Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Islander

Thu, 10/20/2016 - 12:30pm

John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Simon and Garfunkel countered with, “I am a rock; I am an island.” Sometimes a summer visitor will comment—with the most romantic of intonation—that they are “an islander at heart.” Those who remain through the Ides of March may roll their eyes at that last bit.

What makes somebody an “island person?” I’ve had cause to think about that lately, and it’s not simple at all. As long as we’re tossing around song lyrics, folksingers Andrew Calhoun and Tracy Grammer sang, “This is my home. This is my only home…” while Bob Dylan muttered, “Anyone with any sense had already left town…”

Unbridged, offshore islands where a daily commute is not possible do require a certain mindset and a degree of resourcefulness. Forget about the stereotypes, though. The hermit idea, first of all, is usually bunk. There are a few hermits on islands, but there are hermits everywhere. It is far easier to be anonymous and private and left alone in a large city, if you think about it. In a crowd, nobody expects you to be on the fire department or bake cookies for the school open-house or pay your excise tax face-to-face, and nobody worries that you’re in bed with pneumonia just because you didn’t show up at the post office at your usual time.

Some who have never crossed the bay imagine islanders merely as vacationers, cocktail-hour sailors in flip-flops with sweaters around their shoulders; they assume that everybody leaves when the temperatures drop. On the flip side, there is a less refined stereotype—one that a few folks in positions of authority have indicated they believe—where a year-round Maine islander is probably a crank who has resigned from civilization: an unwashed hick in oilskins, an idealistic if misguided homesteader seeking the nineteenth century, or a fugitive from justice. I am not making this up.

Some of my neighbors define themselves with a really tough criterion, hinting that a genuine islander shouldn’t want to leave his or her island. There is a sort of suspicion of disloyalty if you cross the water without audible complaint. That one is tricky.

Extremes aside, there is the general idea that those who choose to live on islands—and everybody who lives on an island does so by choice these days, to be sure; there are no exiled Napoleons among us, no Bird-Men of Alcatraz, no Families Robinson—that we do so because we wish a quiet life at home. An islander is, one may assume, uninterested in too much running around. For those who choose a life surrounded by sea, presumably, the comfy coffee shop in town holds little charm and the movies no particular attraction. They don’t see the open road as an adventure or the open sky as a hobby (although they might look at the open sea as a home town). An islander, because of this desire to avoid hubbub, does not sit on committees or collaborate with board-members, nor do they willingly attend classes, address crowds, or join in riots. All of this stuff is the troublesome “rat race” the islander has left behind, with gratitude, and well rid of it. As a rule, goes the generalization, they’d rather have less of society and less of every other man’s racket.

Less, maybe, but not none.

Our stereotypical islander spends her days enjoying quiet walks on the beach. Well, there is truth in that. They sit at leisure in an Adirondack chair admiring a sunset in peaceful solitude. They shun the mainland because there one finds traffic, and rules, and noise, and hurrying, and excessive demands made upon one’s time and space by strangers and by regulations. “If I could live here, I would never want to leave!” Above all, what matters is what is not on the island — Main Street, the Interstate, the “halls of power,” the “madding crowd.”

I struggle with that description of an islander. There are romantics here in rose-colored glasses, yes, and there are loners. There are lovely sunsets worth sitting still for, and there are a few wackos and occasionally somebody wanted by the law. There are also islanders who’d happily go to hear Jimmy Buffett in Bangor if they get the chance. There are school kids and teachers, and dads with their families on the mainland, and a few MacGyver-types. There are sternmen with no roots or ties here at all but who call themselves citizens of the island. There are industrious, intelligent, independent folks who do just fine staying put, summer and winter. Mostly, there are lobster fishermen, male and female. The few others juggle multiple jobs.

There are also people who are trying to run from themselves. That never works. People in crisis do sometimes flee to an island thinking that “way out there” — without the authorities, without the “ex,” without the people to whom they owe money, without the cops — they shall be free of their troubles. We who have been here a while have seen it again and again. It doesn’t work. Likewise the depressed, the heartbroken, the bitter, the addicted, those who think leaving the mainland will free them of demons, find quite the opposite. Nothing expands trouble and depression quite like isolation. The long party that is summertime doesn’t last.

Friendships will. Friendship is what you need to survive on an island. That, and a full tool box.

There is not really a “we,” by the way, despite my comments just now. People ask very simplistically, “What do the islanders think about” this or that issue? Hard to say; we are not a school of fish. We are not a flock of starlings. We do not think alike. We are damned sure not “one big, happy family.” In March, we are more likely to act like one big 7th grade.

Many who were born here live somewhere else most of the year, or take off for a winter trip because at their age, why not? They’d be justifiably furious if it were suggested they were less of an islander for that. Many residents of this island have two houses, but it’s this one that counts as “home.” I go back and forth a lot; I’m on a lot of committees and take a lot of classes and go on trips. Supposedly that’s not normal. It’s sort of funny; people on those associations and advisory boards, in those graduate courses and volunteer organizations, often seem to think that their meeting is the only time I ever leave Matinicus. Sure; I’m some kind of crazy hermit here, hunkered down between the lobster traps in my sou’wester, eating salt fish and snarling at strangers, except for every other month when I cross the raging seas so I can go to a committee meeting in my Prius. Right.

As much an anything else, it’s good to get out of the fish bowl. My home is comfortable but it is also very public. We sell propane here, we fix things, we sell bread, we dress wounds; here is where you go to find the phone man when you can’t call the phone company because your phone doesn’t work. That’s fine, but people show up at zero-dark-thirty after fittings and parts. That’s just how it is; they have to. There is a certain kind of solitude on the highway, and if the telephone rings in Dysart’s or Starbuck’s, it isn’t for me. In a random cafe in a random town, I could be from Sheboygan, and nobody needs any fittings, and nobody cares how many people live on that island. In my admittedly odd case, the occasionally pleasant sense of being alone doesn’t come from being on the island. Actually, it is quite the contrary.


 Eva Murray lives on Matinicus

More Industrial Arts



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