Q is for Questions #AtoZChallenge

With Q drawing closer, not swiftly exactly but steadily, I was drawing — not quite a blank, but I wasn’t inspired. I solicited suggestions from Facebook friends. Quirky, quixotic, query, question, quahaug (aka quahog) . . .

All worthy, but still not quite right. When I did the A to Z Challenge last year in my Write Through It blog, “Q is for Query” was a no-brainer, but the Vineyard connection was tenuous. Quirky and quixotic were more promising: they suggested character, as in “She’s a real character,” meaning she’s colorful, individualistic, maybe even a bit outrageous, but basically harmless. Quincy Hancock III, a minor player in The Mud of the Place, was known as Quirky Hancock in his well-heeled youth.

There’s a Q character in Wolfie too: the animation artist Rafael Quinteros. He plays an important role but so far he hasn’t appeared onstage.

Quahaug — well, that would be a natural if I had an affinity for shellfish, but I don’t, so they haven’t shown up in my writing. Protagonist Shannon Merrick has done her share of crewing on fishing and charter boats, shucking scallops, and other Vineyard jobs, but all of it was before Mud gets under way.

So I went through the mss. of both Mud and Wolfie, searching on space + qu, to find all words beginning with q. Hands-down the most common were quite, quick (and variations, e.g., quickly), quiet (ditto), and question (ditto). Not far behind, at least in Mud, were quote, quoted, and quotable (etc.) — not surprising, since one of the main settings is a newsroom and one of the point-of-view characters a reporter.

Others included  quarter, quantum leap, quilt, quarantine, queued, quit, quizzically, quid pro quo, qualify, quotient, Queen Mother (the epithet given Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle publisher Arabella Roth by her mostly admiring staff in Mud), queen (specifically “drama queen” and “sugar-daddy queen”), quarry, qualified, quarrel, queer, quest, query, and Quark XPress.

Finally, as you’ve no doubt surmised from the title of this post, I settled on questions.

A popular axiom has it that there are no stupid questions, or that the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked. Up to a point, but it’s also true that the questions you ask can say as much about you as the answers you give to other people’s questions. The eyes of all but the most polite Vineyarders tend to glaze over at “What do you people do in the winter?,” and by the middle of August even polite year-rounders can be caught swapping stupid tourist questions with their friends.

My favorite is being approached by two men at Five Corners around 10 on a weekday morning and being asked “Where can you get a drink in this town?” My answer was “You can’t,” and I pointed them in the direction of Oak Bluffs. You can tell this was a while ago because now you can get a drink in Vineyard Haven, but it has to be with a meal and I’m not sure if anyone’s serving spirits at 10 a.m.

Reporters ask questions and base their stories on the answers. Leslie in Mud of the Place keeps a running list of the answers she needs, who’s likely to have them, and the questions she needs to ask to get them. She’s methodical and competent. In the past she’s demonstrated her courage by asking questions that threatened people in power. If she’s got a fault, it’s that she puts too much stock in her questions. It’s not hard to answer a question truthfully without telling the querent what she wants to know.

Courtroom lawyers are advised against asking questions they don’t already know the answers to, which may sound silly, or at least contradictory, but it’s not. It’s not bad advice for living in a community where word gets around and it’s best to know the lay of the land before you ask anything that might disturb a person’s peace or seriously piss her off.

In Wolfie Shannon can’t find out what she wants to know by asking questions. This was the challenge I set for myself: Something’s amiss in the Smith family, but there’s no way to find out directly, the grapevine is off-limits because asking questions is a great way to start rumors, and the price of being wrong is very high. In real life such situations so often end in tragedy that I was determined to stack the deck in favor of the good guys, to give them a fighting chance. I think it’s going to work out.

I often ask my characters questions, but I may not take their answers at face value. Leslie was evasive when I asked her where she lived and how she paid for it. She didn’t want to tell me she was living rent-free in the in-law apartment of her parents’ summer home, but she finally did — and the tensions in her own family started coming into focus.

So, yeah, Q is for Questions. On to R!

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P is for Poetry #AtoZChallenge

“I came to work on my novel.” It was a total cliché at the time — everyone, it seemed, came to Martha’s Vineyard to work on a novel. A few years later it was a screenplay they were working on, but screenplays never tempted me: I didn’t own a TV, wasn’t a big movie buff (my favorite movie of all time is still one I saw for the first time just before I turned 12), and had an inkling that it was much harder to get a screenplay produced than a novel published.

The sagest comment I ever heard on why people come to Martha’s Vineyard was uttered by the woman who is currently Travvy’s vet: “Some people move to the Vineyard to get themselves together, other people move here to crack up — and it’s not always clear which is which.”

A very capable writer, who’s been writing a Martha’s Vineyard Times column about matters veterinary for more than 25 years, she was also one of the very first poets I heard read during my first winter here. I’d been reading the newspapers and every posted flyer that caught my eye, looking for a lifeline, some clue to where I might find possibly kindred spirits: anything to do with writing and/or women. Thus I was led to a poetry night at an off-season series called “the Flip Side of the Ocean Club,” the Ocean Club being a seasonal restaurant housed in the Five Corners building that later, for a brief shining moment, became the year-round home of Wintertide Coffeehouse (more about that under W).

