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Head Lines

Stuart Kestenbaum

Every Step

Since the pandemic started, most of my travel has been on foot. Lately I’ve been taking a daily walk to both clear my mind and open my eyes. It’s a three-mile loop that takes me past once stately Greek Revival homes, old farmhouses, small capes, and trailers. I walk by the cemetery where small flags mark each veterans’ grave. I’m on paved roads and dirt roads.  There’s a pasture where sheep once grazed. Lobster boats and traps are at rest in yards.  Spruce and birch trees, trunks snapped by wind, lay down in the ordered chaos of the woods. There’s a new digital sign outside the town hall, that lets me know the time and temperature and that Deer Isle was incorporated in 1789. It also says “Mask up. Save a Life.”

If I’m trying to write something, my walk is a break where the right words may appear.  If I’m lucky, they’ll stick.  Other times, the answer vanishes as quickly as one of the pick-up trucks speeding by.  Like the best of our excursions, I discover more when I’m not exactly looking and just follow my steps.  Skunk cabbage emerging out of gravel and silt by the roadside in the spring.  Thin clear ice in shallow pools in the woods in December. An otherwise straight spruce tree that about 15 feet above the ground has conformed to the curve of an enormous granite boulder. Jimmy Cook, the UPS driver, passes me on the opposite side of the road and recognizes me only from my back. He waves with his left hand out the window of his truck. I wave back so he’ll see me in his mirror.  Two pilgrims.

Last week, with very little snow on the ground, I take a trash bag with me to collect litter.   My haul includes a crushed Poland Spring bottle filled with muddy water, Budweiser cans with seasonal designs, a Baxter Brewing can, a quart sized Mountain Dew bottle, a gallon windshield fluid bottle with its label gone, and a Cabot whipped cream can that was tossed out of a car window after someone huffed the nitrous oxide. I’m a roadside social scientist or a child at Halloween, happy to keep filling my bag with each new treat. 

Along the shoulder I reach down to pick up what looks like a Styrofoam cup.  I discover it’s not plastic, but sodden paper, a fragment of a note card.  As I’m walking- keeping an eye on approaching trucks and an icy and muddy shoulder- I drop it in the bag and notice it says ‘heart’.  Handwritten in blue ink.  It’s a rare find in an age of texts and phone messages.  I sort through my bag when I get home to retrieve it, eager to see this evidence of a civilization that had a written language.  

Here’s a poet on a walk who finds a word for the day.  Heart.  I look more closely as it dries out and see that what’s written is theart.  Perhaps this was once a sweetheart, a blossoming love.  Or something we can’t quite name has been lost, but the heart remains.  Or maybe it’s a message about creativity: the art with no space between the words. Even a simple word may not be so simple.  Maybe each word is like a step, and every step can be its own meditation. Everything we find can lead us somewhere.

Stuart Kestenbaum is the author of five collections of poems, most recently How to Start Over (Deerbrook Editions 2019), and a collection of essays The View from Here (Brynmorgen Press). He’s the host of the Maine Public Radio program Poems from Here and was the host/curator of the podcast Make/Time. He was appointed Maine’s poet laureate in 2016.

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