Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer KELLE GROOM.
I live seventy-five miles out to sea, on a two-mile-wide sandbar, surrounded by water on three sides, at the tip of Cape Cod. In Provincetown. Here, the summer population swells to ninety thousand, but just under three thousand live here year-round. Now, in March, it seems more like a handful of people.
My apartment is a block back from the bay, in the Edwin Reeves Euler Building, built in 1923. For nearly a hundred years, the building has provided housing and studio space for writers and artists, including Robert Motherwell, Ross Moffett, Myron Stout, Jack Pierson, Marie Howe, Richard McCann, Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Gail Mazur, Tyehimba Jess, Mark Wunderlich, Salvatore Scibona, and many others. Four Fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center, in residence from October to May, currently live in the building.
Chris Busa, Founder and Editorial Director of Provincetown Arts Press, who once ran the magazine from one of the studios, said the building is like a ship with three decks. My apartment is a tiny studio in a corner of the top floor. The front deck looks out over rooftops to the bay. I wake to the sun coming in through eight tall windows. The five windows beside my bed reach to the ceiling, so high up, I can’t see anything but sky, trees, and birds in flight. I wake to the flood of light. Or the birds wake me, singing out of sight. So much light–bright or silvery, gray or white with snow–you have the sense of being partially outside.
When there’s a storm (and we’ve had four nor’easters this March), it is more ship than studio. The room sways and shakes in the wind. Front door, beaten by the weather, is a mass of peeling white paint, opens with a hard push of the shoulder. Luxuriously high-ceilinged and painted white, it feels spacious even with the dozens of unopened boxes from my recent move. I’m trying to figure out where my clothes go in this closet-less space. How to cook with an oven from the 1950s with no numbers or temperature dial. How to squeeze behind the giant water heater to shower in the kitchen. There’s a sense of having gone back in time. But it feels good in the studio. The dark wooden baseboards flecked with decades of paint. A combination of the light and the energy of all the artists who came before, making work in this same space.
On a Saturday in March, I wake to the light and birds. Make coffee–Wicked Joe, my new favorite–and oat cakes with strawberry jam. A large white globe hangs over my head, like a moon. Bring breakfast back to bed to read my way into morning. Drop one of the cakes face down, staining the sheets a darker pink. I’ve been working on a book of essays, Black Maps: Essays on Home. The epigraph from Mark Strand’s poem of that title: Nothing will tell you / where you are. /Each moment is a place / you’ve never been. I’d been traveling for several years, living places I’d never been before, where I knew no one. Now, I’m beginning my fourth year, here in Provincetown. I’m from Cape Cod, further up, in the middle. But I left as a child, and though we returned every summer, I felt exiled from home in a way, ungrounded. I wanted to find my way back.
This morning, I’m reading a chapter on summer in Gretel Ehrlich’s, Islands, The Universe, Home. Ehrlich asks, “Isn’t one’s true abode any wild place, any fire storm or night of discontent, and isn’t a book of essays truly a book of questions?” A white bird floats by on a blue sky. Then another. Wind picks up and the chimes ring in the garden below. I slice a lemon, squeeze the juice into the blender. Add a banana, pineapple coconut juice. It reminds me of a smoothie I had in Satellite Beach, Florida, when I was sixteen years old. Drinking it, I always remember that happiness.
I hear the footfalls of my neighbor below. Her laughter through the floorboards. A humming voice from the radio like a narrator of the morning. The first thing I want to do–winter, spring, summer, fall–is get outside. Weekdays, I work at the Fine Arts Work Center, one street away. I direct the Summer Workshops and Returning/Collaborative Residencies Programs. At the end of the day, if there’s still light, I visit a body of water. I have my favorites close by: Hatches Harbor, Herring Cove, Race Point, the spectacular dunes of White Crest in Wellfleet, a secret pond in Truro. My first March here, in 2015, when icebergs came to Wellfleet, I drove from beach to beach searching for them. At Mayo Beach I saw a few, but a woman said she’d heard of massive icebergs at Duck Harbor. Before sunset, I walked with a few strangers up the dune. It felt like the beginning of the world. Hundreds of huge ice chunks filled the bay as far as I could see. In summer, the trifecta is to swim in all three bodies of water in one day: ocean, pond, bay.
But this is March, and cold even for the Cape. I head for the northernmost end of Herring Cove. At the beach, blizzards and hurricane force winds have destroyed barriers, parking lot, and an old sea wall at Herring Cove. To my left, chunks of concrete and asphalt have fallen into the sand. I head right, in the direction of Race Point Light. Last time here, I found a shipwreck. Old wooden planks rising up out of the sand, near the dunes. But it’s gone now. Not a trace.