Leaving the Island cover (1989), design by Maggie MacCarty

What I wound up writing during my first years on the Vineyard, along with occasional reviews and essays for feminist publications, was poetry. It had something to do with learning that not only were there good poets on year-round Martha’s Vineyard, there were places to read it and people who would listen. But poetry and I were not strangers: I’d arrived on the Vineyard with a chapbook’s worth of pretty good poems, Leaving the Island.

When, with the help of my then girlfriend, Maggie MacCarty, who happened to be an excellent artist and graphic designer, I managed to self-publish it, the title led many to ask if I really was leaving. No, I’d explain, the poems were all written when I was still in D.C., about a mostly unrequited relationship. The title poem, however, written in the fall of 1981, begins “This crossing / I stand at Islander’s bow / windblown, entranced.” Another poem is titled “South Beach,” and there’s an untitled rather mystical one that begins “in giving myself to the ocean.”

Me (left) with poet Kathryn Howd Machan and her then husband, Ralph. After a reading at New Words Bookstore, Cambridge, late 1980s.

The poems I wrote during my first years here were also about a relationship — my developing relationship with the island — but unlike the Leaving the Island series, many of them were in traditional forms: sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles. I was blatantly under the influence of Marilyn Hacker. So much of the great lesbian and feminist writing of the 1970s and ’80s was poetry, so of course I read a lot of it, but of the poets I read most voraciously — Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Joy Harjo, Marge Piercy . . . — only Hacker wrote in traditional forms.

What she made those forms do, or what these forms allowed her to do — this was a revelation.

And a challenge. What made me rise to it? Not sure, but in retrospect I can point to the myriad of benefits I got from it. My writing tends to sprawl, as if space were no object. Writing formal poetry, like working at the newspaper, taught me to compress, to make every word count. More, using fewer words often makes for a more powerful piece. And yet another thing: At this point I was getting more and more involved in theater, which has had such a huge effect on my writing that guess what T is going to be for? This is when I started reading everything aloud as I was writing it, paying more attention to sound.

My very first Vineyard publication, believe it or not, was “Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting,” published as an op-ed in the Vineyard Gazette in early 1986. This five-sonnet sequence was about one of the West Tisbury planning board meetings that eventually led to the Deep Bottom Pond subdivision. Clever me, I reprinted it in this blog almost three years ago, so you can read it here.

In the early 1990s what I thought was a series of poems evolved into my first one-act play, “Persephone’s Mother,” which has actually been produced a few times. My lines were getting longer and longer and turning into prose. I’ve written almost no poetry since then. I don’t read much of it either: poetry is not the vital force in my life that it was in my women’s community days. Rereading what I wrote in the 1980s makes me want to try my hand at it again, though I’m not sure I have the patience.

Interestingly enough, and probably serendipitously, a guy has just come into my writers’ group who’s working on short-short fiction, “flash fiction” as it’s called. I’ve long been fascinated by the form, and tempted to try it. Maybe I will.

I’ve included other poems in this A to Z series, but it seems wise to conclude this particular post with one, a villanelle from February 1986.

The Tale-Spinner’s Design

Out of whole cloth I’m embroidering tales,
spelling runes to magic in colored thread.
Deft is my working with fingers and yarn.

I’m no one’s apprentice. The castle hails
me witch; to this craft I was born and bred.
From Mother’s cloth I embroider my tales.

My tapestries keep drafty hallways warm,
my carpets cloak the floors, my quilts each bed,
so deft am I with my fingers and yarm.

The night-born traveler slips through my veils;
I offer rest, she bids me stay instead,
sly spinster of cloth, embroidering tales.

My love swirls wild like paisley, so I warn,
it spans abysses, flames orange and red —
so deftly kindled from fingers and yarn.

She skirts the fringes, laughs aloud, and fails
to back away. It warms when we’re long dead,
our womancloth with deep embroidered tales,
so deftly fashioned from fingers and yarn.

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O is for Online #AtoZChallenge

When the retina in my right eye detached in early August 2004, I’d been off-island at most twice since 9/11. In the following months, I made numerous eye-related trips to Boston: ferry to Woods Hole, bus to South Station, subway to the main location of Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston (OCB), then back again. The changes wrought by 9/11 and the panic that followed were so startling to my unaccustomed eye that over the next few years I wrote my probably best-ever essay about the experience: “My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terror.”

Vineyard people sometimes compete for the title of who hasn’t been off-island for the longest time, and I confess: I played the game, and was pleased by the astonishment and occasional horror with which more recent arrivals greeted my announcement that I hadn’t been off-island in more than two and a half years.

Well, the truth is more complicated. My body hadn’t been off-island in all that time, but my mind surely had. Island-bound I was not. My virtual self got around.

Me (on the right) presenting the 1994 Tiptree Award to co-winner Nancy Springer at Potlatch 1995. The other co-winner was Ursula K. Le Guin, who was not able to be present.

