Back in April, when there were YouTube videos of doctors in scrubs showing us how to disinfect everything we brought home from the grocery store and the sense of the impending pandemic felt to me like waiting for a hurricane to strike, I was invited to be interviewed for a Zoom program at Opera House Arts in Stonington called “Coffee on the Couch.” The idea was simple. A 25-minute conversation—coffee cups in hand—with three of the staff asking me questions about what I was doing in this time of isolation. It felt as if the world had shut down, and it was good to be in this small digital community for a short while in a sad and dangerous time.
Toward the end of the conversation, I was asked if I could describe a special place that I like to go to on Deer Isle, from which I inferred a place of natural beauty that might bring some solace. While there are many wonderful locations to choose from, the place I thought of came to me fairly quickly—my front porch.
Our house is right on Route 15—the main road on the island—and we overlook Northwest Harbor in Deer Isle village. It’s a combination of a stunning view of the Maine coast accompanied by a soundtrack of pick-up trucks, cars, and tractor-trailers. Any vehicle coming from the mainland and heading to Stonington will pass by. It’s idyllic with an occasional roar.
From this vantage point, I can follow the arc of the sun as it moves from winter to summer. At the winter solstice, it’s setting over Deer Isle village just before four, and at the height of summer it has traveled far to the northwest, setting at the head of the harbor nearly four and a half hours later in the day. At the fall and spring equinoxes, it lines up directly with the front of our house, dazzling light that illuminates the dirt on the windowpanes, every cobweb in the corner of the house, and nicks in the plaster. It’s as if my house were built to track the seasons, my own Stonehenge with a porch.
Like Stonehenge, we have our visitors too. Some summer evenings at sunset we experience a frenzy of beauty seekers. Cameras in hand, tourists stop in the middle of the busy road or pull over and block our driveway or walk down in the field across from the house, hoping to capture the moment when the pinks and reds, grays and blues fill the western sky.
Eventually the tourists go, but the beauty remains. The cat’s paws of wind on the surface of the water. Spring pollen floating at the shore. The austere autumnal light on the mudflats. The days that are all blue and white—cumulus clouds and white caps. The harbor ice freezing and breaking on the tide. The gulls flying over the still harbor at twilight with such a clear reflection in the water that I can’t tell what’s upside down or right side up.
While COVID-19 was moving in its own ingenious and awful way around the world, we were moving around the sun. Some of those rotating days I was sitting on the porch, which in the middle of a chaotic time felt to me like I was taking a deep breath. Since the pandemic arrived, I’ve been reminding myself to breathe and am reminded of speaking figuratively of moments that “take our breath away” like during those times when we experience great beauty or horror. To take our breath away is to take away what gives us life, which is to say that it’s in those moments when we awake to our own mortality. Isn’t that awakening also at the heart of the poem, the painting, the dance? It’s when we know we are alive, inhaling the world around us.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, photo.