The Wedding

Why did it take me almost 20 years to find my way to The Wedding? It’s not as though I didn’t know it was there, and it’s certainly not as though I didn’t know of Dorothy West. I read her first novel, The Living Is Easy, not long after it was reprinted by the Feminist Press (now at CUNY) in the early 1980s.

Wedding cover 1I was a feminist bookseller in Washington, D.C., at the time. For the previous 15 years or so, I’d been an occasional visitor to Martha’s Vineyard. On my visits I mostly hung out on Tisbury Great Pond. Before The Living Is Easy, I had no clue that there was an African American summer community on the Vineyard, or that it dated back at least to the First World War.

Then it dawned on me that the Dorothy West who wrote the Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette and the Dorothy West who had written The Living Is Easy were one and the same person. My psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard, which at that point was more or less a triangle with the airport, Alley’s, and Nip N Tuck Farm at its three points, expanded so fast, in time as well as space, that it was a while before I could take it in.

So why did it take so long to come to The Wedding? Well, when it came out, I was just getting down, with much angst, self-doubt, and procrastination, to writing my own first novel. A couple of years later I got back into horses, after 30 years away. Between one and the other and working full-time, I missed a lot. Probably the title put me off some. If weddings were vampires — not a bad analogy, come to think of it — I’d wreath myself in garlic.

The literal wedding of the title doesn’t even take place in these pages, but in a way the entire novel is about the weddings — the matings and meldings — that eventually produced Shelby, the bride-to-be. As a child, Shelby, the younger daughter of the affluent Coles family, wanders off from “the Oval,” the novel’s mainstage, the geographical and figurative heart of the African American summer community on mid-1950s Martha’s Vineyard. In the wider summer world, she is mistaken for white. She could pass if she wanted to. She doesn’t, but the man she’s engaged to is white. Worse, as far as her family is concerned, he’s not a doctor: he’s a jazz musician.

Older sister Liz has transgressed in the opposite direction: she married a doctor (good) who was visibly “colored” (horrors!). And her infant daughter, Laurie, inherited her father’s skin color, thus becoming both a rebuke and a challenge to the family’s more color-conscious members. Especially Gram, Liz and Shelby’s great-grandmother. Gram, doddering towards her 100th birthday, is bona fide white, the daughter of a slave-owning southern plantation owner. Her only consolation is watching her colored descendants become whiter and whiter, in both demeanor and appearance — until Laurie comes along.

Wedding cover West

Author Dorothy West.

How Gram’s only daughter came to marry a black man is part of the multi-generational saga that Dorothy West sketches in this exquisite, poignant, heart-wrenching novel. Contrary to the conventional injunction to “show, don’t tell,” West does a fair amount of telling, but her telling is so rich with detail and insight that this reader barely noticed.

Shelby and Liz have both white southern gentry and hardworking colored farmers in their family tree. The weddings that produced them were practical, sometimes carefully calculated affairs. If love played a role, it was after the fact — and often outside the marriage. The affluent colored vanguard who established and maintained the Oval have now become the old guard, with all the elitism and class consciousness that implies. Shelby and Liz represent the first generation with enough security to marry for love, and no one is more uneasy about this than those who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to make that freedom possible.

It’s not a unique story, about the costs and consequences of upward mobility, but The Wedding is exceptionally well written, sometimes funny, and deeply, often excruciatingly wise. If you haven’t read it already, put it on your list.

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Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting

In “Small-Town Journalism in the ’80s,” guest blogger Eileen Maley recalled covering “West Tisbury’s planning board meetings, where much of the action took place. Overflow crowds showed up to hear proposals to chop up large plots of land for housing and to hear tough-minded responses from the elected board members.”

Strange but true, I wrote a sonnet sequence about one of those meetings. According to my manuscript copy, the meeting took place on January 13, 1986. It was my first winter on Martha’s Vineyard. I was trying to understand how things worked. (I’m still working on it.) The sonnets appeared on the op-ed page of the Vineyard Gazette a few weeks later. This might have been my first island publication.

Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting

He tries to sit at eye to eye with all
the people in the room. His shirt is red,
his sweater brown, his manner folksy: “call
me one of you.” I think it’s just pretend.
Not one of us has come to be his friend;
we’ve come to hear him talk before we fall
upon his plan and tear it into shreds.
Gut grief for it, and him, unnerves us all.
Should I be in this room myself? I’m new
in town. What could I say to undermine
the plots this man is laying? Just a few
of those here gathered speak, but they do fine.
These mostly strangers speak my fears, they do
what I cannot — not yet, but give me time.

