I HAVE NEVERbeen to Ireland, but on days like today, my little corner of the Vineyard looks much like the Irish countryside — or so I imagine. The pale pewter sky hangs low over emerald fields. The mists tarry, skulking along the hedgerows, conjugating droplets of water on thorny brambles and tangled branches, limbs just leafing out, cheeky in chartreuse. I suspect there are faeries living in the hollows of rotted tree trunks, dancing a jig around the robin’s nest under a canopy of wild rose. An oak sapling for a May pole, ribbons sewn of timothy grass.
The cloak of fog is easy to slip into. I can hide away in this enchanted day, the hint of leprechaun mischief coaxing me through the opening in the hedgerow, delivering me to la-la land.
It may not be Ireland. (I am longing to go there, to follow the Butler in Susan Butler Evans Middleton back to Kilkenny. For now I am living vicariously through Tana French mysteries, though I do not aspire to be a detective.)
But la-la land, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a euphoric, dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life” may be just as nice.
In truth I think my state of mind has less to do with the weather on Martha’s Vineyard, an ancient longing for Ireland, or a fascination with faerie houses, and more to do with my reluctance to engage with my pre-vacation energy level, driven by deadlines. For some reason, I am not feeling the hounds nipping at my heels.
I think I will just let them lie there for now, and tiptoe around la-la land for a bit longer.
“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world, For I would ride with you upon the wind, Run on the top of the dishevelled tide, And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
BAD days happen. We all have them. I had one this week.
The circumstances weren’t so very terrible; just uncomfortable enough that I wanted to crawl back in my Cancer-the-Crab shell where it would be safe. It’s a tactic I’ve turned to since childhood. You know the drill.
My reaction bothered me more than anything. The problem was I was angry (rest assured, NOT with my beloved). I haven’t been really angry in years, and I’d forgotten what it feels like. My whole body overheated and my stomach turned on me, as if I had asked it to perform in front of a thousand people, naked. (My stomach has been known to portray my stage fright.)
And then anger turned to hurt. Nothing like hurt feelings to reduce one to the emotional stability of a tired toddler. My eyes watered. Tears! Imagine!
Worse, I soon realized I was on the down escalator heading for self-recrimination. Classic – turning the anger inward. This was not good!
Fatigue, the heavy kind that comes when circuits are overloaded, crept up on me. But it was a busy work day so I powered forward on deadline, through a Zoom and on to the finish line.
One silver lining to a job like mine is that you learn to write, edit, and package content quickly to get it out the door. You have to focus.
At the end of the day, Farmer was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Having had his supper, he was ready to go – not just for a walk, but for The Walk, an adventure we discovered during the pandemic thanks to Google maps. It’s a backwoods route that takes us from our house to the water a couple miles away, to the shoreline of Tisbury Great Pond, one of the two largest ponds on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It bumps up against the Atlantic Ocean with only a small barrier beach (sometimes breached) between.
I stepped out the back door and hurried to follow the blur of Farmer’s wagging black tail as he dashed through the woods behind our house.
We made our way across a dirt road, through a shallow wood, onto another dirt road and down a horse path, Farmer dragging his leash along, sidestepping like a Lipizzaner as he skipped along from sniff to sniff.
We threaded an ancient way between more scrub oaks and pine seedlings, along the southern edge of a large hay field freshly spread with horse manure, picked up the path again, and finally reached the Short Cove trailhead, the start of a Land Bank trail that hugs the hedgerows, the hayfields, and wood lots of Flat Point Farm.
The wind whipped up on the stretch along the big field, Farmer’s nose to the wind sniffing wildly from target to target, landing on the prize of a slowly petrifying dead turkey. Geese honked, lifting off in unison. The farm’s sheep baa-baaed, perhaps in warning, from the barn far across the field where the hazy fuse of sunset blinked orange through the bare limbed oaks.
Up and down and up again we went, the trail rising into a pine grove high above the first glimpse of the cove, a thick swath of golden grasses nearly obscuring the inky blue below. The soft bed of pine needles beneath us made treading lighter, softer on our feet and paws.
Into view came the summer shack, surrounded by decades old blueberry bushes and a stately old rhododendron; the shack’s screen door knocking about, the windows long gone.
And then at last a long deep gulp of water view. A heron. Two swans. And a brilliant study of evening light bouncing off the thick brush on the eastern shore.
As we covered that last bit of trail, space opened wide all around us, the low grassy plains of the Flat Point peninsula blending into the dark of the disappearing sun.
Farmer and I found the boardwalk path leading down to the lapping shore, stood and sniffed the rocky beach strewn with spent oyster shells. The roar of the ocean far across the water beyond the cut brought the sea humming back to us.
It was time to turn back, but suddenly everything was very still. And I was very still. I felt completely present and unfettered in that moment, like I had everything I would ever need. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude.
It was the kind of gratitude that spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault calls a “healing force.” This is not your Hallmark-card gratitude or the stuff on your gratitude list. It doesn’t get its power from tangible things. This gratitude comes from a place inside you. It comes at strange and necessary times, but only in stillness, quiet — here, the gloaming.
Farmer and I made our way home in the cool March twilight, a chill rising from the ground now.
Once home, I reread Cynthia Bourgeault’s words that have been with me for fourteen years, at first in my little notebook, later on the fridge when I lived alone, now on the bulletin board behind my computer.
“Yes, it’s easy to be grateful when something good has been done for you. But have you ever thought about gratitude not as a response but as a force in its own right; an initiating and healing energy that is not dependent on external circumstances but is rather an innate power of the human soul? When understood and wielded in this fashion, it has the power to liberate us from our self-imposed prisons of self-pity and envy and to actually change the energy fields (and hence, the outcome) of our circumstances.
