HOW WE LIVE HERE

Real Mainers on How to Make a Living, Buy a Home, Find Purpose, Love the Winter, Meet a Soulmate, Raise Brave Kids, and Put Down Roots in Maine.

How do you do it? It’s a question we get a lot from our out-of-state readers, folks who dream of making a home in Maine but are worried about the weather or the job market, about adapting to a rural community or finding the right school for the kids. And, as our in-state readers will testify, there are indeed obstacles to living in this place we love. But they’re nothing that can’t be overcome with a sense of adventure, of humor, and of community. This special feature package, starring some of our favorite writers, is for anybody who’s ever envisioned a life in Maine — and for all those Mainers who recognize their experience in its pages.

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VJ Guarino, Carrie Braman, and baby Quinn at their Jackman sugar shack.
VJ Guarino, Carrie Braman, and baby Quinn at their Jackman sugar shack. Maine entrepreneurship, says Braman, comes with seasons of hardship and bliss. 📸 Michael D. Wilson

I. HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF A MAINE HOME

Why is this house attached to a barn? What does that light switch do? And, um, what’s with the tarp? Let an expert walk you through it.

BY HANNAH HOLMES
Hannah Holmes

Homegirl: Writer, real estate broker, and lover of classic Maine ad-libbed renovations Hannah Holmes. 📸 Greta Rybus

When the price of heating oil spiked in the 1970s, my dad glued blue insulation-board to the walls of his home office, weatherizing from the inside. He stapled clear plastic over the windows to keep out winter winds — and spring and summer and fall winds, as it turned out. Such bold innovations are the sort of thing you might encounter when you start looking for your dream house in Maine.

Maine’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation. That’s because most of the state hasn’t enjoyed a building boom since . . . ummm . . . . Even in the legitimate boomtown of Portland, more than half of all homes are at least 75 years old. As a result, when you go house hunting, most of the places you’ll see will have been remodeled and remuddled, restored and adored by many generations of owners.

And those owners are known for their Yankee ingenuity, not for their adherence to principles of attractive design. In the battle of form versus function, the champions of form hold only a few urban centers across the state. All around them, ingenious pioneers of shelter technology wage a campaign to continually improve upon home improvement. You should be prepared for some of their more popular techniques.

The “New Englander,” for example, is a structure that began as a two-story home but, over decades and centuries, has been wrapped in a series of added wings, porches, and tractor sheds, each of which gradually acquired a couple of windows, plastered walls, and mysterious light switches. The New Englander is the architectural version of a turducken.

Inside, the most recently annexed room might feature “Pine State parquet,” better known as plywood, or “state o’ Maine wallpaper,” better known as the printed-paper side of insulation. Belowdecks, the “rubble foundation” might bring to mind an oversized, subterranean stone wall. And fluttering high in the rigging, you may spot the “Maine state flag”: a blue tarp lashed over a leak in the roof.

Inside, the most recently annexed room might feature "Pine State parquet," better known as plywood.

But you needn’t be intimidated by such ingenuities. Every civilization has its architectural vernacular, as well as a corresponding corps of experts who maintain such structures. In Maine, a surprising percentage of these experts bring to their trade degrees in philosophy, English, or fine art. The result is a roster of home-improvement talents who can tutor your kids in music theory while jacking up your porch. Your real-estate agent will have an iPhone full of such eccentrics to share with you and can direct you to the gas stations that sell the blue tarps.

Attending the three-hour home inspection of any house you put under contract will save you approximately three million hours of figuring things out yourself.

Attending the three-hour home inspection of any house you put under contract will save you approximately three million hours of figuring things out yourself. Maine home inspectors have encountered countless examples of Yankee engineering, and they can put these into a calming context for you. When I tell my real-estate clients, “Those plaster cracks are normal in this climate,” what my clients hear is, “I’m tired. Please buy this hell-hole.” But inspectors get paid whether or not you buy a house. So when they tell my clients, “Those plaster cracks are normal,” my clients swell with pride, having selected a property so cleverly constructed that the very walls adapt with the seasons.

Attending the three-hour home inspection of any house you put under contract will save you approximately three million hours of figuring things out yourself.

Hannah Holmes

📸 Greta Rybus

If you do skip your inspection, you will be sent a 40-page report listing the home’s “material defects.” And lacking the inspector’s soothing voiceover, this will be the most terrifying document you ever read.

But the truth is that every old house is like a small museum, and that inspection report is a catalog of your museum’s unique holdings. A proper museum will display heating technologies spanning many eras: fireplace, cast-iron radiators, some baseboards from before that heating-oil shortage, a woodstove from after. The same goes for flooring and electrical systems: one house may contain half a dozen types. Reading between the lines of this catalog, you’ll find record of an economy in which disposable income has historically been scarce, in which design has primarily been driven by such dilemmas as, “So Grammy’s moving in — how can we heat the tractor shed?”

An old Maine house preserves a record of pragmatism. And if necessity is the mother of invention, then pragmatism is invention’s crazy uncle. With no natural inclination to follow directions, Yankee problem-solvers have long responded to necessity with a spirit of, “Hey, what if we try this?”

The results are not always beautiful, but they’re usually functional. If not, there is always a tarp.


Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Maine. The author of The Secret Life of Dust, Suburban Safari, and other books, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at geekrealtyblog.com.

UP NEXT: HOW TO HAVE A CREATIVE CAREER

II. HOW TO PULL OFF A CREATIVE CAREER FROM A TOWN WITH FIVE STOPLIGHTS

If Spose can make it as a rapper here, you can make it as whatever you are.

BY RYAN "SPOSE" PETERS
Spose

Good kid, no city: Think your ambitions require an urban ZIP code? Nah, says Spose. 📸 Andrew Foster/Courtesy of PDANK LLC

In March 2010, I signed a record deal with Republic Records and filmed a pilot for an MTV show. That year was a really good one for me. At 24, I’d achieved my life goal of getting paid to be a rapper full-time. That summer, whenever I’d see people out at Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit or The Steakhouse in my hometown of Wells, they were shocked that I was still around. I guess they thought I’d have moved to Los Angeles or New York or wherever successful people are supposed to disappear to. I’d laugh and let them know that, nope, I plan to live in Maine forever.

