It seems that whenever I get my heart broken, I think about my dad. And then I don’t think about my dad. And then January happens. And then this.
There’s a back cover, too!
M. J. Flood is the author of Where Are You?: Finding Myself in My Greatest Loss and directed the film Too Much Noise.
Thanks to both of these talented writers for blurbing my forthcoming poetry collection.
Available 12/31/21 … link to purchase is on the way
Launch by day 1/16/22 … https://www.facebook.com/events/428080612379704
Launch after dark TBA …
I almost went camping.
I’ll let that settle in for a moment. I know, I know. It’s true. It’s an almost.
Over the past almost two years, I’ve been sharing all my outdoorsy adventures. Through various woods. On several beaches. Up into the mountains. Swarmed by insects. Delighted by skies. Scared of noises in the brush. I’ve stumbled through nature, learning to walk tall.
In early October, I went hiking. I didn’t share it. I kept it private because I’d met a man. He was hiking with me that day, and it felt special. We went to a park where he’d never been, and I actually took the lead, finding my way around for some of it. Most of it was wandering for me, though, as it always is. He clearly could find his way, said he loved being outside, and said he liked camping. He asked if I would be interested in going camping with him.
Y’all know my usual response would be a resounding Nope followed by much laughter at the thought. I surprised myself in that moment because I didn’t even answer immediately. I’d paused. There was not a no. There was a me saying I’d be willing to try it. He got excited, explaining the best times we’d be able to go before the weather turned. I explained that his excitement could dampen when he realized I would not be helpful in any way, and basically, he’d have to keep me alive. He said he didn’t care and that the most difficult part would be figuring out what I could eat (canned meat was not an option, clearly). Our hike lasted several hours that day, and after that day, we went on to enjoy more than outdoorsy things together.
We never went camping. We’d talked about it. We’d talked about a lot of future fun. There was so much to do and share with each other. None of that happened either. Sometimes things fall apart.
Here’s why I’m grateful. First, the brief recap: my grandmother died, my dad died, my husband disappeared, I started to crawl out of the pit of grief and depression, started kind of dating again, and then pandemic hit. During pandemic, the guy I was seeing on and off cut things off, and I fell back into the pit, realizing I’d never grieved my dad because I’d been grieving my other loss. I started to crawl out of the pit, but with no vaccine yet and my desire to live and not kill those compromised around me, rebounding and dating was not an option. So I worked. I delighted in friendships. I wrote. I meditated. I hiked. I walked. I practiced yoga. I worked out. I went to museums. I danced from room to room in my house. I did all the things I do that create my happiness. I got vaxxed. Then this past summer, I felt it. With the fear that this little body would not be able to take another loss, I still felt the desire to find a man who could share a life.
Manifestation is powerful. The men showed up in my life in strange and sundry ways. None of them were right for me, and that was fine. I didn’t expect to find someone right away.
And then I did. I found a man who was everything I’d been looking for.
And then it didn’t work out.
So again, why I’m grateful. Here’s another loss, and here I am, still standing. This little body is whole. This little body thrives. And when I say this little body, I mean all that is me (setting aside the Buddhist-self-doesn’t-exist-body-isn’t-me-philosophy for now). Resilience is exhausting. Being strong is exhausting. Still, I’m grateful I get to be exhausted because that means I’m living a life.
I haven’t written much about my personal life since I got divorced. That experience changed how I see public versus private content. Sharing publicly all the highs and hiding all the very lows seemed dishonest. I wasn’t into airing the lows of my marriage because I didn’t realize they were lows at the time, and now I can’t see the point in sharing half a story moving forwards. However, I can share what I learn and what I know.
Because I’ve decided that I’m not moving from my house any time soon (I bought air conditioners, y’all—it’s an investment), I’ve been tidying up and clearing out trinkets. I found a box in my living room that felt empty, but when I looked inside, I startled. I didn’t remember I’d saved it. I found the parking receipt for the park from the hike where we’d talked about camping. When I found it, I remembered the moment clearly—I’d taken it from my hiking bag and went to throw it out. Then I’d stopped myself, feeling that feeling of this could be something, and put it in a new box. It was a memory of new beginnings, something I’d thought was going to be more than simply a passing by but a long term reality.
The reality is that it was a passing by after all. My heart is catching up to what my head already knows, and it’s difficult; getting through it is. Getting through it is also exhilarating.
This week, I went on a hike. The leaves are at peak autumn colors. I climbed up steep slopes, got caught up in thorny brush, kept to the trails, and found my way. Yes, that’s a metaphor, too.
Last week, my panel about creators getting through grief with gratitude came to be a realization. The next day, I talked on a panel about being in the creative field. It felt right, like I’d found the crossroads of all I’m meant to do. I don’t know if I’ll keep writing here. Because it’s not a revelation that I go outside anymore, the outdoorsy series pretty much ends here. Maybe if there’s a trip in the future to share or a really fun exhibit, I’ll come on back. To write about heartache is difficult, and as I said before, that line between public and private remains tricky for me.
