More Than Meets the Eye

Aboard the Vanity: Susanna at the wheel and Capt. Chris Murphy holding the sheet.

Aboard the Vanity: Susanna at the wheel and Capt. Chris Murphy holding the sheet. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

I love this photo. At first glance, it’s a great shot from a late-summer sail on Katama Bay. If you know the backstory — well, it’s a bit more than that.

Remember the fight against the roundabout? It was, to put it mildly, a pretty big deal. Lines were drawn, sides taken; tempers rose, friendships frayed. I was an active and visible member of the anti-roundabout forces. (If you want to know more, click on the “roundabout” tag at the bottom of this post. That’ll get you a list of all my posts on the subject.)

At the heart of the public battles was the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The MVC was divided right down the middle. At at least two MVC meetings, the chair made questionable calls that gave roundabout supporters an edge.

In retrospect, I don’t believe the anti-roundabout forces ever had a chance. We had the numbers and the arguments, but the whole thing was being orchestrated at the state level in offices where we had no influence. We suspected as much, but we fought to the end believing we did have a chance, a good chance — as if the outcome were really up for grabs.

Which turned the MVC chair’s questionable calls into a Very Big Deal. The MVC chair became a symbol of the pro-roundabout faction, a lightning rod for the opposition at a time when the island’s political skies were fairly flashing with lightning.

The MVC chair at the time was Chris Murphy.

So a couple of weeks ago my photographer friend Lynn Christoffers invited me and a couple of other friends to go sailing. The skipper, she said, would be Chris Murphy. I chortled, reminded Lynn of the backstory, and, of course, accepted the invitation.

It was a perfect sailing day: bright and breezy. The catboat Vanity is as seaworthy as they come. She was built on the Vineyard — right in Edgartown, in fact — in the early 1920s and has been working Vineyard waters ever since. Now she belongs to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Chris gave each of us a turn at the wheel, all except for Lynn, who was busy taking photos.

We talked about sailing, the Vanity, oystering — we sailed past the oyster dredges at the south end of Katama Bay, and Chris, who’s lived on the water pretty much all his life, knows how they work — fishing in general, the houses along the shore and the people who live in them. We did not talk about island politics. Roundabout? What roundabout?

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve lived here a pretty long time and Chris, having been born and grown up here and being about my age, has lived here twice as long. We’re both part of the web that connects island people to each other. Each of us belongs to several webs that make up the big web. Those webs overlap at various points, some of them visible and others submerged.

Submerged connections can become visible at any moment. As Chris described the history of a boathouse on the bay shore, I learned that I guy I’ve known for years is related to a family whose name I recognize — I had no idea.

Each of us brings to our interactions with others all the webs that we’re part of. This could result in a hopeless tangle of intertwined knots and threads, but it doesn’t. Some of us by instinct, others by trial and error, we all see what we need to see and set the rest aside. My neighbor may be on the outs with your second cousin, but so what? At the same time we can be pretty sure that most of the people in our respective webs are at least dimly aware of whatever incident sparked the feud between my neighbor and your second cousin.

This is what community is about. It supports us and sustains us, but it also makes us cautious. Any one of us could with a word or action set several boats to rocking. So the pressure is constant, from both within and without, to say nothing — or, rather, to say nothing on the record. Potentially disruptive information circulates behind people’s backs, so we all know plenty of stuff that we can’t let on that we know, and a fair amount of stuff that might not be true.

This accounts for why relative newcomers to the Vineyard so often set about rearranging the furniture, all in the interest of some ideal that sounds good in the abstract but gets messy in its particulars. They haven’t been here long enough to be part of various webs whose interests are contradictory or even mutually exclusive.  Or they choose to associate mainly with their own kind and consider the rest of us part of the scenery.

I suspect this helps account for the miserable performance of our current Congress. A considerable portion of our national legislators think it’s a virtue to be single-minded, to turn the lines between Us and Them into walls and keep building them higher. Martha’s Vineyard is not kind to ideologies. It tends to sideline ideologues who don’t confine their rants to off-island issues like Benghazi and Monsanto.

Vineyard people, and people in any functioning small town or neighborhood, could tell the congressional ideologues that’s no way to get things done. Things get done in those complex webs that connect us one to another in visible and invisible ways.

Without those interwoven webs you get gridlock.

Newly elected members usually come in all fired up to change things. When they start to temper their rhetoric, they’re invariably accused of selling out. What if they’re just realizing that the targets of their campaign invective are real people with real lives, people with whom they might have important things in common?

Without those interwoven webs, you also get the incivility that so many deplore about the current political scene. Maintaining the web is as important as scoring political points. In a hard-fought battle, the threads may stretch, fray, and even break, but when it’s over, it’s possible to repair most of the damage.

When talking about civic discourse and public life, even we landlubbers are forever resorting to nautical metaphors: Don’t rock the boat. We’re all in the same boat.

And you never know who you might wind up sailing with.


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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4 Responses to More Than Meets the Eye

  1. Your ending says it all: “Don’t rock the boat. We’re all in the same boat.
    And you never know who you might wind up sailing with.”
    That would help everyone to remember that when needed, right?
    You’re also right about the visible and less visible links that tie people from a community and how challenging it can be for a newcomer to decipher them to get an understanding of the new place. I cannot help but compare it with an immigrant’s challenge to adjust to the new country.
    Good piece, Susanna.


  2. lloydthayer says:

    thanks so much for posting……..this is one of the many reasons I love your blog,
    and I”m glad that you write it and share it……….I hate to use this word, but there is a ‘maturity’ here that is a really wonderful power of example to me………thanks….


  3. Christina Brown says:

    Thank you Susanna.


  4. Nick Mosey says:

    An excellent reminder that life in general is not black and white, and that interacting in a civil way with others who hold fundamentally different views on very basic principles is not capitulation but civilisation.


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