The Lonely Space of Memory

Revisiting the lake of my youth, will life ever be this happy, this good?

Original painting of Cobbossee Lake by the author.

It begins with a sound.

The rhythmic lapping of water against the dock. That simple tempo awakens other sounds: the low growl of a boat engine in the distance, youthful laughter and shouts of “cannon ball.” The Beach Boys singing “Good Vibrations” followed by the keening vocals of Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,”

The floodgates open and a blanket of sun warms my 12 year-old body, and the odors of suntan lotion and my ripened bathing suit — is it ever washed? — recall few baths because a 14 mile length of lake stretches out from this northern shore, and summer… seemingly never ends.

Visiting this lake again, a painful nostalgia has me in its grip so many years later, and, like a sleepwalker, I am unwittingly lulled to the lonely space of memory.

Every summer growing up, my five siblings and I moved from town to a lake only 10 minutes away… yet a universe away… from mundane rules and stifling structure, and I felt we existed at its center. Located in a tightly packed grove of other seasonal “camps” (a Maine colloquialism for anything from a shack to a house)there was an army of other big families whose kids were more than ready to participate in the daily drills of whiffle ball and red rover, red rover, call somebody over.

Other factions of friends, lucky to also inhabit this universe, arrived from the east and west shores by motor boat, and we’d hone our skills of getting up on one ski and jumping the wake. If we were really lucky, Charlie Hippler would pull twelve of us behind his powerful Cris Craft dubbed “The Big and Fast” at days end on a Saturday night.

The everglades had nothing on our exotic, little creek that wound its way mysteriously to its outlet, a water hazard on the fourth hole of a golf course. There we would fish for many a failed second- shot- Titlelists, and then resell them for a nice profit that bought Barbie dolls and fire balls.

On stormy days, we’d secure the boat and retreat to the big enclosed porch and watch blackening clouds come riding from the north. The world grew dark and calm and suddenly still until a thick, black line appeared in the distance. A driving rain propelled it forward with lightening strikes and cracks of thunder, and we’d anticipate the moment when it arrived blowing open with a bang! the closed glass doors.

We idolized Barry and David, two older teens who built in the woods, just beyond the wishing rock, a three story tree house equipped with screens. A marvel in its craftsmanship and creativity. If we promised to be good, they’d allow us to climb up.

Adults were a blurry vision on the periphery, but neighbor visits clinking cocktail glasses often led to impromptu parties that fluffed up feelings of security and well being because it confirmed our parents were popular and fun. Dashing between quick questions and light conversations, we’d steal cigarettes and beer and then quietly disappear. Life was good.

In a rare moment when I found myself alone, I’d slip away to the shoreline and wonder who I’d be at 18, where I’d be at 21. Any age beyond that was inconceivable.

The camp was sold many years ago. The circular road is now paved and the seasonal grove of my childhood seems crowded and over built.

Revisiting this space is twofold: It is both a happy remembrance of youth, a loving family, and an unabashed exuberance for life, and it is a painful reminder that time has marched on and the world is a much more complicated, predictable, and solitary place.

How “Nomadland” Wandering Can Make You Happy and Young Again

The nomadic instinct is a human instinct — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Having a “Lucy” on the stoop in Brooklyn, NY. A single cigarette at the local bodega is $1.00.Photo of the author by Jack Liakas

After a couple of years of deep contemplation, I decided I was tired of living a life of not quite… quiet desperation…but lingering melancholy. 

I felt my life shrinking when it should be expanding. Routine had sidled up, tapped me on the shoulder, and suddenly uttered Boo!

I remembered “The Songlines,” a terrific book I had been given just prior to a nine month, solo trip I’d taken to New Zealand and Australia five years ago. A best seller in 1987, the author Bruce Chatwin is credited with transforming travel writing. His book is part travel adventure and personal philosophy as he explores the meaning and origins of ancient Aboriginal “Dream Tracks,” invisible roadways left by the totem ancestors as they “sang the natural world into existence.” 

What stuck with me was that Chatwin postulated we humans have a nomadic instinct. Staying in one place, sedentary desk jobs, and our excessive accumulation of stuff are unnatural and don’t make us happy. 

He was right.

The pandemic has reinforced this. After a year of zoomed out working tethered to laptops, a lot of young people are having a YOLO (you only live once) epiphany severing the ties to secure jobs and pursuing entrepreneurial dreams and travel.

