The City and the Sea

Portland, Maine, sometimes dismissively known as “the other Portland,” the New England city that may not get as much attention as its funky, bigger sister in Oregon. That is a damned shame, however, because Portland, Maine is one of the most beautiful small towns you will find in the Union. Walk alongside the Old Port waterfront and the 19th-century Victorian buildings with a potato-apple doughnut in hand from The Holy Donut and a cup of hot coffee. Let the small beads of rain hit your skin, breathe in the Atlantic, note that you cannot yet see your breath, give thanks, and keep walking down the cobblestone sidewalk.

Visit the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine with an energetic 19-month-old, who shakes her maracas fiercely and stomps her feet to the tunes of a bespectacled beauty playing a ukulele and managing, somehow, to keep her toddler audience rapt. There is a young mother discussing why she does not keep a strict schedule with the small baby strapped to her chest and another lamenting a babysitter who did not feed a toddler anything in the several sacred hours she left the house. There are grandparents suiting up small charges in firefighter coats and suspendered pants while other children dash down the fireman’s pole or race up the stairs to drive the firetruck.

Know this: When it feels as if the whole world is burning and nothing is right, find yourself among small children, who do not yet know that life is sometimes a joyless slog. Portland’s native literary son, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, knew as much about children when he wrote, “Ye are better than all the ballads / That ever were sung or said; / For ye are living poems, / And all the rest are dead.” Once the music-loving toddler hits hangry, find yourself at Mi Sen and order crispy garlic chicken and Thai fries for the babe and drunken noodles for yourself. Enjoy the way red curry enlivens the taste buds and shakes off the cold.

Even though it is almost mid-November, there is not yet snow in Portland. So, you and your best friend from college—the one you have known since you were both 17 and fresh-faced, the one you met crying because her father had just left her on the steps of the same residence hall as you, the one whose hand you took into yours and said, “Come with me. It will be okay”—carry a stroller down and up steps at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth to emerge along an oceanside cliff. The place where sea meets sandstone looks like jumbled stacks of petrified wood instead of the metamorphic rock of tan quartzite and dark gray phyllite. The quartzite glitters as you hold it up to the sun.

Watch as your best friend’s four-year-old son takes a piece of phyllite and unceremoniously breaks it, giving you the other half to take back home to Missouri. Observe as the waves crash upon the ledges that were formed during the Silurian Period, some 400 million years ago. When one grows up in a land-locked state, you often find comfort in more subdued forms of nature—creeks and crawdads, rocks in the shape of elephants, and mountains dulled to hills. Yet here, the children of Maine run in circles on a grassy circle above the cliffs near an unarmed WWII bunker as the ocean crashes upon rocks seals sometimes use to sunbathe.

This is the first time your daughter has seen the ocean, and while you know she will not remember this first, the thought makes you happy. This place gives visitors and natives alike pause and a chance to revel in the ocean’s vastness and unforgiving beauty. There is comfort and relief in acknowledging our laughably short lives.