Travvy lying down

Trav chilling on deck

From where I sit to work, read, write postcards to voters, and (don’t tell anybody) play too many games of Spider solitaire, I have a clear view out my front door. My front door is mostly glass and opens onto a little deck that I came to think of as Travvy’s outdoor crate.

Whether I’d been gone for one hour or six, Trav’s nose would be sticking between the bars when I came up the outside stairs, biscuit in hand. This is one of the many things I miss now that Travvy’s gone — but this post is about how he remains a presence on my deck, so read on.

Notice the loose fur and grooming tools in the photo above. Malamutes and other northern-breed dogs blow their undercoats a couple of times a year — with Trav the big blow was in mid to late spring and the lesser blow was in late summer. The accumulation in the picture is negligible compared to what comes out during a serious blow. What comes out during a serious blow can fill two or three grocery bags.

earrings and necklace

Malamute-fur jewelry

Malamute fur can be spun into yarn (I’m told it’s easier to spin when mixed with a little sheep’s wool) or felted. I’m not crafty myself but I know people who are, so of course I have some mal-fur jewelry and several fridge magnets. Mal-fur gloves and caps are reportedly very warm, and a mal-fur sweater might be too much for all but the coldest climates.

bird on water dish

Dog dish birdbath

This is nesting season in my neighborhood, and the neighborhood birds know a good thing when they see one. I’ve kept Trav’s outside water dish (the one from which ice disks are made) full of fresh water because the birds use it for a birdbath. Since mid-April the neighborhood titmice and chickadees have been making regular trips to an overturned wastebasket of malamute fur. I’ve got a perfect view from my work chair, and every so often I’m quick enough to take a picture or two.

I doubt I’ll get to see a nest partly lined with Travvy fur, but I do like knowing that the fur Trav left behind will help keep some chicks warm this spring.

bird with fur

Tufted titmouse grabs a beakful of fur.

Not satisfied, titmouse goes back for more.

bird with fur

Titmouse prepares to lift off with bigger beakful.

Posted in dogs, home, outdoors | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

What Next?

Travvy’s death came sudden and unexpected. Yes, he was 11, but he was doing fine — until he wasn’t, and a day and a half later he was gone. I’d had it in my mind that since Rhodry, his predecessor, made it to 13, Trav would too. Then I would decide what to do next.

“What next” was now, not two years off.

I messaged Lori, Trav’s breeder, to let her know he was gone. She messaged back:

I know that this offer is way too soon but I want to let you know that we are expecting a litter tomorrow so if you decide that you need to fill the void in your life please let me know. You gave him a wonderful home and a great life. I thank you ever so much for what you did.

Way too soon, yes, in that my future with Trav had abruptly vanished, leaving me on the brink of a void with no obvious path forward.

At the same time, Lori’s message was a sign, a glimmer in the glimmerless void, a possibility to consider. I take signs seriously. I’ve never forgotten that Travvy was born the day after Rhodry died, though it was two months before I knew it.

picture of mama Anuk

Mama Anuk

As it turned out, Anuk didn’t have her pups — four of them: one girl and three boys — till the following Wednesday, March 20, but the seed was planted and, as seeds do, it started to sprout underground.

I was 99.9% sure that there would be another dog in my life. My reasonably methodical mind posed some rational questions: Sooner or later? Puppy or older dog? Malamute or something smaller?

Sooner or later resolved itself pretty damn quick. Walking without Travvy was like missing my left arm. Two days after he passed, I was striding along a path at the Land Bank’s Sepiessa property — somewhere Trav and I didn’t go all that often — when the off-road mountain bikers appeared around a curve, headed in my direction. They came to a halt and the leader asked, “Where’s your buddy?” The off-road bikers do group rides every Sunday, and Trav and I often ran into them on trails and dirt roads closer to home.

Travvy lying down with sock

Travvy and sock

Without Trav to pre-wash pots and pans and plates, food seemed to be going to waste. No one was plucking my sock from my hiking boot to remind me it was time to leave my laptop and do something fun.