I went online for the first time in 1994. That year I chaired the jury for the James Tiptree Jr.  Award, which recognizes fantasy and science fiction (f/sf) that explores and expands our ideas of gender. My fellow jurors were in Idaho, California, the Boston area, and Melbourne, Australia. They were all online, as were most of my friends and colleagues from the f/sf world — but very few of my Vineyard friends. Given the distances involved, communication by phone was expensive and by snailmail (which at that time was still called “the mail” or “the post,” depending on where you lived) was slow. So they ganged up on me and I signed up on GEnie, where all my f/sf friends hung out in the Science Fiction RoundTable (SFRT). Soon I had my own topic there too.

By 1997 my online connection and technical equipment enabled me to access the growing World Wide Web. Using the search engine of the day (AltaVista? Northern Lights? Can’t remember), I discovered and quickly joined Copyediting-L, “an email discussion list for editors and other defenders of the English language who want to talk about anything related to editing: sticky style issues; philosophy of editing; newspaper, technical, and other specialized editing; reference books; client relations; Internet resources; electronic editing and software; freelance issues; and so on.”

Copyediting-L offers a selection of swag, including this, my current mousepad. I’m also the proud owner of three different beer steins and one T-shirt.

I can’t overestimate how essential Copyediting-L — it’s familiarly known as CE-L and its subscribers refer to ourselves as “the CELery” — has been to me over the years, as a source of  free continuing education, professional development, a way of passing on some of what I’ve learned as editor and writer, friends, clients, and the most godawful punfests you’ll ever take part in. CE-L is still going strong, though I’m now much more active in the editing-related groups on Facebook, headed by Editors Association of Earth (EOE).

None of this was or is or ever will be available on Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to editing, the online world has allowed me to indulge, develop, and/or expand my passions for feminism, f/sf, Morgan horses, Malamute dogs, and grassroots politics.

Even before the online world greatly expanded my possibilities, I realized at some level that I would never be wholly of the island. It might have been during my first forays into Bunch of Grapes bookstore: the women’s section comprised mostly pop psychology books from New York publishers, women’s history was nowhere to be found, there were zero titles from the independent press, and the science fiction section looked like it had been stocked by monkeys. So from the get-go I did nearly all my book buying by mail order or during my trips to science fiction conventions, which invariably involved visits to the nearest feminist or other indy bookstore.

I’m not well traveled at all, but I’ve been a border crosser most of my life, both/and, neither/nor, body in one place, head somewhere else. In 1997 I was the special guest at WisCon 21, the feminist science fiction convention held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. Special guests are expected to give a speech, and mine was called “Notes of a Border Crosser.” My focus then was on living in the borderland between the mutually suspicious feminist print world and fantasy/science fiction world, but it applies to other things too, like living and not-living on Martha’s Vineyard.

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N is for Newspapers #AtoZChallenge

I started reading a daily newspaper — the news section, not just the funnies — relatively early in life, when I was around 10. As a preteen and then teenage Arabist I clipped stories about the Middle East, taped or glued them to bond paper, and filed them in a two-drawer file cabinet. Most were from the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Sunday New York Times, which were the papers my father subscribed to or brought home from work.

In high school a couple of friends and I put out an occasional newspaper that, as I recall it, was short on news but long on tongue-in-cheek commentary.

Through college I wrote regularly for the papers, The Hoya at Georgetown University, the Daily Pennsylvanian’34th Street features section and then the alternative Penn Voice at the University of Pennsylvania.

My forte was always reviews and commentary. I don’t recall ever doing any reporting, apart from the story  I wrote for a one-off class newspaper in fifth grade. For that one I interviewed a neighbor about her family’s plans to build a swimming pool. Note to anyone who unearths this journalistic effort of ca. 1961: The swimming pool was never built. This may have put me off reporting from the get-go.

Having graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, a demonstrated talent for writing, and no other marketable skills, I sent out cover letters and résumés to numerous small newspapers in New England and upstate New York. This elicited a couple of interviews, one tryout, and no offers.

The handwriting on the wall said I’d better learn how to type, so I signed up for Katy Gibbs’s eight-week secretarial course for unemployable female liberal arts graduates. (In those days, unemployable male liberal arts graduates generally went to grad school or law school or were mysteriously routed into management training programs.)

That really is me, in my editorial cubicle in the publications office of American Red Cross national headquarters. ca. 1980. Note the IBM Executive typewriter with extra-long carriage in the foreground.

No regrets about finally learning to type, not least because within fewer than three years my secretarial skills had led straight to my first editorial job, in the publications office of American Red Cross national headquarters. (I moved back to D.C. in May of 1977.)

While learning to type, take shorthand, and write business letters, I worked part-time as the proofreader for the Massachusetts Lawyers News (title approximate, memory hazy), which was published by the same company that published the local paper, the Weston Town Crier. The production process was a hybrid of old and new photocomposition techniques. Producing a galley required several time-consuming steps, so I became adept at fixing typos with Scotch tape and an X-acto knife.

Truth to tell, I had little interest in or aptitude for reporting. I wanted to engage with the world around me, including the people in it, and write about my own take on it all. But life kept pushing me in a newspaperly direction.

