Down East 2013 ©
By Susan Conley
When I was ten years old, I lived in an old white farmhouse in Woolwich across the street from a wide stretch of the Kennebec River. The year was 1976. Spring came and the ice pack began to thaw and creak. My friend Mary and I made our way down the riverbank to find an iceberg to climb on top of. Back then Woolwich was a town dotted with wooden capes and saltboxes flush with the road, full of people who’d never left Maine and others who’d had to leave and then made it their life’s work to get back. These were stubborn, independent people who when Jimmy Carter asked them to turn down their thermostats, they went further and installed woodstoves, grew root vegetables, bought sheep.
My father was a fourth-generation Mainer who married a city woman from away, and then convinced her to buy a falling down house with a sheep pen and a woodshed and trees out back as far as the eye could see. No one I knew in that town had any intention of ever leaving. Except maybe Mary and me.
The iceberg we decided on was shaped like the state of Texas. We clambered on it at low tide in snow boots and jeans, and stood there waiting for the water to come, hoping Mary’s mother wouldn’t see us out the kitchen window. It was the start of a time in my life when I hoped for my “real” life to begin somewhere else — anywhere away from our quiet farmhouse and the endless fields and the river and its icebergs shaped like the fifty states I wanted to travel to. I was convinced something bigger was going on, I just wasn’t sure where.
Mary said she thought we’d float all the way to Canada. I thought we might freeze to death. The ice beneath us was rippled and ridged and crunchy. It cracked with its own secrets. I wanted an escape, but I didn’t have a death wish.
“Mary,” I said when the tide turned and the current quickened. “We can still get off.” The berg was just picking up momentum. “We can still jump!” I’m not sure she answered. What I do know is how important it was to her to stay on longer than me.
I crouched on the iceberg’s edge until I knew if I didn’t abandon ship, I’d never make it back to shore. When I jumped in, the river rose to my neck. I screamed and swam hard and then Mary was right behind me. We got to shallow water and walked slowly against the current, teeth chattering, more afraid of the punishment we could see in the form of Mary’s frantic mother, making her way down the embankment, than the cold.
Years later, I went to graduate school in California and wrote stories about Woolwich and that powerful river and the town float we’d all jump off in summertime. I liked California. But the surprise was that I missed the Kennebec more. I missed Maine almost like a person — like someone I could reach out and touch. So after I married a man I met in San Francisco, and we’d had two baby boys, we moved back to the northernmost state.
This time I lived in Portland and got a job teaching writing at a correctional institute — poetry workshops for incarcerated teens. There were rules: the writing class met in the library with chairs bolted to the floor so no one could throw them. I brought the pens, and I left with them so no one could misuse them.
I also carried things from the Maine woods with me: a leaf, a pinecone, a rock, and a piece of shell. The boys liked writing poems about nature. They led with their hearts. Some of them couldn’t read out loud well and the others volunteered to read for them. I sat and listened and wondered what mistakes each of them had made to land there in that low-slung correctional building.
One of the older boys was named Michael, and he read a poem about a girl he’d met back in his high school. There was a sunset in the poem and wildflowers and music. It moved well and rhymed. He called it “A Maine Love Song.” When he finished, Michael said, “I’m just waiting for some magic carpet to get me out of this place.”
I smiled at him and nodded and understood. But I’d never been locked up. Who was I to tell him I knew what it felt like to want to be somewhere else? So I told Michael he could be a writer some day. He was seventeen, and what I wished for him then was just more time — the chance to make some mistakes that wouldn’t matter to anyone. The kind that involved climbing on icebergs at low tide and then panicking and jumping off.