Truly, there’s not much reason for me to leave. I can work anywhere with an electric outlet and WiFi, and staying in Maine — even though I’m a rapper by trade and a father of four — has been no roadblock for me.

For starters, it’s cheaper. City rents and mortgages suffocate a lot of creatives’ finances, leaving them little or no money to invest in their dreams. In Maine, especially outside of Portland, the price tag of survival is less likely to stifle a hungry artist. I rent my two-room recording studio in Sanford for $350 a month. That’s a crazy bargain, but any Maine commercial space is exponentially cheaper than a comparable space in, say, San Francisco.

What’s more, although it still seems to surprise some from-aways, we have the internet in Maine now. That means YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes are as close to Maine as to Los Angeles. Sure, until the 2010s, the chances of an artist “getting discovered” from a place like Maine were much slimmer than now — for a musician, local radio success was the only way out of our state. But today, as remote as Maine may seem, a song uploaded to Spotify or a film posted to YouTube from here is distributed to just as wide an audience as any project from NYC.

Every year, when I do my taxes, I’m happy to note almost all of my music and video budget is spent here. Maine has a breadth of talent and a collaborative vibe on par with any city. Maine artists do my album art. Maine filmmakers shoot almost all my music videos. My eight albums have been recorded and mixed by world-class engineer Jonathan Wyman at the gorgeous Halo studio in Windham. Even when I was signed to Republic, I had them foot the bill to record at The Halo instead of the swank Sony Studios on Sunset Boulevard (though I was honored to make some songs there too). Just up the road from The Halo is arguably the best mastering studio on Earth, Gateway Mastering, where legendary engineers Bob Ludwig and Adam Ayan have amassed 11 Grammys (and dozens more nominations) for work with artists like Beyoncé and Beck.


Yeah, I enjoy when the crowd in Denver knows the words to my songs. I love playing Chicago (and Austin and Salt Lake City and New York and even Toledo). But my favorite part of tour every year is after the last show, driving up I-95, crossing the Piscataqua River Bridge, and arriving back in Maine. You know the old Maine colloquialism, “You can’t get they-ah from hee-yah”? Well, you can get they-ah, and you don’t need to leave hee-yah to do it.


Ryan Peters records and performs as Spose. He wrote and recorded his latest album, Humans, in 24 hours with the help of three dozen Maine musicians and collaborators. Read, see, and hear more at sposemusic.com.

UP NEXT: HOW TO GET REAL ABOUT MONEY

III. HOW TO GET REAL ABOUT MONEY

On adjusting to a life lived closer to the bone (and to neighbors who aren’t shy about discussing it).

BY JILLIAN BEDELL
How to Get Real About Money

🎨 Dan Vasconcellos

In The Velveteen Rabbit, the venerable Skin Horse advises the titular hare that he cannot become real until a child truly loves him — and that when you are real, you don’t mind being hurt. When I first moved to Maine, I was like that stuffed rabbit, soft and satisfied and unprepared for harsh realities. After four years living on the beach in Mexico, my husband and I had moved to Portland’s West End, hoping to enjoy a little bobo city culture and, eventually, have a baby. Parenthood, I thought, would be fun, a diversion from the endless sex, booze, and adventure of our 20s and early 30s, which had started to feel monotonous.

At the time, we both worked at home, drawing paychecks from outside the constricting confines of the local economy and enjoying daily buckets of steamers and bottles of wine. I was the one who’d pushed for a move to Maine. My husband, who grew up here, came along grudgingly, although he admitted his childhood had been idyllic. In that mythic time before playdates, he and his friends would leave home in the morning and spend all day riding bikes, building forts, and daydreaming where the St. George River meets the sea. I was smitten by my imaginings of his free-range youth. I knew my kids would have a wild childhood in Maine — good wild, more Huck Finn than Corey Feldman.

And so, after a period of adjustment and shellfish, we moved to the midcoast and dove into baby-making. It was the beginning of the end of our song of innocence. The baby was conceived, and almost immediately, my husband and I lost our comfortable internet jobs. We still had revenue from our semi-popular food blog, so we could keep stocking up on wooden, gender-neutral toys from the Land of Nod catalog, but now it was tough to heat our drafty farmhouse. And I had no idea how real it was about to get. It was January and zero degrees out when I left the hospital birth center.

I had no idea how real Maine was about to get.

I was starting to glimpse another, realer version of life in Maine, one I’d heard about. In every conversation I’d had with a Mainer, the subject of money seemed to come up. At first, I was Victorian-horrified: “My dear, we do not speak of such matters!” Money — not having enough of it, the struggle to reconcile the cost of living with actual wages, the various strategies to stretch it — was a regular topic of conversation with even the most casual of acquaintances. I heard about money troubles from the bank teller who told me how to get kids on MaineCare. From the coworker behind me at Hannaford who, when my debit card was declined, paid for my groceries without hesitation.

From the fellow preschool mom who asked to switch snack week because she couldn’t afford Pirate’s Booty and organic yogurt that week. There was no pretense, no facade of wealth or comfort, no breezy assertions that all was mysteriously fine. I found it charming and disarming, and I marveled at it then.

These days, I’m raising two small girls on a single Rockland salary. I know I could have it worse. But I think nothing anymore of looking at a store clerk and turning out my pockets like a Depression-era hobo, with an exaggerated eye roll that acknowledges my near-empty coffers. We’re all in this together, I mean to convey — the same message, I know, that my friends and neighbors had meant to convey then, back when my license still said Connecticut.

As a writer and marketer, I spend a good amount of my professional time selling the dream of Maine. And I still believe in it mightily — more than I did before, in fact — but I’d be perpetuating a lie if I didn’t address the Skin Horse in the room. Being real isn’t easy, and like the Velveteen Rabbit who stuck with his boy through a fever, one learns about love through suffering, or being attendant to it. The rabbit lost his fur, was stripped down to his essence. And then he was transformed.

