10 Reasons Why I Like Living on Martha’s Vineyard

I wrote this about 10 years ago, when setting up susannajsturgis.com, my first home on the web. On a recent rereading I was surprised to realize that most of it is still mostly true. I now have several virtual homes: this blog; my other blog, Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going; and Facebook, as well as susannajsturgis.com. And well, I’m still here.

The commercial version rhapsodizes about idyllic beaches, scenic harbors, charming B&Bs, historic sites, gracious dining — you get the idea. The somewhat jaded version emphasizes ticks, tularemia, moped accidents, pretentious restaurants, snarled traffic, hard-to-get ferry reservations, the price of gas, and a couple of the worst-managed towns in the state. Here I consider the real reasons why I haven’t (yet) moved to northern New England or upstate New York.

Look, Ma: No Keys!

security signIn my D.C. days, I packed ten keys on my keychain. After a few months on the Vineyard, I’d stopped locking my bike; the car keys stayed in the ignition, and the only lock on my apartment was a skinny sliding bolt whose main purpose was to keep the door closed when the wind came up. Like many Vineyarders, I still don’t lock, and the truck keys rarely leave the truck, but the times are surely changing. Expensive security systems, and car alarms are more common than they were ten years ago. Used to be that when someone left their headlights on, you’d automatically open the door and turn them off. Then more people started locking their cars, and once I triggered someone’s car alarm. Now I restrain myself unless I recognize the car or the window’s open.

Self-Service News

Most Vineyarders read one or both of the two weeklies, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. But your best sources for local news are (1) your friends and neighbors, and (2) your own eyes and ears. We’re all reporters and editors: we gather news, decide how credible our sources are, digest it, combine it with what we already know, and pass it on. A few well-placed individuals know everything worth knowing before anyone else does and can tell a good story besides; their acquaintance is worth cultivating. One newspaper editor has been heard to complain that we never vote the way his editorials tell us to. Here we don’t need an editor to tell which way the words blow.

Creative Opportunities

Me during a rehearsal for The Secret Garden (1999)

Me during a rehearsal for The Secret Garden (1999)

Martha’s Vineyard provides all the ingredients for a writer to create her own continuing education workshop. Over the years, I’ve stage-managed and acted in local theater productions; edited, copyedited, written, and reviewed for a local newspaper; and volunteered, produced events, performed, and written press releases for a local coffeehouse (the late, still greatly missed Wintertide). I’ve had a front-row seat for an unending parade of shenanigans (and played minor roles in a few). There are frequent pop quizzes, all consisting of the same question: “Why the hell do you live there?” No credits, no degree, but the proof is in the writing, right?


Rhodry (1994-2008) went almost everywhere with me. This was at a horsesitting gig.

Rhodry (1994-2008) went almost everywhere with me. This was at a horsesitting gig.

Dogs go to work, dogs go to town, dogs go fishing — dogs go everywhere the board of health doesn’t say they can’t go. Rhodry has been helping me do my banking since he was old enough to be trusted on carpets. He makes biscuit withdrawals at each teller station; when we use the drive-up window, the canister brings a cookie for him, cash or a deposit slip for me. Delivery-truck drivers usually pack some dog treats along with the parcels. Rhodry knows this. Once I got a call from a neophyte driver. He was parked outside my front door; he said he had a parcel for me, but a big dog wouldn’t let him out of the van. I accepted the parcel and apologized for the dog.



Now I live a five-minute walk from the Dumptique at the West Tisbury dump, a very popular source of clothing, housewares, and other good stuff. Photo from March 2013.

When “casual Fridays” became popular in the urban workworld, I had a hard time grasping the concept. “Dress to impress” is still rare on Martha’s Vineyard, though it’s more common than it used to be. (Not to mention that since 1981 my workweek has been so irregular that Fridays and Mondays have no special significance.) Where hardly anyone wears tailored suits or designer dresses, people figure out other ways to decide what kind of person you are. I, like most people I know, get a good chunk of my wardrobe at the thrift shop.