Also, I’m a writer. This is who I am. Now more than ever I realize why I write. I write to connect, to let people know they are not alone, to share suffering along with joy. And I thank you always for listening.
And I’ve said this before many times, and I’ll keep saying it–to all y’all who help hold me up when I need it most and also celebrate all the wins in kind, you have my heart.
I told people I’m going to stay at a cottage at Heckscher State Park, and several people responded with, Oh, camping! To which I responded, Do you know me at all? It’s a cottage. Not even a cabin. Cabin implies more woodsy. It’s a cottage—a one-bedroom, one-indoor-bathroom, living-room-kitchen-area with a screened -porch, an outdoor deck, a firepit, and a 30-second path to the beach on Nicholl Bay. This is also known as Heaven on Long Island.
Because I received the DEC grant through the Huntington Arts Council, I marked this weeklong stay as the time to get my writing done. It was also a time to not be on any social media, not talk to anyone, read a whole lot, and not think about any responsibilities (except for daily necessities like washing dishes, and now I am more grateful for my dishwasher).
If you’d like to hear the writing I got done, then come to my panel in November. Here are snippets of my cottage life.
Day 1: Getting there—
The morning before heading out, I bought almost all my groceries for a week during which I was nicely scolded at the grocery store because I’d let an elderly lady who had been waiting on the adjacent line to go ahead of me. The cashier pointed out the arrows on the floor and explained how they like to keep it that way. I understand avoiding chaos, but also, no one was behind either one of us, and when I told the woman to go ahead of me, the scolding cashier was not yet done with the person checking out. I explained none of this and simply said, Okay I gotcha. Then I was feeling dumb because I had so many bags, and how could one person have so many bags, and attachment and possession are so un-Zen-like and this is why the world is a hard place.
Clearly, I needed this retreat.
After realizing that bags are necessary to carry linens and food, I got excited and off I went! I got to the park and couldn’t find where to check in, and my phone service kept cutting out. So back to being anxious, thinking I’d have to spend the week in the parking lot in my car with my too-many bags. I remembered a sign for camping and cottages I would see walking, so I went that way. I found the check-in office. The guy had heard my message and called me back but the phone service hadn’t allowed for me to get the call. He said it wasn’t my phone—the service was wonky that day around the park. Once again, excited to be there.
Finally, I got to my cottage by the sea. Very English-Moorish with wild flowers and wild plants. I unpacked and walked to the path that would take me to the beach. I stopped short and literally gasped. That first view of the water from the path, whoa.
I then went food shopping for a few extra things and returned for some more beach walking in the evening. I was the only one on the beach. Then I went inside and started to read a book as the skies grew dark. I’ll repeat, this is heaven.
Rain stormed in overnight and the morning still had a drizzle mist. I figured I would walk the path I knew so that in case rain stormed in again, I’d know how to get back. Then I got really excited on my walk, so I explored the loop path I don’t really take to the interior of the park. It’s all connected and very difficult to get lost. Even I did not get lost.
Everything soaked through because I’d been out for so long. My sock were gross. Then I couldn’t figure out the shower. I also can’t really explain it. It’s a standing shower and there are drains and there’s water that comes out of the shower onto the bathroom floor whenever I showered but not a lot of it, and I wound up showering kind of in a corner all week, but I was okay with that because it was a comfy shower with plenty of hot water. (Here I will remind y’all that I recently became a full professor). The rest of the day was misty, which wasn’t an issue since the rest of my activities were indoors—I wrote poetry and submitted poetry. Then I read some more. Beach walk at night—all by myself. I could get used to this.
Rain had stormed again, and it was still going in the morning. I wrote and edited some creative nonfiction pieces. By the time I finished that, the sun came out. Sun’s out, guns out! A bit over-zealous, forgetting that clouds went away at peak sun time and it was not the usual morning walk, I went on a mission to find the boat launch, which I could never find when walking. This mission took me onto streets and through camping (there’s actual camping in tents at the park, which I did not do because the park has indoor cottages). I found the boat launch which also has a kayak launch. Some guy was funnily cursing as he got into a kayak. Then, after what seemed to be a long production in doing so, asked, Hey how do I know when to come back? The kayak guy was like, Don’t worry if it’s a few minutes late. The other guy was like, I don’t think I’ll be late because I’m already fucking tired! Heh heh. I did see him start to paddle out, and he had a friend paddling behind him, so I think he made it out at least past the No Wake zone.