I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 with enough savings to live frugally for about a year. Before they ran out completely I started doing odd jobs, including, of course, typing. Thanks to a classified ad I was running in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, I was recruited by Eileen Maley, then the Times features editor, to fill in for the editorial typesetter, who was going on sick leave. After a couple more temp gigs they hired me as part-time proofreader.  As a stringer,  I started writing theater reviews and the occasional feature and op-ed. When Eileen retired in 1991, I succeeded her.  (This story is recounted in more detail in “E is for Editing.”)

How did this influence my writing and me as a writer? I can’t count the ways. Start with deadlines. Deadlines had to be met. At some point you had to stop writing, tweaking, and rewriting because the story had to go to press. In those days before newspapers moved online, space was as inflexible as deadlines. Stories had to be cut to fit the space available, and the space available might change at the last minute if an ad came in or a lead story went long. I learned to cut inches off stories, not just a sentence or two.

I can’t say it cured me of my perfectionism, but it gave me plenty of ammo to use against it.

I also learned to love seeing my work in print only a few days after I’d written it, and to realize that hey, it was actually pretty good. This affinity for (nearly) immediate gratification was, not surprisingly, a drawback when I got down to the long haul of writing my first novel. And when Mud was greeted with (nearly) complete lack of interest by the island’s bookstores and newspapers, I was devastated. It was years before I started writing seriously again. One big factor was the rise of blogs, social media, and ways of reaching an audience that didn’t depend on island bookstores and newspapers.

Of course my newspaper experience is all over The Mud of the Place. I get warm fuzzies rereading the many newspaper scenes, remembering how much I loved working for the Times in those days. But I can’t help noticing that it’s not the reporter, supremely competent though she is, who gets the whole story.

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M is for Mud #AtoZChallenge

Mud season generally comes round in early spring, when thawing earth and April showers turn fields, dirt roads, and back yards into quagmires. (Hmm. Maybe Q is for Quagmire? I won’t know till I get there.)

Big rut at Misty Meadows, after three months of runoff

Except this year, when the long, hard freeze that ended 2017 and began 2018 gave way to a serious January thaw. Along the edge of the field at Misty Meadows, where Trav and I walk almost daily, the mud was so deep and gooey it almost trapped a tractor. The several-inch crevasse the big wheel left is still there, and will be until a vehicle of similar heft comes to grade it.

The four nor’easters of March saturated the ground even further, especially the first one. That one also felled plenty of huge trees, often not by knocking them down but by pulling them up by the roots: the thawing ground couldn’t hold them.

Mud season isn’t just a time of year. It’s a state of mind. It’s not quite winter and not quite spring, it’s dreary dreary dreary and it goes on forever.

People gush about how beautiful Martha’s Vineyard is, how lucky you are to live there.

Mud is not beautiful.

You slip in the mud.

You get stuck in the mud.

Mud spatters you all over when you’re trying to look cool.

So in May 1994, when I spotted a short piece in The New Yorker publicizing an upcoming reading by poet-writer-activist Grace Paley, I fell in love.

Paley was asked if she would write about the situation in South Africa. She might have a character comment on it, she said, but “if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

The previous year, President Bill Clinton and his family had taken the first of several summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. The national press corps had spent their many, many idle moments searching the Vineyard for “local color.” They got it so consistently wrong that in May 1994 I was still fuming.

Grace Paley nailed the reason why — and at the same time, in a most Paleyesque way, issued a challenge: Where were my feet? If not me, who? Paley’s words became my touchstone: Even if your feet are in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.

Into the umpteenth draft of The Mud of the Place, I realized that there wasn’t all that much literal mud in the story, so I had to put more in. This wasn’t all that hard. In chapter 2, reporter Leslie Benaron is on her way to cover a house fire:

Reporter’s notebook clutched in one hand, rollerball pen trapped in its spiral binding, Leslie picked her way up the muddy track. It wasn’t enough that mud season was still upon them the third week of April; runoff from the hoses was gouging deeper and deeper tracks on either side of the slippery median mound. And was Leslie wearing her duck shoes? She was not. Leslie had just come from a dinner date, a precious opportunity to wear her fine black Italian leather boots, the ones that shaped her ankle and lower calf in graceful curves that approached—she hoped—elegance. The ones whose soles were so thin that the cold clamminess of the mud chilled the bottoms of her stocking feet. If she was really lucky, the soles would stay attached to the uppers till she got home.

There’s no literal mud in Wolfie, because it takes place in the fall, when the ground is well on its way to freezing. Of figurative mud, well, of course, there’s plenty. But I’m still trying to live up to Grace Paley’s warning: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you better watch where your mouth is.”

Frozen mud

Yaktrax (mine) and pawprints (Travvy’s) in mud

Tire tracks in mud

 

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L is for Lesbian #AtoZChallenge

WARNING: The first several paragraphs of this post rely heavily on “Gay on MV,” a personal history that I posted here in June 2015. This post, in keeping with my theme for the A to Z Challenge, focuses more on me as a writer.

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.

Having been active and visible in a lesbian community for eight years, four of them working in a feminist bookstore, I rarely had to come out. My surroundings did it for me. I quickly discovered that it was hard to say “No, I’m a lesbian,” and it got harder the more obvious it became that this made a lot of people nervous.

