An email to my aunt & things to do in Portland, Maine.

portland-harbor-0I get paid to write about Maine and just as importantly, to know things about Maine. I write shopping guides and restaurant roundups, bar reviews and weekend trip planners. I write for local newspapers and magazines and sometimes for national publications. As a result, out-of-towners often ask me what they should experience while in Maine. I dole out restaurant recommendations on the regular, and I love doing it.

But here’s the thing: When I’m writing for a magazine or a newspaper or even a website, I always tailor my voice and my opinions to their audience. This isn’t unusual. This is what all writers do—we write toward our audience. Plus, editors are then hired to go over my words and ideas and shift them, orient them towards their intended audience. Often, three or four different people read my writing, tweaking it all along the way. It’s a great system, and one works well. Editors are wonderful beings, and I really respect their work.

But still, sometimes the final piece, the piece that goes to print, isn’t so much about what Katy Kelleher likes as it is about what Magazine X likes.

That’s why I’ve decided to share something here. It’s an email I wrote this week for my aunt. She was coming to Portland, and she’d never seen the city. I wanted her to have the best possible experience, so I emailed her a list of my favorite places to eat, see art, shop, and just generally hang out. I couldn’t spend the whole day with her, but I could try to shape her experience a little. And unlike most of my writing, this wasn’t meant for public consumption. The intended audience was just my aunt—my feminist, funny, smart, art-loving family member. I wasn’t trying to impress her—but I hoped that Portland would.

So here is my unfiltered, unpolished, unedited list of Portland recommendations:

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Social media mysticism & let’s say a big welcome to spring, dirty though she may be.

Black tailed jack rabbitFour days late: Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

Did you know that the tradition of saying “rabbit rabbit” on the first of the month (or in the UK, “white rabbit” or even “bunny, bunny”) is a relatively new bit of folkloric superstition? This odd habit first appeared in the early 1900’s (FDR was a rabbit-rabbit devotee and reportedly uttered the silly phrase on the first of the month without fail). No one really knows where it came from or why the magic words vary from place to place. Most people think it has something to do with the tradition of carrying a dead rabbit’s foot on a keychain—another thing FDR was known to do. I suspect that the tradition is becoming even more widespread in the age of Facebook and Twitter, where everyone can digitally rabbit rabbit for good luck. Or just to show that you’re well versed in social media mysticism. (This is either the best kind of hoodoo or the very worst. I don’t really know.)

In America, rabbit-ing is a New England thing, and I rather like that. New Englanders always seem like such skeptical, cold folk. It’s nice to know that we’re also pulled toward the rabbit hole of nonsense (because if there is anything truly magical, that’s where it hides: in plain sight under piles of nonsense).

But I suppose I am thankful that it’s finally spring. The ground has turned to mud. Everything is coated in grime. Portland is a city of dirt and muck. Even the whitest of rabbits would turn hare-brown here. Wild, like a Dürer.

How writing is like catching fish & what Rilke said.

Illustration by Elisa Ancori

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. – Rainer Maria Rilke

I caught a fish with my hands once. It was swimming upstream to spawn in the thaw of spring, which in Maine means mid-May (we don’t have a pretty, dappled ascent into summer, just a mess of thawing ice and a long, painful mud-season that only plays at warmth). Every now and then, a trout would fly out of the river as it tried to make its way up the waterfall, a little flash of black and silver in the air, improbable as a proverb.

I was with a park ranger, and he told me to try and catch one. I waded out into the water across slippery stones. It was so, so cold against my bare feet and ankles. It took a few tries to catch a fish. I would see it coming, watch downstream as it approached, and plunge my hands into the water, groping blindly in the bubbles and blackness. I felt so many fish swim deftly between, around, over my hands. In the end, I crouched down with my numb hands motionless in the water, ready for the trout to come to me. Eventually, one did.

I held it over my head and my friend on the riverbank took a picture. I remember feeling so powerful, as though I had accomplished something far bigger than grabbing a dumb creature out of a river. Then I set the fish back into the water and let it continue its upstream swim, struggling against the current, driven by instinct and desire, rushing toward its chance to mate.

I’m writing this because I can’t write anything else right now. I am smothered by winter and anxiety. And when I read that Rilke quote, all I could think of was that fish. Experience is as slippery and elusive as a fish, evading all attempts to pin it down with language, though that is the job of the writer, isn’t it? To catch the fish. To say something real with the clumsy, numb tools we have.

Spring’s thaw can’t come soon enough.

Above quote by Rilke, image by Barcelona-based artist Elisa Ancori

In Norway they call it Friluftsliv; in Maine we call it everyday life.