His name can be dispensed with — not his plan.
He means to clear two hundred acres, build
his houses, eighty-six, upon this land
he does not own. The agent’s role he fills
for one who was astute enough some years
ago to put his money into earth,
a man who stays in Washington, appears
by hireling proxy here (for what that’s worth).
His job is to develop land, which means
to bring to greater, better state: improve.
Who chooses to be undeveloped deems
herself anachronistic, out of groove.
Tonight the moon’s in Pisces; till it moves,
remember things are more than what they seem.

He never says, but still he makes it clear,
he’s doing us a favor. See? His map
shows forty acres common land. “Now clap
for me,” he thinks, “or else. Or never fear,
the next guy will be worse.” How nice that land
will look to tourists driving by, a hint
of what was here before the houses, glint
of sun on glass, electric wires, the grand
parade of cars along new roads. How nice.
On my walk through two days ago I found
surveyors’ marks: red ribbons tied to pegs.
New gouges in the old dirt road suffice
to give me warning, mute but full of sound:
This earth must suffer silent, will not beg.

This crowded room gives license for her friends
to speak in her behalf. The Health Board warns
how nitrites leach through sandy soil, then end
polluting nearby coves. A young man mourns
his loss of income when the pond is closed
for oysters; toxin levels are too high
already. Crisis hits who crisis sows?
We know who tells it that way tells a lie.
Upon the wall the owner’s man has hung
his plan. The pond does not appear, nor do
the beach plums, deer, raccoons, or branches slung
above the leaves. The map provides no clue
to what is there. Instead it shows thin lines
across the paper, earth reduced to signs.

This dextrous wizardry cannot be stopped,
it seems that right is on his side. This plan
is like a demon called when no one can
inspire the strength to bind it. Who would opt
for rules finds rules are less than ribbons when
this monster must be bound. We play for keeps
yet stay between the lines as faint hope seeps
away. Polite we are to all these men,
pretending what they say is not insane,
short-sighted, greedy, shocking, and inane.
Myself, I speak in mannered sonnet form
when outraged pain and ire should be the norm;
where legal arguments uphold the wrong,
our magic must be dark, earth-deep, and strong.

January 24–26, 1986

Reflections almost 30 years later: Wow. The plan being discussed eventually became Deep Bottom Pond, a suburban country club subdivision without the country club. “How nice that land / will look to tourists driving by, a hint / of what was here before the houses”: I was a clueless newbie, but I sure nailed that part. What strikes me now is the undercurrent of tragedy: “where legal arguments uphold the wrong / our magic must be dark, earth-deep, and strong.” Our magic wasn’t strong enough. At almost every turn the people with money and lawyers have won.


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Small-Town Journalism in the ’80s

Guest blogger Eileen Maley was the first Calendar editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I was the second. If it hadn’t been for Eileen, I wouldn’t have wound up at the Times at all: at a West Tisbury town meeting ca. 1987, this woman I didn’t know turned in her seat and asked if I did typing. I said yes. She asked if I’d be able to fill in for the Times’ editorial typesetter, who was going on leave for a month or so to look after her sick husband. Long story short: I got the gig and was eventually hired as the part-time proofreader; I was soon contributing theater reviews and occasional feature stories to the paper. I learned so much from Eileen that when she left the paper, I got her job.

Anyway, fast-forward almost three decades. Eileen and I are both in Cynthia Riggs’s Sunday night writers’ group. Eileen’s been working on a memoir about her life, which started in Canada and went literally around the world before she married Tim Maley and settled on Martha’s Vineyard. When she brought this piece to the group, I asked if I could publish it here. She said yes. It’s a wonderful picture of Vineyard journalism in the 1980s, as experienced by someone who’d been a journalist in both Canada and Australia. At this time, the Times was located in a long, low building that no longer exists behind Woodland Market. It moved to its current Five Corners location in the fall of 1991. The Field Gallery, referred to at the end of the story, was established by the Maley family and still features the whimsical statues of Eileen’s late father-in-law, Tom Maley.

Susanna S.

by Eileen Maley

I was thrilled to be hired as a reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. After all the years away I felt I had come home to my real career. I was the comeback kid, so pumped that I covered every little news item with a vengeance. People kept telling me to settle down.

In the past I’d worked only for papers in big cities; I hadn’t realized the repercussions of telling all I knew about the second cousin of my neighbor’s uncle’s ex-wife’s estranged stepson. This is a small town. In those early days at the Times I got yelled at a lot.