The island has no stoplights. Two major intersections are four-way stops, and Five Corners, strategically located in the heart of Vineyard Haven, is a traffic planner’s nightmare. To make it more fun, many of the island’s secondary roads are rutted dirt and one-lane only. Driving on Martha’s Vineyard demands continual nonverbal negotiation, involving eye contact, hand waving, turn signals, and flashing headlights: Go ahead. Am I next? After you. I’ll back up. There’s someone behind me. I love it. Massachusetts drivers have a terrible reputation, but Martha’s Vineyard drivers are all right.


There are no parking meters on Martha’s Vineyard, and the only pay-to-park lot is at the Gay Head Cliffs. Most parking lots are cramped and irregularly shaped, and feature access from so many directions that you don’t know where to look first. The Stop & Shop lot, near the ferry dock, is like an ongoing game of musical chairs, without the music. So is the one across the street at the Vineyard Haven post office. One of the benefits of my current year-round rental is that I can walk to town in fifteen minutes.

The License Plate Game

Don Lyons got me playing the license plate game back when we both worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. The idea is to spot, on the island, license plates from all fifty states (I add D.C. because I used to live there) between January 1 and December 31. Each of us keeps a map, on which we record sightings by coloring in the states. Usually at least half the states are colored in by the end of January, but it’s a rare year that we spot all fifty. The perennial spoiler is North Dakota. One year Don’s wife Joni spotted a tour bus with North Dakota plates on a ferry bound for Vineyard Haven. She told Don. Don called the Steamship Authority and ascertained that there were tour buses leaving the island on the 3:45 from Oak Bluffs and the 4:00 from Vineyard Haven. Then he called me. Shortly before 3:45 our pickups passed each other near the Oak Bluffs terminal; I’d already been down to look, and I shook my head:nada. We hightailed it up the road to Vineyard Haven. There it was. Turns out the bus and all its passengers were from New Jersey, but the plate was North Dakota and that’s all that counts in this game.

The Land Bank

These days a unspectacular postage-stamp building lot can easily cost a couple hundred thou, but even a landless Vineyarder of modest means has free access to thousands of acres of conservation land and miles upon miles of trails and bike paths. The Land Bank isn’t responsible for all of these acres — the state-owned Manuel Correllus State Forest alone accounts for more than 5,100 of them — but it does manage many of the best, and with the fewest restrictions. The Land Bank is financed by a two percent tax on most real estate transactions. Just about the only good thing I can say about the island’s deranged real estate market is that the Land Bank gets two percent of those inflated prices.

It’s Home

Some newcomers swear before they’ve unpacked that they’re going to live here the rest of their lives. They usually don’t last long. Others come for a year, then they swear they’re just staying another winter, but they find a place for the summer and postpone their departure till fall, and so on and on. I’m one of the latter. For a while I called myself a lifer, but I reneged: when Y2K rolled around, I was again talking about leaving — when the novel’s done, when I’ve sold the novel, when the novel’s published . . . Now my deal is that I’ll stay as long as I can find housing. I lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. If the ship is sinking, likely I’m going down with it.

When I wrote "10 Reasons" I lived off Skiff Ave. in Vineyard Haven. In early 2007 I moved to West Tisbury. Ever since I've lived in the studio apartment on the second floor of that building. Travvy moved in in April 2008. We're both still here.

When I wrote “10 Reasons” I lived off Skiff Ave. in Vineyard Haven. In early 2007 I moved to West Tisbury. Ever since I’ve lived in the studio apartment on the second floor of that building. Travvy moved in in April 2008. We’re both still here.



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Fall Comes to the Clothesline

If Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower,” then why can’t I trace the turning of the seasons on my clothesline? Why not indeed. Here goes.

Laundromat sign with sidekick

Laundromat sign with sidekick

Thursday dawned bright and sunny and I was almost out of underwear, so by 8:30 Travvy and I were on the road to the Airport Laundromat. “Bright and sunny” is essential because I hang my wash out. This is less because I’m environmentally correct and more because I’m pig-headed and cheap: the dryers at the laundromat charge 25 cents for 4 minutes and it takes a lot of quarters to get clothes anywhere close to dry. Especially jeans.