Like a lot of older people, this year has forced me to look at my own mortality and fortified what I learned traveling alone five years ago: The older we get, we tend to like things predictable and safe, and our lives tend to shrink. The older we get, we’re less likely to take risks, and we limit ourselves because great risks are rewarded with great opportunities and adventure. The older we get, time seems to accelerate, and we’re left wondering where the hell did the years go? 

Conversely, being fluid and mobile slows time down. Visiting new places and engaging with the beauty of nature keeps us curious, sparks creativity, and expands our lives.

That’s why the movie “Nomadland,” which swept the Oscars for best picture, director, and actress this year totally grabbed me. Based on the nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” author Jessica Bruder followed an ever increasing number of nomads,often called rubber tramps, for three years. A lot of them are older people who have given up traditional housing and travel by car, van, or RV across America searching for work and staying at communal campgrounds. 

Though some choose this lifestyle — I remember the grey nomads of Australia — for most, this evolves out of necessity. The fictional character, Fern in the movie version is a widow who leaves her home and economically devastated town and heads out on the road in her van. This isn’t an easy way to live, and in no way does the movie romanticize it. Yet, there’s a certain hard won beauty about living life on your own terms. Fern and the real nomads she meets are inspiring because of the kindness and compassion they show each other and the self sufficiency and fierce independence they model. 

 Let’s face it, life is tough, and the one thing you can count on is change in all its guts and glory. But this subculture seems to be able to toss convention to the wind and tackle, head on, all the unexpected interceptions life tends to throw.

Not quite rubber tramp, but happy wanderer

In my own way, I’ve been bitten by this itinerant bug too.

After two years back home in Maine living alone and time running a marathon, I once again felt the urge to bust out.

I rented my house for a second time and moved to NYC in November of 2019, a life-long dream. Yeah, I know. Then disaster struck. Talk about change. But I’ve learned that pain motivates progress, and The Big Apple is still the greatest city in the world, even in a pandemic.

There are, of course, drawbacks to my semi-nomadic wanderings. I’m not living out of my car, but it has become a bit of a mini storage unit since the bulk of my scant belongings are stored hither and thither, and I’m constantly loosing stuff or leaving things behind. Since my means are limited, I am subleasing a couple of furnished rooms. After forty years, I have a roommate again. I often get lost. 

And…

I’ve never been happier and feel like a younger, but better, wiser version of myself. Like Fern, I have a strong support system that includes close siblings and the compassionate friendship of strong, capable women who look out for each other. I’ve discovered the freedom of becoming a minimalist, and an unexpected surprise is I enjoy having the company of a roommate.

The plan was to move back to my house in June of this year, but the nomadic instinct has taken root in my boomer-age-tenants as well. So we’ve decided that I’ll move back to my house with all their furnishings from June to October, and after enjoying a summer on the coast, they’ll rent my house again until mid May of 2022. 

That could change.

Because, as you know, a lot can happen in a year. 

In the meantime, I’ll try to keep my old car serviced, and I’ll renew my AAA membership. 

Best of all, there are fewer and fewer bouts of melancholy and more and more moments of pure joy.

I’m not really a smoker. Just having fun. Photo of the author by Jack Liakas

A Love Story in Miniature.

A masterpiece of moments expressed forever.

A Masterpiece of moments expressed forever.

Author and son painting created together.

You would be leaving soon, back to your life in Brooklyn after a quick visit home to Maine. Sharing a love of art and painting, you suggested, “Mom, let’s do a painting together.”

In the subdued light of late fall and with nothing planned, we applied a thick layer of ocher color and began.

For ninety minutes we worked in sync putting our hearts together, yet never uttering a spoken word.

Color and brushstroke were our language of love, resulting in a masterpiece of moments… a tangible memory…

of how much I love your company.

Patience is Exactly the Teacher You Need Right Now

“Genius is Eternal Patience.” Michelangelo

juliet-furst-pgW6t4lpEnI-unsplash

Over these many months of 2020, I’ve developed this animal instinct of being on high alert sensing an impending disaster… but it never goes away and relief never comes. This flight or fright state leaves me weakened and easy prey to impatience which makes my stress levels soar.

Since early childhood I’ve been pretty slow on the uptake practicing the virtue of patience. I-want-it-now-tantrums morphed into impulsive bad decisions, into faulty reasoned thinking that I had some control over outcomes in my life. But I’ve learned these last few weeks, with a lot of time for reflection, that succumbing to the art of patience has brought me some peace.

