Going to Church

When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, I wasn’t surprised by the number of churches. The town I grew up in west of Boston, population about 10,000, had one for every denomination I’d ever heard of at the time (which isn’t as many as I’ve heard of since).

Grace Episcopal Church, Vineyard Haven, where I've attended many rehearsals, meetings, and memorial services over the years.

Grace Episcopal Church, Vineyard Haven, where I’ve attended many rehearsals, meetings, and memorial services over the years.

It didn’t surprise me that on the Vineyard there were three Episcopal churches (one summer-only), three Methodist, two Catholic, two Baptist, a couple affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and a few of a more evangelical bent, all for a year-round population of 15,000 or so.

It didn’t even surprise me how much time I, a confirmed (literally — in the Episcopal church my parents belonged to) non-believer, was soon spending in churches, not for worship but for theater rehearsals, chorus rehearsals, meetings, and the occasional lecture or other program.

What surprised me was the church-hopping. I met people who’d gone from, say, Episcopal to Congregational, Baptist to Unitarian and back again, because they liked the new minister or had become disenchanted with the old one. Or they might attend two or three different churches in any given month. Switching denominations was not the big deal I’d assumed it was.

Where I’d come from, the feminist women’s community of Washington, D.C., Christianity was not held in high esteem. As women and especially as lesbians, many of us had had bad experiences with whatever denomination we were born into. We didn’t go church-hopping. We bailed.

Religiosity, of a patriarchal, misogynist kind, was then on the rise in U.S. politics, but I had seen firsthand that there’s more to religion than religiosity. In the antiwar movement, I’d been inspired by and worked alongside people whose work in the world embodied their religious beliefs. The liberation theology coming out of Latin America introduced me to a whole new way of looking at Christianity. I learned how essential churches had been to the rise and success of the civil rights movement. In the 1980s churches in the U.S. and elsewhere played an important role in the sanctuary movement, assisting those fleeing political persecution and civil unrest in Latin America.

In my D.C. days, I participated in many pagan celebrations, some of which were held in Christian parish halls. Secular Jewish feminists organized and invited all comers to community seders. My understanding of the spiritual and respect for the power of ritual kept expanding, all outside the confines of the Christianity I’d grown up with.

That continued once I landed on Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to keep singing, but singing on the Vineyard mostly happened in churches. I wasn’t up for attending church services every week. I did join the pickup group that performed Messiah every holiday season, and when that evolved into the year-round Island Community Chorus I stuck with it. Much of its repertoire was church-related; I found it easier to sing God the Father stuff when it was in another language. The chorus eventually grew so big that the community part was getting lost for me. After 10 years I left.

Now I sing with the Spirituals Choir of the U.S. Slave Song Project, a much smaller group. Director Jim Thomas has devoted his life to researching the spirituals, songs sung by African slaves in the U.S. from their arrival in 1619 till Emancipation in 1865. We present them wherever we’re invited, in libraries, churches, senior centers, and every July at East Chop lighthouse.

Many spirituals draw their imagery from the King James Version of the Bible. Some have been adopted into the hymnals of various Christian denominations. But as Jim explains, the songs work on at least two levels: one that would seem innocuous to the slave owners and overseers, and one that communicated something else to the slaves.

church program

The cover of the order of service

So last Sunday we were part of the regular Sunday service at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, universally known as “the West Tisbury church” because it’s the only one in the center of town.

The theme of the service was migration, immigration, flight from one place to another. One of the scripture readings was from Ruth (1:6–18), in which Ruth chooses to go with Naomi, her mother-in-law, into Naomi’s land. In the other, from Matthew (25:34–45), Jesus says that whoever aids the stranger, aids him; and whoever turns the stranger away, turns him away.

Our spirituals, sung by people who were torn away from their native lands and treated abominably by those who claimed to be Christian, fit right in. In “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” slaves who customarily stood while they served those who sat imagined a better future for themselves. “Great Day” celebrates Emancipation: “This is the day of jubilee / The Lord has set his people free.” So does “Rise, Shine,” sung during the Civil War as the Union army approached and thousands of slaves “self-emancipated” without waiting for official permission.