Gerry Kelly, the island’s only true investigative reporter, warned me a couple of times but I ignored him. The editor, Doug Cabral, kept quiet, letting me take the heat. One woman reader threatened to beat me up; I hope she felt better in the morning. An ad salesman begged me to drop a derogatory word about the town where his clients ran businesses. I didn’t think it was so bad to call Oak Bluffs a honky-tonk town. Something to do with ragtime piano music, isn’t it? Honky-tonk means fun, doesn’t it? But on the Vineyard everything is personal.

Some things were too personal to last. When I first moved here, the Grapevine ran a column naming all the people who were granted divorce decrees in the Edgartown courthouse. I expect that was one of the best-read regular items in print, but discretion ruled in the end and it was dropped.

The Times was and is a weekly, and had been extant for just two years when I started to work there. The paper began on the demise of the Grapevine, a tabloid weekly which ran front-page photos of telephone poles or septic systems, never anything attractive. Ace Gerry Kelly had been the Grapevine‘s editor; at the Times he wrote most of the paper, ensconced in his oversized chair at his oversized desk. Gerry was there at work before anyone else arrived in the morning, still there when everyone left at night. But at the Times, Gerry didn’t get to choose the front-page photographs.

Doug Cabral, the Times editor, had been editor of the Vineyard Gazette, where I had done some freelance writing. There were a few others who had shuffled between the papers. In my experience journalists didn’t stay anywhere very long, but several of my Times colleagues from the eighties are still working there. Bless ’em.

The Times was started in 1984 by a group of businessmen who had been insulted by the other weekly, the venerable Vineyard Gazette, and whose goals seemed to be to publish, to prosper, and to punish. The Times founders were decidedly pro-business and in favor of economic growth on the island, anathema to the sensibilities of Gazette integrity. When the Times‘s waggiest reporter looked out the window one day and saw the owners dressed in suits, ties, and briefcases, heading our way for a meeting, he stage-whispered, “Psst, the grown-ups are coming.”

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of violent crime around here, nor a lot of political corruption, nor even celebrity scandal, though this would be a good place for it. The Gazette chose to concentrate on environmental and development issues. Housing development boomed here in the eighties, escalating the year-round population of fewer than 9,000 to 19,000 by 2010. The Gazette‘s focus hit the right note, noble yet somehow impersonal. I always felt the Gazette was written for people who wished they were here.

Meanwhile the Times focuses more on island people, their extraordinary moments as well as their daily lives. Under new ownership, the Times is doing just fine.

And of course both weeklies cover all the politics, all the boards and committees and commissions and authorities for all six towns and one county.

Both run regular columns of court news — of who got in serious trouble. In my first years here I sometimes read the names of people I knew. Before I knew it, I was reading the names of the grown children of people I know, and any minute now, their grandchildren will show up in court.

During my stint as a roving reporter that first year, I was assigned to cover Oak Bluffs political meetings, which tended to be more high-strung than those in the other towns. This was where one of the selectmen left official meetings in tears, wounded by comments from a quibbler in the audience. This is where a critic in the audience spat out her hostility about a proposed social program for the town. Whatever was on the agenda, it made lively copy for the following Thursday’s edition.

Later my beat was switched from Oak Bluffs to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the island-wide overseer of land use planning, as well as West Tisbury’s planning board meetings, where much of the action took place. Overflow crowds showed up to hear proposals to chop up large plots of land for housing and to hear tough-minded responses from the elected board members. In the 1980s commission meetings sometimes continued well into the wee hours. Developers didn’t like reporters of any stripe, and reporters didn’t write flattering stories about their proposals.

In the spring of 1987 the Times changed its format and its content. The paper became tabloid size with lots of ad-free space for double-page spreads, usually profiles of island people and their accomplishments. A new feature section was added to the paper, called Calendar. The section embraced the arts and artists, the entertainers and entertainment, with a focus on the personalities of the island people who provided these distractions. I was the editor of Calendar until I wore out in 1991.

I was happy to escape the hard news end of journalism, especially in such a small community. The political conflicts of the community were not my cuppa. Writing profiles of talented people trumped the sad news of human tragedy when you know or almost know the victims of these hardships. And I’d rather skip the antics of small-town politicians; so often they are our neighbors.

A reporter from a big city daily, while on vacation here on the island, told me that our work schedules must be much more relaxed than his because we only had to meet a weekly deadline. I pointed out that while he wrote maybe one article a day, we had to produce half a dozen or more in five days. Weekly papers don’t have big staffs.

