Dune Shack Diary
I've always had a fantasy of living alone in a simple house in nature. In my little house, I imagine myself gardening, painting, making jam and chopping wood to the quiet turning of the days and seasons. In my little house, I am sturdy, wise and calm. I am never anxious, or lonely, or bored.
Now I have the extraordinary opportunity to live out my fantasy for a week in one of the remote dune shacks on the Cape Cod National Seashore. The shack has no running water, electicity, or neighbors. The primitive conditions don't faze me a bit, and I am not afraid of the solitude. But I know that the simple life is not so simple to achieve.
I got very little sleep last night. Even though I've been refining my packing list for weeks, I keep thinking of more things I might need. Do I have the right clothes for the weather? Will my cell-phone batteries last the week? Should I bring a can of mace? Packing is the first line of defense against the unknown.
John and I meet Tom, our guide, at the Race Point parking lot. We transfer my stuff to the back of his truck (an embarrassing amount for one week, but Tom assures me that I am far from the worst) and then drive in.....up a sandy track, through a locked gate, and back into the dunes. The first sight of the shack is a stove-pipe sticking up over the top of a dune, but we continue on a long circular approach for several more minutes as the shack comes in and out of view. Finally we arrive.
The shack sits in a bowl of beach grass, pin oaks, and wild roses just over the dune from the Great Beach. Long vistas of undulating dunes stretch off to the east. At high tide you can hear the roar of the surf, but most of the time it is uncannily quiet in the hollow, the stillness broken only by wind and birdsongs.
The shack is endearingly ramshackle...it seems to be tacked together out of salvage and driftwood. There is an old-house smell redolent of mildew and woodsmoke. Inside, stained and mouse-chewed styrofoam panels cover the walls, saving the interior from complete picturesqueness. Tom gives me the rundown on the woodstove, the 2-burner propane stove, the propane cooler, the kerosene lamps, the mice, the pump, and the composting toilet. He takes my picture with a polaroid camera and hangs it up on a little clothesline in the kitchen alongside pictures of other recent residents. Then he wishes me luck and leaves.
John is antsy to be on his way. Not a fan of rustic living, this is not his kind of thing. We clamber up over the dune and down to the ocean. Without saying much, we walk along the water's edge for a long time till we get back to the parking lot. Then I am alone. On the way back I feel my first stirring of fear. After the long walk back on the empty beach, I am not sure which cut through the dunes leads back to the shack. I scramble up to the top of one opening. Uh-oh! This ain't right! I continue till I find another cut, where friendly markers signal, "This is the spot!" Coming over the top and seeing the little shack below is such a relief! Down in the hollow, I feel like I am being held in the palm of a giant hand.
The day is winding down. I've unpacked, made lunch, explored a bit, taken a nap, browsed the bookshelf, and made tea. There has been distant rumbling for an hour or so. A storm approaching? I'm looking forward to that.
As it begins to get dark, I light the lamps. There are all kinds of thumps and creaks in the house...should I be worried?
At this point in the waning day I would be feeling lonely, except Mr. Mouse is scratching in the wall just behind my shoulder.
When it's completely dark, what else is there to do? I climb up the steep stairs to the bedroom, pull the covers up to my chin and sleep.
I wake up with the alarm at 5:00. It's raining and chilly....no thanks.... so I go back to sleep. A bit later I get up, slip on sweats and a sweater, make a cup of tea, and pour the excess hot water into a bowl for face washing. I meditate for a while, do a few minutes of stretching, and then make some oatmeal. I do the dishes and some general tidying. Sweeping sand off the rug, I feel very "chop wood/carry water" Zen-like. By now the sun is up over the rim of the dunes and trying to break through the clouds. Now what? I guess it's off to the beach.
It is misty with a pale teal surf, and the beach is empty except for a handful of fishermen who have driven their trucks in. They stand by the water's edge, casting for stripers. I welcome the sight of my own species, but am also wary...they aren't of my tribe, see. Can I be sure they won't follow me back to my shack to rape and murder me? But surely, if visitors at the shack were routinely getting raped and murdered, word would have gotten around, wouldn't it? I greet them but keep my distance.
Bundled up for mist and wind
I walk the green breakers, singing loudly in the roar
40 minutes out and 40 minutes back
While seals pop up their heads to watch my progress.
And kindly, it doesn't start to rain
Till I hike over the crest of the dune
and down into the valley to the shack
Like Frodo returning to the Shire.
