Sunday, May 25, 2008

Good for the sole

RYE BEACH, N.H. – May 25 – Never before had I heard a sound quite like the one a seashell makes when it gets obliterated by a lawn mower. The first time it happened, my bare feet left the earth as quick as the blades spun due to the piercing noise combined with visions of tiny debris firing toward my ankles. Shoes would have offered protection, but I lacked the courage to force them on that day since blisters had formed a colony on my feet as a result of the most walking I’d ever done in a three-day period. Perhaps it was foolish to take on this task, but I wanted to do something nice for Nanci. The feel of the soft, cool grass on my naked soles actually offered relief. Plus, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to cut a lawn along an ocean.

I sang Jack Johnson songs to myself, which were drown out by the roar of the mower. I told Nanci I would happily help her check this chore off the list under one condition – she use her day away from the real estate office to relax. Read a book. Play piano. Something. Just no working. She smiled at me as I rounded the corner of the house, knowing she was busted as she continued to collect pieces of shell from the yard. I couldn’t argue with her when she said she just had to be outside on this perfect Memorial-Day-weekend afternoon, so I just smiled back. Besides, I think she was enjoying doing yard work as a team. She seemed very cheery, like she might even have been singing her own songs. I tried my best to avoid shattering any more shells. My rows in the grass were far from precise as I couldn’t help but gaze at the picturesque horseshoe beach at my side.

I pondered whether or not Denny and I should feel guilty for calling a $2.8 million, oceanfront house ‘home’ for a couple of days. We were still sleeping outdoors in the tent at night, but from the first morning on, we were allowed free range throughout the three-story home that Nanci shared with her sweet mother, Poppy, and her elusive brother, Marshall.

Had we not mingled with the lone woman walking her dog on Rye Beach two nights ago, who knows where we’d be at this point and what we’d be doing? I’m pretty confident we wouldn’t have woken up the next morning to a breakfast of cappuccino, fresh pineapple, bananas, toast, and scrambled eggs with cheese. And from the patterns of the tide we’ve watched out the window the last 48 hours, our idea to camp in the sand that fateful night would certainly have been the first major error of our journey. If Nanci hadn’t been so affable that evening, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have showered yet, and definitely not with cucumber-melon soap. ‘I thought you were tan, but I guess you were just dirty,’ Denny said as I dried off.

It seems much longer than two days ago that Denny and I awoke in the middle of a maze of trees in Maine after a restless night of wondering if we’d get caught because camping was not legal in that neck of the woods. The morning of the day we met Nanci, our stomachs growled since our last meal of uncooked beans failed to provide proper nutrition. Our mouths were dry and our main goal was to locate the closest clean-enough drinking water to fill our hydration packs. A few hours prior to peeing in a multi-million dollar home, I resorted to sh****g in the woods since there had been few signs of civilization for miles. The same evening our serendipity really kicked in, I had briefly contemplated following the folks I chatted with on the trolley ride into the homeless shelter they were heading for.

I’m not claiming we needed Nanci. Denny and I have been surviving well enough on our own, and had we been soaked by the rising tide two nights ago, we would have managed. But after pondering our present situation, do I feel guilty about it? Hell no.

When you leave yourself open to any and every experience, you deserve whatever lies on the road you’re traveling that day. Sometimes the road brings uncooked pinto beans. Sometimes it brings calamari. And a goal of this summer’s adventure is to taste all life has to offer. Just as much as we’re not trying to force anything to happen, we won’t avoid certain types of scenarios because they seem too good to be true. As long as our minds are open, each new experience, positive or negative, has value. We want to hang with the homeless as much as we want to mingle with millionaires. And we want to see all that lies in the middle because this is America.

I’ll admit that the fact I write this from a third-story balcony overlooking the Atlantic makes me wonder what people might think of our project so early in the game. But just like we seek no sympathy for the rough times we are to face along our journey, as long as we are appreciative of the good fortune that comes our way, we shall not regret any of it. And trust me, I can speak for Nanci that she is tired of the words ‘thank you’ by now. I suppose if I could change anything, I would push this experience closer to the middle of the summer, perhaps when we are desperate for a morale boost. But this adventure isn’t meant to be predictable. The randomness is what makes it unique. And who knows what the rest of the road might bring?


As she showed us a good area in the yard to pitch our tent the night we met, Nanci mentioned that her and Poppy had agreed to inform the police that we were camping in front of their house just to be safe. Denny and I nodded in acceptance, understanding that 20 minutes earlier we were complete strangers to our new friends. While learning about our trip, Poppy, a big fan of crime shows, said we shouldn’t trust anyone. ‘But you’re trusting us and we’re trusting you,’ I challenged. As I write this, 48 hours after arriving to Rye, I can hear Denny and Nanci on the floor below, talking away like old friends. We all laughed hysterically at the dinner table last night when the ladies admitted they actually never called the police that evening. In two days, we’ve warmed up to each other quicker than the sun warms our tent when it rises each morning. We’ve been able to sleep in a bit, because in front of Nanci and Poppy’s house, we know we are safe from prosecution.

Yesterday, I ran errands with Nanci while Denny was left with the house to himself. As I filled Nanci’s gas tank, she told me stories of her own spontaneous travels. As we drove to the post office to ship some unnecessary supplies back home, I told her all about my family back in Iowa. As we drove into the bank drive-thru, Zoe the rottweiler began to drool in the backseat. ‘Why is she so excited to be at the bank?’ I asked. ‘Because of this,’ Nanci replied as the teller sent over the transactions receipt along with a doggie biscuit. I got the pleasure of hand-feeding Zoe, who now seemed to be my friend as well. Nanci told Zoe she was a ‘good girl’ in French, which is Zoe’s first language. I have yet to get over this fact.

