Rockport Days

Finding my people

at Sandy Bay

September, 2022

On Labor Day Monday I sat on a plastic chair inside the cozy confines of Sandy Bay Yacht Club in Rockport for the annual sailing awards ceremony. This event was usually held out on the dock, but the weather was wet for the first time all summer and most of us were inside. The space is a small one, with a stone fireplace and a tall wood-beamed ceiling. The walls are covered with burgees--colorful pennants from other yacht clubs.

Normally being inside on a wet day would be a little depressing but not today. I looked around me and wondered why this ceremony seemed so special and different and it hit me--fifty or sixty people were crowded together, elbow to elbow in a single room. I realized how much I had missed occasions like this, and how good it felt to be physically present with others.

Tiny little Sandy Bay has been our beacon of normalcy during Covid. My husband and I often said-only half kidding--that if the rest of the world had handled Covid the way SBYC did, we would have all been better off. The club could have cancelled all sailing and racing for two years but they found ways to make things happen, thanks to the hard work and cool heads of many dedicated board members, volunteers and staffers. Socials and official get-togethers were cancelled but we all got out on the water. What a joy that was, when so much else in life had simply vanished.

And now we were back together. I looked around the room and thought about my 30-plus years there. I mused about how many people I knew there, how kind everyone was, how welcoming they were to all newcomers. But I was practically a rookie compared to others--my husband, at nearly 70, had known some of these people his entire life, and many other people in the room could say the same. I remembered how, just the day before, my sailing competitors and I had joked about our advanced ages. We laughed about the fact that we were practically spring chickens compared to other sailors, past and present, still out on the water in their 80s and 90s. We all agreed that we would just keep doing what we were doing, and hopefully end up like those legends.

I thought about the many connections among the people sitting in that room, and it made me recall a National Institutes of Health study I had run across recently confirming that social connection is literally crucial to life.

Titled "Social Relationships and Mortality Risk-a Meta-Analytic Review," the authors state their findings plainly: "The quality and quantity of individuals' social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality...the magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeds many other well-known risk factors for mortality...Individuals do not exist in isolation"

The authors go on to recommend that doctors and health professionals take the importance of social relationship factors as seriously as they do other risk factors such as diet and exercise.

Individuals do not exist in isolation, but we know this, don't we? We know this in our hearts, and always have. In "How to Navigate Life," her best-selling book about finding and creating purpose, Belle Liang Ph.D., (with her co-author Timothy Klein) frequently uses the phrase "your people," which she defines as "your kids, your parents, your significant others, your coworkers, your friends." She writes "In a world that is both more connected and more isolating than ever, we're often tempted to do life on our own. Finding your people is finding those who share deep core values."

"Your people"--your circle of social connection, the ties that make a full tapestry of life. Can we live without "our people"? We can, but we lose so much of what makes life the joyful, challenging, messy and ultimately rich affair that it's supposed to be. It's certainly possible to live a stripped-down life with limited social interaction, but it's a sterile choice. It's also one that incurs its own risk factors, as the authors of the mortality study cited above note.

The awards ceremony nearly over, I was reaching for my jacket when I heard my name and snapped to attention. Steve Ouellette, race committee chair and the ceremony moderator, was speaking about my writing and how I had documented my improvement as a sailor over time. He said how moving and humorous he and others had found it and then named me as this year's winner of the Race Committee Chairman's award for outstanding crew.

My mouth fell open and tears sprang to my eyes. I accepted the trophy and hugged it to my chest. My cup was truly running over now.

May you all find your own kind of Sandy Bay, and may you find--and embrace--your people.

Belle Liang is a professor of counseling and educational psychology at Boston College, a licensed clinical psychologist, and a dear friend. The authors of the Mortality Risk study cited are Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith and J. Bradley 

My Cape Ann soundtrack

"Noises Off" is a famous play and is also the story of my life when I am in my Rockport cottage. "Noises off" is a stage direction meaning sounds made offstage meant to be heard by the audience of a play. My cottage is not particularly quiet. I wouldn't want it to be. The 'noises off' are part of what make it special to me, and they meant to be heard through wide-open windows, screen doors, and car sunroofs. They are part of the soundtrack playing in the background of my summer.

Our cottage is within sight of the water, but we can't hear the waves from the house. However, the ocean is alive to us in other ways. When it is foggy we hear the mournful chant of the foghorn from Straitsmouth Island. When the wind is right we hear the clanging of the bell at Avery's Ledge, the south corner of the submerged outer breakwater and the gong buoy at the northwest corner. These sounds bring me right out into Sandy Bay, and I can picture the seals on the Dry Salvages and the giant sunfish, lazing at the water's surface, that we saw while we were sailing toward the end of the summer.

