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This is a work of non-fiction. All characters, places, and events are real. Wherever possible I have relied on interviews, references to journal entries, and other documents to recall events as accurately as possible. I am responsible for all mistakes of failing memory.

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me —
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

— Sappho        

It was Sappho who first called eros “bittersweet.”
No one who has been in love disputes her.

— Anne Carson

The Dark Year


On the summer afternoon I returned to the old house by the sea, I parked my car in the weeds by the back door and walked through a field of tall grasses and wildflowers to watch the incoming tide. I climbed down over the bank to the beach, where the waves splashed and rolled across polished stones and seaweed beds, where the air smelled of salt, sun, and the shore.

Here in the bay that Portuguese sailors named Rio Fundo, the “deep river,” water washes in from the Gulf of Maine and crashes against the continental shelf, creating a special soup of gravity, depth, distance, and waves that produces the highest tides in the world. The Bay of Fundy shore is a place of constant motion. The tides are forever coming and going, forever rearranging the stones and gravel on the beach. When storm waters rise and the highest tides surge on the full moon, waves pound the cliffs. Whole pieces of the shore crumble and fall, and these rocks are broken again and scattered across the beach.

The tides here are a mighty force, but up close, in slow time, their movement is so unhurried that I sometimes forget the water is rising until another crevice is filled and another rock disappears, until the seaweed beds are floating and the waves are swirling at my feet. In this way, change washed into my life.

I stood at the edge of the water, watching the rising tide, then wandered down the beach, around the rocky point, and across the next beach until I turned and retraced my steps to the old house. I sat on the front porch and had a good long cry. All this crying was a new thing for me. As a young man, I had a stiff upper lip that I figure was passed down from my ancestors, the indefatigable Confederate fighters from the southern United States. Whenever I cried as a boy, my father used to tell me, “Son, get hold of yourself.” Years later, he told me he regretted speaking those words, but he was repeating what his father had told him, and that we all, in ways great and small, bear the sins of our fathers. I took my father’s words to heart and, as a young man, learned to get hold of myself. But when my marriage fell apart, I started crying.

In the weeks before I left the farm where I had been living with my wife and our three children, I would see the kids off to school in the mornings and then moments later, collapse sobbing, ask- ing myself over and over, What have I done? What have I done? I would force myself to move, one foot in front of the other, until I had momentum, and I would hurry about the farm, feeding and watering our two horses and putting them out to pasture, running the two dogs, and shooing the cats out the back door and filling their bowls with food and water. I would wash my face and hands, put on my suit, knot my tie, and drive to work, listening to the morning news on the radio while I ran an electric razor over my chin and tried to turn my mind toward the tasks of the day — tasks that absorbed me and offered a measure of relief.

That summer afternoon when I arrived at the old house was the day I left the farm for good. I was thirty-five years old, and while I may not yet have reached mid-life, I was fully in crisis. I sat on the porch for a long time before I felt able to walk to the car, open the trunk, and carry my bags inside.

After the sun set behind the spruce trees on the point, I went upstairs and tried to sleep in the bedroom with the window that looks out to the sea, in the bed where my parents slept during the endless summers of my youth. I spent half the night lying awake in my parents’ bed and half the night wandering through the house, smoking cigarettes and reading old paperback mystery novels.

When I came downstairs in the morning, dizzy from lack of sleep, I found three squirrels in the kitchen, one sitting on the table and two on the floor, regarding me with surprise, as if I were invading their space. I chased them out the back door, slammed it shut, and reminded myself that the old house needed a spring cleaning. Then I walked out the front door and stood on the wet grass in my bare feet and watched the ducks swim and dive in the cove. The sea was calm, the tide was rising again, and the waves were breaking softly on the beach. I dried my feet on the porch boards and climbed the stairs to dress for work.


I became a husband and a father in my early twenties and entered the period of life that American songwriter Greg Brown describes in his song “Worrisome Years.” My wife and I were starting careers, living in apartments and rented homes, moving at least once a year, raising children and being broke, and wondering too often, “When does the good part start?”

