As far as I know, the only time John Steinbeck wrote about Maine was in the chronicle of his 1960 American road trip, Travels with Charley. But had he explored Maine in his novels, I imagine he’d have zeroed in on February, his birth month, as it is one of the harder months for Mainers.
Steinbeck wrote about the hard things. Weeds choking out train tracks. Snarling strays skulking behind dumpsters. Determined workers searching desperately and fruitlessly for a home, a meal, a ray of hope. Hardened women glancing furtively out of pained eyes at a cruel world. Although he used pretty words, he unreservedly delved into the ugliness of life.
February in Maine is hard. Firewood stashes dwindle as brutal weather does not. Television and magazines mock us with their balmy images of spring. Local stores have all but gotten rid of coats and sweaters in place of tank tops, shorts, and swim suits. Swim suits? It was two below zero outside my back door this morning.
Steinbeck would see the muck along the roadsides. Plowed snow that once created a frosty canyon, now partially melted and turned black with salt, sand, exhaust and grime. He would see the people getting tired and cutting corners. Those of us who have ceased to shovel the entire front walk; why break one’s back or bring on a heart attack when a narrow path will do?
Yet his poet’s heart would notice the fragments of hope in our eyes. Poring over catalogs next to a cozy fireplace, we plan our gardens, our vacations, our days of sunscreen and sandals. On rare days when the sunshine dazzles and thermometers push above the freezing mark, we throw off our coats and turn our faces to the bright sky. Sighing at the next storm, we resolutely drag out the coats, shovels and plows once again.
His lifelong study of humanity would spur him to reveal Maine’s neighborly ways. Strangers joining to push a car out of a snow bank. Neighbors plowing neighbors’ driveways when they are away or sick. He wouldn’t so much log our complaints, but our perseverance.
Sometimes it feels as though Maine is farther east of Eden than we wish it to be, especially in February. North of it too, for that matter. But Steinbeck would write about our choice. Our choice to press on, do good, and keep the faith.
Happy Birthday, John Steinbeck. You were, are, and always will be my favorite writer. Timshel!
Copyright © 2014 - Paulla Estes