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.

Naturally I gravitated to people who didn’t seem uneasy, and it seemed they were gravitating to me. This took a while, and required a re-orientation of my perceptions and assumptions. In D.C. I’d been lulled into the belief that “lesbian” and “feminist” were practically synonymous.

Ha ha ha. Wrong. 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.

Having little personal experience of “the closet,” I was fascinated by closet dynamics. What I said out loud was very much influenced by the vibes I was getting from those around me. If someone seemed uncomfortable, they didn’t have to say so; instinctively I tailored my words to put them at ease.

My fascination was not shared by the editors of the lesbian-feminist publications I had written for. When I pitched a personal essay dealing with the challenges of coming out in a small town, the general response was that coming out was old news. (Now you see where the primary plot thread of Mud of the Place came from!)

In the winter of 1985/86, I was already beginning to realize that I was in between, belonging neither in the place I’d left nor in the one I’d arrived at. Out of that came this poem:

The Home Planet Vanishes

You left slowly, watching the world grow small
in the viewport. Children, poets, gathered there
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

It’s different now. Ships jump and planets fall
away. Remember the otherwhen and where
you left slowly, watching the world grow small?

In that once-upon-a-time you were a kid,
your parents up front, too involved to stare
in wonder. The seasoned travelers never did.

Then, safe return was not assured. Leaving called
for adult calm. They talked of work, fought nightmare,
left you, slowly, watching the world grow small.

Too young to know of danger, they thought. Doors slid
shut behind them. You weren’t. You knew, yet you stared
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

You dreamed. By minutes, by years, one by one, all
of us off-planet stopped recalling home, where
we’d left, slowly watching the world grow small.

An instant came when none remembered. The ball
vanished. No thoughts would call it back. No where
to leave slowly, watching the world grow small,
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

 

*****

One of ILGA’s two T-shirts: “No man is an Island Lesbian (and Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard),” which for a very long time I only wore off-island.

In the early to mid 1990s, once Martha’s Vineyard finally discovered HIV/AIDS, hostility to “homosexuals” went public. I and quite a few others got braver. A full 26 of us, roughly half men and half women, came together to form the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. We got ourselves listed in the phone book; I was the female contact person.

It was around that time that the first inkling of Mud of the Place took root, in the form of a story called “Deer Out of Season,” which with some alterations became the backstory for Mud. Even as an outsider with nothing to lose, I had experienced and given in to the unspoken pressure not to rock the boat, not to unsettle anyone unnecessarily — and to set the bar for “necessary” very, very high. What then of someone who had everything to lose? A guy with a close-knit, conservative family, whose relatives and neighbors might have been among those declaring at public meetings and in letters to the editor that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals?

That’s where Jay Segredo came from. He manages to lead a double life — activist social worker off-island who doesn’t make a secret of being gay; local boy who made good whenever he comes home — until his father’s terminal illness brings him back to the island to live.

No spoilers here, but I will say that protagonist Shannon, the friend that Jay sometimes wishes would go away, plays a key role. I’m a Shannon wannabe. She’s braver and far more integrated into island life than I ever was or will be. But I’m the one who tells the story.

 

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K is for Keys #AtoZChallenge

When I moved here in 1985, maybe the most startling difference between Martha’s Vineyard and the city I’d just left was that on the Vineyard hardly anybody locked anything. If you peered into the cars parked on Main Street or Circuit Avenue, you’d find the keys still in the ignition. That fall I wrote this poem about it. (I was a big fan of the poet Marilyn Hacker and was writing a lot in forms, primarily sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles.)

The Key Sestina

for Cris

My city apartment needed four keys,
the mailbox a fifth. Two for each of two
jobs, and a tenth for my bicycle chain.
A fine rattle they made, a heavy weight
in my pocket. There was one key whose lock
I’d forgotten. I would not throw it out.

My island friend spends the whole day out,
leaves her door open, needs only the keys
to her car. My new apartment won’t lock
from the inside; I still sleep well. Here too
my ten-speed bike leans against the wall, wait-
ing for me, sheltered from rain, but not chained.

It’s strange at first, leaving padlock and chain
behind, stopping by my friend’s when she’s out
to use her phone. I miss the clanking weight
in my pack, the rattling of all those keys.
Each of them meant commitment, access to
home, store, office, women’s center, all locked

against the untrusted. I knew that locks
won’t stop everybody. The severed chain
remains; the bike is gone. In less than two
months my house was robbed three times. We were out
at work, we’d locked the doors, we had our keys;
the burglar had none but he didn’t wait

for us. Perhaps it’s only custom’s weight
that makes a barrier of a door that’s locked.
When my mother drank, I’d hide her car keys,
not knowing she had a duplicate chain.
Once in a muted rage I put them out
in plain sight. Did I want her dead? or to

end my responsibility? These two
options nag twenty years later, their weight
unsettled. I visit, after years out
of New England, her house, whose door is locked
always. My mother from her extra chain
detaches and gives me a front door key.

Says the keeper’s jangling chain, “Just wait,
I can split the world in two: danger
locked out, comfort kept in — or vice versa.”