I was a father of two little girls by the time I graduated from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a master’s degree in the classics. I could read ancient Greek, I had spent years exploring the pages of Homer’s poetry and Plato’s dialogues, but I had few skills that would help to support a family that to this point had been kept afloat by my wife’s nursing job and my university scholarships. One day out of desperation, I took an aptitude test with an employment counsellor in downtown Halifax. He concluded that the only thing I could do well was write, and there wasn’t much demand for writers. However, he did have an advertisement for a reporter’s job at a small newspaper in a paper-mill town in central Newfoundland.

So I flew into Gander and drove an hour inland to the town of Grand Falls for a job interview at a biweekly newspaper called the Advertiser. I checked into the only hotel in town, ate my first meal of cod tongues at the hotel restaurant with the newspaper’s overworked managing editor, who by the time we ordered coffee, offered me a job. I negotiated a salary of three hundred and fifty dollars a week, which was fifty dollars more than the newspaper paid most cub reporters, and then told him I needed to go home and talk it over with my wife. I returned to Halifax, and we decided to go Newfoundland. Perhaps there I would find the beginnings of a career and she would find work at the local hospital. We packed our family into our car, boarded the ferry in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, landed at Port aux Basques, and drove across the island through a blinding early fall snowstorm into a new life.

When I reported for work at the Advertiser, I discovered that I had a lot to learn about the newspaper business. And with an editorial staff of just three, including me, I had to learn in a hurry. At a small-town newspaper, taking photographs of the mayor at ribbon cuttings, the guest speaker at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and the winners of the high school science fair contest was half the job, and when I arrived, I didn’t know how to load film into a 35-mm camera. My training session, which lasted all of half an hour, included a crash course in news writing and film loading.

We worked in a small cluster of offices built into the front of an industrial printing plant. On publication day, I would turn off my computer, walk out into the plant, pick up the printouts of the columns I had written, feed them through a waxing machine, and paste them onto pages. I proofread the pages, then sent them to be photographed, plated, and hung on the press. When the press rolled, the whole building shook, and I was back in my office planning the next edition.

Most days, I was too busy to stop and think about what I had got myself into, but I remember the day I realized I had stumbled by chance into the kind of work I really wanted to do. I had been assigned to cover the report of an inquiry into a forest fire ignited by sparks from a passing train — an event of great interest in a town whose economic survival depended on the local supply of timber that fed the mill. The report was all routine technical testimony, until I came upon a story told by the foreman of a logging crew. He and his men had been clearing a fire line near a logging camp when he realized the fire was racing toward them and they wouldn’t be able to stop it or get out of its way. In moments he gathered the men in a clearing beside the camp and told them to hose down everything, including themselves. Then he instructed them to lie down on the wet ground. The fire passed over them. All survived.

In this man’s account of leadership and courage, I found what I wanted to do with my life. When I wrote this kind of story for the newspaper, I was writing about the subjects that had interested me when I was reading Homer and Sophocles and Plato and contemplating what it means to live a life of virtue. Journalism, like poetry and philosophy, is an art that moves readers from particular images to universal ideas. Years later, one of my editors told me that the stories we were writing were like parables, little pictures, each in some way exploring the moral questions of our time.

I moved from the mill-town newspaper in central Newfoundland to a city newspaper in St. John’s and learned the business of journalism from the inside out. Our son was born in the city, so then we were five. We bought our first home in a fishing village called Flatrock, on the outskirts of St. John’s, and settled there on a wind-battered hill where we watched the waves of the North Atlantic explode against the rocks in the harbour below.

During the worrisome years, I considered myself an apprentice in a business where my value would always be judged by the last story I wrote. I set no boundaries for my work. I would spend long days at the office or on the road reporting, rush home to put dinner on the table because my wife was often working nights at the hospital, and then once the children were asleep and I had finished the household chores, I would turn on my computer and work into the late evening. I allowed my work to consume me. I never found a more balanced way of working as a journalist, although I knew my family wished I would learn to set limits. I was spending more time tending to the needs of my job than to the needs of my family. It would be many years before I learned to correct this imbalance.

