open it didn’t take long to get both of them out and to shore. Rescuers looked at Louise in her pregnant state, he said, and assumed she’d swallowed water. So they gave her abdominal thrusts. His guess was that’s what pushed her into labor.

27 hours later in Glen Cove Community Hospital, Samuel Babcock Booth III was born. He weighed 6-pounds 11-ounces, and he had suffered irreparable brain damage. He would survive to his teenage years, but Sam Booth III would not reach adulthood.

The newspaper reports say Louise was not told Sam Booth Jr. was dead until after she had given birth. She “cradled her newborn son in her arms today as she wept for her husband,” one story reported.

Louise had saved them all. She didn’t talk about the accident, didn’t share much of her story, but she had lived it. The faded clippings were her reminders, a story she kept for herself.

And Mortimer too was her reminder: every year for the next 59 years he would get a Christmas card. He would look to the mail each December, he said, and in return he would send a card to her.

Among the news clippings are several about Mortimer: stories about commendations he received for his actions, reports calling him a hero. But he is put off by such talk.

“It was all instinctive,” Mortimer said. No one told him to go out and be a hero. It’s like if you see someone stumble and fall on the street, he said: you go out and help them back up.

“As far as I was concerned it was nothing,” he said, “It’s a thing you do.”

But to Louise’s sprawling family, to those who mourned her passing on June 1, the story of Louise seemly begins with the crash: it was in the wake of the Booth’s death that Louise moved to Maine. She came to start over, to let go of the tears and find something new, and in a sense Mortimer’s shovel lit the way: without it Louise would have drowned too. She would never have met her second husband, Robert Royall, the man who would father her two children, the man who introduced her into the clan that would eventually swarm around her. She would not have moved to Royall Road, where she lived and held court in her kitchen for more than 50 years. She would not have become all that she was—mother, grandmother, matriarch, friend and host. That vision of the future clung to the lifeboat as Mortimer paddled. It stood in silence as he breached the metal hull.

Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.

One Page, Typewritten

One Page, Typewritten

12466190_1372029352823146_3197915331627306497_oJune, 1947. Page, 24, sits at the bar in the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla. It’s hot, Florida in summer hot. She sips a drink alone.
A man walks in. A sport coat and pressed shirt drape over his lanky frame. His nose is sharp, eyes the color of coffee. As he crosses the room he seems to point to the floor — his eyes, his nose, his head, his chest. He served in the war. It’s that walk, she can tell. He comes toward her.
“Hi,” he says. “May I sit down?”
“Yes, of course,” Page replies.
He pulls open the chair and sits. “Thank you.”
The past can be hard to picture, it leaves only shadows. The impression remaining is cobbled together like scenes from old movies — the characters are real, but the settings are wooden, the dialogue imagined, almost fiction.
But Page is real. And so was he.
They talk. He’s witty, makes her laugh. She orders a second drink. He finishes his first. Late afternoon slips to evening, but the dark Florida June is still stifling. Soon he has to leave.
“I’m giving a talk,” he says. “It’ll be an hour. Will you wait?”
She smiles. “Wait for what?”
“I’d like to have dinner with you,” he says, standing.
“An hour?” she says. “Yes, I’ll wait.”
When he returns they leave together, walk out of the bar, out of the hotel and into a restaurant. They keep talking — him telling stories and her laughing. When they finish dinner they go to another bar, then a third. It’s after midnight when they walk back to the Sheraton Plaza.
“Thank you,” Page says, leaning against the door to her room. “I had a wonderful night.”
“Me too,” the man says.
She steps inside, closing the door behind her as he walks away.
The next morning early there is a knock. Page pulls on her robe. “Yes?”
“I wanted to thank you again,” the man says. She opens the door and he hands her his card. His fingers trail across hers as she takes it. “It was the perfect night.”
He smiles. “Write me,” he says, and then turns.
She looks at the card: J.D. Salinger, writer.
1947, four years before “The Catcher in the Rye.” Page is now 92. Her birthday just passed. She lives in South Carolina, still drives, still lives in her home. She is my grandmother.
I knew none of the story when I visited last fall. She’d fallen, broken her pelvis and was in a rehab center awaiting surgery. I drove down to offer help. Aside from the break she was healthy and strong, “This place is full of old people,” she told me. “Not like me. I’m old, but these people have no idea what day it is.”
But not her. Ninety-two or not, she remembers.
“You’re a writer, so you might appreciate this,” she said, and she told me the story: the bar, how he came in then left then came back. Dinner. The next morning. All of it.
“Go in my desk,” she said. “In the back there’s an envelope. Look inside.”
“Write me,” he said. And she did. And he wrote back.
The envelope was yellow and stuffed with clippings. The return address — P.O. Box 32, Windsor, VT 05089 — lacks a name; the postmark read May 23, 1976, 29 years after the hotel.
“Dear Page B.,” the letter begins, typed in the irregular stroke of a typewriter. “Mainly, I suppose, because of the kind of work I’ve got myself into, my memory seems to be almost extinct. Or so cluttered and cross-cluttered that I can get at things only at their convenience, not mine. Not that it doesn’t all come back if someone very kindly presents me with an artifact or two — the seating plan of some old dining room, say, or a sketch of the way deck chairs were placed around the swimming pool, or sometimes just a plain wet black bathing suit does the trick.”
But even faded, the memory survived: “I was back at that Daytona hotel a couple of winters ago, with my children, but the place had turned seedy and the weather was cold, and we cleared out in a hurry.”
One page only, signed “JDS.” He referred to her children (“I’m aware of what goes into having just two. The algebra of seven is too much for me.”) and her separation, indications of past correspondence. Her words, however, are silent, only echoed on the page of a man who splashed letters like paint.
“You do sound intact, but very much, though, and I’m glad. For what very little it must be worth, I send you all these inanities with warm apologies.”
He is dead now. She is 92. But the letter remains. Thirty-nine years later, 68 years later, the past is still cluttered and cross-cluttered. Memories fade, then disappear, and from the rearview it sounds almost like fiction.

This story appeared in The Conway Daily Sun in July of 2015.