Being real about Maine means acknowledging it can be hard to live here. It’s a choice we make actively, every day. We ask our neighbors for help, without shame. We give freely of our time and skills when we have a small abundance. We work hard, and when that isn’t enough, we say so. Life here is a careful balance, one sustained through honesty, cooperation, and community. My advice to the starry-eyed is to cast off conventions about money and decorum as you drive over the Piscataqua River; let them fall into the water where they belong. You may arrive with one set of plans, a closetful of Marmot jackets, and money to burn. But Maine has a way of changing all that. And that’s okay. Because you will learn what it’s like to be loved, and you will learn what it means to be real.


Jillian Bedell is a marketing strategist at Rockland’s Dream Local Digital and co-author of Eating in Maine.

UP NEXT: HOW TO KNOW EVERYONE IN THE REFRIGERATED AISLE

IV. HOW TO KNOW EVERYONE IN THE REFRIGERATED AISLE

Because anonymity is overrated.

BY MARY POLS

I moved back to Maine from California seven years ago, seeking good schools, proximity to family, and an affordable mortgage in Brunswick, the midcoast town where I grew up, population 20,000ish. Some of my friends were aghast about what they saw as the limited employment and romantic opportunities that awaited me. To say nothing of small-town grocery shopping.

“Brunswick?” my friend Rachel had asked, perplexed and skeptical. She’d been one of my roommates in the early 1990s in San Francisco, where we shared a Victorian flat in the Lower Haight with a raspberry-pink living room and either a disco ball or strobe light in the dining room (both our memories are hazy). She moved to Maine in 2004 and lived briefly in Brunswick before making tracks for the relative metropolis of South Portland.

“Mary, I don’t know if you’re going to be happy there,” she warned. “I mean, the supermarkets . . . ”
“Hannaford has balsamic now!” I countered.

Mary Pols Two degrees of inescapability: You probably recognize author Mary Pols from the deli counter. 📸 Molly Haley


But these days, what’s at the grocery store is less significant to me than who’s at the grocery store. You’ve heard of the phenomenon of six degrees of separation? In Maine, it’s more like two degrees of inescapability.

Maine is one big small town with very long streets. I stole that line right off Senator Angus King’s Instagram account, but I feel no guilt about it, because the same sentiment is probably expressed a hundred times a day in this state of 1.3 million. “It’s Maine,” we say to each other, shrugging. And yes, of course I follow the Senator on Instagram. (If you lived here, you likely would too; he has a lovely sense of composition.) I particularly enjoy his posts from Brunswick, where he also lives, in a house that my sister and baby niece once lived in back in the early 1980s.

Initially, I was giddy about this kind of connectivity. Maine felt like a sort of extended party. I love parties.

Awareness of such connections creeps up on you. In my first year back, I noticed I never entered Hannaford without running into someone I knew. As I put down roots, that ticked up to two people before I’d turned the corner towards the seafood department. Seven years later, my peak count from parking lot to register is nine. Some would say I’m still a novice, having not yet reached double-digit hellos at Hannaford. (I have, however, bagged three at Morning Glory Natural Foods, which is much smaller.)

The web extends beyond the grocery store, of course. Sometimes way beyond. A college friend from New York once sent me a postcard from Nepal, where she was trekking. She’d met a guy from Maine, she said, and figured, hey, it’s a small state, did he know her friend Mary? He sure did. We’d worked at Sebasco Lodge together in the ’80s.

Initially, I was giddy about this kind of connectivity. Maine felt like a sort of extended party. I love parties. But if you’re not in the right mood, chitchatting while rummaging for canning jars at Shaw’s can feel like a lot of work. (No one will mess with you in the tampon aisle, however. We do have boundaries.)

Other hazards you simply have to accept. For instance, once you’ve lived here a bit, it is highly likely that when you interview for a job, you will know the person who has just left the position. This is good for inside dirt, but of course, it cuts both ways. Also, if you don’t get the job, be prepared to run into both the person who did and the person who didn’t give it to you. Maybe at the same time. Such an encounter might happen, say, as you’re looking for a private place to pee on an island day trip.

Prior romantic connections and interconnections can be as tangled as the cables at the back of your television. From under my sink, a plumber once shared with me her low opinion of a man I’d dated, having previously done work for the man’s ex-wife. (The ex is lovely, by the way; we frequent the same yoga studio.) I know a man who invited four of his ex-girlfriends to the Christmas party where he was debuting his new girlfriend. This may have had less to do with connectivity than sadism, but in any case, Maine made it possible. (“We all play nice,” one of the exes said. “It’s Maine.”)

📸 Molly Haley


The two degrees of inescapabilty can feel like a trap, but it is possible to view it as an asset. I love stories. I want to know and be known, and Maine is ideal for those who value openness. I’m not condoning gossip (although you will hear it) or suggesting no one can have secrets, but in a state where it qualifies as privacy when just one person notices the police pulling you over, there’s some extra motivation to live with integrity. (I swear I just had a headlight out.)

And there is something beautifully serene about the big small-town phenomenon, something it took me a while to realize, which is that you don’t have to rush to build a life here. It will come to you, slowly and surely. I remember one lonely night in my third summer after moving back. I had no plans. I put on a dress and walked all over Portland. As I passed Longfellow Books, I saw that the novelist Kate Christensen, then a recent New York transplant, was inside talking about her first memoir, which I’d just read. I stepped in and took a seat. I listened to her joyous laugh, heard her talk about being in love with food, with Maine, and with her partner, Brendan, who stood at the back of the room. I looked around at the women in attendance. They seemed like women I’d like to know, but I felt shy, and I left without talking to anyone.

But in this big small town, people have a way of finding you and you them.

Three years later, I was a witness when Kate and Brendan got married at City Hall. So was our friend Genevieve, a writer and editor who’d also been a stranger in attendance that night at Longfellow. None of us can remember exactly how we became fast friends. Our origin story? It’s Maine.


Mary Pols covers sustainability for the Maine Sunday Telegram‘s Source section. She’s written for Time, The New York Times, and People. She’s the author of a memoir, Accidentally on Purpose

UP NEXT: HOW (AND WHY) TO PERSEVERE

V. HOW (AND WHY) TO PERSEVERE

Homespun entrepreneurship is as Maine as maple syrup. But when you're making a living off the land, contentment comes in cycles.