It was fun until it wasn’t. Because I was still associated with the Field Gallery, I felt a lot of pressure from the other twenty-eight art galleries on the island to provide wider coverage of their artists and exhibits. Then the theater companies, dance groups, concert organizers, nightclubs, and restaurants began to feel neglected. I did the only sensible thing. After five years, I quit.

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Martha’s Vineyard Basketball

Slightly adapted from the review I just posted on Goodreads . . .

MV Basketball coverNo, I’m not a sports fan, but my fascination with the Vineyard and anything related to race and class is insatiable, so I had such hopes for this book. Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It doesn’t look like what one reads about in textbooks or sees in urban areas. Here, as elsewhere in the U.S., we bend over backwards to avoid seeing it. It’s complicated by the distinction between the year-round population and the “summer people”; by the ethnic groups with deep roots here (especially Wampanoag, Anglo, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean); and by the long history of African Americans on the island.

What a great idea, I thought: to explore “notions of race and class” by focusing on basketball, specifically the summer basketball program that started in 1970. Basketball does bring together people from a variety of backgrounds, women as well as men (and not only as spectators), and the tight focus might make manageable complex subjects that otherwise tend to sprawl out of control.

Unfortunately, Bijan C. Bayne’s Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) doesn’t deliver. The raw material is there, especially the interviews with participants, and most especially those with Coach Jay Schofield and the several participants quoted at length in the “Coming of Age” chapter near the end of the book.

What isn’t there is a coherent narrative, a path for the reader to follow through the thicket of names, dates, and anecdotes. The book jumps back and forth between the 1970s, the ’90s, and the present, and between the Vineyard and the various urban neighborhoods where some of the participants spent their winters.

It deals almost as much with the basketball program at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School as with the summer basketball activities at “The Courts” at Oak Bluffs’ Niantic Park.

It veers off on tangents like Senator Ted Kennedy’s famous mishap on Chappaquiddick (1969) and the filming of Jaws (1974). Not only do these things have little to do with basketball, they play into common stereotypical notions of what the Vineyard is, or was, about. Despite his long relationship with the Vineyard, Bayne generally sees it as off-islanders and summer people see it.

And the book frequently gets bogged down in the scoring and rebounding stats from games that took place 20 and 40 years ago. Momentous as these might have been at the time, they loom much smaller when this much time has passed.

This book desperately needed an editor. Two editors: one to work with the author on structure, then one to focus on words, sentences, and paragraphs. Someone should have noticed that West Chop is not in Oak Bluffs and that the ferry Scamanchi‘s name was not spelled like that. (Schamonchi, anyone?). And, once the manuscript was complete and the page proofs ready, a proofreader. No editors are mentioned in the acknowledgments. Was the book professionally edited at all?

Being an editor and writer myself, I can’t help offering a couple of suggestions, even though it’s too late to make this book what it could have been. At the top of the list: Use the title and subtitle as a guide. There are four big topics here: Martha’s Vineyard, basketball, race, and class. Develop each one separately, then braid them together. As it is, we get some basketball history and some glimpses of the Vineyard before 1970. The history of African Americans on the Vineyard doesn’t come up till chapter 6, and class isn’t discussed at all. What, exactly, are these “notions of race and class” that the summer basketball program defied?

In the process, some major themes would emerge, among them basketball as a rite of passage and performance space; the importance of coaches and peers in transmitting values to young people; the contrast between summers then and summers now, especially from a kid’s point of view; and the importance of friendship, especially across race, class, and seasonal lines.

Then I might look for two or three individuals whose experience over the decades could provide both a narrative thread and a distinct personality for readers to follow. As it is, those with some Vineyard experience are going to love finding familiar names in the text (I did!), but outsiders are likely to be dizzied by the sheer number of names — a little like dipping into the sports section of a newspaper when you aren’t a sports fan. Coach Schofield and the author himself are the most likely candidates.

Then I’d send the author home to organize the wealth of detail in this book into the coherent narrative it could have been.

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June License Plate Report

2015 june license map

A good month for the West and Midwest: South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, and Arizona.

South Dakota and Iowa never did show up last year, so snagging them both in June is a minor coup. I had a strong assist on South Dakota. Cynthia Riggs, mystery writer, gardener, and co-proprietor of the Cleaveland House B&B, tipped me off that B&B guests here for Virginia Blakesley’s memorial service had South Dakota plates on their car and would be around till Wednesday. I showed up for writers’ group on Sunday night and there it was in the driveway.

About the booboo in the list: I spotted New Mexico, wrote it down, realized I already had it, and noticed that I hadn’t recorded Arizona yet, although I’d seen at least three of them. Being a chronic East Coast girl, I have to think hard to recall whether Arizona is the one on the right or the one on the left.