Sooner. Definitely sooner. Even though sooner meant my fantasies about driving cross-country would be on indefinite hold — which, to be honest, is where they were already.

Malamute or something smaller? Eleven years ago I had little trouble lifting 80-pound Rhodry in his last year. Lifting 80-pound Travvy was almost impossible. In part this was because Travvy did not like being picked up, but I had to admit that I couldn’t easily lift what I could 11 years ago.

But something smaller meant something other than a malamute, and that’s where common sense hit a rock and went off the rails. Malamutes aren’t for everybody, but if they’re for you, nothing else will do. And besides, there are those puppies . . .

Book cover: "Perfect Puppy in 7 Days"

There’s no shortage of puppy-training books out there, but this one came highly recommended so I bought it.

Puppy or older dog? I’m on Medicare. I started collecting Social Security last year. I know my time on the planet is not unlimited, but puppy or older dog prompted calculations I hadn’t made before. I was pretty confident in my ability to deal with a puppy now. More: the prospect was seriously tempting, because I didn’t get into serious training with Trav until his challenging adolescence made it obvious that we needed help. I’ve wondered ever since if some of those challenges, like reactivity and resource guarding, could have been avoided or mitigated if I’d started training much earlier.

The calculations had to do with the other end of a puppy’s life. Where would I be when the puppy reached 11 or 13 or an even more advanced age? Would I even be on the planet? One upside to living on Martha’s Vineyard is knowing many people living active, creative lives well into their 80s and even 90s. My mother died at 73, but she was also an alcoholic, a lifelong smoker, and not an especially happy or engaged person. My father made it to 86, and my maternal grandmother died a week short of her 105th birthday. Anything could happen between now and then, but my chances of making it to 80 look pretty good.

If I did spring for a puppy, I could make provisions for worst-case scenarios — if I died or became incapacitated while my dog was still alive. In fact, I wish I’d done likewise with Trav: recruited an auntie or two who got to know him well enough that I could trust him to their care in my absence.

Quite a few people asked “What about a rescue?” I’d wash out with most rescues on one or more criteria: I’m single, I’m in my 60s, I don’t own my home, and I don’t have a fenced-in yard. I do have some acquaintance with several Alaskan malamute rescues, but most of them are regional and adopt only to people in that region. Trav and I got to know AMRONE, Alaskan Malamute Rescue of New England, during our four years of attending their annual Camp N Pack weekend, but their website didn’t list any available dogs. (Very sadly, Camp N Pack no longer happens because the gorgeous venue, an off-season Girl Scout camp, was sold.)

Following up other leads, I located an Alaskan malamute and a malamute-husky mix, both in Connecticut. I considered both and was several times on the brink of inquiring about the former; he was in the care of a non-malamute rescue, and his description said they were looking for an adopter with northern-breed experience. Maybe my experience with Rhodry and Trav would outweigh what most rescues consider my liabilities?

Again I hung up on calculations, this time about the dog’s age, not mine. The malamute was six, the malamute-husky mix seven. Would I again be on the brink of the void in four or five years?

The pups at four weeks

Meanwhile those puppies had taken up residence not only in my brain but also on my Facebook timeline. Lori posted photos of the pups at three weeks, then at four. The sooty color of these guys marks them as agouti and non-Domino, a genetic combination that makes it unlikely that as adults they’ll have Travvy’s white face and gray cap.

At the same time, when Lori posted the pups’ pedigree, I was pleased to see Trav’s mom, Mayhem (formally Masasyu’s Bound and Determined), was a great-grandmother on the sire’s side and a great-great-grandmother on the dam’s. And his half-uncle Kaos (Masasyu’s Naughty by Nature) was also a great-grandparent.

So in mid-April I messaged Lori that my deposit check was in the mail, and off it went. By the end of this month the pup will be in residence, and for sure you’ll be among the first to know. Watch this space.

