Belonging

This started off to be a follow-up to “On (the?) Island,” but it didn’t go where I thought it was going. Surprise, surprise, surprise. I seem to be on a “what am I doing and where do I belong?” kick. So what else is new?

With some trepidation I asked mystery writer Cynthia Riggs to blurb The Mud of the Place. Trepidation because I had only a nodding acquaintance with Cynthia at the time and because blurbing a novel means — for the conscientious among us — reading it first What if she didn’t like Mud? (Now that I’ve been in her Sunday night writers’ group for several years, I know how accessible she is, and how supportive of other writers.)

mud cover2She wrote: “A sensitive, witty, and tightly plotted novel of life on Martha’s Vineyard that only a true Islander could have written. Nice going, Susanna!”

I cried when I read it. It still makes me a little weepy. Not just for the praise but for “that only a true Islander could have written.” If a person from away becomes an islander when an islander calls her one, I’d already qualified — but this was in writing and Cynthia’s island bona fides are unimpeachable: among many other things, her house on the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road has been in her family since around 1750.

My second thought was that only a true islander could have written it, but a true islander wouldn’t have written it. Not just because Mud‘s two main characters are a gay man and a lesbian, but because a true islander would have no need to write it. To write about a place, you have to stand at least a little ways outside it. That’s where you find both the words and the time.

Which pretty much sums me up: I wanna belong but I don’t wanna, and any category that tries to include me I’ll try to redefine so it doesn’t.

When I was features editor at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, the people who came in to pitch stories about themselves were almost invariably from somewhere else, and not long ago either. Longtimers would say things like “You really should do a story about [native islander X] — but she probably won’t want to be interviewed.”

I was told by more than one person that islanders were only supposed to get their names in the paper three times in their lives: when they were born, when they married, and when they died. By that standard I was a lost cause: not only was my byline in the newspaper nearly every week, I put considerable effort into getting it into publications elsewhere.

Islanders were supposed to be circumspect. They weren’t supposed to toot their own horns. This isn’t just a Vineyard thing: it’s a New England thing, and I’m New England born and bred. (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that on my mother’s side I’m more than half southern.) Indeed, I’ve heard that “three times” dictum quoted about other places. But in my newspaper days the loudest horn-tooters were invariably from away, and the louder the tooting, the less time they’d been here.

At some point I looked around the Martha’s Vineyard Times newsroom and realized that no one on the editorial side was a native islander. Native islanders might write town news columns and occasional feature stories, or work in production, or sell ads, but they weren’t reporters or editors. The same seemed to be true at the rival Vineyard Gazette.

This wasn’t, I surmised, because of the “three times” rule, or because islanders were being discriminated against. It was mostly because both newpapers paid peanuts and the only way you could afford to work there was if you had another source of income — family money or a high-earning spouse — or if you were willing to live on a shoestring. Most working islanders didn’t and weren’t.

Nearly all of the people telling the Vineyard’s stories, in other words, were from somewhere else. This is still true. Mystery writer Cynthia Riggs and the eminent storyteller Susan Klein are among the very few exceptions.

So when Cynthia said that The Mud of the Place was something “only a true Islander could have written,” I took it to heart, even as I didn’t quite believe it.

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

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

On the subject of who was an islander, the late Fred Fisher Jr., dairyman, used to say, “If a cat crawls in the oven and has kittens, that doesn’t make ’em biscuits.” This wasn’t original with Fred. I’ve heard it said of Vermont and other places. But you get the idea. Fred not only looked like a quintessential islander, he acted like one: farmer, selectman, mainstay of the M.V. Agricultural Society, organizer of the draft horse pull and show at the Ag Fair . . .

Fred, however, wasn’t born here. He was from (if I remember correctly) Hingham. Hingham is on Boston’s South Shore. This isn’t, and wasn’t when Fred was born, one of the commonwealth’s more rural places. Think about it too long and this islander thing gets complicated real fast.