Oh the roses! I feel so fortunate to be here the week they are in bloom. They are everywhere, and their fragrance stops me dead in my tracks!
It continues to rain through afternoon, so I try a little drawing with some pastels and charcoal. It's been a long time. I keep waiting for someone to come along and tell me it's soooo good (like in third grade) or it's soooo wrong (like in college). Can I find another reason for doing art besides praise/blame? Now I'm hungry (or am I just bored?) and it's still only 4:30. There is something BIG walking around in the pin-oaks just beyond the deck. I stand there stock-still with my eyes bulging out with excitment, waiting for something huge to appear. (There aren't any large predators on Cape Cod, are there?) But nothing happens, all is silent for a minute, and then, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!
My feet are cold. My hands are cold. What was I thinking, only bringing one sweater and long-sleeved shirt? What if it rains all week and my one outfit gets damp? I could start the woodstove....yeah! I start the woodstove.
The sun sets at 8:16 tonight
And a full moon will rise
But who can tell?
This evening the shack
Sits in a bowl of mist
And even the seagull crying right overhead
Cannot be seen.
Next comes another day of fog and rain. I am talking to myself a lot. On the shelves are a number of journals, where past residents of the shack have recorded their thoughts. They are a much-needed source of companionship, solace, and out-loud laughter. My past experience at meditation retreats has prepared me for the existential challenge of "nothing to do." But still, I envy the artists with rich, absorbing projects to fill their time.
The long grey day drags on. I've been thinking alot about how people lived with these simple conditions for most of human history. Nowadays, we are so accustomed to constant entertainment!
I hereby salute
my ancestor women
whose tolerance for this sort of life
must have been great.
To Sarah Wood Passmore
who left behind the gentile bustle of main-line Philadelphia
to go with her husband Norman, and his violin
and their three children, Ruth, Betty, and Sumner (Baby Nannie came later)
to a farmhouse with no electricity
where she learned to chop the heads off chickens
and made cobbler from the peaches that Norman grew
and raised her children.
And who knows what she missed, and what she longed for
or if she looked out at the glistening green hills and said
"Just this...Just this."
And I also salute Helen Sutton Miller
who left Marcus Hook with her husband Bill
(He a former police chief, mechanic, and jack-of-all trades)
to follow their only son to Ohio
where Bill built a house by hand
and planted a huge garden in a flat field
that stretched a mile back to the woods.
She brought her sister Margaret as a bulwark against loneliness
but who knows what she missed, and what she longed for?
We do know this: she went to work selling lingerie at Halles Department Store
and was very happy there.
Still way too early to go to bed, a gloomy fear is settling into my heart. It's not quite dark yet, but I light the lamps. And then, amazingly, I read this:
The Lamps, by Mary Oliver
Eight o'clock, no later,
You light the lamps,
The big one by the large window
The small one on your desk.
They are not to see by -
It is still twilight out over the sand,
The scrub oaks and cranberries.
Even the small birds have not settled
For sleep yet, out of the reach
Of prowling foxes. No,
You light the lamps because
You are alone in your little house
And the wicks sputtering gold
Are like two visitors with good stories
They will tell you slowly, in soft voices,
While the air outside turns quietly
A grainy and luminous blue.
You wish it would never change -
But of course the darkness keeps
Its appointment. Each evening,
An inscrutable presence, it has the final word
Outside every door.
All hail the morning sunrise
that sweeps away
the shadows and broodings
of the night before!
Morning beach walk: there are five seals in a group right off-shore. How do they find each other in the vast sea?
Do animals get bored?
All that romping in the water world looks joyous
But stil --
Romp, fish, romp, fish...is that all there is?
Is that why they seek companionship?
Is that why they watch me on the shore
As I watch them?
I know my dog Tosca gets bored
But maybe that's the price dogs pay
For their domestic alliance with men
Sort of like eating from the tree of knowlege of good and evil
Except it's knowlege of past, present and future
And hence, boredom.
Returning after the walk, the skies grey up and the rains begin to splot the deck. I'm glad I'm back in time, and I'm trying to be equanimous. But remembering the long grey afternoon and evening of yesterday, I'm thinking, SHIT!
But wait! A wind from the southwest blows in blue skies and cumulous clouds! All right!