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April License Plate Report

license plate map

A pretty spectacular month! The April scorecard: D.C., West Virginia, Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Missouri.

West Virginia, Hawaii, or Mississippi! Any one of the three would be cause for celebration, but all three in one month? I didn’t see either Hawaii or Mississippi in all of 2018. With them and North Dakota all in the bag by the end of April makes me dare to hope that at the end of 2019 the whole map may be green.

Michigan usually isn’t all that hard to get, and Alabama has showed up every year for the last several, so I’ve got high hopes for them. Moving west, Iowa is a regular and Arkansas and Louisiana generally show up, though not without producing some suspense before they do. We shall see . . .

support strikers signBy the way, I spotted both Hawaii and Minnesota while holding a sign in support of striking workers at the Edgartown Stop & Shop. (The strike was settled after about 10 days.)

Mississippi turned up in Oak Bluffs, near the Council on Aging on Wamsutta Ave., where I’d just attended dog trainer Karen Ogden’s hour-long presentation “Raising a RockStar Puppy.” Yeah, that’s a big hint. The cat, so to speak, is coming out of the bag. Watch this space.


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Yes to the Housing Bank

Spring is town meeting season in New England, and that includes Martha’s Vineyard. Four of the six island towns — Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and my town of West Tisbury — hold their annual town meetings (ATMs) next Tuesday, April 9. Chilmark’s is on April 22, and Aquinnah’s is, as usual, the last of the lot, on May 14.

ATMs are always important, but this year’s are more important than most. Two articles on each town’s warrant concern the creation and funding of a housing bank.

The island’s year-round housing situation is dire. For the last two years or so it’s been virtually impossible to find an affordable year-round rental. (For the last 12 years I’ve lived in a studio apartment that’s included on my town’s affordable housing roster. If I lose it for any reason, it’s likely that my only option will be to leave the island.) Some 900 working Vineyarders and their families are on the wait list for affordable housing. The median home price is $670,00, which puts homeownership out of reach of most Vineyard workers.

Younger Vineyarders, especially those with families, are leaving, and every year more jobs are filled by workers commuting from off-island. Why is this a problem, some people ask, as long as the jobs get done? The answer is that at the end of the day commuting workers take both their dollars and their volunteer hours off-island, where they support and sustain their home communities, not ours. The community we so value is sustained day in, day out, by year-round residents of all ages and from all walks of life who invest our time, energy, and money in making this a good place to live.

Multiple public and private organizations — including the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, the Island Housing Trust, Habitat for Humanity, the affordable housing committees in each of the island towns — have been working tirelessly for years — decades! — to ameliorate the problem. The problem is still getting worse.

The two articles on the ATM warrant would establish a regional housing bank dedicated to creating year-round housing, funded with revenue from the local excise rooms tax, which the commonwealth has recently expanded to include short-term rentals as well as hotels, motels, and B&Bs.

It should be a no-brainer, but it’s not. Some town officials have dug their heels in against it. Online discussion about it has been, all too predictably, riddled with misinformation. So here’s my attempt to demystify the housing bank warrant articles creating and providing a funding mechanism for an island-wide housing bank, and to persuade you to vote for them.

The first and most important point is that these articles are only the first step but they are the essential first step.

If we don’t take this first step, the housing bank is dead for the foreseeable future and along with it any realistic hope of coming to grips with our ever-worsening year-round housing crisis.

The idea of a housing bank has received widespread approval on the Vineyard, most recently in the nonbinding resolutions passed by most ATMs in 2017. Each town’s Housing Production Plan includes as an option an island-wide housing bank funded by a tax on short-term rentals.

What we are doing at town meeting is sending a strong message to the state legislature that we want to establish a regional housing bank to support year-round housing, using a percentage of funds from the recently expanded rooms tax. It will take up to two years for the legislature to pass the enabling legislation. During that time we’ll be working out the details of how the housing bank will be run. Once the enabling legislation is passed, the proposal will come back to be voted on at town meeting and at the ballot box.

So what will the Housing Bank look like?