Same deal with Wyoming and Colorado: Which one’s on top and which one’s on the bottom? When I recorded Wyoming, I saw that Colorado was still blank, though I’d spotted several. Colorado is not uncommon; my theory is that a some people, either seasonal residents or transient workers follow the snow westward then come back east for the summer.

Hmm. Just noticed a goof in the numbering. Arizona is 39, not 36. Will fix that PDQ.

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Measles on the Map

Measles came to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month. An off-island child, presumably here on vacation, was taken to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and diagnosed with it.

Before, measles was deep background for most of us. Now it occupies a prominent place on the psychic maps of both individuals and the community at large. A month from now, it will have shrunk considerably, but it will be a while before it seems as remote as it did in May.

Aside: For more about psychic maps, see “My Martha’s Vineyard.” Regular maps show places the way they look to a hypothetical objective observer. My psychic map shows places the way they look to me. Each person has his or her own unique psychic map. Communities have them too. Martha’s Vineyard looms very large on the psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard.

Immediately upon diagnosis, the hospital, island health officials, and the state Department of Public Health (DPH) went on red alert.

The Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times have now told us just about everything we wanted to know about measles, with all the breathless excitement that accompanies incoming blizzards and hurricanes.

Ditto social media, notably Facebook, particularly the Islanders Talk group (4,500+ members), which is where I learned what was going on.

The kid with measles visited the  Airport Laundromat in Friday, June 12. I was there a week later. That was probably as close as we got.

The kid with measles visited the Airport Laundromat on Friday, June 12. I was there a week later. That was probably as close as we got.

The DPH ascertained where the child had gone when she was probably infectious but no one knew she had measles, Monday, June 8, through Wednesday, June 17. The locations included three libraries (West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah), the Airport Laundromat, and Sharky’s Cantina and Ryan’s Family Amusements, both in Oak Bluffs. Dates and times were given for each location. Each one was notified, and they in turn did what they could to notify whoever had been there at the same time the child was.

On the subject of measles, it seems, my own psychic map was stuck in the late 1950s, which is when I had measles. As noted in a blog post earlier this month, I just turned 64. I had measles when I was 7. Measles was not a big deal then. Nearly every kid got it sooner or later. Yes, we had to stay out of school and away from the adults in the family who hadn’t had it, but it wasn’t till adulthood that I learned just how serious measles could be. The phrase “childhood diseases” made it sound like a routine rite of passage, and that’s what it pretty much was.

Not anymore. The responses, official and unofficial, to this one kid with measles took me by surprise. I caught up on some facts I’d heretofore managed to miss.

  • The first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963. An improved version, licensed in 1968, is the one in use today. It’s usually combined with vaccines against mumps and rubella (known as German measles when I was a kid) in the MMR vaccine.
  • Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000.
  • Dr. Richard Partridge, who diagnosed the case at the M.V. Hospital’s emergency room, said, “I’ve been practicing 23 years, and never seen a case of measles.” He’s based at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., and does a rotation on the Vineyard and Nantucket every month.
  • Measles has been making a comeback in the U.S., with 668 cases reported in 2014, the highest number since 2000. These cases came from 27 different states. (The Centers for Disease Control estimate that before the vaccine were were about three to four million cases of measles in the U.S. every year.)

Considering how infectious measles can be, the apparent fact that the 668 cases didn’t spread out of control can probably be attributed to widespread vaccination and the concept of “herd immunity.” This is somewhat complicated, but the gist is that if a certain percentage of the population is vaccinated, those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons are protected against the disease. Because measles is “highly transmissible” — it spreads fast, and starts spreading before the telltale rash appears — the percentage required for herd immunity is estimated at 90% to 95%.

Which brings me to what were to me the most surprising facts of all:

  • Martha’s Vineyard elementary schools have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Massachusetts.
  • At 26.4%, the West Tisbury School’s “exemption” rate is the second highest in the state, according to a study released last year by the state DPH. That translates to about 75 un- or under-vaccinated kids. The exemption rates at the Chilmark School and the charter school, both too small to be included in the state study, are similar.
  • Exemptions can be granted for medical or religious reasons. Medical exemptions must be approved by a doctor and renewed every year. Religious exemptions don’t have to be approved by anybody and are good for life.
  • The state average for religious exemptions is 1%, but for the seven schools surveyed in Dukes County the religious exemption rate is 18%. Most of the exemptions in West Tisbury are for religious reasons.