The water sounds that we don't hear from the cottage surround us elsewhere. There is the bumping and churning of rocks and sand on Old Garden Beach when the surf is high. There is the crack and thunder of waves against the breakwater at the end of Bearskin Neck, delighting tourists. And there is the almost musical sound the water makes during the downwind leg of our sailboat races, when the spinnaker is flying and the wind is pushing the boat from behind-a tinkling noise almost like a fountain as the boat cuts through the surf.

The wind is a constant auditory presence here, amplified by the large trees that surround our house. On weekend mornings when we are slated to race our little boat I wake up with a pit in my stomach when I hear the leaves roaring (too much wind!) or dead silence (not enough!). And speaking of morning sounds, the dawn chorus at our house is conducted almost solely by crows. I'm certain that crows have a sense of humor and think it's funny to perch directly outside our bedroom window and caw really loudly at 5:30 am for as long as it takes to make certain that we are completely awake. They leave after a while (Crows: "Okay, they're up. Our work here is done"), but we hear them calling and chattering around the neighborhood throughout the day.

The train whistle can be heard from our house, even though the train station is a good mile and a half away. Often we can hear the engine too, a low vibration that you feel in your chest. I love the deep throaty rumble and the smell of diesel when I am boarding the train to head into Salem or Boston. I am not a commuter and I ride the rails strictly for fun, so to me the train sounds and smells like adventure.

The sound of cars and human voices is a constant background presence here. We are located on the corner of a well-traveled road not far from downtown Rockport, so there is plenty of activity. Odd as it might sound to those who prefer complete privacy, I don't mind those noises. I like to hear the familiar voices of my neighbors talking and laughing. I like the rhythmic thump of a basketball as the boys down the street shoot hoops. I even like the scraping sound of skateboards, as young kids and people old enough to know better risk bodily damage grinding down the long hill in front of our house. All those noises tell me that there are other people-friends-close by, and I find that comforting.

Finally, I love the sound of gulls. The crows may be more raucous around my cottage, but the gulls are everywhere else. On Front Beach, in Rockport and Gloucester Harbors, along the Back Shore, following lobster and fishing boats-they are the lords of the air and they proclaim it loudly. I was struck by their boldness when I visited Thacher Island last summer; it felt like the dominion of the birds. Gulls were everywhere, and the look in their eyes told me that I was the intruder. Over this Labor Day weekend, as we drove down Main Street in Gloucester with the sunroof open, for block after block the sound of gulls calling was the loudest noise I could hear.

The crying of gulls, the foghorn chanting low and deep, the train whistle-these sounds go on but increasingly I am no longer there to hear them. Fewer people walk by the house. Doors and windows must be shut against the weather, and neighborhood voices can no longer be heard. But the Cape Ann soundtrack plays in my head and on the coldest winter days I can hear the bell buoy in my mind and feel warm sun and spray on my face.


This article originally appeared in Cape Ann Magazine

Biking the other side of Rockport

This is how lucky I am. I get to spend lots of time in Rockport (Mass, not Maine), thanks to my husband's grandfather, a man I never met but to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. He bought a little cottage there back in the 1920s. I married into it, and although it was NOT the reason I wed my husband (see my previous column about how we decided to get hitched in three weeks), it certainly has been a fantastic perk. This cottage, updated and made slightly bigger in recent years, is pretty much my favorite place in the world, and Rockport is my favorite town. Most tourists only see Bearskin Neck when they come to Rockport. That's a shame, because although the Neck is marvelous, Rockport has so much more to offer. Lately I have been exploring Rockport by bike, and making amazing discoveries, so let's go for a ride, shall we?

We start by heading down Old Garden Road. Old Garden borders the ocean, and there is a lovely little beach just down the street from our cottage. Sadly the beach was almost unusable all summer because the sand, which migrates in and out, was hit particularly hard by last winter's brutal storms and just didn't come back in. So right now the beach is nearly all rocks with just a little sand but this doesn't stop the divers, who come here by the dozens.

Up a little hill now and around a corner and we are on Atlantic Ave. We get our first glimpse of Rockport harbor, Bearskin Neck and Motif #1. The Motif is our Eiffel Tower, our Leaning Tower of Pisa, our Grumpy Cat. This little red fishing shack is said to be one of the most painted buildings in the world, hence its name. It was destroyed in the Blizzard of '78, but was rebuilt and lives on to be photographed, painted and selfied by artists and tourists alike.

