From Seacoast to Stratosphere

The stratosphere descended yesterday.

Heaven had moved closer to us, for awhile.

This morning the sea rose in crystallized wraiths which spun and danced together atop much warmer waves and out to the horizon and beyond.

A more practical account of the weather phenomenon is that fiercely cooling air atop comparatively warm seawater condenses into layered fog. Legions of New England photographers rise from the sleep of the just in their toasty beds, gather their gear, and head out in inky skies to shores and harbors whenever dawn air is predicted to cool to -10 degrees or below (and sometimes, as yesterday measured atop Mt. Washington, a wind chill of more than 100 degrees below zero).

I’ve since then seen places where heaven meets the earth and sea, but it is rare to see them intermingling so freely. Not only did the White Mountains “kiss high heaven” overnight (as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in Love’s Philosophy“), but we mere mortals could have accomplished the same physical feat, in the heady space far above the air we breathe.

I first captured sea smoke on New Hampshire’s small slice of seacoast. On a January Sunday I often revisit, the rising sun turned the foggy layers to stunning singular hues. Lemon yellow. Day-Glo purple. Neon orange and pink.

As I marveled at the sight and coaxed my fingers to press the wee metal camera buttons to which I feared they might somehow remain ice-soldered, I did not know that–close to the White Mountains–another much-loved soul was then in the process of slipping from beneath a nubbly sea-blue wool blanket and sailing away to heaven.

There is something magical and rare about sea smoke and the way it transfigures and animates the elements. The accompanying, almost always painful cold, makes us feel something like the opposite of what Emily Dickinson described: we become zero at the skin, rather than at the bone.

And given sea smoke’s extraordinary pull on those who love to capture and preserve its images, I have found it is the one kind of weather in which I will always have companions, and never find myself deaf stone alone.

Hush, Hush

If you are of a certain vintage, and especially if you have frequented small musical venues in New England which tend to occupy stone or clapboard churches in seacoast towns, you may hear “hush, hush” in Aimee Mann’s voice. I mean it in a far less ethereal and poetic way.

There have been gaping interruptions in my writing here, and among my photographs and indeed everything else in my life, because for the first time I have had to refrain from writing about an event central to my day-to-day life for well over a year now, and I have found it nearly impossible to write my way around it in these cyber-pages.

I am going to find a way. Complete silence has never been for me, and a good hush is only initially hard to find.

I find myself holding my breath and hoping no human noise intrudes when I catch a glimpse of a butterfly or moth flickering through a lattice of leaves, or see a fledging cardinal or mourning dove’s black eyes peeking out from under a bush while considering whether to attempt to take flight. I do not want to frighten them. Only in surrounding silence, bereft of traffic and chattering sidewalk runners, do I hear the approach behind me of skittish downtown deer, or catch the swishing of a coyote in the distance, camouflaged by sand and seagrass at a nearby Wildlife Refuge. 

I feel the serene hush as music is about to commence, and of its wordless initial notes. Yo-Yo Ma as he sits, eyes closed, about to play. My mind gifts me with the silence before Thaxted, from Jupiter, The Planets Suite, the one hymn I knew absolutely had to be played at my husband’s service. I could not have spoken afterwards had it not unlocked a new path to him when he was just four days’ and also forever not here.

I remember the more and less soothing spaces among words spoken by people no longer in my presence and no longer here. I still hear the way my husband’s quick mind would instantly produce a clever pun or bit of wordplay, and in the silences of every day I hear his soothing voice as he measured every serious word with such uncanny honesty and clarity. My father’s lengthening pauses as Parkinson’s robbed him gradually, but never even close to completely, of the brilliance of his theoretical physicist’s grasp of the silent unseen and he began perseverating about the concrete noises intruding within the room to which he became limited. My mother’s voice before a pandemic infection made it so tentative and sparse as she retreated into her own patches of silent memory, and we could only hope she found more peace there.

Two weeks ago, on another wedding anniversary as the spouse remaining in this world, I had the joy of being able to see both our best woman and best man. I was reminded that I not only hear their voices in my quiet world when they are not with me, but I can recreate conversations with them over decades and find much comfort and laughter there. I can even still hear their parents’ and siblings’ voices, and transport myself back to the less aching portions of growing up and of adult life which are forever leavened by true, enduring friendship.     

There is also a variety of noiselessness that overwhelms all our senses. I have felt it when frozen in time, in shock just from the power of the words which preceded it (“This is your tumor….”). I have, more than once, sat dazed in a busy, noisy hospital cafeteria and heard absolutely nothing around me as indeterminate static filled my head.

But whenever I have been able to, I have taken in sublime views in the profound silence that lets me commune not only with quiet creatures and the anthropomorphic clouds in which I sometimes spot them, but with the beloved ghosts who accompany me everywhere.  

Scarlet Skies

Southwest Harbor, Mt. Desert Island (c) SMG

Yesterday was the eleventh birthday my husband should have had here, with us, in the traditional way.

