Country mouse

My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have curtains on my windows. They’re just . . . too much. Yes, I suppose someone walking by could see me half-naked, but the chances are slim because I live across from a cemetery. I’m cool with ghosts checking me out. So when I arrive at my vacation rental and see a wall of windows, I am in heaven (ironically, where all the ghosts are). It’s like staying in the Philip Johnson Glass House. The only difference is that my house is not in the middle of the country so when it’s lights out on vacation, it’s the darkest darkness I’ve ever seen. Fireflies are welcome little flashlights.

As you might imagine, it’s also very quiet, aside from moths batting themselves against the windows and really, really big beetles that hurl themselves at the door so fiercely it sounds like someone is knocking. Which is a scary thought in the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere.  Insect static aside, the quiet and stillness are welcome in a world filled with noise. And serendipity being what it is, I happen upon a fantastic podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and the first episode I hear is an interview with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist trying to preserve the few remaining quiet places in the world. The man really listens. Also, is that not the coolest job? Anyway, he doesn’t define quiet as the absence of all noise, but the absence of man-made or non-natural noise. Even in the quiet woods there are leaves rustling and water dripping and birds singing. I hear it all this week.

Red Hook windows

House at night

The same view at night. And this is with an exterior light on.

Dark dirt road


The daylight trickles in, dampened by thick tree cover that keeps the house cool in the midst of a heat wave. Maple roams the house sniffing everything, while I appreciate the well-appointed house and its mid-century modern charm. I pretend that I live there, enjoying the Bose system and walk-in shower, and devour weeks of New York magazine. I’m stealing a lot of their ideas–an old hospital cart that holds toiletries, taxidermied animals that are not as creepy as they sound, and this fantastic suitcase idea:

Suitcase of books

I have a suitcase, books and magazines too. This will happen pronto.

Maple on washer

Maple finds it is coolest on the washer


Stuff I did on winter vacation that you don’t care about

I baked some double chocolate chip pumpkin cookies for an amazing cookie swap and almost—almost—went home with more cookies than I could handle. I tried some strange and tasty cookies (cardamom, green tea, goat cheese), gave some away, and shared some at our unusual office Christmas swap.

My co-worker and I chair a fun committee at the office (we’re serious about fun) and this year instituted a white elephant Yankee swap. Gifts could be small, preferably lame, and must be derived from one’s office. I wrapped up a CD and a skull and bones eraser and unwrapped a plant that was whisked away in the swap. I ended up with a testy wireless mouse that I had unloaded months earlier on my co-worker. Ah, the circle of office life.

I read more issues of Rachael Ray’s Every Day magazine than I care to admit. She’s chipper that one, but she puts out a good magazine.

Every year I make my sister a calendar with photos I’ve taken, surreptitiously, of her dog, Molly, in various states of ridiculousness. This year’s theme was “What’s on Molly’s head?” What was on Molly’s head, you ask? A colander, apple, myriad stuffed animals, coffee filters, salad bowl, and a hat. Doesn’t it seem like she really, really enjoys it?

On yet another mild January day, I walked through the near-barren orchard and watched a hawk pluck a mouse from the field, the scent of sour apples lingering.

I read some good books over vacation but the best one by far, Salvage the Bones, took me through the last days of the year. More on that in my upcoming book wrap-up.

I pressed my face to the window watching for deer in my sister’s backyard. She and her husband spot deer posses traipsing through the yard, their hoof prints pricking the yard. I’ve yet to see one of these phantom deer.

My sister and her husband took me on a hike through the woods in the backyard where the famed deer live. Sometimes a hike can be a walk.

I Christmas shopped with my mom, a near-70 Energizer bunny, and had to sit, more than once, with the old people on the bench of the outdoor shopping center while she forged on.

I rented a million movies and finally saw The Muppets and appreciated the numerous nods to the 70s and 80s and the fact that there are enough lovers and dreamers who welcome back the Muppets with a big furry hug.