  • The Housing Bank will combine regional focus with local control. Each town will elect one member to the Housing Bank Commission, and the seventh will be appointed by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.
  • The Housing Bank Commission’s decisions on any given project will be made jointly with the town in which the project is planned.
  • Both non-profit and for-profit developers can apply for Housing Bank funds. These might include individual towns, the DCRHA, Island Elderly Housing, the Island Housing Trust, private developers, and so on.
  • Housing Bank funds can only be used for year-round housing and the infrastructure to support it. This might include the purchase and remodeling of existing homes as well as new construction. It can benefit Vineyarders whose incomes don’t qualify for existing programs but who can’t afford market-rate housing either.

And how will it be funded?

  • The warrant article requests that each town allocate 50% of the revenue raised by the newly expanded local excise rooms tax to the Housing Bank.
  • The excise tax is paid by visitors who stay in island hotels, motels, B&Bs, and (now) short-term rentals.
  • Since the expansion of the rooms tax is new, we don’t know how much revenue will be generated, but estimates suggest that if all six towns allocate 50% to the Housing Bank it could be more than $4 million a year.
  • The Housing Bank can also raise funds through grants, town funds, and borrowing or bonding.

Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, some details remain to be worked out. So I come back to my #1 point:

The Housing Bank articles on the ATM warrant are the essential first step.

If we don’t take this first step, the housing bank is dead for the foreseeable future and along with it any hope of coming to grips with our ever-worsening year-round housing crisis.

Current efforts aren’t meeting the ever-increasing need. No other plausible funding mechanisms have come close to even reaching the drawing-board stage. Now is the time. Please vote YES on the articles creating and funding the Housing Bank.

Town Meeting schedule:

Tuesday, April 9, 7 p.m.
Old Whaling Church
Oak Bluffs: MVRHS Performing Arts Center
Tisbury: Tisbury School
West Tisbury: West Tisbury School

Monday, April 22, 7:30 p.m.
Chilmark Community Center

Tuesday, May 14, 7 p.m.
Aquinnah town hall

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March License Plate Report

Only three new sightings in March, but they were good ones. Washington state finally showed up, so the West Coast is now complete. With Indiana the eastern third of the country is getting closer to completion, and (sneak preview!) I spotted West Virginia on April 2, so one of the remaining holes is how filled up. Where are you, Michigan?

I’m picking on Michigan because Michigan isn’t all that rare around here, as opposed to Alabama and, especially, Mississippi.

Arizona rounds out the March haul.

By the way, that car with North Dakota plates is still parked outside deBettencourt’s gas station in Oak Bluffs. I really should snap a picture before it goes away . . .

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In Memoriam

Masasyu’s Fellow Traveller “Travvy”
February 27, 2008–March 15, 2019

My Travvy is gone.

It all happened so fast. Last Wednesday morning he was his own self, trotting along on our walk, sometimes sniffing the bushes to “see” who or what had passed by recently, other times heeling smartly and looking up at me as if to say Aren’t I good? How about a cookie?

As usual, I had a fistful of mini biscuits in one vest pocket, string cheese in the other, and a “bait bag” of mixed Charlee Bear treats and turkey dog pieces slung over one shoulder. So I’d give him one.

Early Wednesday evening he was flagging so noticeably that I aborted our walk not long after we set out. I was concerned but not worried. We’d been here before, or so I thought. Rocky Mountain spotted fever comes on suddenly like this. Get him started on doxycycline and within a day or two he’d be his own self again.

Not this time. The next morning he was too weak to get into the car, even with my help, and I wasn’t strong enough to lift him. So our vet and her assistant made a house call. Trav lay in the leaves next to the car, unnaturally calm while she checked his vital signs and drew blood.