“Done Made My Vow” was sung by slaves preparing to escape on the Underground Railroad: “Done made my vow to the Lord / That I never will turn back.”

“Fare You Well” was a song of leave-taking, sung by slaves who were sold away from friends and family whom they were unlikely to ever see again.

In her powerful soprano, guest soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross sang “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” When Jesus appears in the spirituals, it usually refers to someone who was a friend to the slaves, who eased their burdens and perhaps helped them escape.

With the congregation we sang “We Shall Overcome,” not a spiritual but a modern song closely associated with the civil rights movement.

You didn’t have to be a Christian or believe in God to feel the power, the connection between those who fled slavery, those currently fleeing war and oppression, and the stories of those doing likewise in the Bible. The songs are not museum pieces, and neither are the stories. They’re being played out today. Are we escaping bondage, and helping others to escape? Are we feeding and clothing the stranger, or are we turning our back?

From the Spirituals Choir's 2013 appearance at the West Tisbury church. Soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross is in yellow at the far left. This year she wore blue. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

From the Spirituals Choir’s 2013 appearance at the West Tisbury church. Soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross is in yellow on the left. This year she wore blue. Director Jim Thomas is at far left. I’m second from right in the front row. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

 

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Ice in August

We had a winter last winter, remember? As in previous winters, I decorated my little deck with ice disks and posted new ones on Facebook. When spring finally arrived, I didn’t have the heart to remind people of the winter just past so I never got around to posting an ice disk round-up here.

Raw material

Ice disk mold

Aha! I thought. When summer rolls around, we’ll be glad to look at ice disks. Well, for the last hazy, hot, and humid week or so I’ve been wishing I had an ice disk to rub on my face and maybe stick under my shirt. Unfortunately it was too hazy, hot, and humid to do any more work than I absolutely had to.

Today, however, it’s hazy and humid but not quite as hot, so here’s a little gallery of ice disks gone but not forgotten.

Ice disk season started on November 16, 2014.

20141116 disk one

First ice disk of the season

20141119 leafy disk

Leafy disk

Ice disks cast interesting shadows.

20141122 shadow 1

Around the winter solstice I put my lights up. By the end of December it was cold enough that the disks didn’t always melt during the day. It snowed now and then, but we had no idea what was coming.

20150103 snowy 3 pm

The colder the night, the thicker the disk.

The colder the night, the thicker the disk

Between the wind, the sun, and a rambunctious dog, the deck sometimes looked like an ice disk battlefield.

20150111 battlefield

Winter started in earnest at the end of January when a blizzard dumped about two feet of snow in my neighborhood. This was unusual. What was really unusual was that it didn’t melt away in a week or so. We had snow on the ground till the end of March.

20150129 night trio

On February 4, I had a septet.

20150204 septet

Life saver. This one is second from right in the septet photo above.

20150203 life saver

More night disks, mid-February.

20150212 night disks

My old point-and-shoot died of exposure when I left it out in the rain. In its time it had photographed many an ice disk. This seemed a fitting tribute.

20150214 camera 2

Maybe I’m easily amused, but I love this stuff.

20150214 more snowy

No ice disks in this one, but the lights and the snow did their own dance on the deck railing.

20150215 railing 5

Stick Travvy’s bone in an ice disk and who can blame him for trying to take it back? Not to mention that he gave up the use of his outside water dish for most of the winter so I could make dog dish ice art.

20150217 trav & boney

20150216 boney

On February 21, I set a new winter record for most ice disks: 13. Getting them all in one photo was too much of a challenge, which is why you’ll only count 12 in the bottom photo. But there really were 13. Meaning for 13 consecutive days the temperature didn’t get above freezing, even on my desk which gets direct sunlight from midmorning to late afternoon.
20150221 two rows20150220 dozen

I’ve got dozens more to choose from, but you’re feeling cooler now, right?

If it stays hazy, hot, and humid, maybe I’ll post some more in a few days.

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Undercover in the Summerland

Ta-Nehisi Coates might be the best, most challenging, most important writer I’ve read in years. I’ve been following his blog on TheAtlantic.com for a while now. His Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” is must-reading for anyone on the verge of rage and/or despair about recent and not-so-recent episodes in this country’s sorry history of race and racism.