This past May, in the midst of the pandemic, I applied for a large scale art commissioning here in NYC. The deadline was the 31st, and applicants would be notified late summer/September. I realized this was a long shot, but I told myself regardless of the outcome, I was proud of the quality and effort I put into it.

I managed to enjoy a summer vacation back in my home state of Maine but began to dwell on how an acceptance would impact my life. My lease was up November 1. Very soon I would have to make a decision to stay in NYC or return to Maine. Late summer turned into September. I was getting impatient.

Obsessing about it didn’t help, and I was making myself miserable, so I sent an email September 15th asking when they were notifying applicants. Two days later I received a reply: “…hopefully late September.”

What?! I complained, stewed, agitated, then tried maturity and prayed and meditated for an answer. On September 29th, it finally came: “…the notification timeline has shifted slightly, and we are notifying all applicants by late November.” !x#*!

And there it was.

Patience delivered me a painful noogie.

But I got it.

I simply had to wait and trust in the process, surrender to the present moment and the unknown. I know this in theory, but now I have to let go and live it. I have to soften myself to be more receptive to what is. Not practicing patience is like dialing up the universe and then getting a busy signal. This quote from the book Lab Girl underscored it:

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” Hope Jehrens

A second lesson presented itself a week later after completing another art application for a museum open call. I carefully filled it out and uploaded my photos, but one of the questions was asking for a web site. I have a blog site but not a art site except for a Facebook art page. For some reason, I considered posting this, but when reviewing my app, I impetuously hit the submit button leaving it blank… even though I had another 24 hours to do so.

This impulsivity nixed any chance of being considered since the review committee has no other work to support a decision. This same jumping- the- gun impulse to hit “publish” catches me up too. One more revision might have made a big difference. If only I’d taken a deep breath and stepped away for a while.

“A patient man has great understanding, but a quick tempered man displays folly.” (Proverbs 14:29)

My heightened awareness brought in to focus just how often we are challenged to practice patience and how our reactions to it can either add negativity to an already too stressful world or alleviate it.

After waiting in line at the post office, I finally stepped up to the window to mail an overseas package. The clerk greeted me curtly and it kinda went downhill from there. This time I did take a deep breath and rather than biting back felt a degree of empathy for this person. Any number of difficult things could be going on in her life. I didn’t take it personally and, instead, felt a kind of kinship with this woman. Maybe even a little love?

I read numerous posts on social media about practicing kindness. Kindness requires patience. So just take a deep breath before you blare that horn in traffic, show annoyance with that slow poke holding up the line, or respond with a nasty comment to a differing political belief.

My high alert feelings of impending doom are moderating. I’m still running, but it’s to a different higher ground, and I’m trying to be more helpful modeling for others how to get there too.

Remember the Teen-Age Joys of a Parked Car?

With nowhere to go, Covid has revived this simple pleasure and kept a lot of people happy and sane.

Photo by Ali Mu00fcftu00fcou011fullaru0131 on Pexels.com

I’m suddenly fourteen again.

In order to escape the confines of my big, chaotic family, I sneak the keys to the car and sidle out the door before anyone notices.

With a heavy yank, the driver’s side door shuts withan Omph sigh of relief, and the outside world disappears. Seated in my tiny capsule ready for orbit, I twist the radio dial to my favorite station and happily drift away. This is my great escape.

The last four months of this new age Covid living have forced most of us to return to a time of simpler things, be it baking bread, playing board games, reviving family dinners, or taking walks. At the same time, the total lack of privacy, the bouncing back and forth between just a few rooms, living with a roommate(s), partner, children 24/7 is just plain contrary to the laws of nature. A lot of short fuses have been lit, eggshells crushed, and barbs volleyed.

In November I moved to New York City, found a sublease with a roommate, but left my car parked an hour away thinking I would never really need it. Although she and I get along and are both introverts, after four months of working from home and being imprisoned together, I started hating her. Everything she did, and didn’t do, annoyed me. And she never went out!

I know the feeling was mutual. This and the underlying anxiety of getting sick was quietly beating us both up. I wondered what were people doing to combat built up hostility over seemingly nothing?

And then it hit me.

They escape to their cars.

I suddenly started noticing one, or sometimes two, people just sitting in parked cars listening to music, especially at night. This seemingly innocuous practice would come up in conversations more and more about ways to stay sane.

