On (the?) Island

A Facebook conversation the other day zeroed in on the phrase “on-island.” Are those who use it — as opposed to, say, “here” or “on the island” — giving themselves away as recent arrivals? Are they perhaps a little insecure about whether they belong or not?

“Who cares?” someone asked. Good question — but the conversation got me thinking, not for the first time, about the words we Vineyard people use to describe our relationship(s) with Martha’s Vineyard — and the importance we attach to them. Many of us do care, whether we admit it or not.

Not long after I started working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, around 1988, the Times launched a new magazine. The magazine was called On Island. Naturally it inspired plenty of grumbling. (The omnipresent background noise on MV isn’t distant thunder, it’s grumbling.) Some people didn’t like the magazine, some people didn’t like the very idea of a magazine, some people didn’t like the name. “On island,” so the reasoning went, is an off-island term. No islander would use it. Ergo the magazine lacked credibility. Ergo it didn’t belong.

On Island published only one issue, so the grumblers turned to other subjects. The grumbling made an impression on me, though. At that point I’d been a year-round resident for a scant three years. That’s not nearly long enough to know where the bodies are buried and the mines are laid. After three years you’re just becoming aware that the bodies and mines are out there. If “on island” was going to make people write me off as a clueless newbie, I’d stick with “on the island.”

Spend some time listening to Vineyard people talk. (That includes you if you live or spend time here.) The typical Vineyard conversation isn’t linear. It goes off on tangents, takes detours, and sometimes loses sight of the main road entirely. This is because whenever a new name is mentioned, we have to establish how we’re connected to that person, and how that person is connected to people we know. We want to know where people fit in the social fabric. In part, this is so we can avoid tripping over dead bodies and triggering mines.

In the process we generally manage to convey how long we’ve been here and how well assimilated we are (if we came from somewhere else). We have words for the various degrees of belonging — native, islander, Vineyarder, year-rounder, summer person, wash-ashore, etc., etc. — but usually we locate ourselves in the social fabric by telling stories. Stories are more interesting than labels, for one thing. For another, the labels are, as the academics say, contested. We don’t all agree on what they mean.

Applying the wrong word to yourself or someone else can get people grumbling, just like “on island.” We probably won’t grumble to your face, by the way. We’ll grumble to someone else. The grumbling might get back to you second- or third-hand, and it probably won’t have anyone’s name attached when it does.

As I headed into my first winter on Martha’s Vineyard, I was told that you couldn’t call yourself an islander till you’d made it through three winters. I don’t recall who told me this, but I suspect they hadn’t been here much longer than I had. Yes, three winters was a noteworthy milestone, at least at the time: plenty of year-round wannabes didn’t make it that long. No, it didn’t make you an “islander,” and if you didn’t grow up here, you better think twice about calling yourself one.

Some believe you aren’t an islander unless you were born here. Most who so believe fit the bill. I’ve heard a handful contend that even if you’ve got several generations of islanders on both sides of your pedigree, if you were born somewhere else you don’t qualify. Still others say that you can become an islander when a bona fide islander acknowledges you as one.

So is it all about lineage or do other things matter?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should, because it’s not unrelated to the question that perplexed early Calvinists: They agreed that some human beings were among God’s Elect and many human beings weren’t, but is salvation predestined — determined by an inscrutable God — or can it be earned? And can believers tell which among them are among the Elect and which are not?

If God is truly inscrutable and beyond human understanding, the only answer is that it’s all in God’s hands and no one knows what God is up to: either you’re saved or you’re not, and neither you nor anyone else knows for sure. This view, however, started losing ground almost as soon as it was formulated. Why? Because it gives religious authorities no leverage over their flocks’ behavior. If you’re saved or damned no matter what you do, why should you behave yourself? Pretty soon the religious authorities were second-guessing God and telling people (1) what they had to do to be saved, and (2) how they could tell if their neighbors were saved.

If membership in the Elect — that is to say, the ranks of those entitled to call themselves “islander” — is limited to those born to it, why should the rest of us behave? Which is to say — why should we at least attempt to take our cues from the place and the people who got here before us, as opposed to, say, turning the Vineyard into a generic suburb that happens to be surrounded by water?

If “islander” is a closed category, its significance is limited. Either you are or you aren’t. Both newspapers use “islander,” “Vineyarder,” and “year-round resident” pretty much interchangeably these days. So do many year-round residents. But category “islander” isn’t entirely, or even primarily, about where you born and where you grew up. It’s about who knows best what the island is about, who belongs here, and who has the credentials to speak on its behalf.

Who cares, or even notices, whether you say “on island” or “on the island”? I don’t think it’s all that big a deal. But listen to us talk and you’ll realize before long that belonging is a very big deal. We have myriad ways of conveying how long we’ve been here and how well we belong. More about that later.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to On (the?) Island

  1. Shirley says:

    Well, if I can call myself an “Islander” it is because I have produced three bona fide (sp?) native children and three native granddaughters – my husband, John W. Mayhew, 10th generation native was born in (do I dare say it?) Cleveland, Ohio. I’m sure no one would ever call him a wash-ashore – really, what does it matter? True islanders, like you and me, Susanna, are those who are truly grateful to be living in this wonderful community…..