I heard he was going to be speaking in Chilmark, at the opening panel of the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. The ticket price was $50: steep. The title, “Whatever Happened to Post-Racial America?,” was bogus. As Coates wrote in “There Is No Post-Racial America,” in the July/August Atlantic:

The term post-racial is almost never used in earnest. Instead it’s usually employed by talk-show hosts and news anchors looking to measure progress in the Obama era. Earnest or not, the questions we ask matter. As many of our sharper activists and writers have pointed out, America’s struggle is to become not post-racial, but post-racist. Put differently, we should seek not a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.

The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival calls itself “a celebration of the rich literary heritage of Martha’s Vineyard and the many authors who find inspiration on this beautiful island.” This “rich literary heritage” is part of the summer Vineyard that winks into existence around Memorial Day and winks out by Columbus Day at the latest.

This took me by surprise when I washed ashore 30 years ago. I thought the island was riddled with writers writing and talking about writing. It wasn’t. All the writers I associated with the Vineyard were summer people. When they left, so did the island’s celebrated literary scene. As I became accustomed to seeing with a year-rounder’s eye, though, I discovered that yes, indeed, Martha’s Vineyard did have its own writers. Poets too, and journalists.

The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, though, focuses on authors with New York book contracts and national media buzz. I wasn’t wild about supporting it. But Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of maybe five people I’d pay $50 to hear. I went online and bought a ticket.

My psychic map of the Vineyard, August 2011.

My psychic map of the Vineyard, August 2011.

So on Friday, July 31, I drove to Chilmark, found parking at the Chilmark School, and walked across the ball field to the community center. The place was already crowded. More chairs were being set up. I found a seat about three-quarters to the rear. I recognized maybe six people in the crowd. In part this was because I don’t know Chilmark well — it’s not on my psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard — but mostly it was because this was a summer-people thing and I’m not a summer person.

Being by descent and upbringing a mostly WASP who looks it (apart from my out-of-control hair), I blended in pretty well with the up-island summer crowd.

I did, however, feel like I was working undercover. Especially when the emcee started going on about how many people when they go on vacation turn their backs on the world, push the world away — but not the wonderful people who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. They come here to embrace the world, as evidenced by the SRO audience, who had paid $50 to listen to a conversation on a contentious subject.

This was, of course, not the time to get up and ask if they’d ever thought of embracing Martha’s Vineyard. Most of them wouldn’t have understood the question. But I did think it.

Most of what Ta-Nehisi Coates said was familiar to me from Between the World and Me, “The Case for Reparations,” and “There Is No Post-Racial America,” but since I was surrounded by summer people, the vast majority of them white, I tried to listen like a white summer person. Here’s some of what stood out for me:

  • When the larger society looks at the current state of race relations in the U.S., it overestimates the importance of anger and underestimates the importance of fear.
  • In traveling to France, Coates had the rare experience of not being immediately categorized by the color of his skin — an experience that white people in the U.S. generally take for granted.
  • Of James Baldwin, one of his major influences, Coates noted that Baldwin didn’t address himself particularly to white people. Instead he put his works out there with the open invitation to partake if they wished. The image Coates used was cake: here’s some cake; if you want some, come on over.

Mostly, though, I wondered if the summer people were taking in what Coates had to say about “the Dream,” the so-called American Dream. “I have seen that dream all my life,” Coates writes in Between the World and Me. “It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and Cub Scouts.”

He writes about “want[ing] to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket,” then adds: “But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

He did not tell the summer people that the Dream includes vacation homes on Martha’s Vineyard, but it does, and I wonder if they were at least a little uneasy with the thought. I hope so. Reading Coates, and Baldwin, and Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and a host of others who write about race and class and sex unsettles me to the core. It presses my finger to a hot burner and holds it there. Of course my finger will burn up if it stays too long on the hot burner, so I have to pull it back, then reach out again, over and over.

Between the World and Me opens with a story: Coates is being interviewed by a white journalist, and the journalist in the end is unable to take in what he’s saying. “It was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream,” he writes. She asks, he answers — but she doesn’t want to wake up, and because of her privilege she doesn’t have to.