Ken Douglas Norway 2My love for all things Scandinavian continues with the word friluftsliv. What is that unpronounceable string of syllables, you ask? It’s a Norwegian concept, and there is no direct translation in the English language for what it means (in case you want to drop it into conversation, it’s pronounced free-loofts-liv). But anyone who lives in Maine will recognize the feeling—it’s that sense of being connected to nature, of feeling part of the greater world, of being outdoors and breathing the air, knowing that with each breath you are taking the exhalation of trees and droplets of lake water and even the matter of mountains into your lungs. Ken Douglas NorwayOkay, I’m editorializing a bit. Friluftsliv means “free air life” or “open air living” and it is similar to the concept of allemannsretten, which literally means “all men’s right” but is often translated as “freedom to roam.” (Did you know you can camp on anyone’s land in Norway, so long as you’re a certain distance from buildings? Free roaming for all!) Coined relatively recently, in 1859 by poet Henrik Ibsen, friluftsliv is a way of living that brings us into close contact with the great outdoors. It’s about connecting with nature, living in harmony with the green things that grow around us. Like the Danish concept of Hygge, frilutsliv provides another barometer for happiness—an alternative way of approaching harsh winters. Don’t hibernate—celebrate!

Scandinavian culture is so fascinating, and the longer I live in Maine, the more I appreciate their cold-weather wisdom.

Read more about this untranslatable word at Mother Nature Network (there’s also a short documentary at the link, which is great for procrastinating/feeding your wanderlust).

Images by Ken Douglas.

Herbal cures for whatever ails you.

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Blogger and artist Catherine of Wolf Eyebrows took to Instagram this summer for a 30 days project in which she sketched medical ailments and their natural remedies. The results are just great—albeit a little bit gross. But I don’t find that off-putting. There is so much humor in each pretty little sketch!

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On a related note, I’m learning how to make herbal tinctures. I’ve dabbled in foraging—though who in Maine hasn’t gone out looking for fiddleheads? It’s practically a rite of spring—but herbal medicine is new to me. I love the idea that we can cure ourselves with leaves and petals and roots rather than pills and needles and plastic. Admittedly, that idea is particularly attractive at the moment, seeing as I don’t have health insurance, but there’s something deeply appealing to this highly independent, mildly prickly lady about being able to fix my damn own body without calling for help.

See the full project here.

This song by Lady Lamb the Beekeeper makes me so happy.

I fall in love with strangers all the time. Here’s a song by the inimitable Lady Lamb the Beekeeper about that—about people and connecting, and I think, also about missing someone and being overwhelmed by the world. And catching trains. And eating mountains, which is a dream of mine (actually, to be the best afterlife would be one where I became an indigo mountain somewhere lonely and wild).

I also keep finishing that one great sentence—”the kind of high I like is when…”—in my head over and over with different things.

The kind of high I like is when I stay up all night with someone and we’re exhausted in the morning and we still can’t stop talking even though we’re so tired that the world feels a little unreal and we look like hell and just don’t care.

The kind of high I like is when I see someone I was waiting for and they look at me and I get so nervous and I realize again that I really, really like them and I don’t care at all that they made me wait.

The kind of high I like is when I’m almost crying and something strange and funny makes me laugh and I keep laughing until it hurts.

The kind of high I like is when I hear a really great song and it gives me goosebumps on my arms and I play it over and over and soon I don’t get goosebumps anymore but instead I feel it nestle down into my bones and the sound that someone else made becomes mine and it feels so sweet.

I’ll join your apocalypse team.

My friend Graham and I have a game: we like to organize our survival “team,” i.e. who we would want on our side were the apocalypse to come.  With his farm-boy history and ability to slaughter animals, the boyfriend is always on the list, as are my brothers and sometimes other miscellaneous people we meet with relevant skills (martial arts, carpentry, etc).  This slightly morbid, obviously strange discussion occurs at least once a month, if not more, and usually draws in whoever happens to be sitting nearby.  We also periodically assign jobs.  My job is usually to find food.

Which isn’t actually why I bought this book.  Unlike some of our other, far more superstitious friends, neither of us believe that the apocalypse is actually coming — we just like to play a slightly more adult, Cormac McCarthy-inspired version of pretend.  I bought this book because when I was a kid, I was obsessed with finding edible plants.  I tried to eat a lot of things I found in the woods, and when I was too scared, I convinced my brothers to do it.  Usually this turned out fine, though once I lied to my younger sibling and told him the red berries I had gathered were completely safe, and very nutritious.  He ate several handfuls, only to throw them back up again a few hours later.  Good times.

But I’ve been learning.  We’re going camping in a couple of weeks, and I am looking forward to trying out my new-found skills.  I will try my best not to poison anyone.