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.