He didn’t have a fever; his temperature was too low. The real wallop was his red blood cell count, which our vet said was “scary low.” His profound weakness was due to extreme anemia. Her thought was that this might be due to internal bleeding, and that could be related to a tumor. We agreed that x-rays were in order. Since her x-ray machine was on the blink, she made a 2 p.m. appointment for us at Animal Health Care, the better-equipped but still small vet hospital at the airport. Before they left, they helped me lift Trav into Malvina Forester’s cargo bay.

He showed no desire or capacity to go anywhere. This was as unsettling as the disastrous bloodwork. If you know Trav, or malamutes in general, you do not leave them unattended in unsecured spaces: if there is mischief to be found, they will find it, and if there’s none to be found, they will create it. I went in for a bit but then came out and sat with Travvy, stroking him and scratching his ears and trying to read a back issue of the American Prospect.

The x-rays showed a mass on the spleen. We had them read by a radiologist, who confirmed my vet’s reading: they couldn’t be certain, but what they saw was consistent with the low temperature, the very low platelet count, and Trav’s extreme weakness and apathy. We were most likely dealing with a splenic tumor and related internal bleeding.

Here’s where the realities of living on an island kick in. “Most likely” suggests a degree of uncertainty, but certainty comes at a price. The Vineyard supports several veterinary practices these days, but no fully equipped veterinary hospitals. For specialized care and treatment we have to go off-island. “As soon as you get on the boat,” said my vet, “it’s $5,000.”

Not only was certainty expensive, it came with a poor prognosis. If the tumor was malignant, it had probably already metastasized, so surgery even if successful would likely buy us only a few months. Trav turned 11 last month. Our apartment is on the second floor, and I’d just demonstrated to myself that I couldn’t lift his 80-pound weight without help. The prospect of transporting him off-island in his current condition was almost unthinkable.

I decided to bring him home for the night, with evening and morning doses of doxycycline and prednisone on the (very) off chance that this might be tick-related. Getting him up my outside stairs was a chore for both of us. I supported his hind end with a sweatshirt sling and he climbed with his forepaws. At the top of the stairs he thunked himself down, exhausted. I gave him two doxy, wrapped up in peanut butter, and was encouraged that he managed to eat them.

In the morning he seemed a little more alert. He even got up on all fours to drink some water. He still had no appetite, but he did eat a few kibbles that I scattered in front of him. Maybe, maybe . . . ?

No. Getting him down the stairs was as hard as getting him up. He collapsed at the bottom. With the sling I encouraged him to get up and try to walk far enough to pee. He couldn’t do it. I called my vet and said “It’s time to go.” She had two appointments but would be free at 10:30. I said we’d be there; she offered to come to the house again. I said “We’ll see.”

I’m not sure how I finally got him into the car. At one point I gave up and called the vet to ask her to come over. The line was busy, so I tried again. This time we made it.

All the way down Old County Road I played Dave Carter’s “When I Go,” the song that got me through Rhodry’s passing 11 years ago.

Travvy passed peacefully in the back of Malvina Forester, with whom we’d travelled so many miles together. There’s more to the story, but I’ll leave it for later. That fistful of biscuits is still in the pocket of my vest.

Spring, spirit dancer, nimble and thin, I will leap like coyote when I go
Tireless entrancer, lend me your skin, I will run like the gray wolf when I go

I will climb the rise at daybreak, I will kiss the sky at noon
raise my yearning voice at midnight to my mother in the moon
I will make the lay of long defeat and draw the chorus slow
I’ll send this message down the wire and hope that someone wise is listening when I go

. . .

And should you glimpse my wandering form out on the borderline
between death and resurrection and the council of the pines
do not worry for my comfort, do not sorrow for me so
all your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky beside me when I go

© Dave Carter

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February License Plate Report

See? See see see see? That oblong green block  just above dead center, labeled “25”?


Or “North Da-fucking-kota,” as I keep saying to people, most of whom know of my license plate obsession and indulge it (or are at least discreet about their reservations).

North Dakota is the unicorn, the holy grail, the impossible dream of the license plate game, at least on Martha’s Vineyard. Other places too, I’m told by friends around the country, though it’s probably not all that rare in Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota, the first two of which are rare birds on the Vineyard, though not as rare as North Dakota.

