Provincetown, My Provincetown

I’ve been ambivalent about Provincetown for as long as I can remember. It was about thirty-five years ago that I first camped with my family in North Truro and visited Provincetown, which we did every summer for several years. Then, after my parents divorced, my father, my brother, and I stayed in a hotel on the beach in Provincetown itself for a few summers. One of those summers, my father met a woman who happened to have just built a house in the woods on the east end of town on a whale watch (I have no idea what she, as a local, was doing on a whale watch). A few years later, she and my father split up, and we didn’t come up here again for years. I came up with friends in college a couple of times and camped back in North Truro again, and then didn’t come up again until the trip on which my wife and I got engaged.

Since then, she and I have come back pretty much every year, a couple of times twice a year, and stayed in a series of better and better inns. We’ve come on our own, we’ve had friends up at the same time, and we’ve had family up. This is where, five years after his passing, we finally had my father’s memorial service. It’s a beautiful place, with everything that anyone (or anyone I would want to know) could want, from high-end shops and restaurants lining the aptly named Commercial Street, to art galleries and theaters with pedigrees decades and even centuries long, and all of it set in the vast unspoiled beauty of dunes and ocean as far as the eye can see. You can be as entertained, as active, or as relaxed as you’d like. I long for it; I dream of it when I’m not here; I listen to the local radio station and look at the Web cams; and yet when I’m here, it never offers the solace I hope it will. And it’s more than the simple disappointment that follows the failure to realize any unreasonable expectation.

As long I’ve been coming here, there’s always been something besides the joy of it. In fact, despite the continuing improvement in the accommodations and resources at my disposal, the joy hasn’t really increased. And behind the joy, there has always been this desperate sadness, a sadness that is probably best captured by Edward Hopper, often in paintings of Cape Cod landscapes. The light in those paintings flirts with warmth, but settles on an emptiness that ultimately feels harsh and hopeless. It’s the light of a photograph being overexposed, all the detail standing out sharply and then fading, showing how everything will dissolve into void. It’s the primordial impermanence of everything to which I’ve attached myself showing through. In Freud’s terms, it’s the uncanny. It’s the emptiness I’ve known since beginningless time appearing undeniably before me in the form of everything that I want. In Buddhist terms, it’s the samsara I’m coming to understand as the delusion that I cling to as the root of all of my suffering. And in both Freudian and Buddhist terms, these would be excellent realizations for me to achieve, were I better equipped psychically and spiritually to integrate them. Alas, I’m not.

Instead, I spiral into my suffering. I can neither renounce the attachments that drag me into this pain, nor can I simply enjoy them. I grab them and hold them fervently, wringing out and then discarding whatever they might offer me. And I wonder: Is this the collapse of my futile project of ego, the surrender of which will lead to some attainment and perhaps some bliss; or is it just the onset of some sort of psychotic breakdown? I suppose it depends on whether I believe the Freudians or the Buddhists. This started with being a little overwhelmed at work, but it has begun to engulf everything around me. Something’s going to happen.

Yesterday, I took a walk out west along Commercial Street and then back east along Bradfrod Street. When I first starting coming here, those were the two streets that defined the town, the whole of which seemed to lie between Bradford Street and the harbor. Over the last thirty-five years, contemporary houses that don’t fit at all architecturally with the unspeakably charming houses crowded into the older part of town and, worse, row after row of tacky condominiums have been crowded into what used to be the woods and swamp between Bradford Street and Route 6 (and beyond that, the blessedly still protected Cape Cod National Seashore). It occurred to me as I walked along the edge of this development, that little tiny Provincetown has developed suburbs with all of the ecological and aesthetic disadvantages that suggests. Where you once used to be able to walk anywhere you wanted to go in Provincetown, the people living, or at least staying, over there will need to drive everywhere. They’re not near any commerce, recreational activities, or entertainment. Whatever they’re in Provincetown for will require that they drive to it. And I can’t imagine the water, sewage, and electrical demands this places on the very narrow and delicate infrastructure that’s been stretched out here to support this little fishing village and artists’ community. As I had started my walk, I passed the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, which was advertising a presentation of how global warming and rising sea levels would affect Provincetown (most of which is a couple of feet above sea level). Something’s going to happen.

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