Writing retreat

The good thing about being a writer is that you can be creative and imaginative, crafting any essay or story you want. You get to wear funky clothing and colorful scarves and keep odd hours. You can write in your bathrobe. Occasionally, you write a stellar sentence or sell a piece of writing and other people actually read it.

The downside is the that you’re on your own. No one insists that you work 9-5 or that you finish that poem by 3 p.m. on Tuesday. No one asks you to submit that humorous piece you’re working on because it would be so perfect for their magazine.

So, when my travel writer friend said her writing commitment needed a kick in the pants, I thought, Right. I should rediscover my serious writing persona, and investigated the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The weeklong writing workshops are costly, so I debated and debated. Great teachers, an amazing location, a community serious about writing . . . But I wanted to go on vacation this summer. And save money. But then I thought about all the half-started ideas that cover my desk that never seem to get written. And I heard novelist Elizabeth Strout mention that she finished Olive Kitteridge while holed up in a cottage in Provincetown. See, writers are required to work in a beach cottage in the dunes of Provincetown at one point or another. It’s in the writer’s credo. And so I signed myself up for a nonfiction class and rented myself a little cottage where I will have a combined writing retreat/vacation from which amazing essays will sprout—or where I’ll at least hang out at the beach and pretend to write.

Back from vacation and nothing to show for it, thankfully

I must say that a week of doing nothing in the wilds of Maine has left me thoroughly refreshed. You know those vacations where you come home and think, “Damn, I need a vacation after my vacation”? Yeah, I didn’t have one of those vacations. It was nice to come home with nothing, having done nothing. Even better, I had no stories to tell of my encounter with a bear or the myriad sites I saw, no photos to press on you.

Mostly, I sat by the water and read, which is the ideal, indulgent respite if you’re like me; if you’re not, then you’re likely thinking that sounds pretty lame and should probably stop reading. We wouldn’t get each other. There’s bliss in solitude and nothingness and I luxuriated in every minute of it. 

Typical day: wake up whenever, and stumble out in pajamas to munch on cereal at the picnic table overlooking the lake. Then come the big decisions: shower? Take a walk? Read? In what order? These questions of minutiae were taxing. By then, I’d need a nap. I don’t nap, but if I did, this would have been the perfect time for one. Time to eat again. Should I make lunch so I could remain sloth-like or drive into town? Town was reached via a long dirt road that made me wonder if this were Maine or an undeveloped area of Turkey. Searsport was small—only a couple of restaurants—so it was generally seafood or seafood. Exhausted by the 20-minute drive and the mechanics of eating, I’d wander back along the scenic route by the ocean or get lost on the farm roads that led back to the lake.

Dinner played out much the same way; then back to the cottage, more reading, snacking, listening to the loons, and bed at 9:00 or midnight, depending on my mood and the book. The next day, I’d do it all again. I can’t recommend it enough: you should totally go away and do nothing. Nothing is worse than going away and doing something. Trust me.

Vacation goals: none


SD Backyard Hammock

Originally uploaded by bowena

I know the cool thing to do this year is to take a staycation, but too late. I’ve booked a good, old-fashioned vacation-vacation. Plus, that word—staycation—destined to become the word of the year (last year’s was locavore: someone who eats locally grown food), is annoying.

So, I’m packing up and heading north today to a cottage in midcoast Maine to enjoy the opposite of a jam-packed week. No phone. No computer. First on the agenda, unload the stack of books I’ve been saving for vacation. This is no time to read classics, but I don’t go in for beach reads either. Cost by Roxana Robinson is first up, then Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Three books should do it, but if it rains every day and I finish them, well, that’s a perfect excuse to visit my favorite bookstore Down East: Rock City Books and Cafe in Rockland, Maine.

Next, I have to hit the farmers’ market in Belfast and stock up on good food to cook. At some point, I’ll take a drive along the coast, stopping for seafood or at an interesting coffeehouse. But I don’t want to tax myself. So, mostly I have to make sure the Adirondack chair or hammock is optimally placed for a view of the lake. Then I have to kick back with the stack of books within easy reach and not move for hours.