Some places help you remember who you are when the world has helped you forget.
We drove through the night making two trips from the apartment on Elizabeth St. to Nana’s house to drop off the kids, then down 495 to 28 to the steamship parking lot. I sat between them in the cab with instructions to make sure my mother didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. They couldn’t take turns because my stepfather couldn’t drive a stick. My mom had worked a double shift the day before. We had one weekend to move out of our apartment into the duplex on Schoolhouse Road; some place near South Beach called Katama. We pronounced all the town names wrong the first 6 months securing our title as ‘off-islanders’ and probably Massholes, even though we were from Rhode Island. The accent didn’t help. The earliest boat was 4:30. Our first island lesson was patience. It was a freight boat which fit about 10 cars or 6 small trucks. There were two stairwells on either side of the open main deck. The upper deck had an enclosure with two claustrophobia inducing metal bathrooms and a couple of red leather booth seats, like the ones on the Staten Island ferry. Everything was covered in a wet blanket of salty fog. Incidentally for all you fog connoisseurs, early morning Narragansett Bay fog is saltier. Vineyard fog is understated, like it doesn’t have to try so hard. Somewhere behind the clouds the sun was rising. I hadn’t slept since the day before which went along with the surreality of moving from a dead end city street behind a brick mill to an island that was home to political royalty. The boat docked in Vineyard Haven, which didn’t look how I’d expected; an empty daydream. There was an orange and brown A&P sign next a Chinese restaurant which was sinking into a fractured parking lot. It flooded all the time. The four corner intersection was marked with weather beaten shacks distinguished by colorfully muted, hand made signs; Wintertide Coffee House, Cumberland Farms, Black Dog Bakery. There was also a closed t-shirt shop. The window was littered with sun-faded logos of whales, boats, grapes and a thousand paper flyers. Diagonal from the A&P was a gas station with another weather beaten shack behind it. Through the grey intersection was a yellow light. I could see a counter. All 3 of us thought the same thing, coffee. A man with a bristly face gave us menus. It was orange inside with bar stools, chrome stems and wood paneling. I could smell pancakes and aside from thinking about time, money and calories, the three ever present, deciding factors in whether or not I want something, I thought I’m very hungry, overtired and will earn and burn them unloading the truck. Impossible, cliched or otherwise, they were the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten. Warm buttermilk and silence with a little syrup and no regret. I didn’t even have to pay. Something sweet, satisfying and far away from all the things.
My 8th grade class, all 20 of them, made fun of the way I talked but also invited me to let my hair down. It looks good babe. It looked ridiculous but I didn’t have to care anymore. The mainland dissolved in the space between the dock and Woods Hole. There were no malls or branded billboards telling you who to be. We’d never had much to do with TV so those messages couldn’t find us either. In the absence of constructs and orders, authenticity emerges, which comes out like a scream at first. I was empowered by the thumb on my right hand and milk money from the dairy farm. I got working papers, my own bank account and another job downtown. The distraction and energy previously spent on required hypervigillence to walk to a basketball court or church park shifted to boredom then purging. Things surface when we slow down which is one of the reasons we keep busy. We were still poor, financially speaking, but now I had access to my own means. The little leverage afforded maturity through the deciding power that comes with a paycheck. We need ways to not feel helpless, efficacious. Fresh milk forms a thick skin to protect the watery stuff under the surface. Jobs are probably like that; barriers from loose stuff inside us. School had always been an effortless chore that took up space. Work was any performance I got paid for. That time felt justified, if not unpleasant, since it’s never not been an option. Dealing with your shit is what you do when everything else is done. These were the gifts of the island; time, space and means. A holy trinity of sorts.
This morning I was thinking about unpacking and those pancakes. I unloaded more than boxes filled with meaningless crap into rooms with smelly rugs and dirty walls. I got filled up with more than pancakes despite the fact that I let myself become the hungriest there. It’s like bringing all your needs to an invisible witness who can mysteriously lead you to choices and perspectives that become answers. I can’t articulate the safety of unconditional acceptance but it gives you permission to become undone and otherwise let down whatever, or whoever you’d been asked to hold up. At church last night they talked about Sabbath as a practice. I’d qualify the Vineyard as a Sabbath place; be with rather than get from or give to. As the Vineyard taught me to be it wasn’t that nothing happened it was that the things which needed to happen now had the space to surface. If the island could speak it’d probably say: ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’ And I have. And she did.
Have you ever gone somewhere that knows you better than you know yourself? They’re never easy or convenient places to get to. Truth be told I haven’t been back to the Vineyard since my niece was born, 5 or 6 years ago. Sorry Maya, auntie is bad with dates. It’s expensive for one and giving myself permission to spend any length of time there means explaining to mainland family who are all close by why you’ve come all that way but didn’t budget them into your trip. Boundaries for reconnecting are work in that sense; maybe you haul regret, fear of confrontations, guilt, shame, feeling unworthy or worthless. Giving ourselves the luxury of disconnecting from ego and the world to reconnect with love, or god or whatever you call sanity is merely a matter of fact. We can’t make everyone happy. We can’t earn grace. We can’t undo hurts from our past and someday, everyone we love will die. Chipper but true. If we don’t learn to be the rest will never come.