I continued to work for newspapers and magazines, changing jobs for new opportunities, one of which took us back to the mainland. There, we hoped we might find the family home we had been searching for. That search, apart from my excessive work habits, had defined our lives during the worrisome years.

The search began during my final year of university, when our eldest daughter was a toddler, and we used to drive about the Nova Scotia countryside on weekends, visiting farms that were for sale. We inspected farmhouses, explored musty barns, waded through tall pasture grasses, and traversed old apple orchards, lugging our little girl in our arms or on my shoulders, imagining how we might make a home in these places. We never found a farm that had everything we wanted. We would inspect a property and on the drive home, conclude that the land wasn’t flat enough, or the barns were beyond repair, or the house didn’t have a large enough kitchen. Perhaps the deficiencies we found in these properties were just an excuse we gave ourselves to keep looking.

Some evenings, when we arrived home after dark to the cottage we were renting on the shore of St. Margarets Bay, tired and hungry with a sleeping child in the back seat, I would scold myself for wasting a precious summer day on a search I knew was pointless at this stage in our lives when instead I should have been out looking for a job. Then the next weekend we would be back at it again, real estate listings and maps spread out on the dashboard as we drove down lonely country roads, longing for something we didn’t have, unable even to articulate what it was we were hoping to find.

The search carried me a long way, from the meadows of Nova Scotia’s southern shore to the rocky coastline of Newfoundland to the valley of the St. John River in New Brunswick. I thought that finding the right place to live was the key to constructing a happy life, that when we arrived at our family home, wherever that might be, we would open the door and find ourselves standing there — happy.

We believed that our farm in the St. John River valley was the place we had been searching for, and we had admired it from a distance long before we liquidated everything we had to secure it. At the time, we were living a short walk down the road in an old storey-and-a-half house on a fifty-acre hillside lot, but we saw a better life on this old farm set back from the main road, with sweeping meadows and acres of mature forest. During our walks on a logging road that bordered the property, we got to know the owners of the farm, and when they decided to sell, we were able to buy it before it went on the market.

I am now convinced that when Leo Tolstoy wrote that every happy family is alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, he had it only half right. Every happy family is also happy in its own way. I think Tolstoy understood this as well, because in his great novel of the family, he is most fascinated by the exquisite character of Anna Karenina and her pursuit of love and happiness after she leaves her husband, Levin. Despite the tragic nature of Anna’s pursuit and the redemption of Levin late in the novel, we are left without a satisfactory resolution to the juxtaposition of what Tolstoy regards as the objective good of marriage and family and the subjective wonders of love. For many of us, the question of how we find happiness in this life turns on the possibility that at some point we will form a union with another person, and perhaps create a family, and find love all in the same place.

We moved into the farm with high hopes. We renovated the house and barns, fenced in pastures, always making plans and looking ahead. Our children played in the fields and forests and made a playhouse in an old cottage on the property. My wife brought in horses and I planted gardens and cut firewood. In the winter, we skied across the meadows and up and down the trails through the woods.

For the first time in my life, I was finding some balance between my life at work and my life at home. I had left the newspaper business and was editor of a monthly fishing and river conservation magazine, a job that allowed me to work in my home office about half the time and to go fly fishing in spring, summer, and fall, and call it research.

I didn’t pause often for self reflection in those days, but at some point, I realized that no matter how close we came to creating the family home we had imagined as newlyweds, nothing about ourselves had changed. There was nowhere else to look, no more maps or real estate listings. It wasn’t easy to admit this to myself, but there it was: the search had run its course.

One day, I took a phone call from the manager of a local newspaper. We had a meeting, and I left the fishing magazine and returned to the daily grind. I put away my fly rod and began working longer hours than I ever had, stepping right back into the patterns I had developed in the early years of our marriage. As a result, my wife and children were unhappy with me, and I had no one to blame but myself. I was responsible for my work habits, my state of mind — and for not articulating my unhappiness to either my wife or myself.