Parent friends in therapy confided the car was the perfect place to have a session. He/she could have a good cry or howl at the moon without their prying-minds-want-to-know children listening.

Another friend, living with her adult, twenty-something, daughter, revealed she is ordered out of the apartment on a regular basis to allow her daughter some much wanted alone time. This mom is happy to comply and retreats to her car where she can listen to the oldies, NPR, or talk radio for a couple of hours.

I’ve learned second hand that Date nights of long ago have found a revival in the family wagon, if even for a mere 30 minutes.

And remember the joys of parking? Imagine taking your sweetheart to a primo spot on the empty streets of Times Square.

So after months of living in the now sleepy city that never sleeps, I pine for my 2005 Subaru and the simple pleasures it will afford me. I leave for a vacation in Maine soon and relish the thought of sitting behind the wheel feeling free once again.

The immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, but I’ll find the silver lining. This time when returning, I’ll keep my car parked out front. When the need arises, like it often did so many years ago, I’ll have my own private getaway—

and it will be the cat’s pajamas.

Cat-Like In The Window, The Day’s Drama Plays Out Before Me.

Although my view of the world has literally narrowed, it is no less entertaining,yet, intimately, human.

Michael Hollander for Unsplash

And it seems that when we think no one is looking, whether under the cover of darkness, or in plain light of day, someone is. 

In mid March, after the state of emergency was declared, much like Prospero and his guests in The Mask of the Red Death, people began fleeing the city to country homes. One early evening, I looked out my window to see a middle aged man (not from this Bed Stuy neighborhood) across the street furtively removing his NY plates from, first the front, then the back of his Audi SUV. He quickly stashed them on the floor of the back seat, got in, and drove away plateless, to … I can only assume… a suddenly sprouted pandemic entrepreneur who would attach a set of out of state plates so he could covertly blend in. 

I was indignant. What a coward. Selfishly exposing a community with limited heath care facilities. But then I caught myself.

I Took a moment to be still, rather than running away with judgment and asked myself the question, would I do the same if there was a second home somewhere with lots of space and fresh air to enjoy? Ah.. probably, yes. But I’d like to think no.

A few weeks later, meat packing facilities are stricken with positive tests and must be shut down. Will hoarding of meat begin? I look out my window as a pickup truck pulls up, double parks, and a neighbor comes out to collect what looks like eight to ten large packages of assorted cuts of beef. It’s started already. 

But then I remember the same guy who lives alone with his dog and who speaks lovingly and takes this pit bull mix out each morning and afternoon for a walk. Could this stash be a treat not only for him but also his companion, a reward for unconditional love in times of loneliness?

On Sunday morning, a homeless man sporting a huge, flapping coat and Nike flip flops shuffles by pushing his shopping cart overflowing with scavenged goods. He stops, carefully unpacks items from a plastic bag one by one, and selects an article I can’t quite see. He rolls it on in quick, short strokes to his mustache, rubbing it in, then his scruffy beard and neck and gives them a good rub too. It isn’t until he reaches under his coat and shirt and applies it to his under arms that I realize what it is. 

I’ve worn the same clothes for a week and haven’t washed my hair in days. I’ve even skipped deodorant a few times in the process, yet I have the same warm, safe place to stay every night.

It’s Saturday night and a car pulls up and idles out front. A woman ambles to the side window, and an exchange is made. She quickly does an about face and returns inside. In these times of high anxiety, we can all use a little help from our friends, be it Johnny Walker or Crimea Blue. People gotta stay medicated in this plagued economy. 

My drug of choice is chocolate, so I play the odds taking unnecessary trips to the local bodega.

Since the world has been put on pause, this virus has brought into focus our human frailties. Those frailties come from a place of fear. A fear of separateness.

Perhaps if we practice loving-kindness with ourselves and then mirror it back to others, we just might be a little more forgiving all the way around — get through this in one peaceful piece.

A NYC Pandemic Vignette

Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash


Friday and the news is ever dire.

In one night, the death toll climbs to 100.

People respond with care. Many not so much.

Judging proves fruitless.

Taking in the sun and taking in the view. A car pulls up

an exchange is made.

Anxieties slip away like

so many droplets hitching a ride on an innocent breath.

Liquor stores are essential in a plagued economy

And my son texts,

People gotta stay medicated.