Every home has its habits and favorites: the best places to run, the best places to shop for bread or coffee or shoes; the best place to hang out and meet friends.
This month, my husband and son and I moved away from Ithaca, NY, where I’ve lived (with a couple long breaks) since 2004. Now in the Boston area, I’ve already started to pick out my running routes, my grocery habits, a happy place or two. But some things we’ve left are irreplaceable. Today, I am thinking about five Ithaca landmarks you won’t find anywhere else.
The dinosaur egg
My son howled the first time he saw this. He was 13 days old, most likely cold or hungry, and was simply doing what newborns do. Or maybe he in his infant wisdom sensed something I didn’t.
The Dinosaur Egg (not its official name, I’m sure) sits alongside a swampy wooded path in Sapsucker Woods, part of Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. With no plaque, plate or explanation, it leaves the imagination to speculate how it got there and what it means. Aliens? Artistically-minded engineering students? An ancient, overgrown lizard? Bill and I ran this path a lot and every time I had to pause and press my face to its cool stone slope. In my days of running-while-pregnant, I paused to hug it, absorbing some of what might be fertile power. And soon after Paul was born (small but healthy, perhaps due in part to my prenatal visits to the egg?) we took him to see the dino egg as part of a fun family walk.
Not just near the egg but throughout the whole walk. Yeah, definitely channeling something.
Red Feet Wine
Once upon a carefree time, a small, wood-floored wine shop opened its doors every Thursday night for a wine tasting event. As happens when free alcohol is offered, people crowded the small space, holding the funky wine glasses the staff called “shapeys” and trying to look thoughtful. We really did need our thinking caps, because tasting nights at Red Feet really were mini-classes in viticulture, one five-sample theme at a time: “Spanish-speaking Wines;” “An Exploration of Volcanic Soils;” “Winter Busters.” This is the way wine ought to be framed.
Spring 2020 eliminated Thursday night tastings, but I continued to be a loyal customer. Bill and I found our wedding wines at Red Feet; he brought a Red Feet bubbly to the hospital to celebrate the birth of our son; and I used their curbside pickup a lot while running errands with a sleeping baby in the seat.
It isn’t convenience or free stuff that makes Red Feet unique. It’s curation.
Cambridge is both a college town and high-brow, meaning there are wine shops everywhere, but you can’t replicate Red Feet. The first time I shopped for wine in here, I was pleased to learn that one of the two (only two?!) Finger Lakes wines carried by the Cambridge shop is Forge Cellars, a label founded by a close connection to Red Feet’s owner. A bit of Ithaca following me.
There are lakes everywhere, but not this lake. Forty miles long north to south, more than a mile wide in some place and reaching 400 feet deep, Cayuga is one of the region’s Finger Lakes carved by the nails of glaciers clawing its way across the region 10,000 years ago. Ithaca sits at the far southern tip. For a long stretch of my life there, when I lived downtown, I tried to catch a glimpse of the lake every day. It wasn’t hard. Driving north up Route 13, running along the waterfront trail, hanging out in Stewart Park: Life in Ithaca orients itself toward and around this strange body of water. At least it did for me. I’ve run along it countless times, biked around it, swum miles in it (although not yet across it – I leave that to my friends who do Women Swimmin’ for Hospicare) and sailed on it. I fell in love on its shore.
No matter how many times I gazed at it – sunrise, sunset, midday, midwinter, midnight, and even mid-hurricane as the edges of Sandy washed up – Cayuga Lake looked breathtakingly beautiful. For years, this body was my north star, pointing me to the top of the compass and, in some dark times and some more hopeful ones, forward through life.
The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca
When I hear someone say “friends are the family you choose,” I think of these people. Yes, it’s an acting studio housed in the founder’s basement that, through a five-semester curriculum, trains aspiring actors in the Meisner Technique. But it’s also magic. And difficult. And soul-baring, gut-wrenching. And exactly what I needed at a certain point in my life, a point that extended into a line of seven semesters of classes and several years of creative community.
Someday, I’ll write a post about Meisner Technique. For now, I’ll simply say it’s intense. One acting friend called it “Fight Club for creative types.” Another called the studio the MAZE: morally ambiguous zone of experience. No matter what we were doing in there, when you spend more than six hours a week in a windowless space, saying what is precisely on your mind at any given moment while your classmates watch, listen and take notes, you either implode, or you grow. I grew.
The small Michigan town where I attended college had a welcome sign on the main road, proclaiming: “H_____. It’s the people.”
We smart-ass undergraduates smirked at that. But it’s true. Case in point: my education at a tiny liberal arts college set in mid-western farm country was not made special by the unremarkable brick buildings, the library collection or the losing football team. It was my co-smirkers. My friends.
Ithaca was my home most especially because of my friends, people who took me in, got me involved, invited me places and challenged me. No one can replace them. I can’t duplicate them.
I miss Ithaca. Comparisons are inevitable, and the new inevitably can’t measure up to the beloved and familiar. But also, this new start feels good. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of potential curled up in the next two years, waiting to hatch.
Although probably not in the shape of a six-foot tall stone egg.