Saturday, February 04, 2006

Life's Proportions

I just noticed that my life has taken on a new proportion.

Do other people measure their lives in proportion? Like, when I turned 34, I noted the change when I'd lived more than half my life on my own...having left my parents' house at 17 to join the service and never going back. Last year marked the point when I'd spent half my life with my spouse.

In '87 I moved inland. Up to that point, I'd spent my entire life - 35 years' worth - within the smell of the sea. I spent summers as a boy in the tide pools along the coast of Maine. I remember visiting the "ocean" branch of the family -- the Gilliams, and Wallaces, and Pyes -- those who actually made their living from the sea -- and wondering how my branch could have given up the ocean and gone to farming, and eventually the factories.

I'm not that far removed, truth told. My grandfather Wallace was a lobsterman in his early years altho took up the new fangled Electronics trade in the 40s. My grandfather Lowell, and his father before him, however, were landsmen -- farmers who raised cows and planted potatoes and corn. My father left the farm in favor of the factory where he was able to provide well enough for us growing up -- although we did keep a large garden which kept us fed through the leaner times.

But growing up in rural Maine, the ocean was just "over there." And not just any ocean, but the North Atlantic. When you go to the beach -- Popham, Pemaquid, Old Orchard -- you're not talking about any enclosed area of water but the North Freaking Atlantic. Standing there and looking east, you're looking at Europe with nothing in between.

My whole personal identity, my self image from boyhood, was Downeaster. None of these prissy Boston Lowells, but a by-God Mainer -- and a Mariner once removed. I even paid my dues upon the briney -- first as a dragger boy, and later aboard a Coast Guard Cutter in that same North Atlantic. The saltwater in my veins carries the distinctive flavor of the cold, and rockweed, and clam flats. When it's silent, in those rare moments when I can hear my own body, I hear the sounds of the ocean I grew up with and the sussurus of the winds in the pines along the rocky headlands.

But I just realized, my proportion has shifted. A third of my life, I've been inland now.

Not that there's anything wrong with being inland. The Great Plains are amazing and the Rockies have an almost cliched majesty. From where I'm sitting now, I can walk to where the Oregon Trail once passed - altho in honesty it would probably take me a week! Cowboys once lived in my neighborhood and coyotes still howl in the night. For a Yankee, a Downeaster, this is pretty nifty stuff.

But, it's not me.

I miss the smell of the ocean -- the clean iodine smell of the rock and sand, the pungent soup of brine and mud and reeds, even the diesel fumes and bilgewater reek when the fishing fleet gets underway in the morning. I'm feeling neither "fish nor fowl" as we used to say -- not part of this Western culture, nor any longer part of the heritage passed down from father and grandfather and before. I sang sea chanties to my kids when I bathed them as babies, but they're just funny songs to them. They don't mean the same as they do to me -- they're not the link to the past, not an anchor for identity with the rode trailing into the past.

And because I see they cannot share the link -- have not the stuff with which to knit identity that includes more than a minimum of what I can pass on to them -- I begin to doubt my own identity as well. My anchor in the past has started to drag on a sandy bottom and I find myself wondering who I really am.

The proportion can still be said, "I lived most of my life within the smell of the sea." But that proportion is shifting -- and the more it shifts, the less I am who I was.

I wonder who I'll be.

1 comment:

Nancy McKeand said...

I actually understand and can relate to this Nate! I have been married for 2/3 of my life. I used to know that I had spent as much of my adult years outside the US as in it, but that proportion has definietly shifted.

I guess we are always in the process of becoming. Or at least I hope we are! And I hope that new me will be interested and interesting. Maybe that's all I can ask for!