Room With a View

snowy forest and waterway

Pille Kirsi | Pexels

By Franklin Burroughs

We moved to Maine 50 years ago and bought “a certain lot or parcel of land, with the buildings thereon,” which would thenceforth be ours, then pass to our “heirs and assigns and the survivor of them, and their heirs and assigns of the survivor of them, forever.” Were we buying a house or founding a dynasty that would last until the stream of time ran dry?

We’ve bought and sold several lots and parcels of land since then. Subtract all the lawyerly rigmarole and face it: The house you sit in and the ground you stand on are liquid assets. We hold a lease on life itself and on every other thing we think we own. Appraisers appraise, adjusters adjust, markets set prices, cash flows in and out, which is why it’s called currency. If that current ceases, the lights go out. If you cease, it glides smoothly on, utterly unaffected.

Fifty years is a lot of water over the dam or through the turbines: the flow of time converted into productive energy or simply rolling, unmetered, toward oblivion. But after 50 years, it’s time to look back and consider the water that did not go over the dam but has accumulated behind it. It will not endure until the stream runs dry, but while you last, it’s there, a private reservoir.

When we were young, we meant to travel light, subconsciously assuming that would keep us from getting old. That first lot or parcel of land changed us. It was as though the deed conveyed an aspiration as well as a property: to locate ourselves in time and space, to have children who would have children; to build a private archive, a private history, and begin to become invested in the turning of the seasons, the passage of the years, the school board, and the conservation commission, the little news-or-gossip–worthy events that punctuated the recurrent ones.

The house you sit in and the ground you stand on are liquid assets. We hold a lease on life itself and on every other thing we think we own.

It is February now, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, no light visible at either end of the tunnel. Maybe it’s a good time to undertake some off-again, on-again program of semi-centennial reflections, to yield to the temptations of retrospection. When you get old, you do that; the view behind you is so much more extensive than the one ahead.

In the past decade, I’ve found myself reconnecting with friends from my pre-Maine years. We belong to our generation. We belonged to a town or a graduating class at a small, rather homogenous college, or both; we speak the same language because of that. And now we find ourselves far apart — geographically, in the experiences that we have had, in the people we have turned into. How much of that could have been foreseen, even all those years ago? How much of it would have been different if I, for example, had returned to my hometown, as several of my friends did to theirs, or if they had spent the past 50 years in Maine?

It hasn’t been hard for us to fall back into our old bantering, teasing, trusting ways. That is balanced by astonishment at finding ourselves so old and so incomplete, and so changed from what we once believed ourselves to be, and so unchanged. In doing this, I can hardly explain myself, or say who it is I think I have become, without reflecting on where I have lived for the past 50 years. Insofar as those reflections are about me, they are of little interest or utility to you; insofar as they are about Maine, I hope they may be.

More from Franklin Burroughs.


Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.