* * * * *

Signs like these are far, far more common than they used to be.

Over the years things have changed somewhat on the Vineyard. In the early or mid 1990s a locksmith placed ads in the paper warning against the risk of break-ins. The crime statistics given for the island were pretty pathetic, but I got the point: you sell locks by scaring people into locking up.

Around that time I was walking up Circuit Ave. one afternoon and saw a car with its headlights on. This was long before many vehicles had headlights that shut off automatically when the engine wasn’t running, so I like many others was in the habit of reaching in the driver’s-side window — opening the door if necessary — and turning them off. This time an alarm went off when I grasped the door handle. A passerby and I exchanged bemused glances, then I went on my way, hoping that the driver would come back to a dead battery.

I still don’t lock, though in summer I take my car keys out of the ignition when I’m parked in town and stick them in the door pocket. At some point police were giving people citations for leaving their keys in their cars, but I haven’t heard of that happening recently and it’s never happened to me.

A lot more people lock than used to, but many don’t. In Wolfie, the novel in progress, Shannon doesn’t lock and neither do her neighbors. This astonishes Jackie, Shannon’s city sister, when she comes to visit. Not only does Shannon not lock; when they arrive at some friends’ house for supper, Shannon raps on the door and then goes on in.

The front door of the Smith residence, on the other hand, is locked even when there’s someone home. This confirms for Shannon what she already suspected: that all is not well in that household.

It’s been decades since I missed the clanking weight of a keychain in my pocket. Not locking — not having to lock — is one of the things I like best about this place.

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J is for Junk Food #AtoZChallenge

My recollection is that in my D.C. days I lived pretty much on Roy Rogers fried chicken and fries, varying it with the occasional burger.

This recollection is certainly erroneous. I was baking bread regularly, so I must have made the occasional grilled cheese. I’d learned how to make an omelet, there was no shortage of canned soups and frozen dinners at the supermarket, and besides, how difficult is it to boil up spaghetti and pour sauce on it?

But you get the point: cooking was not my forte. No surprise there: neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers was much of a cook. I learned very little at home beyond how to heat up TV dinners, add hamburger to Hamburger Helper, and make slice-and-bake cookies. A big treat in our house was getting carryout from the Kentucky Fried Chicken two towns over.

Once I went off to college, my horizons expanded. I discovered pizza. I thought Spam and Velveeta were exotic. (My romance with Spam and Velveeta didn’t last, but I still love pizza.) Maybe the best part of college was the cafeteria. All I had to do was show up and eat. If there were a communal cafeteria on Martha’s Vineyard, I would probably sign up in a heartbeat.

The burgeoning women’s liberation movement taught me empathy for my mother. Having to prepare two or three meals a day for four kids and a husband is still my idea of hell. Check out “A Kitchen of My Own,” another one of the “Winter Rental” sonnet sequence I wrote during my first year as a year-round Vineyarder:

Something changed my first year on the Vineyard, and I was aware of it changing. For one thing, there were no fast-food joints on the Vineyard. A huge battle ensued when McDonald’s tried to set up shop here. This was only in part due to Mickey D’s business practices and lamentable food quality. Rather, it was one of those Manichaean struggles where the survival of “the character of the island” was said to be at stake. Let McDonald’s in and all is lost. Keep McDonald’s out and we are saved.

This is almost complete hogwash, of course, but we love to frame some issues as epic battles for the soul of the island. The establishment of the regional high school was one such. The backwash was still reverberating when I arrived, 25 years after it happened. Islanders [sic] have very long memories.

So was the fight against replacing the four-way stop at the intersection of Barnes Road and the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road with a roundabout. I was heavily involved in that one, and from my frequent blog posts about it — type “roundabout” into this blogsite’s search bar and you’ll get a bunch of links; “Roundabout TV” might be my favorite — you can tell I was caught up in the epic aspect of the battle. For me it was less about roundabout vs. four-way stop than about the state stuffing its priorities down our throat and about the unwillingness of most island decision-makers to look a gift horse in the mouth, but still — on one level it was absolutely a battle for the soul of the island.

There is no McDonald’s or any other fast-food franchise on Martha’s Vineyard, but one still occasionally sees roadside litter from one of them, presumably imported from the other side of Vineyard Sound.

I’ve even heard of people stocking their freezers with Big Macs, and when I travel off-island, I often hit the Burger King on Route 28 in Falmouth. (One of my claims to fame is that I have never in my life eaten a McDonald’s hamburger, and now I feel duty-bound to keep the record going. I am, however, very fond of Sausage Egg McMuffins.)

It took more than the absence of fast food to transform me into — well, not exactly a cook, but someone capable of feeding herself fairly well. If I could eat out several times a week, I would happily do so, but even the low- to mid-range restaurants are expensive and most of them are nothing to write home about. I’d eat up (literally) a year’s worth of disposable income in a month if I tried it.

I do manage to have breakfast at the Black Dog Café every couple of weeks with one friend or another. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and I like hanging out with friends, so $12 every two weeks is well worth it.