Now we turn right on Main Street, and continue through the heart of Bearskin Neck. We won't go right down to the newly reconstructed breakwater at the moment, but turn left instead, passing the Shalin Liu Performance Center with its spectacular floor to ceiling windows overlooking Rockport harbor. We take a right and pass Front Beach, quiet at this time of year but with a few hardy souls enjoying the early fall sunshine. A little further on we whiz by Back Beach, a long sweep of rocks with just a little sand at the far end and a spectacular view of both Bearskin Neck and the open ocean surrounding it. This is also a favorite spot for divers and is where the giant tower of wooden pallets is set up every year for the 4th of July bonfire.

We are on Route 127 now, passing Granite Pier on our right and taking a left up a quiet hilly street, through a gate and into the woods. We have left the ocean behind and are riding on wooded trails, sometimes smooth dirt, more often loose gravel and rocky outcroppings. It helps to have a bike with wide and knobby tires and that's what we've got. Suddenly you see it-Big Parker's Pit, the first quarry on our ride. It's a huge expanse of water, closely ringed by trees and surrounded by towering granite walls at the far end. In summer the voices of swimmers and the sounds of splashing float across the water. Colorful towels are laid out on the flat rocks.

The trail borders the quarry's edge, far enough away to be safe but close enough to be exhilarating. We pass another quarry, even bigger than first. A spooky, long-abandoned granite building stands guard among the trees, an enormous relic of Rockport's quarrying past. On either side of the trail the woods are littered with giant chunks of granite and huge dips in the ground where rock was dug out.

Out of the woods now we find ourselves on quiet Pigeon Hill Street, home of Rockport's famous Paper House. This is an actual house made of rolled up and shellacked newspapers, begun in 1922 by Elis Stenman, a mechanical engineer. It's a little underwhelming when you actually get inside of it, but how many other towns can boast a house made of paper that has been featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not?

We could go much further, but today we will turn around here. It's into the woods again, headed back around the other side of the quarry. We have to be careful-it's a steep downhill with big granite outcroppings and loose rock everywhere. We are rewarded further on with smooth dirt trails and deep green overhanging trees. Now it's back to pavement. We whiz down Beach Street, through town again, and home. Are your legs tired? Maybe a little, but it's so worth it, to see the other side of Rockport.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Biking the OTHER OTHER side of Rockport

Well, it's summer in New England again (that three weeks we enjoy between monsoon rains and crippling blizzards), and I'm lucky enough to be hanging out in Rockport once more. And you know what that means, right? BIKE RIDE! We're leaving politics, responsibility and any errands that require going to the DMV behind today. Let's go!

This time we will head in a different direction, away from the quarries where we went last time and toward the beaches. It's a gorgeous sunny day and we only get, like, six of those per summer, so let's get moving before the clouds come.We head up Marmion Way and turn left onto Rt. 127, also known as South Street, the main road that runs through Rockport center. We are heading away from the downtown today, whizzing toward Gloucester. In about a half mile we turn left onto Eden Road and follow it along the water because it offers a superb view of some of Rockport's most famous icons, the Twin Lights and Thacher Island. If you've never been out to Thacher, you should do it. The island is just a touch creepy, with all the seagulls glaring at you-it's their dominion, and they know it-but that just makes it more fascinating and beautiful. You can also climb a narrow spiral stairway to the top of one of the lighthouses and get the most amazing view of Rockport.

We leave Eden Road and coast onto the sandy stretch along Pebble Beach. I'm afraid Pebble Beach is not in the best of shape at the moment; most of it is covered with tons of red seaweed. However the ocean gives and the ocean takes away, so this may all be gone shortly. Now we bank back onto Rt. 127. It's cool and shady here and we continue until we reach the super secret parking lot down Seaview Street which backs up to Cape Hedge and Long Beaches (resident parking only, sorry...).

The big parking lot is rocky but still navigable on a bike, and we head toward the end and push the bikes over the metal footbridge that brings us onto beautiful Long Beach. Now the tricky part-pushing the bikes along a narrow catwalk onto the road behind the Long Beach cottages. It's particularly challenging at high tide, as the water laps at your feet and the bike tires.

That's done, and we cruise down the road, admiring the charming beach cottages. Now a little shortcut between the houses and we're back onto Long Beach itself, with a gorgeous view of the ocean. We have to drag the bikes through the sand here, but just for a few feet. Up a hill and onto Salt Island Road, with an incredible view of Salt Island and the beautiful houses that overlook it. We've got a hill to climb, but it's worth it-you get a magnificent view of Good Harbor Beach and can see the steeple of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Gloucester.

