How Maine Became my Mainstay
Essay By Cate Marvin | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
Only four years ago I gave Maine no thought whatsoever. I had no interest in traveling there, as I understood it to be a vacation destination, and I never took vacations. I also had a dim and unpleasant memory of traveling between Portland and Bar Harbor over a period of five days back in 1999 while embarking on a poorly-planned honeymoon with an unpleasant individual I should have never married. He and I spent most of our time in the car because I’d allotted time enough only to travel between various destinations and not actually explore them. I cannot recall even setting foot on a beach. The vague impression of Maine that remained was one of traffic jams, outlet malls, and a surprisingly large number of families attempting to sell their worn possessions from their front lawns.
Four years ago, I did not own a bathing suit. I had no use for one. As an academic, I adhered to a strictly regimented work schedule in summer as I was anxious to write as much as possible to make headway on whatever book I was working on at the time. My biggest indulgence during the school year was a bimonthly pedicure at a place called Nail Land located in a strip mall near the College of Staten Island, where I worked. I was also a single mom and put all my money toward my daughter’s day camp so I would be able to write during the day, and then continued to write after I put my daughter to bed, often well into the night, all the while swigging white wine and taking puffs on my e-cigarette. Sleep? The phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” resonated with me.
By this point, I had lived in the New York City area for 13 years. I was resolutely single and nicely situated in an apartment in Maplewood, New Jersey, which I planned to never leave. The apartment was cheap by New York standards, and by renting I’d escaped having to pay the very taxes that funded the excellent school in which my daughter was enrolled. I regarded the situation as so ideal, and permanent, that I even wallpapered one of my living room walls, something I had never dared do before in a rental.
Then one night, while taking a break from writing, I made a startling discovery. Someone I’d attempted to locate with the assistance of internet search engines for several years, out of idle curiosity, of course, turned up on Facebook. This was a guy I’d had a very serious crush on during my senior year in college. We’d only hooked up a couple of times, and even then in the shadow of a woman he was dating, whom I would later learn he eventually married. My journal reveals that while I was, at the time, resolute in my opinion that this individual was not boyfriend material, I felt it important to describe at great length how green his eyes were when the afternoon light filtered into the classroom we sat in.
In a short time, we took to communicating over Facebook Messenger; the intensity of our exchange was such that I once missed my train stop on New Jersey Transit and barely made it in time to pick up my daughter from school. I recall texting him as I lay in a dental chair. Within a month, we were dating. In less than a year, I would sublet my cherished apartment in Maplewood so my daughter and I could spend the summer with Joe on Peaks Island, Maine.
There isn’t a whole lot to do on Peaks Island except enjoy yourself. This is why it is a tourist destination. Joe’s business involved taking people on sea kayaking expeditions. There are several beaches on the edges of the island that beckon, the water is entirely clear, and there are magical little hermit crabs that scrabble about in the seaweed. The seawater is chilling, crisp, and so refreshing you truly gasp when you rise up for a breath. Determined to not let these pleasures interfere with my writing schedule, I placed my daughter in camp and rented an office space in the Old Port where I’d spend my day. Yet I couldn’t maintain the absolute integrity of my routine. I had to purchase a bathing suit. My daily exercise of running for trains hadn’t exactly prepared me for the beach. I am not an especially vain person. It wasn’t that I was even hoping to look remotely good in a bathing suit; I simply did not want to look completely hideous, and so I soon was forced to acknowledge the necessity of taking exercise classes. And it was a truly daunting day that I walked into BarSculpt, an exercise studio I’d noticed from the street. I bought a weeklong pass and was determined to take a class each day, in order to explore my options and make the most of my money. By the end of the week, I was a wreck. As I lay in bed at night, the muscles throughout my body would prickle with a strange, lively sensation that suggested they were recomposing themselves while I slept.
The day also came that I was expected to kayak. When I told friends and acquaintances that my new boyfriend was a kayaking guide, they would grunt with glee and issue all sorts of nonsense about how much fun I would have on the water. I did not want to go “on the water.” It was bad enough having to worry about the bathing suit part. There was the fragility of my life to consider. I did not regard myself capable of using a paddle, and when discussing the activity of kayaking in the abstract, I would frequently refer to it incorrectly as an “oar.”
I had so completely convinced Joe of my lack of physical prowess that he didn’t consider me capable of walking his dog, Charlie a 75-pound flat-coated retriever.
The dreaded day arrived when Joe had some free time to take me kayaking; I donned the life jacket, sat down in the boat, and faced certain humiliation. It was an exceptionally calm, clear day, and Joe noted that we might try to make our way to Catnip Island, which is essentially a small patch of land extremely close to the dock, so close I wasn’t sure if it qualified as an actual island. After five minutes on the water, Joe determined that I was strong enough to paddle out to some cliffs a mile or two away, and I have been walking Charlie ever since.
After my first summer in Maine, I chose to stay. I took a leave of absence from my teaching job in Staten Island and picked up a visiting professorship at Colby College. I survived my first winter in Maine, and the snow was the easiest part. We moved off the island and into a cramped apartment on the East End that I selected largely because it had two bathrooms and I was tired of sharing one bathroom with Joe, his two sons, and my daughter. Joe and I got married. I took to regularly attending workout sessions at BarSculpt and eventually become a devotee of Pilates. Charlie and I took long walks around the Eastern Promenade, meeting friendly people and their dogs along the way. Still, I was shocked when I was told at my yearly physical that my blood pressure was “excellent.” “You’re going to live a long time with that blood pressure,” the nurse said. As one might say in New York, “WTF?” It turned out Maine was good for me. Even my daughter said after we spent a few days struggling through Manhattan, with a hint of apology, “I like New York, Mommy, but I think Maine is better for me.”