BY CARRIE BRAMAN

Back to the shack: The author and her family, outside the Frontier Maple Sugarworks sugarhouse in Jackman. 📷Michael D. Wilson

 

During the summer, I sell syrup at farmers markets along the coast. Unloading my tent in the dewy morning grass, I’m filled with the same sunshine the morning seems to promise. I like chatting with the shoppers who come each week, their baskets brimming with veggies; with the kids who slurp down syrup samples as eagerly as bees; with the vendors across the way. But my favorite part of working a market is surveying the bounty all around me: the bright carrots and crisp baguettes and smooth, hand-carved spoons, the salami and scallops and piles of Swiss chard, the wheels of cheese soaked in olive oil and the rainbow blooms fat with petals.

Sipping my coffee and watching the sun gleam through bottles of syrup, I feel like I’m living a charmed life. And the people who gather under my tent seem to agree. “Wouldn’t it be incredible?” I hear them ask, wistfully, eyeing the vendors and imagining the pleasures of a rustic Maine livelihood. It looks effortless, all that plenty, even to me. But I know better.

📷 Michael D. Wilson

Because after the brief, blissful summer fades and the offerings at the markets get sparer and sparer, there comes winter, a season I’ve never loved. In fact, one of the things that drew me to sugaring was the way it broke the spring open, with steam finally rising out of the freeze. But steam doesn’t rise on its own, and harvesting sweetness from a Maine March sometimes feels like squeezing blood out of a stone. Our sugar bush is three hours from our house on the (more temperate) coast, and when tapping season begins, we’re greeted with chest-high snowpack, dwindling daylight, and a vast wilderness of sap lines that need tending. It’s daunting, even for my husband, who loves the work and the winter. My enthusiasm in January is half-hearted, crucially assisted by carefully curated equipment: -40-degree Muck boots, a pair of green wool pants from the thrift store, a large yellow snow shovel with a metal edge, a boot warmer, a warmer, a stove-top milk-foamer for making lattes in an off-the-grid trailer, a thermos roughly the size of a cookie jar. When I think about the things our business depends on, it’s these that come to mind, a homely list of items that are the difference between facing a winter day with cheer and with bleak resignation.

And when the challenges pile on — the busted generator, the downed trees, the arctic temperatures — then the “this too shall pass” seasonal nature of life in Maine is a reassurance. After all, on the other side of a gloomy, snow-spitting afternoon tromping in the woods, there waits a dinner of frozen garden green beans and Pinto Gold potatoes and a whey-fed pork chop. And on the other side of winter’s frigid toil is a summer Saturday morning, with neighbors milling around and bottles of syrup catching sun like stained glass.

Carrie Braman received her master’s degree in nonfiction from the University of Montana and co-owns Frontier Maple Sugarworks. 

UP NEXT: HOW TO BEAT BACK HOMESICKNESS (ONE LUNCH AT A TIME)

V. HOW TO BEAT BACK HOMESICKNESS (ONE LUNCH AT A TIME)

When you're feeling displaced, a little social ritual goes a long way.

BY MARCO AVILÉS
illustration of group lunch

🎨 Dan Vasconcellos

I grew up in Peru, a country where people love having lunch. Peruvians and lunch have a radical relationship. We need at least an hour to be satisfied putting food in our mouths.

If you visit Lima, Peru’s capital, you’ll notice that at 1 p.m., the streets are a wild choreography of people gathering around family-style tables in restaurants and parks. We eat, gossip, and have fun. Lunch is a social thing. It’s like a little vacation from work, every day.

When I moved to Maine in 2014, I was prepared for the challenges of immigrating to one of the most rural and whitest states in the country. I was prepared for the crazy winter, the lack of public transportation, and the fact that I was a Latino moving to a place with no Latinx community. Soon, I came to realize my biggest struggle would be a different one, seemingly more banal: people here never stop to have lunch.

I realized how big a deal this is when I was hired at a nonprofit organization. Our office is a typical one, with 20 employees working at their desks and shuffling around to meetings each day. During my first week, I was so excited, wondering where my coworkers had lunch. What were their favorite restaurants? When did they get together for eating?

I was prepared for the challenges of immigrating to one of the most rural and whitest states in the country.

The reality took me by surprise. My coworkers usually came into the kitchen by noon, heated up their Tupperwares, and brought them back to their desks. That was lunch: alone and in front of a computer. Having lunch in Maine was like having a trip to the bathroom: a biological necessity, not a social one, something to hurry through so you can quickly return to work.

The nice part of the job was that I didn’t go to the office every day. I worked as an interpreter for Hispanic folks, and I drove from town to town to visit my clients, so I often stopped by different restaurants to get a sense of the local cuisine. The hardest thing to find was company.

One day, I met a client who had an appointment later in the afternoon, and I asked if he wanted to have lunch in the meantime. Juan is a Mexican guy, 60, with a long white ponytail. “Lunch?” he asked, as if I might be kidding. “Of course, I want to have lunch!” We drove to Lotus, a Chinese buffet in Auburn, where Juan usually eats alone. We got a bunch of dumplings, fried rice, and pork chops and sat down at a table. I had never seen Juan so happy. He told me about his daughters in Mexico and his wife and how much he missed them. I told him about my family in Peru, about the life I left there and the one I was starting in Maine, where my wife is from. It felt as lovely and as funny as a first date. We stayed an hour, eating and talking.

When I got home, my wife asked why I was so happy. “Annie,” I told her. “Today, I had lunch!”

These days, I know a few spots where, even if I come alone, I can find people up for good conversation. Baraka, in Lewiston, offers Djiboutian food and the intimacy of a single shared table; El Pocho’s, also in Lewiston, is a tiny taqueria owned by a Mexican couple who love listening to good stories. It’s no coincidence these and other favorites are run by recent immigrants. Real lunch, like real friendship, is something you find in Maine once you start crossing borders.


Marco Avilés is the author of three books, including No soy tu cholo (I Am Not Your Cholo), and works as a community health worker.