I was running so fast and so blind that the feelings caught me by surprise. I realized I was in trouble one day when I was thinking about her as I walked alone on the back forty of the farm. It was then that I called my younger sister, Susan, at her home in Ottawa and told her I was falling for another woman.

Susan is a listener, the sibling who binds my brother and sisters together, the sister who invariably shows up at our doors, suitcase in hand, when one of us is experiencing some kind of crisis. Susan listened to me talk, recognized that I had entered dangerous territory, and promised to call me every day. She told me to try not to fear what was happening, that sometimes the life we have constructed needs to fall apart before we are able to begin the process of making something better. She added this caveat: if you need to change your life, try to understand why. The understanding was a long time coming.

Essayist and magazine editor Lewis Lapham maintains that the task of a storyteller is to draw the wilderness of our experience within the fence posts of a beginning, middle, and end. He writes that the truth of a story and the voice of the author emerge from “the struggle to get at the truth of what he or she thinks, has seen, remembers, can find language to express.” Almost a decade after that summer afternoon when I returned to the old house by the sea, I began to write the story of what had happened to me after my marriage ended. In the struggle to find the language to express it, I began to understand what had happened during the years I reconstructed my life.

From the outset, I set a condition for myself: I would not tell the story of my first marriage or the story of our divorce. That story was not mine alone to tell, unless I were to tell only one side of it; and I learned long ago in my little newspaper office in Newfoundland that there is never only one side to a story. By necessity my version would be incomplete. I didn’t want to present a distorted picture of the life we lived, which the divorce wars so often do. I didn’t want to lose sight of the simple truth that we had many successes in this marriage that is now, in the language of divorce, called a failure, the greatest of which was becoming the parents of three beautiful and wise children.

When we started out, we were so young, compatible in some areas of our lives and incompatible in others. She was my heroic partner in all the ways, large and small, in which parents strive to make a home for their children and keep them safe and happy. To assign a value to this kind of history, to point to this or that as good or bad or right or wrong, is to try to pass judgment on that which can’t be judged.

My experience is that of a particular man in a singular place and time, and I can’t offer universal answers to questions about love and marriage. What I can offer is my little picture, my report back from the road of second chances.

As I wrote this story, I repeatedly found myself demanding another level of honesty, and from time to time, I would check to see whether my words passed the sister test. When I thought I had found an honest narrative line, I would run it past Susan, and more often than not, she would tell me that I needed to go back and “unpack that a little more.”

One weekend when I was wrestling with these matters, I went camping with Susan and her partner, Michel Thériault, who is a singer and songwriter from Acadian New Brunswick. The first night when we were drinking beer, feeding sticks into the fire, and trading songs on our guitars, Michel started playing a medley of what he called his “bad songs.” One of these, which was written not to be recorded but as a bar song to be played at the end of the night, begins:

I’m just a regular asshole

I’m just a fuckin’ jerk

I’m just a coward and a pig

I’m just un bon à rien

By the time he finished the first verse, we were all falling off our folding chairs in laughter. The next morning, I was humming the “regular asshole” song and thinking about the story of my life after I returned to the old house by the sea. We laughed at Michel’s song because, of course, it’s true. I’m just a regular asshole and “un bon à rien,” a good for nothing, not all the time but some of the time to be sure. We’re all just regular assholes at various times in our lives, some of us more than others. But we are offered an opportunity in this life to lift ourselves up — and be lifted up — when we participate in what poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning called “the great work of love.”


My grandfather, my father’s father and my namesake, is the one who discovered the old house. He was a railroad man from the southern United States, a self-made success who as a fourteen- year-old boy began his working life sweeping the train station in Elba, Alabama. When he was sixteen, he landed a job as a travelling freight agent for Atlantic Coastline Railroad and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he found a room in the big city and ate bananas and crackers and drank water until he received his first pay. Years later, as a railroad vice-president, he travelled up and down the eastern seaboard in a private car staffed with a cook and a porter. Pa never forgot his humble beginnings in the working world, and would always tell his children and grandchildren about the nutritional and economical advantages of bananas and crackers when times get tough.