One of the ongoing epic battles on the Vineyard these days has to do with “island grown” food. On the one hand, Vineyard people have fed themselves with island-grown produce and meat for many generations — like they had a choice? On the other, a quick review of the price of land and the cost of living should suggest that the devotion to “island grown” is more than symbolic than practical, and when anyone invokes “the rural character of the island,” I suspect that for them “rural character” is something you view from the road.

If someone proposed a McDonald’s franchise on the Vineyard, I’d probably oppose it. Burger King or Wendy’s are a whole ’nother matter — I haven’t taken a vow against burgers from either of them.

 

 

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I is for Islander #AtoZChallenge

Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? An islander is someone who lives on an island. Both the Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times initial-cap “Island” and “Islander” when Martha’s Vineyard is referred to, and so do many people who live here.

The fact that I don’t raises some eyebrows. As far as I’m concerned, Martha’s Vineyard is no more “the Island” than West Tisbury is “the Town,” and when in my writing I refer to “the island” (as I do pretty often), you’ll know when I mean Martha’s Vineyard.

But back to “islander.” These days both newspapers regularly use “islander” to refer to anyone who lives here most of the time, but don’t be fooled: “islander” is what the academics call a contested term, and in some quarters it’s taken very, very seriously.

At the same time, it’s also somewhat shifty, and it means different things to different people. To avoid it, I generally refer to year-round Vineyard residents as “Vineyarders,” or “year-rounders” if context makes it clear what I’m talking about. Plenty of island cars and pickups have VINEYARDERS stickers on their back windows because that’s what the high school sports teams are called.

Nevertheless, the use of “islander” fascinates me because, among other things, it’s a way we talk about degrees of belonging, and even about who really belongs here. Identity politics, in other words, though I’m pretty sure that most Vineyarders wouldn’t call it that.

After I moved here in 1985, I was told that an islander is someone who’s lived here three winters. This seemed a very low bar to me, especially after I’d made it through my third winter. I suspect it dated back to the days when the island really did close down after Labor Day and reopen on Memorial Day weekend.

I was also told that you could call yourself an islander once a real islander had referred to you as one. This meant you had to do more than stick it out for three winters; you had to integrate yourself, or be integrated, into the life of the place well enough to be recognized by those who’d been here longer and whose island creds were, presumably, beyond reproach.

This is why I got weepy when I read the blurb that mystery writer Cynthia Riggs sent me for The Mud of the Place: “A sensitive, witty, and tightly plotted portrayal of life on Martha’s Vineyard that only a true Islander could have written. Nice going, Susanna!” (By the way, “Islander” is capped on Mud‘s back cover because Cynthia spelled it that way in her blurb and uses that style in her work.)

Cynthia’s creds are impeccable — she lives in the house that has been in her family since about 1750 — but I wasn’t at all sure that I was a “true Islander.” What I’ve been saying ever since is that only a true islander could have written it, but a true islander wouldn’t have written it because islanders get their names in the paper only three times: when they’re born, when they marry, and when they die. I heard this fairly often in my newspaper days, usually to explain why someone would be less than forthcoming in an interview, if they agreed to be interviewed at all.

Writing for publication, in other words, pretty much took you out of the running for “true islander” status, at least if you weren’t born here.

Besides, long before Mud was published in 2008, category “islander” had become less permeable. Around 1990 or so, little stickers depicting a green map of Martha’s Vineyard on a blue background started to appear on island bumpers. The first ones I saw said NATIVE in all caps. Pretty soon I spotted the same image with TRANSPLANT emblazoned across the map. To really belong, in other words, you had to have been born here. Otherwise you were forever a transplant or, more commonly, a wash-ashore.

This portrait of Fred hangs in the Ag Hall. Painting by C. Kenney, photo by Randol Rynd.

The late Fred Fisher (d. 1998) of Nip ‘n Tuck Farm was sometimes heard to say that if a cat gives birth to her kittens in an oven, that doesn’t make them biscuits.

I have heard the exact same thing said of Vermont and other places uneasy with the growing influx of newcomers, who tend to be more affluent and better connected than those who got there first. By this logic, my friend Shirley, who came to the Vineyard as a young bride in 1947, is forever a wash-ashore, even though she’s known the island better and longer than people who were born here 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Not to mention — Fred Fisher, quintessential island farmer, came here from somewhere else.

Does it really matter who’s really an islander and how we use the term? Yes, no, and “it depends.” Some people come for a while, skim the surface of the place, and leave pretty much without a trace. Islanders? No.

Others come, put down roots, learn the history and gradually become part of it. That’s what I was getting at with Mud of the Place’s epigraph: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” (Thank you again, Grace Paley!) Islanders? Yes, I think so.

But there’s a point at which this islander thing becomes less a way of describing a person’s commitment to and knowledge of the place and more a way of sorting people into in/out, us/them. A brief look at the national scene shows where that leads: Beleaguered “Us” is so sure that “Them” are the real threat that they don’t recognize the real challenges confronting them, and they can’t and won’t see who’s benefiting handsomely from their fears.

The island is less insular, and less insulated, than some like to think it is.