Now we say a (sad) goodbye to the beaches and head up Witham Street where it reconnects with our old friend Rt. 127 again. We come out opposite the Common Crow, an amazing natural food grocery store. This is the perfect place to cross the road, park the bikes and grab a nice iced coffee. I usually sit there until I finish my drink or am overwhelmed with a belated but irresistible urge to vote for Bernie Sanders, whichever comes first. Now it's back on Rt. 127 for less than a quarter mile, and then we swing a right into the woods. Hang on, it's downhill and pretty rocky, but this trail is a blast. Pretty soon we come to beautiful Cape Pond, and it feels like we are in New Hampshire or Maine-you can't see anything but trees and water and sky.

We'd like to stay and admire the view but the deer flies motivate us to keep moving. We walk the bikes up a steep hill as we leave the water's edge, and just keep going through beautiful pine woods, up and down more hills, just flying along like the birds around us. Too soon we pass peaceful Beech Grove Cemetery and hit pavement again on Pleasant Street, and here we are one more time-Rt. 127. Cross over, onto Norwood Ave, up a hill, around the corner and then onto Old Garden Road, with a magnificent view of the blue ocean and the Rockport coast.

Phew-we're done. Flop down on the cool grass and take a well-deserved break. You've seen some places that most visitors don't get to see-you've seen the other OTHER side of Rockport, and this time some of Gloucester too. Come by anytime. I'm always up for a ride.

Published by the Daily News of Newburyport, June 2017

Small things are not
forgotten in Rockport

I like to joke with my husband that I married him for his cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts. He knows that I'm kidding because we got engaged three weeks after meeting each other and I hadn't even seen the cottage at that point. Still, I can't deny that my ears pricked up and my heart beat faster when I learned that he grew up spending every summer at his family's home in Rockport.

The house was a simple summer cottage for most of its history. David's grandfather bought it in the 1930s and we inherited it in 2001. Later we renovated the property to winterize it and add some needed extra space. We were careful to keep the cottage dimensions modest, and not to block our neighbor's view. The result was a place where our family could be comfortable but still cozy.

Much of the furniture and even the kitchen accessories date back to David's parents and grandparents. A little red antique desk, the braided rugs and the yellow ware bowls are all part of the eclectic mix that gives the cottage its charm. Though there are heart-stopping views around every corner in Rockport, many of my favorite things about the cottage and the town itself are small, personal things; for instance...

The mint in my front garden. It grows rampantly around the little stone pool that my husband built as a boy. I often cut a big handful and put in a tall glass on the edge of my sink. When I wash a dish or run the faucet I pinch off a leaf between my fingers and lean over to breath in the cold fresh scent.

A sign from the past. The blue and white sign says Straitsmouth Inn and beneath it The Golden Oar. It hangs in our narrow stairway and speaks to me of another era. According to the website Vintage Rockport, by Robert Ambrogi, the Straitsmouth Inn stood on nearby Gap Head from 1906 until it burned to the ground on New Year's Eve in 1958. We found the sign at a flea market in Somerville about ten years ago. Karma was obviously at work that day, leading the sign back to Rockport where it belongs.

Lattof Farm Anadama bread I start many mornings with a slice of Anadama bread from nearby Lattof Farmstand, where everyone goes for the best produce. The bread is light brown, a little sweet and redolent of corn meal and molasses. The loaves come out about 11:30 am, still warm, and are usually sold by noontime, but customers can reserve one if they pre-pay. I like mine toasted with butter and raspberry jam.

My (small) view. The water view from my cottage is a minimal one, hampered by trees, but it still makes me happy. I wake up every morning and look for the edge of the long breakwater in Sandy Bay, the wedge of blue ocean around it, and if I'm lucky, a glimpse of a lobster boat making its rounds.

Ghost writing. In the right light I can read the word "lemonade" engraved in the veneer of our old dining table, a remnant of when my kids made signs for their lemonade stand. Luckily I didn't think to protect the table, and now I have a permanent reminder of those wonderful long-ago days.

My shutter cupboard doors. These tall narrow shutters, with a cutout silhouette of a sailboat, used to hang on the cottage windows many years ago. When we renovated the house, I pulled them out of the basement and painted them a warm dusty red. Now they are the doors to my small pantry cupboard. I love the happy clicking sound the little drop latch makes when I open or close it.

The gift of ladyslippers. "Don't pick the ladyslipper! It's illegal!" That's what we would say to each other as kids if we came upon a lady slipper in the woods. Riding my bike last spring around one of Rockport's many quarries, I was stunned to find a patch of about 50 of them. If I hadn't looked down at that exact moment I wouldn't have seen this quiet gift of so many pale pink jewels.

Our lives are full of uncountable small things and little moments that can delight us if only we see them, smell them, taste them before they go. My small things are in Rockport. Yours are somewhere else. Small is big.

Keep looking -up, down, around or within- so you don't miss them.

This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun in July 2020.