I last spotted North Dakota about 25 years ago. It was on a tour bus queued up at the Vineyard Haven ferry dock waiting to leave the island. My cohort Don Lyons (whom I blame for getting me started in this game) asked the driver if they really were from North Dakota. New Jersey, said the driver. No matter: the bus and the license plate were from North Dakota.

Mid-February had rolled around and the license plate map looked just like it had at the end of January. Driving from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs I decided to detour through the M.V. Hospital parking lot(s), a reliable source of hard-to-find and even exotic plates. This trip turned up Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky: a good haul indeed. I continued on toward my destination, Reliable Market on Circuit Ave.

A plate caught my eye as I drove past DeBettencourt’s gas station. Could it possibly be . . . ? The dark sedan bearing the plate was parked off to the side, facing the road. In the license plate game, front-end plates don’t count: in states that only require one plate (as used to be the case in Massachusetts) drivers sometimes use the front end for a souvenir plate from times past. A distinctive orange plate from Panama is sometimes seen in my town, but its rear plate is from good ol’ Massachusetts so I don’t get excited.

I was pretty excited — well, no: “incredulous” is a better word — by the prospect of North Dakota. I pulled a U-turn in the middle of New York Ave., rolled to a stop on the shoulder just past the gas station, got out, and went over to do an inspection — briefly wondering if I’d have to explain to the gas jockey what I was up to. (I didn’t: no one even glanced in my direction.)

Sure enough, the plate on the rear end was from North Dakota. Wow.

When I passed that way a few days later, North Dakota was in exactly the same place. I wondered what the story might be. Could North Dakota work at the gas station? Maybe North Dakota was off-island for a while and got permission to leave his/her car there? If the car was for sale, there’d be a FOR SALE BY OWNER or some such sign on the windshield, but there wasn’t. It’s a mystery.

I capped the month off with Delaware, which is almost always the last East Coast state to show up.

Best February on record.

It’s also nerve-racking: spotting North Dakota in February raises the possibility that 2019 might be the year I spot all 50 states plus D.C. This raises the stakes considerably. North Dakota might be the unicorn, but Mississippi, Hawaii, Montana, and South Dakota aren’t exactly there for the spotting. We’ll see.

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January License Plate Report

I’m running late with the first license plate report, but here it is at last. Memo to self: Update the map regularly! It wasn’t till I got around to coloring in the states this morning that I realized I had both Vermont and Pennsylvania on the list twice, and I hadn’t recorded Maryland, whose plates I’ve probably seen a dozen of.

So here we are, in order: Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Rhode Island, Florida, Ohio, Connecticut, Colorado, Wisconsin, New York, California, New Hampshire, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Oregon isn’t a usual contender for the #2 spot. New England took longer than usual to fill in, and New York was a little late too, but the Northeast looks pretty much the way it always does at the end of January: all in except for Delaware, which isn’t really Northeast anyway. Wisconsin and Tennessee are good catches for this time of year.

Grand total: 21. On to the next!

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Year-End License Plate Report 2018

Here’s a belated end-of-year license plate report, and an even more belated apology for not posting monthly updates for October, November, and December. My excuse for the latter, as you’ve probably guessed, is that I spotted no new plates after the end of the September. Boo-hiss, but this is pretty much par for the course.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad year. AWOL at the end were Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, and both Dakotas. Wyoming I might have spotted a couple of times — it’s uncommon here but not really rare — but I wasn’t close enough to be sure so it doesn’t count.

I’ve just printed out a nice clean map for 2019. For the record, the first five sightings of the new year were Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, Vermont, and Virginia. Only 46 to go! (Having been a D.C. resident for 11 years, I of course count the “Last Colony” as a state, and if I ever see a Puerto Rico plate I’ll count it too.)

