Simple Life

Unexpected September

And the art of rolling with the punches

By Jim Dodson

Not long ago, my daughter took a new job and moved with her fiancé from New York City to Los Angeles, or as I try not to think of it, from the Covid frying pan to the Coronavirus fire.

If anybody can handle it wisely, on the other hand, it’s probably Maggie and Nate. Both are experienced travelers and savvy outdoor adventurers who’ve seen just about everything from the urban jungle to the wilds of Maine.

During the first few days of their residency in the hills east of downtown LA, in fact, Mugs (as I call her) sent me a photograph of a large rattlesnake. It was casually crossing the footpath of the nature preserve near their house, where she was taking an afternoon hike with a friend and her dogs. Being a gal who grew up in the woods of Maine, she didn’t seem particularly rattled by the encounter, as it were — just respectful. “It kind of freaked the dogs but we were on the snake’s turf, after all. We just let him pass.”

A few days later, she phoned to let her old man know she and Nate had awakened to a gently shaking house. “Our first earthquake,” she pronounced with a nervous little laugh. At week’s end, she phoned again to let me know they’d already put together an  “earthquake emergency kit in case the Big One everybody predicts may happen soon.”

Once again, she didn’t sound particularly vexed, merely bracing for whatever the world might throw at them — and us — next.

During a year in which a runaway killer virus has delayed, cancelled, locked down or put on hold every aspect of “normal” American life — whatever shred of meaning that phrase still holds — I’m impressed with my daughter’s coolness under fire, an ability to keep calm and carry on as British citizens were famously advised to do on posters in 1939 as their world dissolved into World War.

Factor in 2020’s long overdue racial awakening, massive social protests in the streets, a collapsed economy and a presidential election that is shaping up to challenge the very foundations of our representative democracy and you have a formula for — well, who can really say?

A friend I bumped into at the grocery store recently told me her daughter was depressed because her wedding has been canceled due to the virus. Somewhere I later read that almost half of the scheduled weddings for 2020 have either been postponed, rescheduled or simply canceled.

“It’s as if tomorrow has been put on hold until further notice,” lamented my friend. “God only knows what the future holds.”

It visibly perked her up a bit, however, when I casually mentioned that my own daughter’s wedding was in the same boat, a victim of these unexpected times — either proof that we’re all in this hot mess together or misery loves company, take your pick.

Mugs and Nate were to be married later this month at the lovely old Episcopal Church summer camp outside Camden, Maine, where she and her younger brother spent many happy summer weeks as kids. They’d rented the entire camp and we were planning to decorate its cabins for guests to stay in rustic splendor as an option to local pricey inns. Two families were looking forward to several days of feasting on local seafood, songs around the campfire and watersports by day, with yours truly all set to don a camp sweatshirt and whistle to serve as de facto camp director, my first summer camp gig since scouting days.

Instead, wisely, they postponed the blessed event until the same third weekend in September one year from now.

The date stays the same because September in the North Country is exquisite, probably “as good as life and weather get,” as my sweet former Maine neighbor lady used to declare every year around Labor Day.

During the two decades we resided there, in fact, I fondly came to think of September as the glorious “End of Luggage Rack Season” because as the weather cools and leaves turn, the summer tourists suddenly pack up and head for home — a brief respite before bus loads of elderly “leaf-peepers” begin to roll into the Pine Tree State for their annual October invasion.

However brief, the sense of relief is palpable and the gift to residents is twofold. Summer’s end means local merchants’ pockets are full of wampum, and locals can safely venture into town to see old friends or visit uncrowded restaurants where the cost of a decent shore supper sometimes drops by a third.

Back on our forested hilltop west of town, meanwhile, surrounded by 600 acres of birch, beech and hemlock, I always found September days to be among the most peaceful and productive of the year. These were times when I was at my writing desk by dawn’s early light and spent my afternoons mowing grass or tending to my late garden or finishing up my woodpile for winter.

I never missed a chance to pause and marvel at September’s golden afternoon light and the telltale scents of summer’s end. Sometimes, if I sat long and still enough on the bench of my “Philosopher’s Garden” at the edge of the forest, a small procession of local residents would appear, including a trio of wild turkeys and a stunning pheasant, a large lady porcupine and a family of whitetail deer.

Once, unexpectedly, a large iridescent green dragonfly landed on the back of my hand as I sat on the bench, a creature from Celtic myth, allowing me to examine him — or her — up close and personal. I remember asking this divine creature where it might be headed but got no answer. After a while, on a puff of early evening wind, like summer itself, it flew away.

It’ll be 20 years next September since my wife and I sealed our own summer wedding vows by holding our reception the same third weekend of September that Maggie and Nate scheduled for their wedding this year. Maine-loving minds must think alike.

Wendy and I calculated that late September — the autumnal equinox — would be the ideal time to invite far-flung friends and family from Carolina to California to come to Maine and help us finish our vows and kick up their heels beneath a full hunter’s moon. We hired a wonderful Irish string band and our friend Paul to put on one of his spectacular lobster bakes for an unforgettable evening on the lawn.

But something unforgettable and unexpected happened that September.

Ten days before the party, as I was buying chrysanthemums at my favorite nursery on Harpswell Road on a perfect September morning, chatting with the owner as she rang up my purchases, her face suddenly went pale. I asked what was wrong. She simply pointed to the small TV playing on the wall behind me.

It was 8:50 in the morning and smoke was billowing from the side of the North Tower of Manhattan’s World Trade Center.

“A plane just flew into the top of that building,” was all she could manage. I stood watching with other shoppers for a few minutes then drove home wondering how such a horrible thing could possibly have happened.

Ten minutes later, after I unloaded the flowers and went inside to turn on the TV, I got my answer, tuning in seconds before a second airplane flew straight into the South Tower of the Trade Center.

You know the rest of this story, the single deadliest terror attack in human history that claimed more than 3,000 lives and changed so much about this country.

Like Maggie and Nate, within a day, Wendy and I decided to postpone our wedding celebration for a year. We cancelled the Irish band and the lobster bake and phoned more than 100 friends to break the news. They understood completely. Not unlike this summer of Covid-19, travel was severely restricted and most Americans simply wished to stay glued to their TV sets in the wake of 9/11’s unspeakable horrors.

Something else unexpected happened, though. After days of numbing news-watching, our phones began to ring with friends near and far wondering if they could still come to Maine for a visit. The phones kept ringing, the list kept growing. The reception was suddenly back on — and evidently needed by all.

In the end, nearly 150 souls unexpectedly showed up that September night to share our vows in a circle of hands, to dance in the moonlight, eat steamed lobster and vanish every crumb of Dame Wendy’s amazing wedding cake (which, for the record, the groom never even got a taste of). At a moment when we needed it most, we were all there for each other, to laugh, cry, dance and simply be circled in love. It was an unforgettable night after all.

“Most people want to be circled by safety, not by the unexpected,” authors Ron Hall and Denver Moore write in Same Kind of Different as Me, the moving 2006 bestseller about an unlikely friendship between a wealthy international art dealer and an angry Fort Worth homeless man that transformed both their lives.

“The unexpected can take you out,” they note. “But the unexpected can also take you over and change your life. Put a heart in your body where a stone used to be.”

That’s my wish for all of us this unexpected September, by the way — to find a heart where a stone used to be.  PS

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com.

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