November 10th, 2013 - Kelle Groom
Ten years ago on November 10, I lived on the top floor of the painter, Hans Hofmann’s house in the West End of Provincetown, MA. It had been Hofmann’s painting studio, overlooking the Cape Cod Bay. I’d been traveling for over two years on writing residencies and teaching, mostly living in places I’d never been, where I knew no one. But that summer I’d returned to the Cape which I had always considered home. My mother’s family had always lived on the mid-Cape, my father had gone there when he was sixteen, and made it his home. I’d spend my early childhood there, all summers. Now, I’d left my belongings behind in a storage unit in Florida, and was thinking and writing about home. Where is it? What is it?
Provincetown is the Outer Cape, land’s end, a two-mile wide sandbar seventy-five miles out to sea. As far as you can go. In September, I’d been between residencies, and friends had given me their place in the Hofmann house. For the first time, I was without a full-time job, and trying to make a life as a writer.
On November 10, I left the white curtained alcove enclosing the bed, made coffee. Broke and struggling, with no income until my next residency in January at James Merrill’s House in CT. On the counter, I’d made pyramid of Progresso soup cans (on sale $1 each), and could have one per day. The soup, along with oatmeal, noodles, and occasionally eating at the Provincetown Soup Kitchen was my entire diet. I lost a lot of weight, but found that heating food to a very hot temp made it more filling.
I don’t know that in eight days, I’ll receive a phone call from the National Endowment for the Arts telling me I’ve been awarded a $25,000 Fellowship in Prose.
It was 39 degrees. I walked up to the widow’s walk at the top of the house. In the cold air, I was surrounded by the ocean. Light silver, overcast, but at the horizon a soft yellow, and peach/pink reflected in the middle of the bay, rippling.
I’d been taking photographs since I started traveling, documenting each place: Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; Lake Tahoe; Wyoming; the Santa Cruz Mountains; the summer in Wellfleet, MA, and now Provincetown. Gray peaked roofs behind me. I wore a navy scarf, sweater, and black coat with gray fleece.
My family’s only home on the Cape had sold in September. My 1997 green jeep was in the broken shell drive outside. I found warm enough clothes to bike to the ocean. The road outside the house under construction, tar globular and pebbly, but dry enough to bike on.
Sunday. Streets empty. Right turn toward the marsh and the Province Lands, Cape Cod National Seashore. Marsh on my left now opened up with light and water. Then the empty beach parking lot I turned into, biked across. The ocean blue-black. Opaque. Cement-like with low waves. But the white clouds had a delicate pink below. I’d told my downstairs neighbor that I wanted to bike to the beach this winter. He’d said, “You need to get hardier.” I’d added a black wool hat, fleece leggings. Low tide, I crossed the gully between beach and sandbar, so that I walked right beside the water.
In November the sun sets at 4:30 PM, darkness a blanket, town shut down. In photos of this day, the sun on my face was the golden light before sunset. Otherworldly. Transforming the dunes and me in luminescence. So warm it was like a hand. My eyes closed. White foam of the waves blazing. I was (am) trying to learn how to live with uncertainty. How to stay in the day. I’d walked out as far as I could. I had to be aware of the tide, as it came in fast. If I were too far out when it came in, I could be trapped on the sandbar for six hours. Until the tide changed. In November, there’s no way to cross the body of water between the sandbar and the beach. You’d freeze.
The ocean turned blacker. Sky darkening except for yellow light like an annunciation far out to sea, with an oval of orange in it. I wrote to my friend Terry in Florida, “I think I could become myself here.” It was so quiet, I could pay attention to everything.
I stayed until the ocean was black, and a hole opened up in the center of the now dark sky – a white light like a giant flashlight. One seagull flew by.
I’ll bike home before dark. Cook noodles to make soup. My friends had lots of spices in their cupboard. On another day, I’d walk to my friend Larry’s fine art and antiques shop. Sit by the front door in his very comfortable chair. Relax in the warmth. Larry would take out piece after piece, telling me about it, teaching. I especially loved his collection of ruby glass photographs. Looking close to see the faces inside. Winter slow in Provincetown, and it seemed there was always time to talk and listen and pay attention.
That November would be my first Thanksgiving in Provincetown, and Larry will order all my favorite foods from the amazing health food store in town (now gone). We’ll eat at a table in his tiny condo overlooking the bay. And then this will become our tradition, to always have Thanksgiving together.
But on November 10, 2013, that was still ahead – the NEA Fellowship, my growing friendship with Larry, my eventual return to Provincetown in 2015 to live and work for seven years. And the book of these years of traveling, HOW TO LIVE: A Memoir in Essays, published just last month, October 2023, by Tupelo Press.
On that day, I was calmed and grateful for my freedom, the time and space - water, light, dunes, friendship, recovery meetings, gift of a home – all helping me learn how to live.
Kelle Groom is the author of How to Live: A Memoir in Essays (Tupelo Press, October 2023) and I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster) a B&N Discover Great New Writers selection and New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, and four poetry collections, most recently Spill (Anhinga Press). A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Mass Cultural Council Fellow, and two-time Florida Book Award winner, Groom’s work appears in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, and Poetry. She is a Nonfiction Editor at AGNI Magazine.