In March almost no one is here. I love being in a landscape where I am the only human. Here, in the Province Lands, a national park of four thousand five hundred acres, the world always looks new. Tide coming in. Sea gray-green under a mostly cloudy sky. A thin line of blue horizon. Sun round and gauzy over the Atlantic, like the globe light in my kitchen at night. I could walk all day on the shore, in the dunes and salt marsh.
Last April, I spent my lunch hours here, early evenings, looking for whales. Forty percent of the right whale population had arrived in the Cape Cod Bay, and each day I saw dozens of spouts from the shore. Binoculars. That’s what I need this year. I always forget in my hurry to get here. This place belongs to the birds. Gulls and kittiwakes. The tiny sand-colored piping plovers return this month to breed and raise fledglings. Only one thousand eight hundred pairs left, they’re protected under the Endangered Species Act.
A few days after finding that first shipwreck, I found another further south. Cape Cod National Seashore historian William Burke said tidal surges exposed it, and it could be one of seven ships sunk in in this area during the 1800s. I wonder if it’s still visible. Get back in my car. Drive south. Walk the path over the dunes, fences blown down. No one else here. No shipwreck. As if it had been an apparition. I’m aware of my breath here, as if I’m not breathing fully until I’m beside the ocean. The wreck could be under the tide, under the sand. The past appearing, disappearing. Time layered in the landscape.
This winter, I’ve been neglecting the Beech Forest, also in the Province Lands. The early afternoon dark of four meant choosing the ocean over the forest. But now, with daylight saving time, we have light until six thirty. The forest trail circles Blackwater Pond, which I always think of as Mary Oliver’s. I read that she hid pencils in some of the trees. She was one of the first poets I loved.
To get to the Beech Forest, it’s a long winding road with dunes on both sides. At the dead end, left is Race Point Beach, right takes you to the forest. Trees on either side of the road, a great bike path. But I’m not a biker. I like my feet on the ground.
My grandmother, Nana, who lived on the Cape all her life, gave me Mary Oliver’s American Primitive. In the poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” “the trees/are turning/their own bodies/into pillars/of light.” I’ve seen this, in the fall. Now it’s still winter in the woods. The only green is moss, a few trees.
I’m still the only person here. It won’t be like this in summer, but solitude is a gift of winter. The forest is yours. I hear a dove, chickadees. A song. A whistle. From a bridge where a chickadee once landed in the palm of my hand, I see ducks in Blackwater Pond. I like the long walk through the woods, into the trees that arch like a cathedral, like Tomas Transtromer’s “vault after vault” in “Romanesque Arches.” But for the first time, the path is flooded, impassable. I’d noticed the water under the bridge higher than I’d ever seen. Almost to the level of the bridge. The four storms flooded the forest. If I could have gone further, I’d have climbed the staircase built into a steep hill. Come down the other side, walked by the white beech trees carved with lovers’ names. I’d passed one near the bridge: “CHO-CHO LOVES TI-LU FOREVER.”
Then every sound stops. I hear the wind. The chickadee, the ducks again. An unfamiliar scratching is a bird–his feet on the bark of a pine tree before me, as he climbs to a high branch. It’s quiet enough to hear his feet. Rounding the curve of the pond, pine needles on the dunes, a little snow. I’ve always loved the sideways trees that find a way to grow here. And the trees that break, falling into the arms of another, and stay there, held, becoming one.
At night, I go to the Work Center, to hear Jill McDonough and Hasanthika Sirisena. All winter and spring the Fellows and Visiting Writers/Artists give public readings/talks. Sixteen members of the Fellows Writing Jury are here, having worked all day discussing the work of applicants in poetry and fiction. Walking down Pearl Street, I run into Fellows and Jurors, Paul Lisicky, Zachary Lazar and Christine Schutt. As I say hello, I realize I’ve barely spoken or heard a word all day. It’s a beautiful night of readings. And a joy to have a few minutes to say hello and catch up with other Fellows and Jurors–Paul, and Ada Limón and David Rivard, who also teach in FAWC’s Summer Workshops, and Tom Sleigh. I feel so lucky in my life here at the end of the earth, with the ocean and forest, artists and writers, and go home to write.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. Is there a book you return to again and again for writing inspiration?
- I usually read poetry before I write. To bring me back to what matters. Michael Burkard’s poems in particular always seem to wash away falseness, fakery. The veneer that covers the world without my realizing it. My favorite of his books: Entire Dilemma. There are writers whose work brings me back to myself: Denis Johnson, Nick Flynn, Jayne Anne Phillips, and I keep their books close by.
2. What one word best describes your reading life?
3. Do you have any obsessions?
- Time. The way the past overlays the present.
By Kelle Groom: