I have been privileged, for the past six months, to fill in for Nancy Aronie while she took a break from writing this column. I am excited to let you know that Nancy will be returning, so I thought a column about transitions would be a good topic for my final piece. Thanks for reading.
Fall has arrived on Martha’s Vineyard. The cacophony of birdsong no longer greets the sun. No more broken eggshells fall from nests. No more harried mothers and fathers gather food to plop into gaping beaks. In past years, waves of swallows flew overhead like an advancing army in preparation for their southern migration. As dusk approached, they became a swirling mass of black wings, forked tails, and white breasts. They rehearsed for their great liftoff for the better part of the day, erupting like buckshot and blooming like fireworks. The next morning, they were gone.
In earlier years, I, too, left the Vineyard each fall, but my migration had little in common with the swallows. Their migration was about survival, their purpose in both their homes the same — mating, procreating, fledging. I chose to migrate to live differently for a time. On Martha’s Vineyard I reveled in beauty, rid myself of the dirt and tension of city living, submerged myself in cool ocean water, slept with windows open, and caught the first birdcall just before sunrise. The city was where I raised my family, cultivated lifelong friendships, nurtured my interests, made commitments.
This year, the pattern of the swallow’s migration has shifted, virtually no sign of them since mid-July, and so have my own routines, as my children are grown and I am done procreating. While the swallows seem less present, I have become more rooted here. But it is not so easy to determine what my new rhythm should be.
I know I should be happy that I am not a swallow, whose behaviors are predetermined by nature. Still, I envy their internal signal telling them where to go and when. Whatever faint signal I manage to access — not much more than the equivalent of a slightly raised eyebrow somewhere in my belly — is often warped and distorted by the time it reaches my brain, plagued as I am by what-ifs and second guesses.
I am infatuated with swallows, but I haven’t received a great deal of practical advice from them, except for one lesson I learned from a pair that lived on my porch. They came annually, built their nest, laid and incubated their eggs, caught insects for their hatchlings, and encouraged them to fly. Then, when the babies perfected their leaps into space, the parents left the nest too. In my early days of empty-nesting, I had no plans to leave my physical home, but I had to leave the daily acts of mothering behind. I’ve never known exactly what I wanted to do. I am like a jellyfish. I drift along with the winds and the tides until I bump into something that sounds interesting.
So, once again, I stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride on the currents, and drifted into a writing workshop. I wrote about the grief of losing my mother, my body in the midst of depression, the trauma of nursing two children with life-threatening illnesses, the slow loss of my father to Alzheimer’s. I published essays and two books. But I felt like a dilettante every time I told someone I was a writer. I had no MFA, was no longer young, and would never be able to put “Intern with big-name publisher” on my résumé. Could writing really be my new nest?
Three years ago, I left Martha’s Vineyard and turned north, moving to Ireland to spend the better part of the year in a new milieu in which to write. I needed a disruption; a place removed from old routines and obligations. At my unfamiliar desk in a rented apartment, I found myself thinking more about the neglected part of the migration process — the arrival. It is less spectacular than the liftoff, but filled with hidden labor, as the birds must hurry to declare their territory, to woo a mate, to prepare a home for the eggs they will lay and hatch.
I stocked my new home with cleaning and kitchen supplies, and set up my printer. I got used to the taste of the water. The dogs figured out their favorite places to settle. I mastered the quirkiness of the hot water heater, and decided not to figure out why irons are sold in the groceries section of Dunnes department store, while ironing boards are upstairs in housewares. I feathered and nested and wrote, not in a massive rush of words, but in the same way the swallows’ arrival in the spring begins with the sighting first of just a few birds.
After five months, the pandemic cut my experiment short. I returned to the Vineyard, this time with the kids, their partners, and their pets in tow. I dug out old feathers to reline our home, only to have to sweep them away once more when the house emptied of all those heartbeats and I was left alone to rediscover my words.
Just the other day, a handful of swallows dotted the sky, perhaps blown forward by the remnants of Hurricane Ian. I welcomed the sight. The swallows have altered their migration patterns this year, but they are still coming. I, too, will be making yet another alteration. After spending much of the summer with me, my 9-month-old grandson and his parents will be anchoring themselves back in Brooklyn. So that’s where I will be more often than in recent years, in a new apartment from which I will come and go, another nest to build, with words I am learning are the one constant that follows me from place to place.