Last fall, Joe and I bought an old farmhouse in Scarborough. Two weeks after we moved in, my father died quite suddenly from cancer that he’d successfully beaten off a year before. A few days after he died, we experienced a weeklong power outage caused by storms. Did we stay in a hotel? No. We used the wood stove. Or, rather, my husband did. You know I’m not strong enough to carry wood. My daughter did her homework by flashlight.
The first winter in our farmhouse in Maine was kind of hardscrabble, mostly because we hadn’t had time to properly unpack, and we were learning how to deal with the snow accumulation in our large driveway. I commuted 160 miles round-trip to Colby several times a week, often in the snow. But we now had three bathrooms and enough bedrooms to go around, and the way the snow settled on the enormous old oak tree in front of our house was so beautiful, I couldn’t help but post pictures of it to Facebook.
In spring, it became apparent that along with a house we had acquired a garden. And it was a large garden, on two acres. Learning about what was now “my” garden seemed an enormous task. In May, when things were finally starting to warm up, my mother made an emergency visit from New Hampshire to survey the yard and help me identify the plants. The amount of information I was presented with was daunting. I failed utterly at processing it and often sat on my couch late at night poring over gardening books, barely retaining any of the information when I woke up the following day.
Then the flowers began opening. First the crocuses, of course, and the daffodils. Then the peonies. We have a great many.
I was lucky on coming to Maine in that I already knew a few writers who lived here. Still, when I went to a reading or book party, most people had no idea who I was. I was chastened by how much this disheartened me at first. However, very early on I was invited to do a number of readings, throughout the state, and often by people I’d never met. They were actively welcoming me into their literary circle. One of the most moving events I took part in was the Belfast Poetry Festival, for which I collaborated with the amazing visual artist Ragna Bruno. We met in person and had lengthy discussions about our work; inspired by these conversations, she created a number of paintings, and I wrote a number of poems, which we then presented at the festival itself. When I got to the event, I was confused at first. Was this not a junior high school cafeteria? As for food and drink (I expected wine and cheese, the usual New York City offering, and perhaps smoked meats or local shellfish), several individuals set up trays of homemade cookies that reminded me of a school bake sale. This struck me as odd. Then the writers and artists started pouring in, and after the reading commenced I realized I was in the midst of some of the very best artists in the state of Maine. There was music, dance, visual art, and several jaw-droppingly good poems. As with all the literary events I’ve been to in Maine, though it felt local, and was local, the work was top-notch. Perhaps it lacked the sense one gets at a New York reading of glamorous people coming in from a rainstorm, kisses on the cheeks, and martinis glinting in low bar lights; perhaps what it lacked was drama, or the accoutrements that tell you, as money does, that you are an important person in an important place.
In June, I was invited to present an award for a prize I’d judge offered by the Poetry Society of America in New York. They paid for my flight and put me up in a hotel in the East Village. Afterward, the crowd gathered for a reception where wine, cheese, and an incredible assortment of gourmet cookies were offered. I’d stopped drinking a few months before because I was now in the habit of waking up early to go to my Pilates classes. I was on a roll, and I wasn’t going to break it because one of my favorite things on earth, free booze, was beckoning me. Yet, to not drink at a literary event in Manhattan did not feel as strange as I expected it might. Drinking has always helped quell my social awkwardness; this time, cookies did the trick. Then when the evening was over, the host began asking if any of the guests wanted to take home any of an assortment of beautiful flower arrangements. I eyed them with interest. The soft flush of pink petals at the center of each vase reminded me that I had my own peonies at home.
Instead of venturing out into the city that night, I returned to my hotel and went to bed early. Never in the history of my life have I done this on a visit to New York. But I was ready to come home. The peonies were blossoming right around then and were right there, waiting for me in my yard.
As for gardens, this summer I have sadly been neglectful of my writing in favor of working on my flower beds. I also started a raised-bed garden of vegetables, though it turns out I’m much more interested in flowers. The vegetables do nothing for me.
I have spent hours expanding my garden beds, loosening weeds and grasses from the ground with my bare hands. I have come to frequent Estabrook’s, a local nursery, where I consider myself under the tutelage of two expert gardeners in their employ. I lie awake considering how I might arrange my shade garden come fall when I get to move the hostas, not to mention the hydrangeas that have been incorrectly situated at the forefront of a particular bed. I wave to my neighbor across the street, a Mainer whose family has lived in Scarborough so long, there is a local road named after them. He gave me the gift of bee balm from his garden back when I did not know what the plant was. He has suffered my ignorance and my questions with grace, and he has shown my daughter the nests the barn swallows keep along the rafters in his horse barn.
Still, over the past two years, I have often asked myself, “What am I doing here?” I know, of course, why I am here. It was easier for me to relocate to be with my partner than it was for him, since his children have a mother who lives on Peaks Island. And even though early on I tried to find things to actively dislike about Maine, I couldn’t get on board even when it came to hating the snow. Sure, I’m healthier than I’ve been in my whole life, but so what? What about the life of the mind? What it means to live here was brought home to me the other day after my daughter and I ordered some monarch butterfly caterpillars she could hatch in her room. She and I were anxious about this endeavor because we’d failed in the past. Our cats had destroyed the caterpillar habitat before the butterflies were even out of it. We were waiting, each day, for the tiny caterpillars to arrive by Priority Mail.
Then, when I was working to expand a bed out back by some swamp milkweed I’d planted six weeks before, I came upon the fattest monarch butterfly caterpillar I’d ever seen. In fact, it was the first caterpillar I’d seen since I myself was a child and monarchs and swallowtails were a regular and wonderful thing, not a mysterious and unlikely thing. Later, I found an even smaller caterpillar stuck to my shirt. I placed it on a milkweed leaf. I didn’t need to order caterpillars online. They already lived in my backyard.