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BLOG: Getting back to Monhegan


I'm a Mainer who lives in Massachusetts now, which makes me neither fish nor fowl. Mainers distrust me for leaving. ("Masshole," they say, smiling or not.) Massachusettsans need a few more decades before I prove my residential loyalty.


When I was a forlorn teen hanging out at Ocean Point, Maine, the sea was a vast, encouraging entity, one that proved, with its crash and pull of breakers, that an enticing world existed beyond. Later on, I was lucky to see much of it—five of seven continents—before landing in another small town in the Berkshires of Western Mass, a woodsy place with streams and lakes, beautiful in a different way.


But the ocean often feels too far away. In the Berkshires, I think about the word "landlocked." Like a lid closed tight, no questions. My scales are drying up.


Two weeks ago my husband and I made the long drive north, then boarded the 90-minute ferry to Monhegan Island, Maine, for a gathering of musicians. I tried to store up the salt, the views. I ate fish tacos, then crab tacos, then shrimp tacos at the Fish House, delighted to have the shoreline literally at my feet. I took photos of water in its various shades and moods and felt, as always, that I'd never get it right. I was entranced by the painters there, how they crouched with easels close to cliff edges. How precarious they looked and how skilled in their execution.


My second novel, Off Island, was set on Monhegan, though potential editors asked why. I imagined Paul Gauguin had painted there (instead of Tahiti), that he made mischief with the locals. I sent him to Monhegan because I wanted to capture the conflicting forces of my childhood, both the expansiveness (the wild Atlantic) and insularity (see Masshole, above). I wanted to think about the love/hate relationships Mainers maintain with summer visitors. I wanted to pretend to be a painter like Gauguin.


During our recent trip to Monhegan, my husband jammed with fellow pickers on a designated porch and I met an art historian and writer, Sarah Webb. She found my book in the Monhegan Library and had kind things to say about it. We sat in her beautiful house by the shore with her two enormous Newfies and talked about Gauguin, freelancing, teaching, how to balance a creative life with the need to pay the bills. How to let Monhegan stay with us, no matter where we ended up.


I had to leave the island too soon—duty called back in the Shire—and the ferry ride to the mainland was blustery, a warning. I'd been away too long. I'd have to return before too much time passed again. Or write something new about it.