This is curious. Yes, there are religions that frown upon or proscribe medical intervention, but they are not widely practiced in West Tisbury. I suspect that the religious exemption is serving as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” loophole for parents who for whatever non-medical reason don’t want their children vaccinated.

Yes, I’m aware of the roiling controversy about vaccinations in general, but no, I’m not going to go there. What intrigues me about all this is how we as individuals and as a community assess risk and decide what to do about it. For instance —

  • Vaccinations carry some risk. They don’t work for everybody, and for some they may do harm.
  • As long as measles remains a remote hypothetical possibility, the risks associated with vaccination loom large and larger. Once measles appears on the psychic map, those risks seem manageable.
  • Parents who consider vaccines unsafe don’t think twice about putting their kids in the car and driving down-island, up-island, or off-island.
  • As long as measles remains a remote hypothetical possibility, those who are vaccinated or otherwise immune don’t think much about those who aren’t. “It’s their right, it’s a free country,” etc., etc., etc. Once measles appears on the psychic map, live-and-let-live goes — not quite out the window, but it’s headed in that direction.

In other words, it’s much easier to tolerate something that poses only a remote, hypothetical threat.

At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, the more familiar, worthwhile, and/or unavoidable something is, the better able we are to deal with the very real risks. This freakout about measles would have been unimaginable when I was a kid.

So if a reasonably safe, highly effective inoculation against Lyme disease — which isn’t spread person-to-person but is widespread on Martha’s Vineyard — became available, would those who oppose vaccinations in general make use of it?

Some supporting info:

Centers for Disease Control FAQs on measles

Low Vaccination Rate Prevalent on Island,” by Alex Elvin, Vineyard Gazette, February 12, 2015

Measles Diagnosis Exposes Martha’s Vineyard’s Vulnerability,” by Barry Stringfellow, Martha’s Vineyard Times, June 25, 2015 (posted June 24)

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Singing After Charleston

Susanna J. Sturgis:

I wrote this for the little blogsite I maintain for the U.S. Slave Song Project. I sing in the project’s Spirituals Choir, and yesterday we traveled off-island to sing at a Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Mass. A moving and inspirational experience. (We also ate very well.)

Originally posted on U.S. Slave Song Project:

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass. The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.

Where to start, where to start?

If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.

The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of…

View original 463 more words

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Gay on MV

Me at Gay & Lesbian Pride Day celebration, P Street Beach, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jim Marks)

Me at Gay & Lesbian Pride Day celebration, P Street Beach, Washington, D.C., early 1980s (Photo by Jim Marks)

I started this post last fall, after the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce blogged about “LGBT MV.” I’ve been poking and prodding it ever since. What used to be called Gay Pride, then Gay and Lesbian Pride, then LGBT Pride, and now often just Pride Day — or Week, or Month — has rolled around again, so I figured this was a good time to fish or cut bait.

Martha’s Vineyard, said the Chamber of Commerce, “is a welcoming, safe, and fun place for members of the LGBT community — plus, the Island has lots to offer LGBT travelers!”

Apparently the first public gay pride event on Martha’s Vineyard was held last summer at The Yard, the seasonal dance colony up in Chilmark. Wow. I didn’t hear about it through the usual channels, which is to say Facebook, word-of-mouth, or the bulletin board at up-island Cronig’s.

But word travels in circuitous ways on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in the summer. And there’s a strange barrier between the summer island and the year-round island. It’s porous enough to see through, but it garbles communication. It seems we can hear the summer people loud and clear, but whatever we say comes through with static if it comes through at all.

This ILGA T-shirt could be worn almost anywhere on MV because hardly anyone on MV in the early 1990s knew what the pink triangle meant.

This ILGA T-shirt could be worn almost anywhere on MV because hardly anyone on MV in the early 1990s knew what the pink triangle meant.

Were the organizers and participants of this event aware that Martha’s Vineyard has its own gay and lesbian history? Or, put a little differently, that some gay and lesbian history has taken place on Martha’s Vineyard?

On Changeover Weekend in 1985 I moved to Martha’s Vineyard from the lesbian-feminist community of Washington, D.C., where I’d been active for eight years. People kept asking if I’d ever been married and whether I had kids. I’d never been asked these questions before. (This was before the lesbian baby boom.)

In D.C. I’d been lulled into the belief that “lesbian” and “feminist” were practically synonymous.

Ha ha ha. Wrong. To my urban eyes, half the women on Martha’s Vineyard looked like dykes: they were sturdy and strong; they wore jeans, flannel shirts, and comfortable shoes. These did not mean the same thing on small-town Martha’s Vineyard that they had in big-city D.C.