After lunch, not planning to, I start down a path and end up hiking a half-hour over the dunes to the Visitor's Center. Fun facts I learn from the ranger there:
Seals can stay underwater for 30 minutes. They carry more oxygen in their blood, and when necessary can direct it to just their organs, like Indian swamis.
The perforated cow-flop things on the beach are peat from the dunes drilled by sea worms.
Sponges are animals, not plants. They are actually assemblies of semi-autonomous cells, and if forced through a sieve, will regroup on the other side. The basic difference between plants and animals is how nutrients are obtained...either by photosynthesis or absorption. And we animals thing we're so special!
I watch a short video about the Cape, but the whole time I'm worrying about whether I'll be able to find my way back to the shack. Getting lost in the trackless dunes is a scary prospect! With trepidation, I start back on the trail, and within a couple of minutes, have lost it. Okay, deep breath....retrace steps, correct wrong turn, and look....there are the friendly footprints in the sand, including my own! I arrive home triumphant.
It is a blessing
To be able to go to bed
When it gets dark.
After rising with the dawn
the day is long enough
for anyone's purposes.
I've been getting up earlier and earlier. Who knew that dawn begins well before 4:30? I marvel how I normally miss this radiantly beautiful part of the day, chosing instead to stay up long into the night reading emails and watching reruns of The Sopranos. Perhaps I can shift my schedule when I get home.
The days are starting to feel more settled, with more peace-time unspooling when I am just hanging out with the birds and the sky and the changing light on the dunes. There are fewer moments of "three down, four to go," and more of "I could really live like this."
I've been reading nature books, Buddhist books, poetry books. I brought a novel for emergency use, but have resisted being taken so far away from here. My goal is to be here as much as I can. I am no longer envying the artists...at this point it seems like a fine thing to have no adgenda, except, as Mary Oliver puts it, "to learn something by being nothing for a while but the rich lens of attention."
Out of the general bird-sounds, I am starting to indentify individual characters in the area. One yellow-throated guy lands on the railing right in front of me. A warbler? Leafing through a book of Audubon plates, I see that there are dozens of kinds of warblers. I appreciate the passion with which men have catalogued all these birds, not to mention the crustaceans, insects, and so on, meticulously observing and illustrating and building on the work of their predecessors in order to pass the knowlege on to us. But guess what!? Nobody cares anymore! We live in such a virtual world now that knowlege of the natural world is largely unwanted and unneeded. How sad.
I have been waiting all week to see the large creature in the brush...I'm sure its a deer. Today, I bang something in the sink and turn towards the doorway just in time to see him leaping through the air into the brush. Wow.
But just as I am congratulating myself on my peacefulness, along comes another visit from existential dread, or from the "shoulds" that come and go like the clouds overhead. I should be keeping more of a routine. I should be keeping less of a routine. I should be reading more. I should be reading less. I should be sharing this with someone dear. I should be making the best use of this gift of time. And so on. Not all the time, thank goodness.
Here's the thing about these highly simplified experiences, whether it's a solitary week in a dune shack or a silent meditation retreat. Every single difficult thing we experience in normal life -- restlessness, dissatisfaction, self-doubt, and anxiety -- comes to us in the retreat place. In fact it's worse, because in normal life there is so much distraction that the difficult stuff barely even registers as background noise, and if it threatens to break through, we can always escape by grabbing something to eat or read or watch on TV. In a quiet place where there isn't much to do, the difficult emotions are a LOT louder, and there is nowhere to escape to. At the same time, we can learn to ride these experiences, and after a while they don't seem so solid. In fact, we start to see all the space around them. And in that space, the world comes shining through.
The last day. I've swept and cleaned. Packed and stacked. My stuff is waiting on the deck, and I'm sitting listening for the sound of Tom's truck, happy to have been here, excited to be seeing my family again. I don't hear it, but suddenly I see the little truck over the top of the dune. A new pair of visitors are with him, thrilled and apprehensive. This time I am the experienced one able to give sage advice about dealing with the mouse and the leak in the outdoor shower and the incessant thumping of the upstairs window (stuff the gap with your dirty underpants.)
We load my stuff and drive back back down the track and out of the dunes to his grocery store in Provincetown. There are so many people look at! A tatooed woman in long hippie skirts, a Latino family with a black-eyed little boy, a beautiful Asian girl standing by her bicycle as she combs the tangles out of her hair with her fingers! Tom tells me to grab a cup of coffee while I wait for John. "Welcome back to civilization."