(tomatoes ripening in August)
About 10 years ago I decided that if a year was a week, August was my Sunday. I was sitting on the back stoop of my home on North Haven. The 3:45 ferry had departed, and I could hear the metallic purr of the diesel engines diminishing. The Thorofare between North Haven and Vinalhaven is the busiest spot in that sector of the Fox Islands, and in late August, the ferry removes more people from the island than the return trips disgorge. The cool and dry edges to the air evoke a sense summer waning. Light browns and golds emerge from the backlit leaves, and the air seems to be thinning. In those conditions, my school radar is on high alert.
Every teacher must have some variation of this feeling I suspect. For other adults, Sundays involve the biggest weekly edition of the newspaper. Some have Bloody Mary brunches and football afternoons. Still others go boating, hunting, hiking, skiing, surfing, gardening, while some spend hours involved with church. As an English teacher, my Sundays are filled with essay grading sessions, weekly prep and planning, and much awareness of time. If Garrison Keillor comes on Maine Public Broadcasting, that means it's noon. If I haven't started yet, that means I'll be working until 8. When the late boat pulls out, the sense that time is waning is even more powerful.
Every year, I wonder how I ended up in this position of measuring time against remaining homework. The few remaining days of August should be a time to savor the fruit of late-summer barbecues and long paddles on the river. Instead, they involve much hand-wringing over the upcoming academic year. Half read books, writing projects partially completed, stone walls un-mended, the dreams of personal endeavors are once again set aside for teacher work. In the pit of the stomach, there is something akin to a cocktail of nostalgia and anxiety. I wonder to myself, How did I get here?
Amazingly (to me), a major thread to the path of now occurred 20 years ago this past September. My then girlfriend and I were living together in Portland, OR. I had just started graduate school with the idea of becoming a certified English and Social Studies teacher. JG was adept at home renovating and all areas of gardening and art. Each in our own way, we longed for a simpler life, and we were struggling to find ways to express that longing. While I dreamed of living in towns like Port Orford, Bandon, Tillamook or Wheeler, all in Oregon, JG added Washington County Maine into the mix. Having envisioned that place myself, too, it was easy to agree to a road trip focused on Downeast Maine and JG's family land in Nova Scotia.
In the kinder, gentler rhythm of life I had come to know in the Willamette Valley, Fall classes didn't begin until September 29 or so. Trimesters, it seems, allow Portland State to actually be accurate when posting the annual schedule. (Each unit of trimester fit the season; the Fall, trimester, for example, began on the 29th of September and ended the second week of December.) We flew back well after Labor Day, visited our families in York County, Maine, borrowed a family junker and picked our way down the Maine coast toward Canada.
While years have erased the specific contour of the early part of that trip, a few places still stand out in bright relief. First, Lincolnville and Lincolnville Beach. We visited a couple we knew, there, helping them to pack and move. M had landed a job teaching in western Maine, and their coastal stint was up. Leaving them, we made sure to load up on supplies at the Belfast Co-op, and I had visions of Waldo County as Maine's hippie outpost, something which would fulfill life expectations which I had come to desire: organic food, quality coffee and beer, environmental sensibility. It's mere peripheral presence excited the senses in me which guided my life compass.
Other images which stand out come from driving through Harrington and Cherryfield, fairly isolated Washington County outposts. What struck, me, though was the low price of real estate and the vestigial elements of grand Victorian architecture. This was a place where one could be a teacher, raise a family and yet still afford to own a home. Oregon was rapidly Californicating, and a little voice inside me was saying that I had to commit or depart. Slacker indecision was not going to be treated kindly in the face of rapid gentrification. If I was going to be a broke teacher (foregone conclusion) in a rural area, it might as well be within driving distance to my East Coast family. Otherwise, I would only see them a few choice times a decade.
Somewhere near Cutler Bay in Washington County, we found a great campsite run by some by optimistic entrepreneurs. It overlooked a rough stretch of the Bold Coast, and I imaged evenings of distant surf and bell buoys and fog. I would be writing under dim light in a land of solitude that time forgot. Novels and poems would appear before my fingertips, inspired by the deep marrow of Maine experience. Family hovered somewhere on the periphery of this image, as did dew on balsam fir, crisp January snow and the smell of a freshly lit fire.
Much of this came true, and even more did not. When I ventured back to Maine, I did so (more or less) alone (it's complicated), but the landscape I had imagined was right outside my door in the Fox Islands. Cars were so rare after the late boat was put to bed in the pen that friends could identify each one without looking. "There goes Jimmy Mac." "Adam needs a muffler." "What's he doing out after eight?" What I didn't anticipate was that I would forget I had chosen this path. What I didn't anticipate was the soul crushing nature of genuine isolation as opposed to a more urban, chosen solitude. What I didn't anticipate was that work would subsume my consciousness and creative energy.
Amazingly, I have hung on in this profession. In an article published in The Atlantic back in 2013, University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll "confirmed that anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years (that includes the nine and a half percent that leave before the end of their first year.)" Perhaps it was due to the fact that I was devoted to this vague dream my younger self had about my older self's life. Certainly, it was the only way I could cultivate daily conversations about topics which excite me, keep my hand in literature and live in an isolated, coastal community.
Twenty years later, I still scratch my head with wonder that things have worked out as they have. Of course, there is still the perennial anxiety of returning to school as August draws to a close. There is still some vestigial dream of those quiet, foggy nights filled with creative energy that I haven't quite found yet. There is still the yearning for some beatific quietude. But those scenes in Cherryfield and Harrington which excited my imagination are less than an hour away. The light is rich and splendid on the goldenrod and backlit blades of grass. And the crickets try to hang on well into October. Breathe, the world tells me. Breathe.
Labor Day weekend 2014