Monday, July 18, 2005

What Did Della Wear?

My parents left this morning, with my youngest sister in tow, on their annual "states no one else wants to visit" summer vacation. My mother's fear of flying meant all our family trips were limited to where you could drive by car without depleting the energy and patience of the driver - my dad. So from ages 5-14 or so, after exhausting all the enjoyable east coast destinations (Florida, D.C. , Ottawa, New Hampshire), I became very familiar with states like Delaware.

Before I get a rash of e-mails from irate Delawareans, I want to make it clear that I am not dissing Delaware. It is a fine state for setting up tax shelters and for driving through on the way to other, far more interesting states. Delaware is also justly famous for its state bird, the blue hen chicken, and for being the birthplace of actress Valerie Bertinelli (who is either best known as one of the daughters on One Day At A Time or as the woman who married Eddie Van Halen, but not, alas, for being born in Delaware). As a destination in and of itself, however, Delaware is a bit lacking, water gaps notwithstanding.

I was the first person in my family in four generations to visit Israel, and never made it west of Pennsylvania until I was 24, so to my mind, Delaware is the symbol for all that is limiting or marginalized in life, as it was the least ingratiating of all the uninteresting states we visited when I was a child.

And yet...I miss those trips, even the one to Delaware, mostly for the shared family experience. The car rides themselves were always more entertaining than the destinations, as invariably someone would throw up, someone else (why was it never the one who threw up?) would spot a license plate from Hawaii or Alaska (the ultimate point-getters in spot the state license plate game), my dad would threaten to stop the car if we didn't stop fighting, and my mom would remind us before getting out of the car not to touch anything anywhere ever.

There was a warmth and an innocence to these trips it is impossible to recapture. The world is too large now, and I have been weathered by living in it. I feel bad for my youngest sister, who at 11, does not have the camraderie of a bunch of siblings to go with her (the closest in age being 8 years older), and who, having already been to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and San Franciso, will only know places like Delaware as the places no one else wanted to go to...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Somewhere Off The Coast Of Maine

Before four years in Israel, shoko b'sakit, dodgy and ort, my love was an island off the coast of Maine. I had just started my masters thesis and thought it would be a good idea to get away and have time to myself to write. I rented this wonderful cabin - sight unseen - on Mount Desert Island.

I still had the car I bought in high school with my bar mitzvah money (what a good racket that whole bar mitzvah party thing is! I still question the wisdom in letting a 16 year old buy a brand new car, and I sigh when I think now how useful that money would have been during
my time in Israel, but...) It was a scenic nine hour drive from NY to Maine. The first thing I noticed upon arrival, aside from the natural beauty, was the overwhelming lobster presence. There was lobster everywhere, to the point where even if I didn't keep kosher, I would think to, if only to get away from lobster. I don't think I've ever had more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my life in such a short span of time as I did on that vacation.

It was an important vacation for me, as it was my first without friends or family. Just me, completely on my own. My days consisted of hiking (there was a national park on the island), whale watching, beaches and solitude. Sometimes, I would sit on the large rocks by the shore and write page after page, describing waves. I would often stop by the island's only bookstore, Port In A Storm.
Surrounded by water on three sides, the store featured obscure books on the mating habits of moose, Maine history, local poets, and of course, lobster, in addition to whatever was on the current national bestseller lists. Just the kind of warm and quirky spot I like. Comfortable couches, where you might find a cat or two already curled up for a nap, were placed strategically throughout the store. Tea was available for purchase, poured by the owners, who actually worked in the store and always greeted you with a smile and a wave; if you went round back, you could sip tea on the porch and watch the sun set over the ocean.

My cabin was small, but plenty of room for one person. It was far enough from any other
cabin that I could go for days without seeing anyone, if I chose (sometimes I did choose that). The owners of the cabins were transplants from New York who were taking a chance, having both quit their high-powered rat race jobs in Manhattan for a simpler, more peaceful existence as lobster-eating cabin renters on Mount Desert Island. I admired their spirit then, and now, in retrospect, their courage - it is not easy to give up security and good cuisine for uncertainty and lobster.

The trip was relaxing, rejuvenating and very good for my writing. The coast of Maine quickly became one of my favorite spots in the states, a close third behind Berkeley and Boulder for shear beauty. After a few weeks, however, I began to feel lonely, sick of peanut butter, and all writ out, and I headed back to NY, with promises to return. For me, at least, being on my own has a shelf life of about three weeks before I crave the warmth of close friends and relations. I have not been back since that time, but do intend to fulfill that promise one day, perhaps on my own, perhaps with a wife (preferably mine!) who is indulgent of her husband's wistfulness.

My time there had been a distant memory until two years ago, while riding the bus down from Tzfat to Jerusalem, when Mount Desert Island came roaring back into my thoughts. I
had struck up a conversation with the woman across the aisle from me, a lovely, fascinating woman in her late 50s or early 60s. We talked for the entire hour-long trip, discovering not only that we knew people in common through Jewish geography, but also that we shared a love for writing and the arts, and for cabins in Maine.

Turns out, she owns a bed and breakfast on the very same island I had rented my cabin. A recent ba'alat teshuva through her daughter and son-in-law in Tzfat, this woman had asked a rabbi to come down from Portland and kasher her entire establishment, which is now a fully kosher organic vegetarian bed and breakfast. She invited me to her daughter's wedding there that summer. I didn't go, but kind of wish I had...

The encounter was the kind I've only had in Israel, where the past is recontextualized, this time rooted somewhere off the coast of Maine.