UP NEXT: HOW TO HAVE A BABY ON AN ISLAND (EVEN A LANDLOCKED ONE)

VI. HOW TO HAVE A BABY ON AN ISLAND (EVEN A LANDLOCKED ONE)

A lot of pregnant women feel a little at sea. Some of them actually are.

BY LAURA SERINO
Laughing in the isles: Author Laura Serino, husband Alex Curtis, and baby Austin, born last year, on North Haven.

Laughing in the isles: Author Laura Serino, husband Alex Curtis, and baby Austin, born last year, on North Haven. 📷 Greta Rybus

It was early in the morning, the sun just peeking over the horizon. I was hanging onto the live tank of my husband’s lobsterboat as we skipped across the waves towards the mainland, bent over and screaming in agony, a Grundéns jacket draped across my shoulders to keep off the pelting rain. I didn’t think it could get any worse. Then the boat came to a complete stop, and my husband told me we had run out of gas.

That was the gist, anyway, of my recurring nightmare in the months before the arrival of our firstborn. Thankfully, things didn’t pan out that way. As my due date came and went, I simply headed to the mainland, set up shop at a friend’s house, and ate my future child’s weight in Dorman’s Dairy Dream. Our son, Austin, arrived last June, four days past his scheduled arrival. In the end, mine was a fairly typical, uneventful pregnancy.

But the possibility of my nightmare coming true was real. It’s a risk you take when you’re pregnant and live on one of Maine’s islands.

When we first told friends and family we were expecting, questions of concern always followed, and we tried to play down the risks.

“What’s the plan if you go into labor in the middle of the night?”

“I go to the hospital.”

“Are you having a home birth?”

“I am not.”

“Do you have a way to get to a hospital in an emergency?”

“Yes. Ferry, lobsterboat, LifeFlight helicopter — the works.”

“Do you have a doctor?”

“I do. Turns out they accept island patients.”

“Aren’t you nervous?”

“Not in the slightest.”

And that was basically true, in my waking life. I didn’t worry much about making it to the mainland in time. But then, my timing was good — a June due date is the sweet spot for an island baby: no throngs of tourists to crowd the ferry, no risk of snowstorms to strand us, plenty of lobsterboats in the water offering a quick escape.

Worst-case scenario, the EMTs on North Haven, where I live, could deliver my baby. They’ve done it before.

“I started to have contractions that were very rapid and intense,” recalls Lindsey Beverage, a born-and-raised North Haven resident. In January 2013, she was full-term with her second when she told her husband it was time to put their emergency plan in place. He called a friend with a lobsterboat and said they’d meet at the dock. But the baby was coming fast; Beverage didn’t even make it aboard. Some 45 minutes later, she was holding her son Kovin in her tub. He was delivered by her two younger sisters, both trained EMTs.

Even without child, I’m not a fan of bumpy rides on the bay, and I hated the thought of waddling down a dock to hop in a lobsterboat.

Today, Beverage looks at the experience as a gift. “Because of Kovin,” she says, “I was introduced to a quiet confidence that let me trust myself, and I found that I had tapped into a stream of wisdom that birthing women have been sharing with each other for generations.”

Kovin was born en caul, or wrapped in the membrane of the amniotic sack, a safe but super-rare phenomenon (it happens in one of every 80,000 or so births). An old maritime tradition is for mothers to save the membrane, dry it on paper, and keep it with them to ensure their son’s safe return from sea. “I always thought that resonated with our island life,” Beverage says, “thinking of our future lobsterman and all the times he may need a little extra security.” Her third child, Maeve, was also born en caul and also at home in the tub. Only that time, it was planned.

For many island women, staying put is the default plan. Lydia Brown was born at home on Vinalhaven, as were her three sisters. She was living on North Haven in 2010 when it was time for her to decide between her own home birth and planning a trip across the bay. Brown stayed true to her family tradition.

“I can remember being very pregnant and riding on the ferry to Rockland,” she says. “And someone yelled to me, ‘Hey, why are you heading to the mainland? You’re about to give birth!’ Which I remember thinking was so funny because most people would have told me the opposite.”

Brown had both her children, Cyrus and Rita, at home, with the help of her husband, her mother, and her midwives, who gave her a pamphlet titled “What to Do if the Baby Is Coming Faster than the Midwives.” Stay calm, watch for a head, have a bulb syringe handy, and above all else, listen to Mom.

Author Laura Serino, and baby Austin

Author Laura Serino, and baby Austin. 📷 Greta Rybus

Rita, Brown’s second child, did indeed arrive before the midwife made it to North Haven. Her mom caught the baby, her sisters were by her side, and her husband was on the phone with a midwife. “We checked to see that she was breathing okay, and then, after our midwife arrived, we eventually cut the umbilical cord, weighed her, and examined the placenta,” Brown remembers. “I looked back at what I wrote in her birth story and realized we didn’t even learn her gender until after our midwife arrived — we were so caught up making sure she was warm and well.”

Hearing stories like these eased my mind during my pregnancy. The possibility of giving birth on the island didn’t bother me as much as the possibility of a rough ride to Rockland. Even without child, I’m not a fan of bumpy rides on the bay, and I hated the thought of waddling down a dock to hop into a ferry or lobsterboat. But I didn’t feel confident doing birthing at home, this being my first time out, and he fact that a good friend is a midwife at the hospital in Rockport made a mainland birth the right choice for me.

Brenda Singo, of Long Island in Casco Bay, remembers her ride well. She was scrubbing the inside of her fridge in the middle of the night (as pregnant women at full-term do) when she went into back labor, which is particularly uncomfortable, owing to the position of the baby. After her labor was broadcast on the on-island EMT radios, no fewer than eight emergency responders showed up. “I know my living room was filled with people,” Singo says. “I think they were all excited about the possibility of a baby being delivered on the island.” But Singo, in pain, wanted to head for the hospital. At the time, in 1992, Long Island didn’t have its own ambulance, so she was rushed to the wharf in a box truck that islanders had converted to a fire engine.