When I got back to the cottage, I downed several bottles of water. I was soaked, this time with sweat, which should not be a surprise to anyone. I also had bug bites from walking on grass. Actually, I didn’t walk. I kind of galloped across, like a high-knee combine drill, to avoid any chance of ticks. The park has signs posted about ticks maybe every twenty feet. The grass I walked across was low, but other bugs presented themselves and bit me up. Basically, I was a sweaty, itchy, fulfilled mess. I showered in the corner, wrote and edited, and then took a walk to the beach in the evening. Then my flip flops broke on the way back. I didn’t really use flip flops on the beach, so it wasn’t too much of an issue to chuck them.
Day 4: A Mini Sibling Adventure!
My brother visited, arriving on his bike at my cottage right after I’d gotten back from a park walk. I showed him the path to the beach, and he stopped short as soon as he saw the water. I know! Then he went to ride for ten miles while I did some writing. The most challenging part of his visit was figuring out which parking field was where. Even looking at a park map did not help. However, by luck or something like it, when I pulled my car around to where I thought he’d be, he appeared in a lot, waving to me. We did it! Sibling magic. We went to the beach, which we have never done together ever. We witnessed a life guard watch two people out in the water on jet skis. My brother kept wondering what he was watching for, and I guessed that it would be to see if they needed help since they were out there floating and not jetting or skiing. When the lifeguard was satisfied that no one was going to drown, he passed by us and asked if we were planning a vacation because he overheard talk of Harry Potter. He, too, is a Harry Potter fan. He said he’s 28 but loves it. I was like, Harry Potter is for everyone, and all adults are big children anyway.
Side note: If you’re going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, please take me with you.
The rest of the day, I edited, wrote, read, and then walked the beach. At one point in the evening, I didn’t want to go back from the beach. It was well after 7 and with sunset at 8 something, I knew I’d had to go back because there were no lights. And also, night animals. I’d seen so many bunnies and chipmunks and birds during the day, and they’re all okay, but at night? I didn’t want to know.
I left the park to visit another park. Technically, it’s an arboretum. Bayard Cutting Arboretum is five minutes away, but also ten minutes away when you cannot find the entrance. I found the entrance and then got lost in a very manicured garden. I also got caught by the massive sprinkler, which felt good because the sun was beating pretty hot. I kept running into a woman who clearly was out for a relaxing walk alone, so I slowed down my pace and eventually lost her. And got lost again. You’d think in a place where you walk along the edge of the water you can’t get lost. Think again, friends. This is me.
When I got back to the cottage, I wrote and edited for several hours. Then I was like, I need to move, so I took an afternoon stroll to the beach. This is when I learned how strong the skin on the bottom of my feet is because without my flip flops in midafternoon, the brick path scorched and the sand charred. I burrowed my feet into the wetter sand nearer to the water for my walk and then hobbled back, doing that same high-knee tire run I’d completed across the grass the day before. Later that evening, after more reading and writing, the path and sand were cool. That’s how sun works.
I left the park to visit another park. Connectquot is hard to spell and about fifteen minutes away. Quick! Guess what I’m going to say next!
If you guessed I couldn’t find the entrance, you are correct!
The entrance has a big-ass sign right off of Sunrise, yet I somehow made my way to the street next to the park and drove quite a bit, wondering if I could loop around and get in. I can never loop around, so I don’t know why I thought it would work this time. After finding the entrance, I found my way into the park. Then I couldn’t find where the paths started. I wandered down to the river where all the geese were. Then I meandered over to some buildings. Then I saw a white blaze across a tree and knew I would be on the Greenbelt! Not to be confused with the Green Trail, marked in green. Got it? Greenbelt White Green Trail Green. At some points they cross. At one point, I was on the Yellow Trail and the Greenbelt.
This is the first time I’ve ever gone into the woods alone. I went on Saturday because I knew there would be other people there. I went super early because it was another searing day. It’s my kind of hiking because a lot of the beginning runs right next to a road and at a certain point there’s no way to go except straight ahead. Also, when I pulled over to the side for some shade on a bridle path, I took a quick screenshot of the map of the park so I’d have it if my cell service went out.
I wound up on the Green Trail by accident. I knew it would cross the Greenbelt again, so I kept following the green arrows. When a bunch of horses came around a corner, I pulled over to the side again and checked the map. The horse leader called out, Are you contacting Sputnik? I answered that I was just checking to see where I was. He asked where I was headed.
I had no idea. There was no actual destination. So I said, The green trail?
He was like, I don’t know about the colors.
Neither do I, sir. Neither. Do. I.
He followed up with, If you get turned around, the visitor center is back down this path. Make a left and a right and you’re there.
I thanked him. I don’t know left or right, but it was still helpful.
I got to a bridge. I looked at the map. I knew where I was. I did a victory dance and sang out, I got to the briii—iidge, I got to the briii—iidge. Getting to the bridge meant nothing. If you’ll recall, I had no destination. However, this felt like a defining moment. I’d accomplished something, like knowing where I was on the map. I then followed the Greenbelt. The path narrowed. I knew where I was and that I could take the path to the edge of the park.
