On a still October morning, my husband practices fly casting on our point. Photo by Susan Williams.
I FELL IN LOVE WITH MAINE when I was 9. It happened as soon as I got off a bus from New York City to a camp on Sebago Lake and realized what camp was: a playground that stretched on forever. At home, the playground had boundaries. You had to wait in line to play on the swing. In my neighborhood, you couldn’t play on the grass. There wasn’t much grass, and it had “Keep Off” signs on it. To cool down, you couldn’t jump in a lake. You had to run under a sprinkler. Barefoot. On hot concrete.
At camp, I could walk anywhere without waiting for a red light to change. I loved hearing our voices echo off the mountains around the lake and watching sailboats glide in all directions. I was drawn to a birdsong I never heard before. It would be a long time before I knew it came from a warbler.
Years later, when it came to visiting colleges, I looked at only one, Bowdoin, and applied early decision. In the fall, I boarded the bus to Brunswick. Even though summer camp was all I knew of Maine, pulling into Brunswick made me feel like I was returning to a place I belonged. I could hardly believe that I had a maple tree outside my dorm window. I drew its brown and slender twigs while sitting at my desk. I could hang out with friends on the grass. Just walking out of the library into the silence of the night, I sensed my center of gravity shifting.
Several weeks later, I noticed a self-portrait leaning against a wall in the Visual Arts Center and thought, “Damn, if I like the painting, I’m gonna like the guy.” That guy turned out to be my future husband. After college, we lived in several states, but wherever we were, and whenever we could, we went to his family’s place on Mount Desert Island. I loved looking for pieces of blue sea glass on the beaches in Merchant Row, the candied smell of Rosa rugosa, the abrupt change from summer to fall that happens after the boats get hauled out and the apples are ripe. It wasn’t long before I began to notice that the more gifts I accepted from nature, the less stuff I wanted to own. I decided that I wanted my obituary to read, “She loved Maine.”
We moved to midcoast Maine in 2003 and now spend winters in California. This spring, because of COVID–19, I wanted to go home to Maine. But—catch-22—because of COVID–19, I was grounded in Marin County. I began living in Maine vicariously, through my daughter, who arrived from Washington, DC, in March to work remotely. She never thought she’d be so stoked for Maine in mud season.
We have FaceTimed a lot. Sometimes, she holds up her phone to show me the evening glow on the lake. One night I got to see her lobster dinner. Peering through my iPhone, I feel floods of joy and sorrow—the comfort of my intimate connections to this place, the pang of separation from it.
On a recent run in the Marin Headlands, I conjured a Maine slideshow in my head: Walking under the pines on our point on Megunticook Lake. Reading in the hammock. Moments with family and friends, laughing by the fire. The 2-foot-wide frying pan we use for our annual neighborhood pancake cookout. Mornings when the glare in my bedroom is so bright that I am blinded somewhere between dreaming and waking. In a series of imaginary slides, I see my husband practicing fly casting at dusk. I notice a trout dance in the distance. He sees it, too. The line unfurls to precisely the right spot, and he waits, then I yell, “Strike! Fish on!” Across the lake, a corn moon is rising over the ridge. I picture myself diving in on a clear night, the kind of night when stars bounce off the lake.
In normal times, I would be sitting on the beach, looking toward the hills in Hope, listening to the loons. I would sketch the serenity of the fading light, gathering ideas for my paintings. But my studio has stood empty for months. I don’t know when I’ll be back. But I do know what I will do as soon as I get there. I will dive into the lake, inhale the stars, then go to my studio, and paint large, with every radiant color I have.