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Elan Vitae


  • Shena


Plumb and Level on Cat Island, Bahamas

Snow flurries filled the air on the last day of October, the view of the surrounding hills beyond the valley unobstructed with the leaves already having fallen to the forest floor. This was our first day in our home. The Starling Hotel. That’s the first name we gave our old farm house when, as our second winter turned to spring, the starlings returned from their long journey south right back to these very same eaves. With some help from the elements through decades of changing seasons, this structure has taken on a life of its own, bending and twisting and settling into where it is now, where we now know it to be. In our years here, we’ve begun to know the life of this house. Knowing which floor board to avoid so as not to wake the children sleeping in the next rooms has become instinctive. Anticipating how much force to apply when pulling the door closed, or open, while knowing the sound that accompanies the one who enters, is as sure as seeing a loved one’s face or hearing a familiar voice. Knowing where to duck in the cellar to avoid striking the floor joist above, is intuitive. Knowing the icy silence of winter, or when the pre-dawn bird song will return, or exactly where to slow down as I approach my second-to-last turn, roll the window down, and receive the thunderous symphony of peepers as they emerge from their winter slumber, is simply expected. Anticipating a chill when I step out the door, many days and most nights of the year, is a given. Home has become a visceral knowing, not so much of a place, but of my sense of space in it.

When we first visited what would become our home, it was as if all we could see was the potential, the energy of the land and the space the house has accumulated for well over a century. It was as if blinders were gifted to us that masked the reality of the decades of work that would follow. The best tasting well water, the hardwood floors and the 30-acre buffer of solitude all sold me. Nothing else mattered. As adventure seekers feeling called to plant some roots, in retrospect, taking on a new adventure in this old farm house was the unbeknownst perfect, needed segue. We soon found the snow blowing through the receptacles on windy, frigid nights. Liquid from spilled drinks would roll to the seam in the middle of the floor. Finishing a wall to meet the wall that joined it would result in a dizzying angle of not-so-vertical lines. Not much in this old farm house is plumb or level, and we’ve learned to adjust accordingly. Getting to know a space in such an intimate way was not something I knew I craved, or even wanted. Home became knowing the idiosyncrasies of the sloped floors, the direction of the wind, the movement of the sun along the wavy horizon of surrounding hills from north to south then back again. I have grown to know this hilltop so intimately through the biggest shifts of my own life: becoming an aunt, a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, a professor, becoming keen to both the cycles around me and the cycles within me, that I didn’t recognize my need to get away.

Breathtaking colors I had never before seen in the natural world, and certainly not from our white or green hilltop: soothing, awe-inspiring, humbling, took me to my knees on the sand in gratitude that first day. The rhythmic cacophony of winter waves in the Bahamian archipelago spoke to me through the entrancing blues and greens. Diving into it all: the rhythm of the waves, the wind, the sunrise, the sunset, the tides, the treasures that were left by the receding sea, was irresistible. Little did I know, that by getting out of my head, onto the earth and into my body, I was allowing my natural rhythms to lead me. I would bound out of bed, waking before the sunrise to experience the magic of pre-dawn, regardless of how much or how little sleep I had gotten the night before. I needed to move: through yoga poses, finding plumb with my body by fixing my gaze on the still trunk below the swaying palms, dig into the sand, submerse myself in the water, walk along the sandy roads and rocky shoreline, navigate the surprisingly slow depths of the sandy road on the bicycle. The soothing level of the distant horizon on the Atlantic created a sense of space I didn’t know I needed, with ever-present and ever-changing mountains of billowing clouds in the distance to the south, never seen in the northern latitudes this time of year. The night sky with virtually no competition from lights below opened up to the sea between the puzzle pieces of land scattered in between.

Just like the starlings, here we are again though, returned from our long journey south, right back to these very same eaves. But now that I am back to where I knew to be home, what do I miss so intensely about that temporary home-away-from-home? Why did I not recognize the feel of my own body in this once familiar space upon my return? My now firmer legs as I walked the familiar rise in the road or awakened between the sheets in the chill of the winter morning, the once-familiar comforter feeling much heavier than I had remembered? Is it the colors, the solitude, the movement, the ever-present sounds, the simplicity, the freedom, the time, the newness of the unfamiliar? Back home, there is a longing in the silence. The absence of the waves is deafening. Maybe, though, what I needed, was the ever-present, unmistakable distant true level of sky meeting sea or sea meeting sky, leveling my own rhythms, thoughts and actions. Maybe it was my own plumb shadow, cast long on the sand toward the sea, inviting me to stand, not high on the hilltop, but at the sea’s edge, in my fullness. Not much in this old farm house is plumb or level, and I’ll have to adjust accordingly.

Photo credit: Shena Driscoll Salvato

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