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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Two nice things: a poem by Colleen McElroy and the fantastical photography of Cig Harvey.

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Sometimes the Way It Rains Reminds Me of You
Colleen J. McElroy

these days I speak of myself in the past tense
writing about yesterday knowing tomorrow
is no more than mist crawling toward violet mountains
I think of days when this weather meant you
were not so far away   the light changing
so fast I believe I can see you turning a corner
the rain comes in smelling of pine and moss
a kind of brazen intrusion on the careful seeds of spring
I pay more attention to details these days
saving the most trivial until I sort them for trash
or recycle   a luxury I’ve come to know only recently
you have never been too far from my thoughts
despite the newborn birds and their erratic songs
the way they tilt their heads as if dowsing for the sun
the way they repeat their singular songs
over and over as if wishing for a different outcome

Read that poem aloud. It is so beautiful—both in the lyrical language and the subject matter (I would like my life to smell like rain and pine and moss, please and thank you). Then, go look at these stunning images by Maine photographer Cig Harvey. Although we live in the same state, and have contributed to the same publications, I’ve never worked with Harvey. So far, I’ve just admired her work from a distance. Her photographs are rich with surreal, subtle magic. I dig it.

Great words in graphics and what I learned from kid writers.

Minimalist word poster by Mick WatsonI say this all the time, but teaching writing is one of the shiniest, happiest parts of my life. I work with the wonderful people at The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center located in downtown Portland, Maine. I haven’t been teaching for too long, but I’m learning quickly how difficult it can be—but also how rewarding.

One of my favorite things about teaching writing is seeing how kids use language. They go crazy with it! They can be free and funny and break all the rules. It’s like how Picasso said it took him four years to paint like an old master, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child—there’s something to be said about un-learning things, throwing education out the window, and thinking like a child.

But while my students may have a leg-up when it comes to sheer inventiveness, here’s one thing I have on them: Vocabulary. Kids simply haven’t learned all the beautiful, specific, melodious words that English can provide. Which is where these super cool minimalist posters come in. To address the vocabulary question, a graphic designer from Edinburgh named Mick Watson created a series of posters that depict complex words in simple graphics. “I was thinking about my 9-year-old daughter’s expanding vocabulary and wondered that if I made some posters with a visual hook and put them up around the house whether she’d pick them up,” Watson told Slate writer Kristin Hohenadel. “She was being a contrarian at the time so I started there!”

Watson’s list includes some of my favorite words, like petrichor and deasil. And I admit, I learned a few new words looking at his designs! See more of Watson’s Word of the Day project online here.

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

Sunday daydreaming: Kilian Schöenberger’s misty woods & “Indie Alaska.”

Image by Kilian Schoenberger, via his website
Image by Kilian Schoenberger, via his website

It’s snowing again. Es schneit. Il neige. Det snöar. I don’t believe it will ever stop snowing. It is going to simply pile up and up and up until we can walk out our bedroom window onto a shifting landscape of cold pale light. I’m drowning in snow. My eyes are starving for color, but instead it’s wind-whipped and white everywhere I look. My eyelids froze shut when I was walking outside yesterday, eyelashes glued together by snowflakes and tears. It sounds poetic, but it felt strange and disorienting.

There’s no color in the Maine landscape right now, which means I must find it elsewhere, and right now, “elsewhere” is a screen. But Kilian Schöenberger’s photographs are gorgeous and make me view the winter landscape with a little more forgiveness. It can be beautiful, despite my cabin fever. kilian schoenberger trees

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When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain.

Three Peaks by Cathy McMurray

Idiom:ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ
Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.”
What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Когда рак на горе свистнет).” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”

The folks at the TED Talks blog went around asking translators what their favorite idioms were from other cultures. The results are awesome. It’s also interesting to see how many of them use animal imagery. The idioms from Japan are almost all about cats. (For instance, “cat’s forehead” is a very small space, often used to describe one’s property in self-deprecating terms. I might start using this one.) Many of them are about wolves, because, I suppose, wolves were a real issue in medieval Europe (or so picture books would have me believe). I love the Russian ones the best, I think, and the Slavic ones. I could see “when a lobster whistles on top of a mountain” catching on pretty easily in Maine, seeing as we have a lot of lobsters and some pretty gorgeous mountains.

Speaking of mountains, the picture above is actually of the other coast by Portland-based (again, other Portland) artist Cathy McMurray. I am completely in love with her style—the big blocks of color mixed with intricate, repetitive detail—and I actually own a few of her prints. Go check her out here.

Eat radical: Inside Vinland, the only 100-percent local restaurant in the world (located here in Maine!)

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In Portland, farm-to-table restaurants with eat-local missions are more common than a pair of Bean Boots. So perhaps it was inevitable that our neighbors to the north would push the concept even further. Chef David Levi’s passion project, Vinland, which turns one this month, features 100 percent locally sourced ingredients—which means that citrus, black pepper, and olive oil are all banned. With the exception of wine and coffee, everything used at Vinland comes from Maine.

I had a wonderful time hanging out with chef David Levi for this article, which was just published in the January issue of Boston Magazine. I really love writing about food—almost as much as I love eating it. That turnip soup? It’s fantastic. Tangy, rich, comforting, fresh, so good (no wonder it’s Levi’s signature dish). Read the full piece here. 

Photographs by the amazing Greta Rybus