He was a tall, thin man who wore fine hats to cover his bald head and conducted his affairs with the mannerisms of a southern gentleman. Pa chose his words carefully and was unfailingly polite, even if he disagreed with every word someone said, which he often did. In the business world, he was innovative and tough. He drove his cars too fast and suffered from debilitating migraines that we attributed to stress. He adored his grandchildren, and when I was in the room, he was always gentle — both in speech and touch. He called me “son” and pulled me onto his lap and held me close so he could speak to me in a soft voice.

Soon after my parents — both natives of the southern United States — settled with their four children in the port city of Saint John, New Brunswick, my grandfather began searching for coastal real estate, a place on the shore where he could stay with his son and daughter-in-law and his grandchildren during his summer visits to Eastern Canada. Pa had seen many miles of coastal land and knew a place of beauty when he saw one. I was a six-year-old boy tagging along with his grandfather the day Pa discovered the old house in a fishing and clam digging community south of Saint John.

We had spent the morning driving along the shore looking at available waterfront properties, and the old house was our last stop. We parked by the beach and started walking together up the lane to the house. Pa was holding my hand when we encountered a large growling and barking black dog that appeared to be guarding the house. Pa stopped in his tracks, sized up the dog, and without a word, retreated to the beach where he picked up a stick of driftwood and gave it a few test swings. With the stick in his right hand and my hand in his left, he kept the dog at bay as we walked up the lane to the house. There, we discovered that the dog was protecting a cat and its litter of new kittens in a back shed, and that if we kept our distance from the dog’s adopted family we were free to roam around the house. As we walked back to the car, Pa told me, “Son, a man never has to fear a dog so long as the man is carrying a big stick.”

I thought about my Pa during the first days after my return to the old house. I remembered the barking dog and the big stick and knew that at some point I had to start facing my fears, of which I had many. I was afraid that a divorce would permanently damage my relationship with my children, that I would no longer be able to be the kind of father I wanted them to have in their lives. I was afraid of causing them more pain, because I knew they were already suffering enormous sadness because of the division of the family. I was also consumed by guilt, the first cousin of fear, because I had caused our marriage to end and I had hurt my wife in the process.

I remembered how Pa believed in facing our fears head on, and I decided that the old house was as good a place as any to do that. This was the place where, as a boy, I had learned to rely on myself during the summers when our family moved here from the city. It was here that I was free to explore the shore and the limits of my imagination. It was here I learned to row a boat and catch, clean, and cook fish, to climb cliffs and swim in cold water, to read the kinds of books I wanted to read, to play guitar and sing. Perhaps here, as a man, I could learn how to rebuild my life.

However, facing my fears when I returned to the old house that summer wasn’t as easy as finding a big stick and marching forward past a barking dog, for the fear and guilt had settled firmly inside me. They rolled around in my mind during the day, formed a permanent knot in my gut, and kept me from sleeping at night. Guilt and fear can stop a man in his tracks. I couldn’t see a way past them.


She worked with me at the newspaper I edited, and it was there that we became friends. I appreciated her writing and her work as a reporter and editor, and depended on her in the newsroom. Deb Nobes is a confident woman who believes in herself and trusts her judgment; she didn’t hesitate to correct me when she thought I was making mistakes or to encourage me when she thought I was making good decisions. She had no hidden agenda, just a true and sincere focus on the task at hand, which is all a person can ask of another in the tense and deadline-driven news business. Surely E.B. White, who fell in love with Katherine Sergeant Angell, the literary editor at the New Yorker, where he worked, had this kind of friendship in mind when he composed the penultimate line in his famous children’s book Charlotte’s Web: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Deb was both.

I began to let my guard down when we were together, and in the moments when we found ourselves away from deadlines, our conversations drifted into areas other than work. She had studied journalism at the University of King’s College, across from the Dalhousie University campus where I had studied classics. She had arrived in Newfoundland shortly after I left and had lived on the same piece of coastline where we had lived on the outskirts of St. John’s. She had worked in the same newspaper office where I had spent long hours as a young reporter. In the beginning, I allowed myself to acknowledge that she was a good friend and that I felt better when she was around. Then I started to feel dizzy and disoriented when she walked into the room.