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H is for Housing #AtoZChallenge

Around 1983, when I was still living in D.C., I read a story in (IIRC) the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine about the housing situation on Cape Cod. Landlords wanted to get top dollar during “the season” (usually June through September), so the “winter rental” was born: you could move in around October 1, you had to be out by May 31 at the latest, but the rent was affordable, i.e., in sync with local wages, which summer rents emphatically were not.

Poster from a myth-busting 2015 talk about island housing, affordable and otherwise.

The story was about the people who as a result had to move twice a year. For families with children, this meant moving at both the end and the beginning of the school year, and who knew if your next winter rental would be in the same town as your last one?

I was appalled. How could people live like that? What kind of greedy, heartless bastards were those landlords?

Then I moved to the Vineyard. Within a couple of years it all seemed normal. I moved eight times my first three years here. I was one of the lucky ones: I had a place to go in the summer, plus I was single, child-free, and unencumbered by Stuff. Nevertheless, my first spring was pretty much ruined because I started obsessing about moving around March 1. By the second spring, I had it down: I’d start packing two or three days before I had to be out. It made for a miserable two or three days, but I got my spring back.

After my #%@$ landlady told me I had to be out of my year-round rooms by June 1, I let Rhodry sleep on her sofa. Spring 2002.

Each summer, it was “If I can find a winter rental, I’ll stay till spring,” and each winter it was “If I have a place for the summer, I’ll stay till fall.” Eventually I lucked into a series of year-round rentals. I’ve been in my current apartment (which is designated “affordable” under my town’s bylaws) for 11 years, but I’ve still moved 12 times in not quite 33 years.

Since leaving his home kennel, Travvy has lived in one place his whole life, but Rhodry had four homes in his 13 years, not counting the farm where he was whelped.

Probably my #1 claim to Vineyard fame is that I once managed to find an affordable year-round rental in May, and with a dog. In the spring of 2002, my young, possibly narcissistic landlady told me I had to get out of my two rooms (one for sleeping, one for working) because she’d found a guy who was willing to redo her roof cheap in exchange for a place to live.

To my delight, the deal fell through after I’d moved out. She lost a reliable tenant and didn’t get a new roof.

The place I found — through the grapevine, of course — wasn’t legal (it was the second story of a one-family house whose official occupant lived on the ground floor), which means it didn’t have a stove. I couldn’t bake bread, but for almost five years I managed to feed myself with a hot plate and a microwave, doing my dishes in a little bar-type sink.

It couldn’t happen today. The housing situation is so bad now that the 1980s, ’90s, and even early ’00s look halcyon. My neighbor, who knows the island’s housing crisis probably better than anyone else, told me the other day that you can’t find a year-round lease on Martha’s Vineyard these days for any amount of money.

How has housing affected my writing? Let me count the ways . . .

Here are sonnets V and VI from “Winter Rental,” a six-sonnet sequence I wrote in the spring and summer of 1986:

V. Clearing Out

There’s no housecleaning thorough as the one
I give a place I’m leaving. Every act
is charged as sacred dance and must be done
with care. My desk dismantled, memories packed
in cartons, is a disconnected brain;
it’s tough to write without it. Sorting clothes
by season isn’t hard, or flushing drains,
but mere intent to start the kitchen slows
my steps to creeping sludge. A heart beats here:
I know it, know it lives and has no faith
in transport or revival somewhere clear
across the island. Change is never safe.
I’m bleeding too; the sloughing off makes clear
it’s spring, there are no nesting places here.

VI. On Being a Year-Round Tenant in a Summer Resort

The planet’s very axis must be skewed
to make these lopside seasons. Here it’s spring
yet we prepare to pull our winter roots
and move again. Relentless summer flings
the unattached before it, so we cling
like barnacles to shells, or learn to ride
the tidal wave like surfers. Skirts aswing,
the wily serving maid will be my guide.
She runs another’s errands, filches time
to walk the ancient ways, but always turns
chameleon when the master comes. So I
conduct myself, for something in me yearns
to root in sand, no longer wondering that
the year-round folk are taciturn and mad.

The following winter, when I read the whole “Winter Rental” sequence at Wintertide Coffeehouse (which was at the youth hostel that year), a woman came up to me afterwards to tell me that she and her kids moved twice a year and this was the first time she’d heard anybody write about it. That might have been the moment I decided, or realized, that writing about the year-round Vineyard was my calling.

The Mud of the Place pretty much began with the single mother of a school-age son who was being forced out of her rental because it had been bought by a hot-shot celebrity writer who wanted a summer home on the Vineyard. The two questions I asked each main character were “What are you afraid of?” and “Where do you live and how do you pay for it?”

It turned out, for instance, that Leslie Benaron, reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle, lived alone in an impressive house on Lake Tashmoo. No way could she afford that on what the Chronicle was paying, so I pushed until she reluctantly admitted that she was living rent-free in the in-law apartment of a summer home owned by her parents. More prodding elicited the news that her father was an eminent journalist whose beat was the health-care industry and that Leslie feared she was a terrible disappointment to him. Wow. Was I glad I asked or what?

I live on the second floor of that building, and yes, that’s my laundry on the line. The deck is a major perk. With a baby gate at the top of the stairs, it serves as Travvy’s outdoor crate.

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