Speaking of jeans — here’s Thursday’s laundry line. Pop quiz: How can you tell for sure that this is early fall and not, say, midsummer?

20151008 whole line

See the black jeans at the far right? This is the first appearance of jeans on the line since June. To their left are five pairs of shorts. I live in shorts all summer. A major perk of this freelance editor’s life is getting to wear whatever I want. In summer it’s mostly shorts and T-shirts.20151008 tshirts

My T-shirt collection has been out of control for a long time. Admitting I was powerless over T-shirts hasn’t helped: I keep acquiring more.

The T-shirts at right include one from the 1997 Ag Fair, one from a 1990 display of the AIDS Quilt in Boston, one from WisCon 22 (1998),  one bought at a Fred Eaglesmith concert at Katharine Cornell Theatre in the mid-2000s, and one from Moonstone Bookcellars, a science fiction bookshop that I think was defunct by the time I left D.C. in 1985.

The leftmost T-shirts, one red and one gray, both have long sleeves. This is another sure sign of fall, and the absence of turtlenecks says it’s still early fall. As fall wears on, shorts and T-shirts will disappear from the line and be replaced by jeans and turtlenecks. There will be turtlenecks in the next laundry, I promise. I do not have nearly as many turtlenecks as I do T-shirts, but I have enough. In cool weather you can wear the same shirt for days on end. In summer, when you take something off, it’s too clammy to put on again, so into the hamper (a repurposed wastebasket) it goes.

20150722 ladderSo how can you tell that the photo at left was from a summer laundry?

This is a little tricky. Usually I head for the laundromat when I’m almost out of underwear: about every three weeks. On July 22, three weeks’ worth of T-shirts didn’t fit on the line. I usually don’t have to press my step ladder into service.

Travvy accompanies me to the laundromat, of course, even in hot weather. We do our morning walk around the county airport — not for nothing is it called the Airport Laundromat — and the adjacent business park.

Trav likes wooing at the taxis in waiting in front of the terminal, and if there are people sitting on the benches outside, so much the better. For him the high point is probably the sights, sounds, and smells of the boarding kennel at Animal Health Care. Sometimes we even spot another dog out for a walk.

20150905 summer line

A late summer laundry line. Those two long things are very lightweight dresses, not pants. Note also the number of tank tops and sleeveless Ts.

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September License Plate Report

Nothing new to report, I’m afraid: at the end of September the map looked exactly as it did at the end of August. Sightings that would have been notable in the spring are ho-hum now because I’ve spotted them already: Tennessee, Arizona, New Mexico, and Alabama. I’d trade two Alabamas for a Mississippi any day.

In addition to Mississippi, I’m missing Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, Alaska, Nevada, and you-know-who. Not a bad showing for the year so far, but I’m not giving up yet.

2015 aug license plate map

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August License Plate Report

Back in 2012 I didn’t spot a single new plate after July 31. Now, whenever August rolls around I wonder nervously if that’s it for the year. My first August plate comes as a big relief.

This August was stellar. This August I spotted my first Montana plate since 2011. Missouri and Kansas showed up too: good catches both.

Montana was in the back parking lot at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The Spirituals Choir I’m in rehearses in the rec room at Windemere, the adjacent nursing home. Coming out of rehearsal, I spotted a plate I didn’t immediately recognize, partly because it was obscured by the bike rack on the back of the car — an older Subaru Outback, I noted with approval. So I moved in closer.

Montana! A plain-jane Montana, white on blue, no pretty design. Across the bottom it said “Veterans.”

After crowing about my find on Facebook, I learned that the Outback belonged to a hospital staffer who was leaving the island on Sunday. I caught it on a Thursday evening. I also learned that the West Virginia I spotted in June, also in the hospital parking lot, belongs to a travel nurse who comes to the Vineyard occasionally to work in maternity.

Kansas and Missouri were good catches too. I don’t get them every year. But Montana!

There are still seven plates outstanding, which is about par for the end of summer. I’ve heard that Alaska is here, and Nevada isn’t all that rare. We’ll see what we see between now and the end of the year.

2015 aug license plate map

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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, three 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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