looking out for sorrow, slowing down for happiness
On a week in Provincetown
Coming Home When we are driving in the dark, on the long road to Provincetown, when we are weary, when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look, I imagine us rising from the speeding car. I imagine us seeing everything from another place-- the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless fields of the sea. And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us, but which we cherish. And what we see is our life moving like that along the dark edges of everything, headlights sweeping the blackness, believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things. Looking out for sorrow, slowing down for happiness, making all the right turns right down to the thumping barriers to the sea, the swirling waves, the narrow streets, the houses, the past, the future, the doorway that belongs to you and me. - Mary Oliver
I first came to Provincetown in 1987, on a summer trip to the Cape with my father
and Shirley, his longtime companion. Born and raised in wartime Brookline, Shirley had spent summers there as a child, and she and my father rented a small white colonial in Orleans for their now-combined families. We all went for a week: my father and I, Shirley and her grown sons and their wives, the little sister of one of their wives who had become a close friend of mine, and two new babies who had just arrived. Shirley and my father decided that we should go on a whale watch, and four of us went. The boat was leaving from Provincetown late in the afternoon, would travel two hours out into the Atlantic, cut its engine, drop its anchor, and wait.
We arrived in Provincetown at three, and split up; my friend and I went in one direction, Shirley and my father went in the other before meeting up on the pier. I had heard over the years that Provincetown had long had been an artists’ colony, where people like Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner had worked; I had heard about the Fine Arts Work Center on Pearl Street, where one could have a long, multi-month wintertime fellowship, or attend workshops during the summer. I heard about the bookstores and the galleries, the gardens and the light and the dunes, and I was anxious to be there. But amidst the bookstores and the galleries, the gardens and the light and the dunes, I was unprepared for what I saw that day in 1987: walking up and down Commercial Street, every second man was sunken-faced, gaunt, hollow-cheeked. Those still well were pushing the others in wheelchairs along the uneven sidewalks, stopping to talk with friends. A few were able to get around with the help of canes. Some sat in front of the vast Provincetown library, their faces to the sun. Not one of them was older than twenty-eight; most would not see thirty.
For all the art and beauty and myth of Provincetown, this was the summer of 1987, thirty-five years ago.
How is it possible to reconcile so much beauty with so much agony? How is it possible to live knowing that the only sure thing about beauty is its evanescence?
By then, I had lost friends from work and college who, in those early days, went quickly; Barrett celebrated Fleet Week in Manhattan and was gone three months later. James met someone at one of our college parties on Commonwealth Avenue, and didn’t make it to our Boston University graduation in 1985. My own sophomore student advisor, the first person in my life to identify the clinical depression I carry in my DNA like hair texture and height, the first person to point it back to unresolved complex trauma, the first person to tell me that art would save me —- music, writing, reading —- so long as I ditched my relentless love of wine. The first person to say it all to me, clearly and without judgement. Gone quickly.
How is it possible to reconcile so much beauty with so much agony? How is it possible to live knowing that the only sure thing about beauty is its evanescence? That its ephemerality requires the making of art be acknowledged as a human responsibility, whether we are writers or painters or chefs or composers or designers. We are the art-making species; art saves. It insures memory. It makes us what we are.
Back on that afternoon in 1987, I walked up one side of Commercial Street from the corner of Anthony, near where my father parked, all the way down beyond Cottage in the West End, and back again. I probably passed Stanley Kunitz’s gorgeous gardens at number 32, and didn’t know enough to stop and look. We were surrounded that day by light and beauty and color and horror, and when our whale watching boat motored out into the sea and dropped its anchor and cut its engine, a massive humpback rolled onto its side just a few feet from the vessel. It looked at us gaping back down at it, its enormous eye taking us all in in wonder and curiosity for a species gone awry, dwindling by the day, by the minute, politicizing life and death when all it needed was its own humanity. I imagine what it was thinking, its pod floating around nearby: why don’t you save yourselves and those you love.
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