I was finding her beautiful in every respect. She is tall and slender, with straight, thick, dark hair and startlingly bright blue eyes that remind me of the shifting translucent blues in the sun-drenched Mediterranean Sea. I found myself admiring her eyes and her long fingers, the way her clothes hung on her shoulders, the way her feet fit in her shoes, the sound of her voice when she read me passages from the morning newspaper.

One Saturday afternoon in the spring, a couple of months before I returned to the old house, we both ended up at the newspaper office dressed in our jeans and sneakers to catch up on some work on the one down day of the news cycle. We sat on opposite sides of my desk (piled high with old newspapers and printouts of the previous night’s work on the weekend edition), looked at each other for a long moment, and mumbled something like, “Well, what the hell are we going to do about this?” She had been thinking about me too and was facing complications of her own, notably a common-law relationship of six years with another reporter at the newspaper.

One morning a few weeks later, without even knowing for sure I was going to do it until the words spilled out of my mouth, I told my wife I was having feelings for another woman. At the time, and for a long time afterwards, I told myself this was the honourable thing to do. I needed to level with my wife because this had happened to me, the feelings were real, right there in front of me every day, and we had to face them. There is truth in that. However, in hindsight, my decision to spill without thinking through the consequences, without a plan for what would happen after I spoke the words, was terribly naive and reckless. None of my rationalizations after the fact could dull the excruciating pain and hurt and betrayal I delivered to my wife that morning. I invited chaos and turmoil into our household, not anticipating how profoundly the lives of my children would change and how deeply the people I loved most would suffer.

To make matters worse, our story soon entered the public domain, and because Deb and I worked together, the story became exaggerated and was discussed and embellished by gossips around water coolers in the office and at lunch counters downtown. When Deb and her partner separated and divided their possessions, our story even warranted a paragraph in the newsroom gossip section of a national muckraking magazine. In the end, it wasn’t much of a scandal because I had spilled before we had a chance to do anything beyond admit we had feelings for each other. However, this mess of a beginning was hardly a fairy-tale romance. There were many days when Deb thought she might walk away, make a new start somewhere else, and leave me behind. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had. Less than a month later, I had moved into the house on the Bay of Fundy shore.


The old house makes a grand statement, facing the sea with its plumb and solid bones and green-hipped roof. It sits on the rocky high ground between a salt marsh and the clam flats, at the head of a point of land that juts out into the bay, where it can be seen from many vantage points along the coast. Captains of scallop draggers use the old house as a reference point when they are marking their trawls miles out at sea.

Inside, not much had changed since my grandfather closed the deal. Most of the furniture came with the house. There were whitewashed cupboards in the kitchen and an embroidered settee and chair in the front parlour, a big oval table in the dining room, and hand-carved hardwood beds and dressers in the bedrooms. Most of the floors were covered with faded linoleum. My parents had refinished the wooden floor in the living room, done some painting, and hung new wallpaper in the kitchen, which had become as faded and tattered as the wallpaper in the rest of the house. There was a hand pump in the kitchen and an outhouse connected to the shed in the backyard. It was a two-seater, with a smaller seat and step for children that my parents built when we were young. At the back of the house, there was a system for collecting rain off the roof in barrels that was piped into the backroom and connected to a sink and shower stall. There was a wood cookstove in the kitchen and an antique two-burner electric camp stove in the backroom. It had two settings: red hot high and off. Collections of green, blue, and white sea glass were piled on the windowsills in every room.

Walter and Augusta McPherson built the house in the early 1900s, ferrying building materials by boat before a road had been cut from the village to the point. The majority of the houses in the village were raised around the sheltered clam flats in the basin, but the McPhersons were fishermen, not diggers, and they imagined a homestead closer to the open sea, even if it was more isolated and exposed to the wind and waves. Walter and Augusta raised six children in the house on the point and lived there until they were in their nineties, when they died within months of each other.