Denny and I volunteered to make dinner for everyone that night, but Nanci refused to drive us to the store, citing that it was too nice a day to spend shopping for groceries. Little did we know, that evening, Poppy was preparing a feast. I took photos of the sunset hitting the lilac bushes – New Hampshire’s state flower – while Denny helped Poppy grate cheese. The lilacs reminded me of the ones in my parents’ backyard. The cinnamon and sugar cappuccinos we drank in the morning made me think of Party Toast – a dinner my father used to make when I was younger. It was getting cozy here, and that’s why I knew we had to leave.

I overheard Denny and Poppy discussing the origins of the seafood we were having for dinner. Although Denny had never tried any of the dishes before, he did his best to seem excited. I heard Poppy express concern that we might not like it. The four of us spent the next two hours at the dinner table shoving the plethora of food in our mouths and talking the night away as Neil Diamond played in the background. No television, no awkward moments of silence. Just four new friends telling stories. Tears of laughter dripped when Poppy touched the tattoo on Denny’s ass. Tears of sorrow were nearly shed as tales of loved-ones lost were told. It didn’t matter where we came from, what we did for money, how old we were. We were simply people enjoying people. That was all that mattered. As Denny and I reached for seconds, Poppy smiled proudly to herself.

We’ve learned a lot since we’ve been in Rye Beach. Denny is now an expert cappuccino maker due to the guidance of Nanci. And we read all about the first direct ocean telecommunications cable between Europe and America because our tent happened to be placed directly on top of it. We even have a new nickname. In the five minutes we chatted with Marshall, he collectively coined us Brian Dennehy.

At first, Denny and I were helpless to help in any capacity. Nanci and Poppy would tell us that they were the ones who should be taking care of us since we were the guests. It was a challenge at first, figuring out how to keep the focus of our summer project. But Denny and I have gotten smart. Instead of asking if there is any way we can help out, we started telling them we were going to pitch in whether they liked it or not. We eventually resorted to taking them by surprise by doing small stuff  like yard work and tidying the house. As we carried in groceries for Poppy yesterday, I heard her say, ‘It’s really nice having these two boys around.’

Last night Nanci said we should figure out what Denny and I were going to do today since she had to work 12-5.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll be leaving soon,’ I said. ‘We don’t want to outstay our welcome.’

‘No,’ Nanci replied straight-faced. ‘I don’t want you guys to leave while I’m gone. I’m going to be traumatized when you go. Plus, I was thinking you might as well stay another couple nights so you can see the Memorial-Day fireworks on Sunday night.’

At that moment, I forgot what gave Denny and I the impression in the first place that our society needed a band-aid. Weren’t we supposed to be the ones this summer helping people redeem their faith in one another? Maybe this whole time it’s been us in need of the redemption.


As much as Denny and I have gotten used to this place, Nanci and Poppy have gotten used to having us around. Nanci never had kids of her own, yet for the past two and a half days she’s been one heck of a mother figure. As we looked at the orange moon hovering over the ocean after dinner last night, I knew under normal circumstances I would be perfectly content staying a while longer. But when I jumped in the icy Atlantic this afternoon, I knew it would be the last time I would touch that ocean for a while.

We leave town in the morning, destined for Massachusetts. I’m ready for the road again. Our feet have healed for the most part. We’ve filled our bellies, soaked in a beautiful environment for two-and-a-half days, and hopefully brightened the lives of a couple people who not so long ago we could have called strangers. What we didn’t know when we began walking is how much our new friends across the country would effect our outlook on the life. As it turns out, we need people as much as people need us.


Anonymous said...

The blister video is gross. Are those the scissors, bandaids and antibiotic ointment I sent with you? Nanci and Poppy are lovely people. Thank you to them. I can tell them that they now have friends for life.Love,Mom T

shannon said...

when you walk by boston look up Kelesy..she needs random acts of kindness...but specifically needs help with balancing her checkbook, hooking up internet, getting a day job, and paying tolls. I enjoy your blog.. Living vicariously.shannon

Anonymous said...

Gentlemen, don't break your arm patting yourself on the back - true charity is anonymous.
-ancient proverb

Mike said...

Anonymous from 10:07 PM - It's clear that these guys aren't patting themselves on their back but rather are on an exploration that includes themselves, others, and our whole little world.

The great thing about documenting such an exploration is that their learning experience will benefit not only them, not only the people they meet, but also all of us able to see it along the way.

I submit that the most effective charity is out loud, brilliant, shouted, urged, encouraged, and grown in all of us as a way of life, a way of being in community with one another. Would it really be better charity to not have benefit dinners to raise money, to not have the ONE campaign? To not put on pancake suppers or forward on stories of great work? Would it be better for Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to make anonymous gifts, or do they have the power to inspire other business leaders? Do you have the power to inspire your neighbor, if they know your good work?

I've worked in the nonprofit sector for a long while, and I prefer public good works. Regardless, your critique doesn't hold because these guys are not highlighting their own charity. They are highlighting the charity of others. They are communicating how small good deeds can bridge the gaps we construct artificially around ourselves.

So to your ancient proverb I add the wisdom of Voltaire: "A witty phrase proves nothing." It is easy to sit on the couch and criticize; get up and participate.

sundog said...

I am from Davenport and have been following your adventures since I read about you in the Times..and just want to say I admire your courage and believe in your mission! I totally agree with Mike...I too have worked in the nonprofit sector and believe the world needs to not only experience more random acts of kindness but when we read about it or hear about it and in turn we witness the goodness of others. We do need one another! beauty is everywhere! I too am living vicariously!