Neither do the summer people who packed the Chilmark Community Center to listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates. They don’t have to hear what he’s saying, The payoff for them is showing how open-minded and liberal they are just by being there. They can hear selectively, just as they see selectively when they come to summer Martha’s Vineyard and barely notice the year-round island.

Coates is now celebrated — often criticized and even trashed, to be sure, but taken seriously — in these lofty circles. I hope he’s able to keep growing and thinking and urging our fingers toward the burner, holding our feet to the fire. And I hope someone’s got his back. That would include all of us who keep listening.

I’m working on an essay tentatively titled “Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates While White — and Feminist.” The working title is a riff on “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” a disappointing column by New York Times journalist David Brooks. This blog post is a detour off the main road but still within hailing distance of it.

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Book Sale

Readers who don't want to be led into temptation should avoid the book sale.

Readers who don’t want to be led into temptation should avoid the book sale.

My one rule when the West Tisbury library’s annual book sale rolls around each summer is “Don’t buy any more books than you can carry home.” I live a brisk five-minute walk from the West Tisbury School, where the sale takes up the whole gym. My rule imposes limits on what could easily turn into a book-buying orgy. So does living in a studio apartment.

In most aspects of life the cost of things imposes restraint, but at the book sale cost isn’t likely to slow a person down much, even if she’s on a tight budget. On the first two days of the sale, most books cost only a dollar or two. On the third day everything is half price. On the fourth and final day, everything is free, but nearly everybody pays at least something, because the sale benefits the library’s Friends group.You could probably fill the back seat of a car for $25, and the bed of a small pickup for less than $50.

book sale 1 2015In the weeks preceding the sale, volunteers sort a year’s worth of donated books into categories: art books, kids’ books, biography & autobiography, history, military affairs, general fiction, romance, and so on. Fortunately the categories are general, and books that are both/and or neither/nor sometimes wind up in unexpected places. In this age of online ordering, browsing is an endangered pastime. The West Tisbury library book sale is a browser’s heaven.

So, come to think of it, is the library itself, although lately I’ve been making good use of the CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing) website, whereby I can find out which libraries have the book or DVD I’m looking for and have it appear a couple of days later at my town’s library.

As usual, I didn’t go looking for any book in particular. I was prepared to be delighted, and I was. Books I didn’t know I was looking for caught my eye. I bought several of them. So did books that have shaped my view of the world. I bought a couple of them too, Audre Lorde’s Zami and Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature, even though they’re already on my shelves: when the right person comes along, I’ll pass them on.

20150802 new books 2

My haul

My own copy of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge looks like it was left out in the rain (it probably was), so I was happy to score a clean copy for all of 50 cents.

My copy of Adrienne Rich’s essay collection On Lies, Secrets, and Silence is in three pieces from repeated rereadings and consultations, but it’s also well annotated with my own marginalia so I won’t be retiring it any time soon. My new copy might save the old from further deterioration — or I might pass it on too, to the right person.

The skinny book just under it in my pile is Norwegian Folklore. I bought it partly because I was so taken with Norway when I visited Oslo in December 2010, and as an editor I’ve had several Norwegian clients since then; and partly because it was published in Britain in 1961, following British punctuation conventions, and that kind of stuff intrigues me.

Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire blew me away when I read it in the early 1990s, not long after it was published. It was also responsible for introducing me to the work of the great Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan: when I first heard his song “Cold Missouri Waters” on the radio, probably in the late ’90s, I knew it was about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. I’ve been a Keelaghan fan ever since, and I’ve never had my own copy of the book.

I hesitated over Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace, which is about race, racism, and inner-city education. Death at an Early Age, about the same topics, opened my eyes big-time when I was still in high school. Why the hesitation? Amazing Grace was published in 1996, and despite the optimism expressed in the back-cover blurbs, things have gotten worse since then. You can be braver than that, I told myself, and put it in my bag.

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me (one of those rare books that you really should drop everything and read), and even got to hear him speak in Chilmark last Friday (more about that in a future blog post), so James Baldwin — a major influence on Coates — has been on my mind a lot. The Evidence of Things Not Seen caught my eye. Not only had I never read it, the title invoked something that’s preoccupied me for most of my adult life: how we can look at things and not see them, and how not-seeing is a faculty we cultivate half-consciously to protect ourselves from things we can’t afford to see.

Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father has been on my to-read list for a while. Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? weren’t on the list, but they are now. Ditto Florida Scott-Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days. Its topic, age and aging, is hot right now, but this was first published in the late 1960s, when we boomers (so I’m told) were busily not trusting anyone over 30. Now most of us are seeing our 50s in the rearview mirror. One great thing about books is that, if you’re lucky, they’ll hang around till you’re ready to read them.

This is as close as Travvy will ever get to racing across the tundra.

This is as close as Travvy will ever get to racing across the tundra.

The real outlier in my book stack is The Cruelest Miles. It’s about the serum run to Nome, Alaska, in 1925, which inspired the Iditarod sled-dog race. I knew diddly about the Iditarod and nothing about the 1925 serum run before I got mixed up with malamutes. Everyone mixed up with malamutes has at least a passing acquaintance with both, and now I’m surprised when most of the people around me know nothing about either.

Most of us, come to think of it, live in several worlds at once. And there were gateways to dozens more at the West Tisbury library’s annual book sale. It’s over for this year, so you’ll have to wait till late July 2016 for the next one. Meanwhile, you can do your adventuring at your town’s library.

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30 Changeovers

It’s changeover weekend — the 30th anniversary of my arrival on Martha’s Vineyard to take a year off. Ha ha ha. I’d saved enough money to live for a year and to buy my first PC — a Leading Edge Model D, in case you’re wondering, with a 10 MB hard drive, an Epson LX-80 dot-matrix printer, and a copy of WordPerfect 4.1.

Changeover is, or used to be, the midsummer transition that marked the departure of the July people and the arrival of the August people. Do we still have changeovers? For that matter, do we still have July people and August people? July people and August people were said to be distinct subspecies of “summer people.” August people were said to be richer and more, uh, demanding than July people.

When the summer people cleared out that first year, I was on my own. I knew exactly one year-round resident. I didn’t know all that many summer people either, and most of those I did know were connected in some way to Tisbury Great Pond. For most of the previous decade, I’d been up to my eyeballs in D.C.’s feminist community. For a week in mid-spring and two or three weeks in late summer, I’d run away to my family’s camp on Deep Bottom Cove. What I wanted was solitude, not society.

That first winter I mostly did what I’d come here to do: write. But slowly I started poking around, learning the ropes, finding jobs . . . That year stretched into two, then three. I started putting down roots: Wintertide Coffeehouse, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, the island theater scene, and a women’s group that met every couple of weeks.

Me wearing vintage (ca. 1977) Secede Now T-shirt

Me wearing vintage (ca. 1977) Secede Now T-shirt

Pretty soon nearly all the people I knew and hung out with lived here year-round. Quite a few hadn’t been here much longer than I had. We were free agents at the same time, so we fell easily into each other’s orbits. Eventually we’d settle into our various networks, based on work, or interests, or town, or some combination thereof, but we’d remain part of the same cohort, shaped by whatever was going on island-wise when we were new and impressionable.

If a fortune-teller had told me 30 years ago that I’d still be here 30 years later, I would have laughed. Or maybe I would have run. I used to say (ad nauseam) that I didn’t know if moving here was the smartest thing I’d ever done or the stupidest. Then I decided that yeah, moving here was pretty smart and pretty brave.

Staying here? That I’m not sure about. I think I’d be writing more and probably better if I lived among people to whom writing really mattered, as I did in my D.C. days. But I know this place better than I’ve ever known or ever will know anywhere else. My feet are in the mud of this place and that’s where my words come from.

So the jury’s still out on that one. At the moment I have nowhere to go, no money to get there, and a great reluctance to start over again anywhere. And I’m still here.

 

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July License Plate Report

2015 july license plate

Hawaii showed up when July had barely started. The month could have ended there and it would have been all good. West Virginia came about two-thirds of the way through. Not a big haul, especially considering the number of cars on Vineyard roads, but a good one.

A few years ago, I didn’t spot any new plates after the end of July. I don’t believe that’s going to be true this year.

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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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