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.
12 thoughts on “A Writer Explores Her “Backyard””
Thanks, Susan, you just gave me a very good idea! This piece reminds me of Julia Cameron’s artist date. No need to travel far from home for a new perspective.
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Exactly. It is indeed an artist’s date, as you say. Hope you are enjoying your summer, Linda, and get a chance to take yourself on an excursion around our lovely part of the world.
Hello from the suburbs of Philadelphia. I enjoyed your article. The photo near the end reminds me of Cape Cod, which is one of my wife’s and my favorite places. It’s hard to be the combination of sands, sky and vast waters.
Thanks for stopping by and reading the post. The photo at the end was taken at Rehoboth. We live in a beautiful part of the world, for sure.
Thanks for sharing your moments of authenticity along with a goad to keep “thinking out loud.”
My next Artist’s Date may be the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Having just read “Cross Creek,” I’d love to visit her garden, orange grove, and peek into her writing room.
Hi Marian, I looked it up and it seems that Rawlings’ home is right in your backyard. Sounds like a wonderful artist’s getaway! Go for it.
‘I got to thinking that it was nice to be by myself on this day. I don’t always feel this way.’
That is a poignant story about the couple next to you. Thanks for the post and for the reminder about life.
Thanks for picking up on that, Margaret. For those of us who are single, we remember why we are. The grass is not always greener on the other side.
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This is the job of a writer – to notice detail, to appreciate beauty, and to reflect on life.
Thank you for reading, Marilyn. What you say is so true
Susan, you have hit the nail on the head with your words related to living day-by-day in areas nearby and where possibilities lie for writing. I am so grateful to have crossed paths with you and for the many times you have pulled me up from the morass of depression and lost creativity. You are my champion. Bob and I are currently beginning to downsize and consider where to move with all the decisions of moving away from children, moving closer to children, moving to a much smaller space, etc. This all in the middle of a recent surgery for Bob and me still struggling with limited mobility and chronic pain. Life is filled with stories of daily experiences we as writers should write down if only for ourselves. Once again, thank you for pinching me to wake up!
Sherrey, Thanks so much for your kind words. and I, too, am grateful to have crossed paths, as you say. I know you and Bob are not alone when it comes to decisions about downsizing as we age. It’s not easy. So much in our daily lives offers fodder to write, to share, but sometimes, just helps us make sense of things and move forward. If nothing else, writing offers a respite from the craziness of daily life, a chance to find inspiration and joy. My little day trips have afforded that for me and writing about them and sharing them with you and others is indeed very special. Thank you for sharing your story here “along the writer’s way.”