“When we got there, it was low tide,” she remembers, “so two people lifted me from under my arms and lowered me into the arms of two paramedics on the fire boat.” As they barreled across Casco Bay, Brenda thought her baby might be born there, in the middle of the ocean. But her labor persisted, and baby Tomas was born safely on land some six hours later.

An expectant mom is reminded that her experience is one more link in a long chain of strong women who’ve been through it all before.

Among those who’ve experienced an island pregnancy, there is a particular sisterhood. And in a small island community, where any new blood is rare, a new baby rallies not only that sisterhood but often the whole town. After Austin was born, we benefitted from a longstanding tradition of a meal train that lasted over two months. Every night, someone stopped by to coo over Austin and fill our stomachs. Bags of clothes were handed down, baby books were loaned, and a pile of car seats and swings materialized on our porch.

Such traditions aren’t unique to islands, of course, as parents in Maine’s many rural communities can attest. In some ways, a pregnancy in Calais or Medway or Jackman isn’t so different from one on North Haven or Isle au Haut. Many small-town Maine hospitals lack obstetrics services, so care may be an hour or more away by car. And women on such landlocked islands know what generations of island women know — that, as mushy-gushy as it sounds, a pregnancy in such a community need not involve isolation and fear. Instead, an expectant mom is reminded that her experience is one more link in a long chain of strong women who’ve been through it all before.

Last year was a solid baby year for North Haven, with four other babies born in addition to mine. Austin was number four. On his first ferry ride home from the hospital, a long line of cars reminded us that the summer crowds were beginning to arrive. It was a warm day, and a heavy fog had settled in across the bay. The foghorn went off every few minutes during our trip home, and each time it did, I looked back at my sleeping babe. He didn’t even stir.

Laura Serino is a former Down East digital editor, owner of North Haven’s Island Apothecary, and a regular contributor to mainehomes.com. 

UP NEXT: HOW TO LEARN TO LOVE THE HUSTLE

VII. HOW TO LEARN TO LOVE THE HUSTLE

When living your Maine dream means working four jobs, you can get discouraged or you can get to work. And you might learn something about yourself.

BY IRENE YADAO
illustration of working

🎨 Dan Vasconcellos

The year was 2007, and I had just moved to midcoast Maine, a place I’d visited while living in New York and could never shake from my mind. I’d fantasized about living here for the serenity, pace, landscape, and location. It was close enough to cities like Boston, New York, and Montreal, but far enough, geographically and culturally, to feel all to its own. It was Vacationland.

But you still have to make a living in Vacationland, and I learned early that conventional careers aren’t always compatible with a place like this. There are jobs here — right now, the state needs nurses, tradespeople, engineers — but prospects were grimmer then, and in a state with few population centers, local job markets are always tight and many fields competitive. You may need to take a circuitous route. Have an entrepreneurial spirit. Get creative. And if you’re not sitting on a nest egg, you learn to hustle for a few years.

In 2007, my prospects were dismal. I applied for journalism jobs locally, as well as remote work from companies in Boston, Seattle, and New York. No one was hiring, and for the first time in my life, I filed for unemployment. It felt like an admission of defeat.

There’s this thing that happens when navigating unemployment. Your sense of self-worth begins to wither, maybe without you noticing. You start questioning your own skills and talents. You question your career choice. You wonder about decisions you’ve made, including the place where you’ve settled. You lose sight of what a normal day looks like, and the insidious idle limbo begets depression. Depression begets paralysis. Before you know it, you don’t recognize yourself, ten pounds heavier and going gray.

While this malaise plays out, you’re also navigating a financial predicament. Maybe the loan you took out for grad school has ballooned by $20,000, on account of interest. You pick away at any savings. You grow desperate.

I was desperate. So when jobs started surfacing, I took anything that fell in the neighborhood of my skill set: baker, law firm receptionist, cooking-school manager, textbook editor. I’ve had all these jobs and more during my decade in Maine — 18 of them in total, including assistant pastry chef, bookkeeper, social media coordinator, restaurant manager, and sales manager for a yarn company. On the side, I’ve sold magazine stories and been an editor-for-hire. Some jobs were temporary or part-time, some ended with the business, others I traded for what seemed like better opportunities. Until three years ago, I always worked at least three jobs at once. My hours were strung together tenuously by Moleskine and Google calendars. It was a full-time hustle, but I was happy to be working.

Baker, law firm receptionist, cooking-school manager, textbook editor. I’ve had all these jobs and more during my decade in Maine.

Happy, that is, until an acquaintance would ask me, “What do you do?” It felt like a loaded question because the answer would implicate me. When I lived for a short time in New Mexico, I found this question meant something different. It really meant “What makes you happy?” — and “I rock climb” or “I ski” were perfectly acceptable answers. Here — perhaps in most places — the question seems to mean “Who are you?” Growing up, I was conditioned to believe that your career was your identity. And your identity is everything.

So I struggled to answer, because what I was doing then felt so far removed from who I thought I was. I used to write about music and arts for newspapers back home in San Diego. I used to be an editor at the Village Voice in New York. I used to be a writer. And now: “What do you do?”

Throughout most of that hustling time, I felt lost. I was often exhausted. I didn’t have time or creative space to write, and I spent a lot of time interrogating myself: Am I still a writer? Maybe I should go to pastry school, go to massage school, become an accountant, become a personal trainer? Maybe the universe is telling me to be someone else? Wasn’t I supposed to have all this figured out in my 30s? How do you piece together a picture of yourself when all your parts feel so disparate?

It took something other than a job for me to learn to look at myself through a healthier lens. I started playing roller derby. I practiced and trained eight hours a week alongside many dedicated and fearless women. I fell (a lot) and got back up. I learned about tenacity. I made friends. And gradually — as what began as a distraction became a new part of my identity — I started having the kind of realizations that Maine can prompt, when you’re allowed, or even forced, to define yourself by your passions rather than your career.