And then there was a cat. A black cat laid flat out across the path. I looked around. No one else was around. I’m aware that a cat is not a wild animal—usually—which made it even scarier because why was this cat there? I asked it out loud, Why are you here, cat? This cat was going to be the downfall of my hike? I moved forward a little, and it looked at me. I moved back a little, and it ran away, under some brush. I called out, No low brush no high grass, cat! Because that’s how you get ticks.
Also, ticks cannot jump or fly, so you get them by standing where they are and having them crawl on you. This is what high socks are for. Despite the hot temps, I’d put on long pants and high socks. The pants also acted as a signal that I am a person in the woods, not an animal to be hunted, and also a way to find me if for some reason I wound up in a place where knowing my left from my right may be helpful and not being able to figure it out.
I kept going, passing the cat, through the woods. I hiked the fuck out of that trail! Then I finished my first water. I had another frozen water, which had been melting down on the outside pocket of my backpack. I was pretty sure it was making my back and booty wet, but that didn’t matter because the swass had been thriving since I’d passed the fishery near the end of the Yellow Trail. I took a moment to eat a snack. I looked at the time and how far I’d walked. I figured if I went to the end of the park, I’d have to use my pee spout—have spout will hike—and if I did that, there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to get my sweaty pants back up, and I’d have to hike the rest of the way back sans bottoms, which is not good for avoiding ticks (though I’d still have the high socks, so maybe it would’ve been okay.
On my way back, two runners came barreling through. One was in a sports bra and shorts. The other was in shorts and a tee. They had nothing with them. There I was with my large backpack of pee spouts and food, and there they were, trail running almost naked. Nature is a strange place.
I did a happy dance when I made it back to the fishery. There’d been a few turns where I was like, Did I go this way or that way? However, I kept looking for the blazes and the arrows, and they guided me. Also, the happy dance was for the bathroom at the fishery. I’d made a really good decision to go back when I did because I really needed to pee and I did have a hard time getting my sweaty pants back up. All my clothes were simply wet pieces of cloth by that point. No shape. No form. Just swaddling for a hiker on a hot day.
Not long after that, I found the parking lot and stretched. Then I found a CVS where I got a bottle of orange-mango Body Armor for hydration and a Key Lime Kit Kat for a reward. I also bought a pair of flip flops for $2.99. Victory after victory.
After peeling myself out of the used-to-be-clothing, I took a corner-shower and sat with my writing. When I was done with that, I organized some of my digital music library. (iTunes, my phone, and my laptop are all different, and I’m trying to make them the same). Later on, beach walk. Later on, Netflix and Hulu because I’d finished all the books I’d brought to read.
Day 7: Enjoying Every Bit One More Time
A bit of rain came down in the morning, so I started with writing. Then the sun came out. I went hiking around Heckscher, once again forgetting it was later with stronger sun, but my sunscreen works really well, so while it was hot, I didn’t burn. I went to the beach and then more writing editing writing editing. Then to the beach. Then I did some packing.
Checkout was at 10 AM. There was a huge storm the night before that woke me up because it was so loud. The morning was so calm. I finished packing. I took a walk on the beach. The water was barely lapping. It was everything. I got back inside and saw a sizeable cricket right near the doorway. I yelled at it. It started to skitter. I crushed it with my new flipflop. I had a split-second thought to scurry it outside, but its movement was not towards the door. I’d been very nice to nature the whole week, and this bug was not where it was supposed to be. I’m very happy this happened on the last day because now I can never go back there.
Upon handing over my keys, the park guy told me that next year, they are renting for only weeklong stays instead of shorter ones. I was like, that works for me because I was here for a week. He asked me how I found it. I told him, It was a fantastic week.
Life at the cottage involved sweeping every morning. I finished reading three books and put a small dent in my Netflix queue instead of adding to my list, getting overwhelmed, and shutting it off to watch reruns of Guys Grocery Games—there’s no TV and no radio. Everything I watched and listened to was completely purposeful instead of mindless. I used the wifi mostly for writing and to access workout videos every morning. I wasn’t on Facebook or Instagram all week and it made a huge difference in time and energy. To pretend I know no one and have no responsibility to anyone or anything, every day reminding me that everything I do is actually a choice, was exactly what I needed to find some peace and calm again.
I had the thought, I could live here. I’d have to install a dishwasher and maybe figure out the shower so I wouldn’t have to shower in a corner, but otherwise, it got me thinking. Then again, I just had that light switch fixed and bought new air conditioners and had them professionally installed, so I’m pretty invested in my house for the next hundred years. If I moved to the beach, I’d be worried about hurricanes every day. An occasional visit and a round of pretending seems to be enough.