The road most taken in my photographic ouvre is more of a zig-zag over land and sand towards water.
I sink in soggy soil and crunch through panes of glassy frozen water. I watch plovers pause for sunrise and Kingfishers surveying sunset. Gulls gather for the sun’s debut before skimming atop rolling saltwater as they ascend to glide above the retreating waves.
I look up and down by degrees. I rotate, snapping photos in a panoramic arch. I ignore a riot of color on the horizon when I am smitten by an unusual rock or glistening algae underfoot.
I shoot into blinding sunlight and muted mammatus skies. I collect green and every other color. New England snow and molten dunes. Working lobster boats surrounded by vacuum-sealed pleasure craft hoisted from harbors and set aside for the season.
But the subject is always the same: my absent better half.
Sometimes, instead of receiving and recording visible or audible signs from denizens of worlds we–technically–do not share, metaphorical flight proceeds in the other direction. Pablo Neruda both received and dispatched messages over the exceedingly thin space between here and not-here. Alive and alone on shore, in his poem, “If You Forget Me” :
everything carries me to you, as if everything that exists, aromas, light, metals, were little boats that sail toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
Some fabrics are much too special to sit on shelves or in boxes, never to be leavened by sunlight, or by a child’s fingers gripping them for comfort at naptime.
I have found peace in some unusual places, including a snowy owl’s golden eyes, a sedate sunrise, and yards upon yards of cotton fabric.
I collect mainly what my father would aptly have described as an “absurd” amount of fabric. I have traveled as far as India to marvel at woven silks and printed and embroidered cottons. Our first son’s first declarative sentence was made at the threshold of the room where I kept my stash: “Mess room!”
In “Noah’s Garden,” a wall hanging I made soon after my second son’s birth, the fruits and radiating colors were cut from a single enormous piece of woven cotton hand-dyed with plants; it was carried back from Malawi on a visit from my husband’s Aunt Jeanne, who was a nurse there for decades and knew I loved to sew. Some fabrics are much too special to sit on shelves or in boxes, never to be leavened by sunlight, or by a child’s fingers gripping them for comfort at naptime.
My fabric collection patiently waits–sometimes for decades–until I am stricken with inspiration. I usually end up cutting fat-quarters into much smaller pieces before introducing them to dramatically contrasting or subtly companionable neighbors, reconfiguring them into something unique and new.
Fabric will always be tied to family. It may not be a coincidence that my mother’s principal art form was making fabric collages. She collected and made all her clothes from wildly bold Marimekko prints from the 1960s and 70s. I saw the way she looked at those fabrics and hypnotically ran her hands across the tall bolts they wound around. Pure, silk-screened vivid reds and yellows and blue-greens she gathered from Copenhagen to Cambridge.
Having grown up without money for luxuries, and some necessities, she would not throw out even the tiniest scraps when she cut the pattern pieces she designed for clothing or collages. Many of her fabrics’ saturated colors now enliven fabric insects and radishes and carrots and wildflowers in quilts I’ve made.
I began sewing clothing when I was a child, but did not begin sewing in earnest until I was in college. By the time I graduated, more than one professor had observed what I had not: that much of my academic writing was a patchwork, taking them on a winding path through seemingly unrelated concepts–history, literature, philosophy, religion, poetry, music, plant biology–until, at the end, they began to see the connections I had assumed everyone sought among such disparate elements.
There is nothing that cannot be rendered in fabric. Feathers, fungi, planets, pomegranites with ruby glass “seeds.” The constellation Pleiades. Wedding bouquets. Biblical fruits and the stone-inset Rose Window at Iona Abbey, off Scotland’s western coast.
Quilts invite quiet, and are quintessentially comforting.
Almost without exception, each quilt I’ve pieced together has been a gift to someone–most often for a child or a wedding or Birthday of Significance. I’ve made memorial quilts for survivors of tragedies and sewn countless quilts for strangers.
I worked on one quilt for a year, after, on his final ride home, my husband asked that I do something for our friend Dr. Bob, who was at our house preparing to shepard us through my husband’s last days here with us. At home, my husband was covered with the first quilt I made for him. His bed faced our daughter’s whimsical oil paintings and a wall quilt overflowing with an alphabet of fruits and vegetables he had grown in our New Hampshire garden.
I design, applique, and quilt each one by hand; machines are not soothing. Even the repetitive physical motion of taking stitches is calming and brings me peace. One cannot sew for long without letting go of tension.
And every time I sew, I hope the finished gift will be a visual and tactile treat that will bring at least an equal measure of comfort for its recipient. Best of all is when love undoes the careful stitches, and a child eventually wears a beloved quilt back to pieces once again.
Now, as then, one rock’s broad surface comfortably seats a man over six feet tall, allowing him to look up at the much slighter young woman facing him under a Long Nights Moon.
You faced the moon and I faced you. . . .
Technically I have been alone when revisiting the spot, in mind or body. Even now, few couples would make the rocky climb on a December night. Its most perilous stretches had no guard rails then. Hemmed by poison ivy and washed by surf, scattered signs warned of the trek’s perils, beginning with the precipitous drop from unsteady earth to roiling sea.
And we talked about the future we hoped to have and came to be.
From the narrow, rutted path’s highest point, where the young man sits and she stands, an overlook offers a panoramic view of the horizon, bracketed by ridged limestone shelves angled into the seabed, as glaciers had decreed.
The young man’s vision is razor-sharp, as it will remain all his life. Beyond his moonlit partner he sees a swath of inky, noisy ocean punctuated only by a rocky outcropping miles from shore. There, tiny Boon Island personifies the word “barren.” No less a luminary spirit than poet Celia Thaxter, of New Hampshire’s convivial close-knit Isles of Shoals and their blooming gardens, is said to have once described Boon Island as “the forlornest place that can be imagined.”
Despite its size and solitude, its uneven granite has drawn in and grounded ships over the centuries. And more than one sturdy stone lighthouse there has been storm-toppled into the sea, rearranging itself into mazes on the ocean floor.
The distant toothpick of the most recently rebuilt lighthouse is in fact New England’s tallest. Standing at strict attention atop the granite pile where nothing grows, it laconically cycles its pure white light, lest another insufficiently attentive traveler come too close.
Compared to its nearest neighbor, the gaudily scarlet-strobing, holiday-bedazzled and aggressively photographed Nubble Lighthouse, one would have to concentrate very carefully to commit this shy slender cousin to pixels or film. When one does, the tiny island itself often appears to be hovering above the water, as if it is present both as we know it to be and also its own ghost.
At this spot my husband and I shared at the cliff’s edge, the only sound likely to be heard during any season gently floated upwards. Thousands of water-smoothed stones companionably clattered as waves cycled below. They mingle and chatter as each wave washes over them and recedes, resettling their companions only slightly as they all await the next incoming wave. The sound becomes less mellifluous only in the most ferocious storms–the rare, intense storms we sometimes do not sense are coming, and which might fell even the most dependable beacons.
It is no coincidence that this single quotidian patch of earth and rock snuck itself into my subconscious memory, and in turn has played a role in both my fiction and non-fiction.
My husband died almost twelve years ago, but I will always find him–and our younger selves and our future children–in this spot, at least as present as the rocky shore and surrounding sea, and the seagulls who pause to quietly survey the rising sun along with me.