I started thinking maybe my pieces weren’t completely disparate, that I was the thread holding them all together. My jobs fed my genuine interests in food, textiles, art, filmmaking. It dawned on me that the hustle of working all those jobs was making me tougher, more adaptable, a better version of myself. Each job has helped turn me into a better listener, a more astute observer, a harder worker. And these, in turn, have informed my writing. It’s a little like my derby training: I used to wonder what plyometrics had to do with skating, or why we were lifting and not focusing on cardio. But all of it honed my agility, speed, strength, creativity.

Every job taught me something about myself I hadn’t fully realized. That I love working with my hands. That as much as I love baking, I’m not cut out for early mornings and long hours in the kitchen. That I love the tedium of organizing data and numbers. That I love yarn. That I actually work really well when I have limited time and resources. That I can handle a lot, even if I don’t always want to. But Maine is like that. You work hard to stay here, or else you leave.

So what do I do? I play roller derby, bake pastries, work on films, and a lot of other things. More importantly, who am I? I’m strong, generous, caring, inquisitive, funny. And yes, I’m still a writer.


Irene Yadao today enjoys her one job, as assistant director for Compass Light Productions, a documentary film production company. Her writing has appeared in publications that include the San Diego Union-Tribune, Kindling Quarterly, and Old Port magazine.

UP NEXT: HOW TO DATE (AND NOT LOSE HOPE)

VIII. HOW TO DATE (AND NOT LOSE HOPE)

There are no more singles in your area! Try again later.

BY JESSE ELLISON
Author Jesse Ellison has some Maine dating cautionary tales
Author Jesse Ellison has some Maine dating cautionary tales
Author Jesse Ellison has some Maine dating cautionary tales

Taking swipes: Author Jesse Ellison has some Maine dating cautionary tales.


By Jesse Ellison
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson

I first downloaded the now-ubiquitous dating app Tinder in the winter of 2013. It had been out only a year then, and I had been back in Maine just a few months. I was living in a drafty little cottage tucked behind Hannaford in Camden, the town where I grew up, and texting with a friend back in Brooklyn. “How’s Maine?” he asked me. “Good,” I told him. “But I may never go on a date again.” “You should try this thing Tinder,” he suggested. Okay, sure, why not?

In case you’ve been living in a bunker or married for the last five years, Tinder is a smartphone dating app that presents itself like a game. Profiles are bare-bones: just a few photos and a small space for optional text, and users “play” by swiping to the right on profiles they like and to the left on those they don’t. Although it was still in its infancy when I installed it, it had already been the subject of handwringing thinkpieces about the potentially ruinous implications of its seemingly endless stream of optional mates.

But what did I have to lose? It was November, when 6 p.m. feels like midnight in Maine and spring is 10,000 years away.  So I repurposed a couple of Facebook pics, created a profile, and dove in.

The first face was one I recognized from the local pizza place. It belonged to a guy more than a decade my junior. Nope, swipe left. The next guy’s selfie appeared to have been taken in a windowless subterranean lair. No thank you. Left. The next face I saw was a friend of my dad’s. Hard left.

And then, a message: “There are no more singles in your area! Try again later.”

Three. There were three singles in my area.

I felt like maybe I’d jinxed myself. I had lived in New York for 16 years, and all that time, whenever anyone asked if I’d someday move back to Maine, I’d say some version of, “Yeah, maybe, if I had a husband and kids or something.” Then, both a relationship and a long-term job ended in New York, and I came back home for “just a couple of weeks” in the summer. And then I just never went back. My friends in the city were baffled. My neighbor, who was 92, nearly deaf, and touched by early dementia, used to call me on the phone to have the same conversation, over and over at high volume. “You’re staying in Maine? What? Why? How will you ever meet a man? What?”

In a way, I wasn’t phased by the dating-app fail. I had been wrong about my supposed preconditions for coming back here. I’d moved from a city of 8 million to a town of fewer than 5,000 where the population skews, shall we say, mature. But I didn’t feel lonely. People here tend to enjoy more free time; they’re generally not as encumbered by their careers, their commutes, and the myriad hassles and distractions of city life. Meanwhile, everything from dining out to pool memberships to hiking tends to be more accessible and affordable. And with everyone seemingly devoting more time to their leisure and passions, I found that making friends and casual acquaintances was easier. I’d only been back a few months before I knew enough people that I could always find a hiking or happy-hour dinner buddy on short notice. My first year back, I can’t remember a night that I ate alone (and I do not mind eating dinner alone). When I needed help of any kind — moving, shoveling — it was easy to find. On the morning of the first big snowstorm after I came back, I woke to find my neighbor had already come by with his snowplow.

And anyway, I had my dog. So why had I thought I would need anything more?

Well, the winters are long.

Last year, someone unearthed a Maine personal ad from 1865 and posted it on Twitter. Written by a young farmer in Aroostook County, it reads, “I am 18 years old, have a good set of teeth, and believe in Andy Johnson, the star-spangled banner, and the 4th of July. . . . My buckwheat looks first-rate, and the oats and potatoes are bully. . . . I want to get married. I want to buy bread-and-butter, hoop-skirts, and waterfalls for some person of the female persuasion during life.” The ad is titled, charmingly, “Chance for a spinster.”

Today, you’d find that bachelor farmer on Tinder with a picture that really shows off his good teeth. The dating profile is not a new invention; Tinder is simply its latest venue, the modern-day mixer. And it’s changed a lot, even in the five years since it briefly broke my heart. Everyone and their single uncle seems to be on Tinder or Bumble or OkCupid or Plenty of Fish these days. No more maxing out at three singles in your area (although, if you’re not straight and cisgender, like me, prospects may still be grim). Even in the rural-est corner of Maine, one can now find swipe after swipe of stone-faced driving selfies, countless dead deer, and nearly as many fish. (What, I sometimes wonder, are the dating-app props of masculinity back in Brooklyn? What have the men there found to brag about in the absence of deer to slay and trucks big enough to bring them home?)

You will inevitably see people you don’t want to see on Tinder. You will see your friends.You’ll see exes, perhaps using photos that you yourself took.

I, in five years, have learned a few things about Maine’s app-based dating landscape. For starters, in the coastal areas especially, you cannot trust the distance indicator. It means nothing here. Thirty miles can be a two-hour drive. Eight miles can be an hour-long drive and a ferry ride.