Very few of the lesbians I met had heard of Adrienne Rich or Judy Grahn or Audre Lorde or Cris Williamson or Pat Parker. The ones who had were all straight feminists. They were the ones I wound up hanging with. Most of them were divorced, or the men in their lives stayed at a safe distance. When we hung out together, we were all single women with no men in sight.

The lesbian thing did, however, matter. I was recognized and recruited PDQ into island theater by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996). Island theater was like theater in most other places: a veritable hotbed of misfits and nonconformists, gay, lesbian, straight, both/and, and neither/nor. My people. Whew.

The word “lesbian” was never said out loud, even by lesbians. Especially by lesbians: why would anyone say “lesbian” out loud unless they were one?

Instead we said “the L-word,” long before there was a TV show of that name. Or used the ASL sign for L. And gods help us all, some people really did use “Lebanese” as a synonym for “lesbian.”

Having been active and visible in a lesbian community for eight years, four of them working in a feminist bookstore, I had little experience of “the closet.” I was fascinated by closet dynamics. As Mary Payne had recognized me almost at once, I had recognized her — and quite a few other sisters and brothers. I had recognized them right off the bat — or should I say “boat”? — but many of them seemed to think they were “in the closet.”

Even stranger, straight women would occasionally ask me if so-and-so (usually a man they had some romantic interest in) was gay. Invariably he was, but my stock reply was “I don’t know — why don’t you ask him?” This was unthinkable then and barely thinkable today, so they probably thought I was either very cheeky or downright rude.

Finally it dawned on me that when people asked me whether so-and-so was gay, they were actually acknowledging that they knew I was a lesbian and that was OK with them.

In the late 1980s and very early ’90s, Martha’s Vineyard began to discover AIDS. That story deserves its own book, but suffice it to say I often felt as though I’d fallen through Alice’s looking-glass. I was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times in those days, so I attended various educational events that I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. From these I got the impression that one could only get HIV from dirty needles or blood transfusions.

At the same time it was clear that for some AIDS was synonymous with homosexuality and that all “homosexuals” were men. When someone ranted that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals, some of us pointed out that lesbians had a much lower incidence of AIDS than straight people, so maybe God was on our side?

In the very early years of the AIDS Quilt, 1987 or 1988, the late Nancy Luedeman (1920–2010) made a quilt panel for four Vineyard men who had died of AIDS. Things being as they were in those days, two were identified by first name and last initial, and two by initials only.

Amid the general climate of ignorance and hostility, the Martha’s Vineyard Times published a few nasty homophobic letters from a fellow on the Cape. Partly in response, some 26 of us brave souls gathered at the Wooden Tent in 1991 (IIRC) to form the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. The attendees were pretty evenly divided between men and women. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves (first names only), it seemed that half the women were named Kathy. When Lansing Bailey introduced himself as Kathy, everyone cracked up. No one present will ever forget it.

For several years ILGA held regular potluck gatherings. Some members marched in Boston’s Gay and Lesbian Pride parade behind an ILGA banner made (I believe) by ally Tom Hodgson. For the first time ever, island residents and visitors could find lesbian and gay contact info in the almanac section of The Island Book. Dan Waters and Hal Garneau put out a classy newsletter called, appropriately enough, Stone Walls. They were also responsible for the two ILGA T-shirts shown in this post.

In late 1993, two fathers attempted to get two kids’ books about gay families pulled from the Oak Bluffs School library. Over the next several months this spawned several contentious meetings and letters to the editor. In January 1994 I helped organize a Banned Books reading that packed Wintertide Coffeehouse. Using the list of banned and challenged books published annually by the American Library Association, about 20 of us read from our favorites. The late Ken Miner, minister of Trinity United Methodist Church in the Campground, read the David and Jonathan story from the Bible. The Oak Bluffs school committee eventually decided to keep the books on the shelves.

That spring, the short-play festival at the Vineyard Playhouse included Susan Miller’s “It’s Our Town Too,” a poignant riff on Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town in which the parents of the young people who grow up to marry are a gay couple and a lesbian couple.

In the years following, the Vineyard’s year-round demographics changed enough that for many all of the above may seem like ancient history. My novel The Mud of the Place is set in the late 1990s, but its roots are earlier in the decade. One character refers to the attempted book banning. The closet plays a key role in the plot. Readers sometimes ask me for reassurance: “That couldn’t happen today, could it?”

To which I reply: “Probably not in the same way, but there are always things we don’t dare discuss in public, and the fear of being thrown out of family or community never goes completely away.”