Whether you consider me an islander or not doesn’t matter so much, though I’m honored if you do. What matters more is that you acknowledge that I’ve been here a while and that I’ve been paying attention all that time.

Many years ago, a quote by the late Stan Hart caught my eye, on a Peter Simon calendar of all things. I’ve long since forgotten the exact words, but it went something like this: “I realized I’d married the Vineyard, and any changes to be made would have to come from me.”

You know I’m not the marrying kind, and not likely to become so even now that same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts. My longest “romantic” (you could call it that) relationship lasted about three years; my relationships with Rhodry (dog), Allie (horse), and now Travvy (dog) lasted a lot longer. So when I look back at my years on Martha’s Vineyard — 28 so far; add 20 if you want for the very extended courtship that began when I first set a very reluctant foot here in 1965 — I have to admit that this may not be a marriage, but it’s a very long-term relationship.

A contentious one to be sure, but still — a commitment.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
This entry was posted in Martha's Vineyard, musing, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Belonging

  1. Hal Davis says:

    “any category that tries to include me I’ll try to redefine so it doesn’t.” The Groucho corollary.

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  2. Susan Robinson says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. It helps me think about my heretofore impenetrably way of always moving to places that were capitals or tourist towns or both (Austin, Columbia, SC, WDC, NYC, Santa Fe). Today I’m getting that most capitals are sort of tourist towns. I never wanted a place to feel like home–having grown up in Dallas, home hasn’t been a good word to me. This leaves me always just perched. It’s kind of a strain, like when I think about the fact that my bird is always standing and will be until she dies. But I have never felt like I belonged and figure I’m not capable of it, though I love and admire things about Austin, NYC and the mountains near NM, and people in each of the places I’ve lived voluntarily. But belong? That would be something else again. I never expect to stay anywhere and notice warily that there are ominous facts, mostly to do with age, that point to the fact that I will not move from here (SF and the mountains). It’s on me like clothes that don’t fit.

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    • “Clothes that don’t fit” — apt image. Immediately I thought of a woman I once worked for who’d order clothes in the size she thought she wore and then return them because they were too small. I order clothes in the size I do wear and they nearly always fit “well enough.” I don’t expect perfect, at least not about clothes. I’ve had some glimpses of utopia here (Wintertide Coffeehouse, Crow Hollow Farm), as I did in D.C. (Lammas), but in all cases I left before they disappeared for good. And I long for a place where writing is taken seriously, where it’s part of people’s lives (image: garment workers who’d pay one of their number to read to them while they worked — was that an Anzia Yezierska story?), but I don’t know where it is and I probably wouldn’t move there if I did.

      “Most capitals are sort of tourist towns” — yes to that too. Living in D.C. taught me a lot about where and how to see Martha’s Vineyard. The D.C. you and I lived in wasn’t the one reported in the Washington Post. That city was all about the federal government. There were hardly any black people in it, and forget about lesbians and feminists. The real city was under the radar, under the surface. Same here, only the big split here is year-round/summer. The Vineyard papers report Vineyard news, but the summer people and the year-round summer people think real life is what they read in the New York Times, the Post, the Boston Globe, etc.

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      • Hal Davis says:

        “garment workers who’d pay one of their number to read to them while they worked — was that an Anzia Yezierska story?)”

        It may have been, but it was also fact. Cigar workers did that as well.

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  3. Sharon Stewart says:

    The “three times” rule—the only three times you should be mentioned in the newspaper are when you’re born, when you get married, and when you’ve died—reminds me of what we PKs (preachers’ kids) say about rarely seen churchgoers. The only time you see them in church is when they’re hatched (baptized), matched, or dispatched.

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  4. Carolyn O'Daly says:

    Every single person on this island has a different view of life here I think….

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    • Yep — those are what I call our psychic maps, and everyone’s is different. They overlap with each other, but I suspect the only things they all have in common are the ferry docks in VH and OB. But listen to how often the phrase “character of the island” comes up. Most of us also have ideas about what Martha’s Vineyard is and should be. That’s where it gets interesting, and very, very complicated.

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