In plain words, we can actually change our reality by being grateful first; not as a response but as an innate way of being.
…Gradually you will come to see that gratitude is not a response; it is a river that is always flowing through you, and that you can learn to flow with. Wherever your external circumstances may appear to be heading, it will always be carrying you inwardly toward fullness and love.”
Work in progress here.
P.S. I saw a meme on Facebook that pictured pets – cats and dogs – with the label “antidepressants” in front of them. I love that, and it reminded me of something else I keep tacked to my bulletin board.
Rules to Learn From Your Dog
Never pass up the opportunity for a joy ride.
Allow the experience of fresh air and wind to be pure ecstasy. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience.
Let others know when they have invaded your territory.
Take naps and stretch when rising.
Run, romp, and play daily.
Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
Never pretend to be something you’re not.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
Avoid biting when a single growl will do.
Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
When you are happy, dance around and wag your whole body.
No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout. Run right back and make friends.
That February was cold and clear, a month of little snow and many blue-sky days. The year was 2008; I was thirteen months sober. I had taken the last ferry on the last Friday in January from the mainland to the Island in an act of bravery or insanity or cruelty, depending on what story I tell myself now.
Officially I needed a rest; unofficially I needed a month or two away from my husband — space and time and water between us. But there was nothing official or unofficial about the way I felt: sad, scared, and completely confused about who Susie was. Early sobriety had made one thing clear: I wasn’t who I thought I was. But who was I?
The crossing was a bit rough that Friday night. The boat lumbered through the swells, rolling slowly from side to side while I holed up in my red Honda, packed to the gills with books and whatnots and a Raggedy Ann, crying my eyes out, wondering what I had done.
From the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven, I made my way to Oak Bluffs along dark roads I’d never driven to a rental I’d never seen, but for a small photo on the internet. I was to let myself in; there would be no key. Once there, inside the cozy cottage furnished with comfortable old furniture, I was relieved. I unpacked. I tucked myself into a strange bed up the loft stairs under the eaves, and wondered, now what?
In the morning, I drove to Lambert’s Cove beach, where I’d once been taken by friends on a visit to Martha’s Vineyard years before. I remembered the name, and fumbled with my folding map to find it. There I found a sandy path strewn with pine needles leading up and over an impressive range of dunes and down to a pretty shoreline stretching this way and that, the sparkle of sunlight on the water forcing me to squint for focus.
Without warning I began to cry again. There was nothing I could do but walk and walk, stooping for shells and rocks, tracing the trail of foam left behind by spent waves returning to wherever they came from. Water. Walking. Brilliant sunshine. I felt better.
The next day I ventured further “up” Island thanks to my crumpled map. I parked at the trailhead of Menemsha Hills Reservation and began walking through the woods. This was not the beach, nor was it familiar terrain. I was leery of this strange world of twisted trees, bare-limbed and wallpapered with lichen. It seemed as if they were in an active battle with the elements and that they might come alive to skirmish at any minute.
I followed the path, at times a staircase of thick knobby tree roots, at times a black ribbon of dirt composted from ages of decay, uphill, left and right, right and left, finally taking a short spur to a clearing and a lookout, where Vineyard Sound lay blazing blue below me, the ellipses of the Elizabeth Islands punctuating the horizon.
Back on the path, I found myself descending through thicker, mossier, messier growth, over the occasional crumbling stone wall and certainly, I thought, on a journey to the bottom of the world. Or at least Middle Earth. The path got steeper and sandier and harder to navigate. When would I get to the end? How much further did I have to go? When would the water come back into view? This was scary. Very scary. Yet also very beautiful. And very quiet. I thought to turn back but I pushed on. At last, my reward was a rocky beach at the bottom of a rickety wooden staircase. If one wanted to be alone with oneself, this was, without doubt, the place to do it.
The walking went on like this for days, over wind-scraped dunes pricked with bayberry and beach plum, along rocky, sandy paths pocked by deer hooves and rabbit paws, into the deepest part of the thickest woods. I rubbed up against my fear, exposed my vulnerability, stripped down the layers of veneer that had built up between me and the natural world during too many years in an office, in the suburbs, in somebody else’s shoes.
In the woods, where I feared the wild things were, I discovered that the fear was inside me all along. I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable at first, but it was almost as if a powerful spirit surrounded me when I was completely exposed to the wind and the sun and the whispers in the woods. It was like becoming a part of something bigger while becoming smaller at the same time, and feeling good about that.
I am still walking, thirteen years later. Still on this Island. Still heading out every day during this pandemic to expose myself to the healing power of nature. It is a lifesaver.
“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.”
Among other illuminations, he cites an idea that comes from a field of study called evolutionary psychology which posits that we have a deep affinity for the wild held over from our ancient selves:
“The core perception of evolutionary psychology is that the 50,000 generations that preceded us in the Pleistocene, which is the age of the Ice Ages, when we became what we are as part of the natural world — when we were wildlife, if you like — that those generations are more important for our psyches, even now, than the 500 generations of civilization which have followed the invention of farming about 12,000 years ago. So that there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues — it may lie underneath all the parts of civilization which we are so familiar with on a daily basis, but it has not gone; that we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”
McCarthy goes on to suggest that, “the natural world is a part of us, and that if we lose it, we cannot be fully who we are.”
That’s a good place to stop and offer you further inspiration for finding joy (and perhaps a part of yourself) in nature:
P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under this blog post, so that we can share conversations with each other.