It has not become more comprehensible that he was not.

Yet somehow he is no more and no less present than he was in our home with us when his heart stopped beating.

If there has been a shift it may only be because I no longer live in that house. I mercifully am no longer viscerally confined within its spaces, and the suffering he endured before he finally came home from an emergency hospitalization for the last time.

On rare occasions, I still need to revisit now distant and still gut-roiling human-forged interior spaces–like the radiology department of his hospital, from which he emerged after weeks of fruitless radiation and spent hours with an equally quixotically hopeful colleague, looking intently at his films for any sign of reduction in a pancreatic tumor that had not even incrementally let go, and had in fact already dispatched is sinister envoys elsewhere. Those rooms and hallways, and even the tissue boxes in the waiting rooms, make the psychic pain of it instantly rise to the surface again.

But outdoor spaces have changed, for the good, without changing at all.

I have stopped desperately searching for signs from him, perhaps because I have settled into the knowledge that I am always surrounded by them when I am outside. I know he is not confined to any space, and does not revisit places of bleak memories, as I have. One never knows where he will appear, or what will call to me or our children, wherever they find themselves.

As much as he loved his work, his soul always needed to be outside. In the same way I picked up the camera from him, once he no longer quietly waited for perfect shots of landscapes and the creatures traveling through them, I have now incorporated into my being the yearning to be outside to see and feel its endless permutations–of weather and sky, of earth and its beings, no matter how small, and especially of water.

Years ago I finally made a trip back to Southwest Harbor, on Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park, where, once our family had dwindled to five (not counting beagles, of which I had, clearly not rationally, accrued a third). Already by then my heart had for years hurt too much to walk on the same paths and shores and mountains where all six of us had walked together. This time I had driven by myself, stopping only at a sprinkling of lighthouses along the way. I had hoped to make it to Bass Harbor Light’s scarlet Fresnel lens by sunset.

As it turned out, legions of less solitary others were entirely willing to brave the cold toward that same end. A dispiritingly long line of tourists in very substantial vehicles snaked far beyond my sight as I approached.

A change of plans.

Pre-pandemic, I was limber enough–and well enough shod–to swiftly backtrack toward the Harbor. I huffed and puffed in what I hoped was a West-facing direction. To my surprise, as I rushed to the first pier in sight, not only was the Harbor itself nearly empty, but only a dinner-bound dog and his human were in sight. They soon vanished beyond a gentle hill.

In a startlingly sudden blast brilliant of pink-orange tendrils, like silent fireworks, sunset arrived and I was alone. Then the dropping sun slowed and impossibly lingered, patches of pure white light drifting in waves above reds even more vivid than that lighthouse lens. I could not have been more certain that Jim was there, too, and that he was glad I had made my way to this singular and eternal sight. Still standing, in a a place of heaven and earth and sea not freighted with, but lifted up by our past.

So, yesterday was the eleventh birthday my husband should have had here, with us.

But it was also the first day the still-spinning world welcomed a new baby James, named for him, born on his birthday to the daughter-in-law and son of two beloved doctor friends who had been with us before and as Jim died. They both were at his side to help soothe his tender passage out and away from pain and disease and into the luminous light beyond any doors. Into “the relief of space…outdoors, in the sunshine, under the gigantic sky.” A place, as Kiran Desai described in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, where even “in the midst of chaos” one may find “an exquisite peace, an absorption in a world other than the one” we and our children “had been born into.”

Fittingly, sweet baby James’ grandparents met their new grandson in an outdoor garden, in a climate where green still grows companionably among the rest of the color spectrum, rendered in flowers and creatures who flit and relentlessly gather pollen, during lives which seem so short only by our own inadequate measures. Where the flowers never stop reaching towards sunlight, while generations of their buzzing and fluttering companions continue to fill the ever-changing skies.

Even in December.

Emerging Orange

March 22, 2021

Dear Jim,

Serendipity sent me just minutes up the street from Carney Hospital yesterday morning.

Of all the gin joints in the world and the Commonwealth, that was where I had been dispatched: within a short walk from our first house. 

I had to take a swoop through our first neighborhood once my task was completed. Even the angles of those streets seem to have changed. Almost every lot has been built up, often stories higher. The corner green lot is gone.  The pink house is still, or possibly again, pink. The Eire Pub is still there.

I did not see anyone at Larry and Becky’s house across the street. I thought of their New Year’s Eve open houses, and especially the time when you took my hand and we walked across to their house after I woozily stood from our couch. We walked into their garage, where the guests spilled over, and Larry, surrounded by dozens of animated children, asked, “So, when are you two going to start having kids?”

And you immediately answered, as I did my best not to grow an even more intense shade of Grinch green while you took the beer he handed you: “We were thinking around the second week of August.”

And grinned that grin. 

And Larry smiled that smile, and Becky came over and hugged me.

They were more excited than my parents, who for years tried unsuccessfully to suppress their certainty that they were not old enough to be grandparents.

This year, I have thought that if I only I could get vaccinated in time, maybe I will be able to go into the room with my mother and her nurses one more time.  Maybe something other than my voice would unlock some other memory to connect her to part of all she has lost. She survived her initial infection, but no longer recognizes even herself.

She has pictures of you and our sons and daughters in her room.  I wonder sometimes if in some corner of her mind she still thinks with a smile that she is not old enough to be the grandmother to all her amazing grandchildren. For a long time she still asked me about you and I pretended you were fine and busy at work because it broke my heart the time I told her you had died years ago, and she was so sad but then forgot within minutes and asked me about you all over again. I thought I could at least keep you alive for her if I no longer told her the truth.

Or so I thought until the day I told her everyone was fine, but minutes later she asked me if I worked, then asked if I was married. It is possible that the nature of my silence gave everything away, because I long ago perfected silent weeping, and of course she could not see that.

Her intuition outlasted her memories.

Minutes later, when I could breathe again, I called her back, and realized she did not recognize my voice after all.

She said she thought she had “made the girl on the phone sad” when she had asked the girl about her husband.


It’s been quite a year.

I’m still not strong enough to navigate this without you.     


Yesterday I slowed only briefly when I reached the front of our first house, on the middle of our street. 

It has not changed nearly as much as its surroundings, but it has changed far more than the school up at the top of the hill that I rounded on the way to and from work at the very same first job to which I returned after you died. The comradery of the place and the work in which I started out, and of all the people I have worked with along the way, has always made work feel like another home.

I have been so lucky in my life, too.

Additions have been built to many of the houses on that street, but not ours.  The house is no longer painted in mustardy tan, a shade my subconscious finds impossible to hate, and that I find utterly innocuous—even charming — in an occasional Presidential suit.  You had that suit jacket that was only slightly darker, shot through with an almost invisible cedar herringbone. 

Our old house is now painted a lovely deep ash, the color of tastefully weathered Nantucket shingles, or of a beach twenty-five minutes before dawn as the tide comes in.

I have learned quite a bit about color and light, especially at the shoreline, this past decade.

Instead of the black shutters, which I suspect were not hewn of anything found in nature, the house now has a daring new exterior look: the shutters are painted in the deepest rose, almost crimson but not quite, the color you would get if you melted bright pink petals into dark ruby blood.

I did not cry when I went by our house yesterday.


I went to the ocean this morning to look for you.

If it were any other day, except perhaps your birthday, I might not have ventured to the beach this time.  I have been particularly emotionally wrecky and dispirited for many months now.  Pandemic time has its own exacerbating menu of aches.    

There was no cloud cover and no incipient color along the wall of blackened blue.

Only a band of orange light, eventually, threaded itself along the horizon.  No riot of color.  No anthropomorphic clouds. 

I might not have bothered.

What would be the point in a nearly black and white shoreline and a monochromatic strip of sky….even if they were rendered in our, and now one of our children’s, school colors?  


This day, this month, this past year and then some, does not seem possible.  It is not the pandemic that defies imagination—that was of course a matter of timing, and response and duration and how they correlate, and you would have been managing all that for a large community.

The impossible part is that you have not been here with us for a decade, for that enormous a part of our children’s lives. 





Pre-sunrise, the mustardy-tan sand is true black before it turns to shades of gray, variegated along the depth of the softened oval footprints of travelers who have long since moved along.

Sometimes, depending on the clarity of the light and the phase of the moon, clusters of bone-white seashells will shimmer underfoot.  Driftwood turns from brown to black, into looming, twisting, angled limbs waiting to snag me if I move too quickly and am too focused on the horizon, as is my habit when I see harbingers of an intense sunrise.

I hate to miss the explosion of color into clouds.

I already knew I would not see that this morning.

But I looked and I saw you, and of course it was you I was looking for.

Serene you, not the cacophony of blazing light I usually seek out, especially in the rushed early morning hours before work.

Open, unlayered, honest.

Quiet, contemplative, secure.

No noise or distraction or blinding light.

“Your gentle soul,

Your large and quiet kindness;

Ready to caution and console…”

The poem our daughter read for you, ten years minus four days ago.

We have different sunrises, you and I. 

But I noticed something else this morning, when the sun finally rose.

It was no longer all black and white—your favored photography form—below the horizon, and color only above it, even if this time it was subdued into a demure band of clementine.

I saw the marriage of heaven and earth and sea, as I had in the peaceful pastels at the Irish Sea when a shell filled with your ashes fluttered there at daybreak. 

Once the day officially arrived, it was no longer made up of my sky and your earth.

Their light and promise was intertwined. 

When the sun appeared, a hyphen on the horizon, just enough lemon orange began dancing on the waves and sand that I could look out without having to squint into and steel myself against this calendar day.  Instead of the neon pinks I usually gravitate to before dawn, the alchemy of your sunrise left a wash of rose-garnet under my feet as the waves receded from sand that was no longer black.

Soft color mixed into the day ahead as the night seeped out into the light, again, even today. 

And always.

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