No man is an Island Lesbian

One of the cleverest T-shirt slogans ever — “No man is an Island Lesbian (& Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard)” — but back in the day I only wore it off-island.


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When I’m 64

That would be today, and for the next 364 days until I turn 65.

I love birthdays on Facebook. People from all the nooks, crannies, and corners of my life check in with birthday greetings and remind me of all the worlds I’ve wandered through and the amazing people I’ve met. This makes me think of all the amazing people I’ve never met and probably will never meet, which makes me think that the world is probably going to make it after all, even if I sometimes have my doubts.

On my timeline I’ve posted a few photos from way back when, waaa-aa-aaay back when. No one alive today knew me then. Both my parents are dead, my four uncles likewise, and since I’m the oldest of four, my siblings either weren’t born yet or were too young to remember.

I was an only child for 16 months. I don’t remember that either.

Come to think of it, I didn’t know me then either , but at least I have the pictures.

RSS & SS 1951My father, Robert Shaw Sturgis (better known as Bob), graduated from architectural school a few days after I was born. I didn’t know what an architect was. He didn’t know what he was in for.

CMS & SS 1952 sm

This is me and my mother in 1952. My brother Roger was born in October of that year, but it’s hard to tell how pregnant my mother is. The foliage looks like late spring, so maybe I was about one? That’s my parents’ Studebaker in the background. I’m not sure where the photo was taken. Maybe at my grandmother’s?

And here’s me at about two and a half:

type ca 2.5

This wouldn’t crack me and everybody else up so much if I’d gone on to become, say, a rocket scientist, a garbage collector, or a math teacher. But I didn’t. I went on to become a writer, editor, and all-around word person. My mother was a crackerjack typist, but I didn’t learn to type till I was an unemployable female college graduate of 25.

What I didn’t know about sexism, the work world, and life in general at that point would fill a book, but that’s not what this blog post is about.

What I’ve been thinking about on my 64th birthday is how lucky I was to be born where I was, in a small town west of Boston that was turning into a suburb. A town where war hadn’t come since about 1776. A town where the rule of law was taken for granted and police officers were friends of the family.

It wasn’t till I moved to Washington, D.C., for my first year of college that I began to realize that most people in the world, and many people in my own country, were not this lucky.

Terrorist University

Travvy and I check out the very first print copy of Terrorist University.

Earlier this year I edited a remarkable novel: A. E. Sawan’s Terrorist University. Paul, the protagonist, is an ordinary 10-year-old in a small, ordinary Lebanese town when the civil war arrives in 1975. His family loses everything. They move several times, in flight for their lives. Paul eventually becomes a counter-terrorist operative and has many harrowing adventures and narrow escapes.

Then he finds himself on a flight to Canada, where his middle-aged seatmate asks for a pen to fill out his landing form. But Paul’s pen won’t do, because it writes in black ink. The fellow prefers blue ink. After borrowing a pen from the flight attendant, he proudly shows Paul his landing form, completed in blue ink.

Paul is astonished.

Because at that moment I realized something that I had lost as a child.

I had spent the better part of my life dodging bullets and trying to survive in order to get my revenge. My dilemma was how to survive to the end of the day, because I might get my head blown off at any moment. The Canadian man next to me also had a dilemma: “How do I complete my landing form?”

Black ink or blue ink? A very hard choice to make. I had this big grin on my face. I closed my eyes, put my head back, and started thinking. This Canada place must be so easy to live in; how lucky these people are. In life you can get lucky just by being born in the right place.

On June 8, 1951, I was born in one of the right places. I was lucky.


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May License Plate Report

2015 may license map

Idaho and Utah are new on the map this month, for a total to date of 34 — out of 51, because as a former D.C. resident I always include the Last Colony non-state in the tally.

The map seemed a tad colorless for the end of May, so I looked up May for the previous two years. I’d logged 36 by this time in 2013 and 2014, so 2015 isn’t far off the pace. Visually the big states across the nation’s midsection account for most of the difference. In 2013 and 2014 both Colorado and Kansas were colored in. In 2013 so were Nevada and Utah; in 2014 Nevada and Utah were still AWOL, but Missouri had shown up, as it never did in 2013.

On the plus side, Wisconsin is early this year. I’ve seen at least three different Wisconsins. A few days ago, while driving alongside Oak Bluffs harbor, I spied two interesting plates, so I pulled over, parked, and walked back to check them out. One was a South Carolina whose design I hadn’t seen before; the other was Alabama. I had both of them already. Worth the closer look, though.


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