  2. Sharon Stewart says:

    I like how you have been able to look objectively at the idea of belonging, Susanna. I learned a lot by reading this well-thought-out piece. It reinforced the fact that I have always known that I have no sense of community that extends back to my birth, even though I was born here (fifth-generation Ottawa person) and have lived here for all of my 64 years, except for 5 when I was away at university.

    As a person who lives in a capital city, I rarely run into someone who was born here. And when I do, it’s almost a time for rejoicing. But it reinforces the ache in my heart that I have no sense of community, unlike people in villages and towns who know everybody. I remember going grocery shopping with my mother-in-law in her town. We could hardly go down an aisle without running into someone she knew. That would never happen to me here in Ottawa. The only person I might run into at my neighbourhood Loblaws (one of scores of large grocery stores here) is my granddaughter, a university student who works in the bakery section part time.

    My daughter is a fourth-generation public servant (federal govt), and so far I have never run into anybody with a similar “pedigree” (it’s definitely not a status thing; vocal citizens here and across the country are quite hostile to public servants). Given that 99% of the people I worked with in the govt were from elsewhere, my sense of community continuity is nonexistent. It’s a matter of curiosity, and even of sadness, that hardly anybody I meet grew up here (or has heard of the feisty Charlotte Whitton, our mayor, who is famous for saying, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”).


    • It’s a jolt to realize that one can be fifth-generation in a place and not feel a sense of community, rootedness, belong, whatever it is — but having lived 11 years in another capital city (Washington, D.C.), I get it. As a student there (1969–72), I don’t think I knew anyone who had grown up there. When I moved back in 1977, I started to meet people who’d grown up in and around “the District.” Very few of them were white. After a while I’d cringe whenever a white person said they’d never met anyone who’d grown up in D.C. Maybe you need a more diverse circle of friends, I’d think, but never, ever say.

      In D.C. community was rooted in family and neighborhoods. City neighborhoods can be a lot like small towns. Does Ottawa have neighborhoods that way? Even when I was living in Washington, “gentrification” (urban renewal by another name) was wrecking the neighborhoods. it’s gotten a lot worse since I left. In D.C. gentrification = whitening, but in the small town -> suburb I grew up in, and on Martha’s Vineyard, the incomers look pretty much like the people they’re displacing. Sometimes I think we’re replaying “the arrival of the Europeans” over and over and over again.


      • Sharon Stewart says:

        I do have a sense of family community. My family is large (7 kids, 17 grandkids, and 7 local cousins), and when my dad was alive he organized an annual picnic for us all, which was great.

        We do have neighbourhoods, too. But even though I grew up in one called Alta Vista, I did not know many of the local kids because I was selected for an experimental class for bright kids and had to travel by city bus to get there. Same thing with high school—I had to take three buses to get to my accelerated class (we did 5 years of high school in 4). So none of my school friends ever lived near me, and we rarely did anything together outside of school hours.

        My parents were recluses, too. Nobody was ever invited to our house, and I never learned the social graces, such as asking a visitor if they would like some tea. I am somewhat of a recluse now (working at home as an editor, which is how I met you). I do run Freecycle Ottawa (mostly a daily virtual task), and all of the friends I hang out with now are people I met “on” Freecycle. My friends and I host free-for-alls (hugely successful twice a year events in parking lots and parks in which we invite the community to meet up and give away stuff they no longer use). And I eat lunch or dinner quite often with my two favourite Freecyclers. One is a hoarder, and I helped her shovel out her house this year. And I also do free pickups and deliveries for my Freecyclers if they have no transportation of their own (I’m talking washers and dryers, sofas, bookcases, cribs, and smaller stuff). So I guess I should say that I belong to the Freecycle community. Oh, yeah. I forgot that I belong to a choir. So there’s another community.

        I take it all back. I do belong to communities, I guess.


  3. Sara Crafts says:

    For a long time I ostensibly didn’t care if I was an Islander or not. Then one day Tom DeMont argued vehemently, unasked, with another friend of ours that I was “like a native” in my passion for Island life. I felt a surge of pride … then much later, perhaps a year ago, another native man expressed surprise to find out I wasn’t a native Islander. So thus approved by two Island native men, I call myself an Islander – a year-round person without another home to return to, who has been living here now for 43 years. Islander, but never native (born here). And it does turn out to be important. And my kids, not native, are also Islanders, tho’ my daughter finally returned from an ill-advised trip to purgatory. And my grandsons are native Islanders! – though I think their parents hope that they’ll seek their fortunes elsewhere. I think other people who have been here longer than you have will describe your relationship — Islander? Year-rounder? — for you.


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