I’m always looking for new experiences and encounters. Or, selfishly, I’m looking to learn more about me, who I am. Since I’m on hiatus from international travel, I’ve been exploring my “backyard,” so to speak. I live in Pennsylvania. Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland are all within easy driving distance.
I suppose it’s not where you go, or how far you travel, but what you get out of it. Whether I strolled beaches in Cape May or the boardwalk of Asbury Park, New Jersey, I pay attention. The smell of salt water, the icy ocean lapping around my ankles, a psychic calling herself “Madame Marie” selling your future on the boardwalk, an old man smoking weed under the pavilion. A writer pays attention to grittiness, realism, and beauty. And, of course, the stories.
In Historic New Castle, a waterfront town dating back to 1655 where Dutch welcomed ships harboring on the murky green Delaware River, I met a woman, a volunteer docent with the Delaware Historical Society. It was a slow lazy Thursday morning in June and the visitor’s center was nearly empty of tourists. So it was that she gave me a one-on-one tour of two Colonial-era houses. As we browsed a kitchen with stone fireplace and copper cooking pots and dining room with Chinese porcelain teacups and teapots brought over on sailing ships centuries ago, she shared the history of the town and its early settlers. “Did you know the Dutch were so tall because they ate a lot of fruit and vegetables?” she asked as we stepped outside into a garden of herbs and flowers maintained by volunteers.
She liked to talk and with a little prodding on my part, she also shared her history. She had retired here, downsized, restored a small 800-square foot, 19-century home, and loved her new life, she said. “My husband had died, my children were grown, and my big house in Chester County seemed ridiculous and a maintenance headache,” she said. The house in New Castle she ended up buying “needed a lot of work” and required that any changes be approved by the Historical and Architectural Review Board. But the challenges of dealing with how to retore with integrity a house with mud cellar floor and no closet space had paid off. “It’s small but perfect for me and my little dog,” she said.
“There’s so much to do here in town from concerts and festivals that some nights I think, oh, I should stay home but I don’t,” she said. She invited me to come back in October for a ghost walk sponsored by the Historical Society and pointed out a bed and breakfast where I could stay. We parted at a restaurant she recommended, one with an outside area with fountains and purple and blue hydrangeas and towering magnolia tree.
I ordered lobster corn chowder and iced tea with lemon. A couple to my right had just ordered a bottle of pinot noir and her disappointed look as he left the table to take a business call, struck me that she suspected he probably didn’t appreciate her or the loveliness of the place. I see that a lot. People race around, not paying attention, acting without regard for others. It’s why I’ve come to dislike airports. As he took his business call and she drank wine alone, I got to thinking that it was nice to be by myself on this day. I don’t always feel this way. Some days it gets lonely. But on this day, I was a woman seeking out an adventure, a golden moment to remember, a moment of authenticity away from the day-to-day routine, and had found it.
I began thinking about the widow who had shown me around town and told me her story. How long would I stay in my house? Where might I go if I moved? What about Lily, my yellow lab, who needs a fenced-in backyard? And my sons? They live nearby. Am I prepared to move to a place where there is more to do, live in a small house, and not see my sons as often? That’s why I’m writing this. Writing is a “thinking out loud” exercise. It helps me sort through my thoughts. Writing takes you on a journey of heart and mind. Don’t go there if you don’t want to know the answers, but for a writer, it’s like breathing. You do it or die. The reward comes in paying attention to details—the sunlight on the river, the psychic on the boardwalk with her flashing purple palm readers sign, and a woman’s story of her new retirement life. Writing offers a chance to conclude, or, if not a conclusion, something genuine, a tiny kernel of truth, an unedited moment.
Who knows where I’ll be next year? Whether I’m here in Chester Springs, whether I’m in Asbury Park, or back to Europe, I’ll be writing. I’ll be sifting through the encounters, the experiences, and the stories. And that’s all that matters.