A week after I was born a small work party built a 20-foot by 30-foot cottage halfway along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the chain of lakes known as the Finger Lakes that define the geography of Central New York State.
The cottage was nothing more than 2x4s covered in plywood and dotted with a few windows. The roof was more plywood covered with a layer of roofing shingles nailed in place, the end of many nails visible from inside the cottage. A few coats of heavy, oil-based exterior paint was a form of glue that seemed to hold everything together. Inside a 2×4 frame was covered on one side with more plywood to form a bedroom; curtain served as the door. A used gas stove and refrigerator equipped a kitchen. A couple of old chairs, a small dining table and a pullout sofa filled the living space.
When the work was done my grandfather hung a small, hand painted sign that featured a glowing sun and the words christening this spot on Earth as Sunset Beach. Anyone who ever watched the sun set from this beach understood instantly why he’d chosen that name for his retreat.
What he did not know as he hung his sign was this simple building and this small plot of land would become the one common experience, the one constant physical location, shared by four generations of his family and their extended families, even as life’s twists and turns moved people in different directions and to different, often faraway, places.
I doubt he had any idea his first grandchild – me — would come to find this place his own sanctuary, even as his life took him far away from it physically. Especially that place at the end of the dock.
The door of the cottage faces north. When one exits the cottage and turns right a few steps takes you across an abandoned railroad bed to the outhouse, a 3 or 4 foot square building set against a steep bank that towered perhaps 40 feet above the cottage and shielded the cottage and beach from the morning sun as it rose to the East.
A left turn finds you at the top of some steps – really railroad ties cut and placed to act like steps – that lead down a six foot bank to the “beach,” a stone covered stretch of land about 30 feet wide. The beach runs 75 feet along the shoreline, part of a natural bay that provides a gently sloping swimming area perfect for small children to wade and paddle about in.
To the left as you descend the stairs is the picnic area, framed by what is now a concrete break wall built to keep the high spring waters away from the cottage footings. It provides a level area for tables and chairs and picnic tables to be used, and for toys to be sorted and used. To the right of the steps is an area where hundreds of fires have burned, occasionally to ward of the dampness of a cool evening but mostly as the focal point for sitting quietly and listen to the water lap the shore and katydids croak their incessant sound.
Almost at the center of the shoreline, aligned perfectly with the railroad-tie steps, is the dock, nothing more than flat boards nailed to 2x6s attached to steel pipes pounded by sledgehammer into the lake bottom sometime in mid-April…when the water temperature might top 50 degrees. This simple structure defines life at the cottage – or as we call it, The Lake – because it is gathering place, handhold, fishing pier, boundary line, jumping off point, anchor, and playground.
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The end of the dock is my retreat, my place to sit alone and quiet and to let my body relax and my mind wander. For as long as I can remember, I have always found my way to the end of the dock and stopped to look around, and to simply feel the water, see the hills, and to feel the breeze on my face. It is almost an unconscious act…walking to the end of the dock shortly after I arrive to anchor myself at the cottage. I always return for an extended visit once the car is unloaded and everyone settles into his or her own activities.
The first trip is a short, connecting visit, confirming that I am actually there, at the end of the dock. Later, when I have time, I often return for a real visit, one that can last a few minutes or, with luck, a few hours. After a bit, my mind quiets, my body changes, my breathing slows and my thoughts and emotions start to swirl around in different ways. I cannot tell you how many times I have left the end of the dock refreshed from an almost meditative experience, or with worries resolved, or answers found. Sometimes I find answers to questions I didn’t know I had.
I spent many days and nights at the cottage as a young child, often staying a few days at a time with my grandparents, just as my younger siblings did. When I was able to drive, I would often go there myself for a few hours to think or feel or write. In that period I would sometimes go even in the middle of winter when the dock was away and the shoreline frozen; I would stand by the water, getting as close to the end of the dock as I could, replicating the feeling of being surrounded by water and nature.
My life has taken me away from my hometown, but I take every opportunity when I return to visit to drive to the cottage and visit the end of the dock. In the first years away, I would often find a quiet place and imagine myself back at the end of the dock. With a little patience and focus, I could feel the breeze, hear the water, smell the air and almost perfectly create a visit to my favorite place. As years passed and my life changed, I found myself returning there less and less often, both in a physical sense and, more important, in an emotional sense.
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The last two or three years have brought me back to the end of the dock, in one sense because I have started to write again, and in one sense because my children have taken me back to the cottage.
I’ve written all my life, as a journalist and as a business person, but had long ago all but stopped writing. I purged my portfolios and files to a very small number of pieces.
During the past three years or so I’ve started to write again, some of which I’ll share through this blog, and have even tried my hand at a little fiction writing. What I’ve found is that writing soothes me and helps me think and feel and to organize my thoughts, much like the way I feel when I visit the end of the dock. No matter what I am writing, when I set aside time to write and the words start to flow; I find myself in a peaceful, thoughtful place…and place where I feel most myself.
The past two summers my young daughters have discovered the cottage, and like every child before them, the amazing things they find along the shore and the adventures they have on the water fascinate them. While they splashed and played, I rediscovered the end of the dock, and perhaps uncovered a secret or two it tried to keep hidden.
Last summer I stood on the end of dock with my camera in hand and took photo after photo of the shoreline, the nearby cottages, and across the wide expanse of water beyond the dock. Different lenses, different focal points, different angles. I took similar pictures from the shore.
When I reviewed the photos, scrolling through them on my computer screen, I realized how different things looked from the end of the dock. I could see farther up and down the shoreline, cottages looked different, the water looked different, and I could see our cottage from a different point of view. In those moments, I understood that going to the end of the dock was not only about quiet and solitude, but also about a chance to see and feel things from a different perspective because I changed my point of view.
That’s something I enjoy when I write…seeing things differently, looking at other perspectives, other options, learning new things. In writing, it might be seeing the same event or situation through the eyes of different characters in a piece of fiction, or different participants in a magazine or newspaper story, or even exchanging different points of view over an essay or article; but whatever drives it, writing helps me see new possibilities and other ways of thinking, being and acting because I look at things from different points of view.
When it came time to title this little spot in cyberspace where I can explore the thoughts and interests that fuel my writing and help me think and feel and be myself, it seemed to make perfect sense to name it after a small little spot on the globe that offers me the same feeling…the end of the dock.
Glad you’re writing, Mike. Keep up the great work!
This is really nice, Mike. I find myself returning, probably several times in a hectic a day, to my grandparents’ old house and the area around it, in Hillsdale, with much the same feeling. Thanks for sharing this.
Michael, the end of the dock sounds like a wonderful place. Your writing has a beautiful cadence to it. I enjoy reading it! Susan
Thanks for your kind words.
This is terrific, Mike! Looking forward to reading more.
Thanks Amy. You more than many can appreciate the environment there.