I remember standing in the kitchen when Allan McPherson, who had been born in one of the upstairs bedrooms, stomped in through the back door, his big wading boots folded down at the knee, and spilled a bucket of live lobsters on the kitchen table as a housewarming gift. Until he fell ill in the final years of his life, Allan drove almost every day to the point — McPherson’s Point, as it will always be called — and stood on the beach to watch the tide wash upon the shore of his youth.

In the evenings after I returned to the old house, I would stand for a moment in the place where Allan McPherson had stood, to re-establish my equilibrium in the presence of the predictable motions of the tides, in the presence of something constant. This was unending motion to be sure, but as Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued, motion and change have an underlying universal order, or logos. The ancient Greeks understood that most of us are walking around blind through the confusion of apparently random events in our daily lives, simply because that is the human condition. However, they believed that events are not random but connected to an unchanging divine order. For Homer, the logos was the order of Zeus. For Plato, the logos was what he called “The Good.” That’s why the Greeks looked for the presence of gods all around them, in the waves, in the clouds and the thunder, in an eagle riding the winds, circling in the sky. The Greeks, unlike so many of us who wander in the wilderness of the modern world, never felt completely isolated from a divine order.

If Odysseus, the hero of one of literature’s great love stories, were walking in my shoes, he would have believed that some god had led him back to the old house, and he would have stood by the shore where Allan McPherson watched the tides and searched for a sign. He would have fallen to his knees and asked if he was on a course sanctioned by the gods. The gods showed me no signs, at least none that I could discern, but I kept looking, and watching the tides, and searching, for what I didn’t know, but it was all I could figure to do.


Two uninhabited islands called The Brothers lie about a mile offshore from the old house. Their cliffs and rocky beaches have been shaped and smoothed by the tides and currents in the bay. On the clearest blue days, we can see the islands of Grand Manan, Campobello, and the Wolves as dark strips and hills that float and shimmer on the distant horizon. The Brothers, however, are our islands, and they never disappear from our view except on days when the thickest fog settles over the point. We do know that many years ago, long before anyone can remember, the two islands were one, until the waves washed over a narrow isthmus and cracked the rocks and pushed the debris into the sea to make them two. We know this because ever since we have been watching The Brothers they have been connected by a long sandbar that emerges at low tide — allowing us to imagine what was — before the bar slips below the surface when the waters rise.

When we were children, we named the islands Walter and Philip, the larger island on the right named for me, and the smaller island on the left for my brother, who is five years younger and in those days was smaller in stature. Some years after we personalized The Brothers, our family took a trip on a fishing boat out beyond the islands and discovered that the Walter island is in fact larger than the Philip island, the long backside of the Walter island being hidden from our usual view. We learned how fallible our senses are, how little we know about the world around us, even about perceptions that we believed were correct and unassailable.

During my first weeks at the old house, everything about my future was uncertain, except that I wouldn’t be living there alone, because Walter had come to the house a few weeks before I had. His marriage was also ending. He had been living in a farmhouse about a half an hour away, and his wife was in the process of packing up and moving to Ontario. He was travelling in Vietnam and Japan on a student-recruiting mission for the University of New Brunswick, a contract he had recently landed, and before boarding his plane, he had dropped off some of his belongings. Just inside the front door, I found his piles of cardboard boxes and duffel bags. Some of the contents had been unpacked and stacked on the floor.

Walter and I were roommates as children and became best friends as men. Siblings don’t always become friends, and I consider his friendship one of the joys of my life. During my worrisome years, before Walter was married, he would show up at our place from time to time with a case of beer and we would stay up all night talking. I would encourage him to continue the conversation long after he wanted to sleep because I was hungry for the contact with an adult outside my little family enclosure. Once, I flew from St. John’s to spend the weekend in Halifax, where Walter was then living, and after I finished my business in the city, he and I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight, got drunk, and then sobered up and continued our conversation until I had to leave for the airport.

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