Place has always been significant in my life as a girl, as a woman, and as a writer. As a child I spent hours on Nova Scotia beaches, yoga position, allowing sand to flow through my fingers, watching for a meandering crab who mistakes me for a stone or perhaps a dolphin who leaps in the nearby waters just for me. As I grew, I lived in other places but it was to the ocean that I was perpetually drawn. It seemed I could breathe deeper, stand up straighter, be more hungry, taste salt in my mouth.
When we moved to Maine thirty-five years ago, I knew I had to live near the ocean in order to be happy. I wasn’t sure whether it was the sound of surging seawater or the feel of beachstone under my feet or the smell of rotting seaweed. I’m not sure I even thought about it. But when we saw an ad in Yankee Magazine that said, “old farmhouse and barn, pink granite shore,” I lobbied hard for my place by the ocean. We drove up and shook our heads over the foot of water – not salt – in the basement, at the layers of bat and swallow guano layering every surface of the old barn, at the scrubby alders covering every possible garden space. But when we walked down a quiet dirt road toward the shorefront which opened to a sand beach surrounded by rose-colored rock and lined with old apple trees, I breathed deep in that old childlike way. I crouched by a heap of rockweed and scooped up sand, let it dribble onto my foot. The feeling reminded me of watching an old man prostrate himself on the ground and kiss the weeds growing through cracks in the tarmac at a small Caribbean airport.
My husband, Bill, understood my delight and knew it would be of no use looking at any other property. We moved here in September of 1976. Although the ocean is only a five minute walk from the house, we didn’t go down as often as I would have liked because our labor was so intense in those early farming days but I knew it was there and sometimes just the thought of putting my face into the salt water and tasting the ocean was enough to get me through a stressful moment.
When I started writing fiction, in 1996, I had an office in the house which was mine alone, that no one would enter without permission. Great, I though. I have a room of my own. But as the farm grew busier and I grew older and less focused, I found it hard to ignore a distant phone ringing or the stack of bills on the edge of the desk, or a book, its corners turned down, begging to be finished.
Virginia Woolf’s quote from her famous essay came to mind, “Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
I wasn’t making much money on my writing but we were comfortable and I had a room of my own, so what was the problem? I knew I had to have a SEPARATE room of my own. There were “rooms of one’s own,” and there were “rooms of one’s own,” and they were not all the same. The idea of a yurt at the ocean came to me almost as an epiphany one day while I was digging around in the sand. It was a perfect answer.
I contacted Borealis Yurts and received one of their last units – a twelve foot simple yurt. I wasn’t able to be at there on the morning of the day it was to go up. We had a crew. “Please,” I said. “Make sure the windows face the ocean. I had them made especially to face the ocean.”
I arrived at the site about noon. I had a lightness to my step that I still remember. I was going to have my own writing house smack dab on my beloved ocean. As I rounded the last corner, I saw the windows, facing the path. “Bill. The windows. They’re facing the woods.”
“It’s too late,” he said.
The helpers all looked up, holding their hammers and tape measures. How could I not love them for doing their best. For putting up a yurt just for me.
“It’ll be fine,” I said.
Now I can recall the day with a smile because it was such a perfect mistake. I walk into my yurt with my laptop and sit at the desk. The windows look out at close woods. Not terribly interesting. Just scrub alder and dying birch. But I sit down and enter the world of my story without any distractions like ringing phones, or books to read, or a view of the ocean. I realize now that I need to have the roundness of walls of the yurt – no corners to hide in, no bills or books or anything that doesn’t pertain to my writing, and a view that is of very little interest so that my mind stays on my work.
A few years ago, an apprentice asked if she could do Yoga in my yurt in the early morning, before I would be writing in there. I uttered an emphatic “No,” and tried to explain that it was a writing place, not a yoga place. I’m sure she didn’t really understand and perhaps thought me to be selfish. But the rule stands. No one may enter the yurt except for me and my dog Lydia.
Lydia’s become used to the rhythm. Fifty minutes of writing. Ten minutes of breathing the ocean and throwing balls into the froth. Fifty minutes of writing. Ten minutes of rowing back and forth. Fifty minutes of thinking hard. Ten minutes of sifting sand through my fingers onto the surface of a granite boulder.
The ocean, to me, is freedom. Freedom to write what I want and live the life I want to live. It is a sign of the strength, love, ferocity, danger, and vitality of an untamable entity, right in my back yard. Could I write without my yurt at the edge of the sea? Maybe. But maybe not. I’m scared of finding out.