Also, you will inevitably see people you don’t want to see on Tinder. You will see your friends. You might see that you’ve been cropped out of their pictures. You’ll see your exes, perhaps using photos that you yourself took. You will match with people online and then run into them later at a job interview.

Author Jesse Ellison has some Maine dating cautionary tales
Author Jesse Ellison has some Maine dating cautionary tales

At some point, you will see someone you know, all vulnerable out there, just looking for love on the internet, and then suddenly realize that you are being seen in exactly the same light, which will horrify you and cause you to throw your phone across the room. Eventually, you’ll get over this part.
And you might, despite Maine’s shallow dating pool, actually find somebody. A few real-life outcomes, sourced from real-life Maine friends: You might meet on Tinder and move to a new city together. You might meet on Tinder and end up building a house together. You might go on 30 first dates in a year with people you met on Tinder and Bumble, then meet the best date yet by setting down your phone and being introduced by friends.

If you’re like me, you might reluctantly dip your toes in and go on enough first dates — some good, some fine, some whatever — to feel fairly comfortable with the whole process, figuring out a little more each time what to look for and what to avoid, and then, a few years in, match with someone who feels just, you know, better, right from the start. You’ll talk a while before meeting, then get oysters and Palomas in Damariscotta. You’ll fall in love, and for a while you’ll say to each other all the time, “I can’t believe I met you on Tinder,” and you’ll laugh because it sounds so ridiculous, especially here. You’ll even go over the times and dates before meeting that you might have been in the same place at the same time. But eventually, you’ll stop marveling, because it’s the only way it could have happened, really. It’s no longer even unusual. Because the thing is, it only takes one person to redeem the whole process.

The last time I opened up Tinder, it was to pose for the photos you see here. I used a fake name and just one picture, of someone else’s dog sitting on a sofa like a person. In the span of less than an hour, the dog attracted several interested suitors. My thumb-swipe to the left is still trigger-finger fast, and I flipped through the profiles without really looking, just to see how long it’d take before I ran out. I don’t think I even came close.

Jesse Ellison is a Down East contributing editor and former writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She last wrote about Maine State Prison warden Randall Liberty in our November 2017 issue.

UP NEXT: HOW TO SURVIVE WINTER — WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR NEIGHBORS

IX. HOW TO SURVIVE WINTER — WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR NEIGHBORS

A breakdown on a lonely road, night falling, temps dropping. Nothing a little goodwill can't handle.

BY JOHANNA S. BILLINGS
How to Survive Winter — With a Little Help from Your Neighbors
🎨 Dan Vasconcellos

Last February, in the space of a week, three separate storms dropped nearly 4 feet of snow on the Down East coast. This is out of the ordinary. But I headed out to run errands anyway, without much worry, because I have a four-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler, and because, like many Mainers, I know the best way to survive the winter is to resolve to thrive in spite of it.

Driving the back roads of Steuben, at the southern edge of Washington County, was like navigating a trench. From the plowed snow along the shoulders, it looked like Moses had parted a frozen sea. When an oncoming car veered a little too close for my comfort, I instinctively pulled to the right.

Whooosh! I went too far. One tire crossed the edge of the pavement and sucked me into the bank. As a spray of white powder flew over my windshield and engulfed me, I knew even four-wheel-drive wouldn’t get me out.

Within minutes, though, a fellow from a landscaping company in Jonesport stopped and pulled me out of the drift with his truck. He refused the $20 I offered as a token of my gratitude.

I was back on my way. But a half-mile later, my dash lit up with a colorful array of warning lights. Faintly, I smelled something burning.

Like many Mainers, I know the best way to survive the winter is resolve to thrive in spite of it.

Cell service — like traffic — is spotty in my neck of the woods, but I got off a call to AAA. When they told me the wait would be more than an hour, I tried restarting the Jeep. A loud pop preceded a burst of steam from under the hood. When the hiss died down, the woods around me were silent. Ho ho, what an adventure, I thought, trying to stifle an uneasy feeling as the sun went down.

When no one showed up after an hour, I phoned AAA again. They hadn’t yet called anyone, the dispatcher said, and they didn’t know when or even if someone could come for me. The dispatcher — clearly unfamiliar with Washington County, where a handful of state and county law enforcement officials patrol an area twice the size of Rhode Island — suggested I call the police and have an officer wait with me until help arrived. I noticed the rhythm of my hazard lights slowing and wondered about the life of my car battery.

My husband was on a business trip to balmy Arizona. My daughter could do nothing from Philadelphia. My data signal couldn’t seem to handle googling a tow service. But somehow I squeaked enough out of it to fire up Facebook, where I posted of my predicament — a social media Hail Mary in the absence of a AAA savior.

A half-hour later, I saw headlights approaching, and a truck pulled up behind my Jeep. It was Faith and Robert Ginn, a pair of contractors who’d done some work on my house the year before. Faith had seen my post, called her husband, and the two of them came out looking for me.

I barely knew the Ginns. I’d bumped into them around town a couple of times, but I never would have guessed they’d be my rescuers. Lucky for me, the Ginns — like most of my neighbors — don’t suppose you need to know someone well to give or to get a helping hand. The next day, Robert even gave me a ride to the auto garage where a tow truck had taken my Jeep.

As I write this, another real monster of a blizzard rages outside. But I’m not worried. I’m in Maine, where a sense of community runs deeper than any snowdrift.


Johanna S. Billings is a former Washington County reporter for the Bangor Daily News. Her writing has appeared in publications including AntiqueWeek, Entrepreneur, and Redbook.

North Haven, Photographed by Greta Rybus

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1 Comment

  • February 15, 2018

    jjimbjimb

    Great stories. I enjoy, and relate to every one. I came to Maine in the 70s with a good job. Lost that. Then did what all Mainers do. Worked 3…4…5… different part time, seasonal, unpredictable jobs to survive. Finally, I decided to go on the road, earn my living all over the Country, but came back to Maine as much as possible. Sometimes that was 4 nights a week. Sometimes 2. I became the highest mileage flier on Delta, Continental and US Air… in a quest to call Maine home.

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