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Singing in “Messiah”

I happily wish “Merry Christmas” to everyone I know who celebrates it, and “Season’s Greetings” to those who may not, or who celebrate more than one of the season’s holidays, of which there are quite a few. The common denominators for most of them are light and rebirth, which is what the Winter Solstice — grandma of all the season’s holidays — is about in the Northern Hemisphere.

Oh yeah, and music. I love the music. When I still lived in D.C., I was lying in bed early one morning when Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” came on Robert J. Lurtsema’s Morning Pro Musica show on public radio. Sung (of course) by John Langstaff (1920–2005), this was my introduction to the Christmas Revels, which I’ve been able to attend live a couple of times and several of whose albums are in my collection, some in vinyl, some on tape, and some in MP3. In the late 1980s I also got to sing in a local version, directed by Mary Payne (1932–1996).

If you don’t know the song, or need to hear it again, here’s classic Langstaff with a lovely collage video of dancers around the world:

By the time I heard “Lord of the Dance” that morning on the radio, I already knew about the pagan roots of Christianity, but knowing plenty about the doings of Christianity in its post- and anti-pagan phases, I wasn’t all that favorably disposed to it. But the song melded the two together forever in my mind and let me glimpse a Christianity that wasn’t all about kings and wars, the enslavement and/or forced conversion of colored peoples and the oppression of women. A Christianity that had borrowed liberally from older traditions.

In the year or so before I left D.C., I’d started singing regularly, in the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus and the Gay and Lesbian Chorus of Washington (which was brand-new at the time and increased greatly in size after I left town; not sure if it still exists). I wanted to keep singing after I landed on Martha’s Vineyard, but the options for a strictly amateur adult singer were pretty much limited to church choirs. The singing part was fine, but I couldn’t see myself sitting through a church service every Sunday. Instead I started volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse, which meant hanging out with musicians, and poets, writers, and other performers too.

Then I learned about the pickup group of island singers that performed the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah every holiday season. Around 1988 I worked up the nerve to attend a rehearsal, in the parish hall of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. The place was packed, the conductor was a forbidding old fellow, and everyone seemed to know the music by heart. I didn’t, and though I could read music, I couldn’t sing from a score I’d never seen before. I was intimidated. I didn’t go back.

A year or two later, though, I tried again. The old fellow had retired, and his successor was someone I knew somewhat from theater. Whatever the reason, I was less intimidated and more confident in my ability to learn the alto part, with the help of my little keyboard and my three-record set of Messiah conducted by Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966.

Come to think of it, that recording is probably why I was so determined to sing Messiah in the first place. I’d had it for years, it’s glorious, and — though it’s been many years since I had the equipment to play LPs — it’s now available on YouTube:

I’m not sure what my first year was, but I do know for sure that I sang in 1990 because I still have the program and my name is listed among the altos.

What do I remember from those early years? The chorus was huge. (The 1990 program lists  17 sopranos, 32 [!!] altos, 10 tenors, and 14 basses.) Cramming us all into the front of the sanctuary at the stone church (Christ United Methodist in Vineyard Haven) was a challenge every year. Tenors and basses were in the back, which was accessed by a short but narrow staircase. One year one of the guys fainted, probably from a combination of excitement and overcrowding. From where I stood in the first or second row, the audience looked like winter picnickers, bundled in warm clothes, with some winter coats and jackets spread out on the pews and often a baby or very small child nestled among them, sleeping. It might have been my first glimpse of what my whole community looked like, not just the newspaper people, the theater people, and the Wintertide people that I hung out with regularly.

We sang all of Part 1, the Christmas portion, plus the Hallelujah and the Amen. Of course the entire congregation stood up for the Hallelujah. This drove some of the singers crazy then and it drives some of them crazy now, but that’s not going to stop anyone from doing it. I suspect it’s the music that does it, and if the chorus weren’t already on our feet, we’d be doing it too.

love the Amen. It was three years before I could not only sing it all the way through but find my place again if I got lost. Even after I could follow the score and the conductor at the same time, I’d sometimes trance out with the glory of it all and lose my place.

Susanna and puppy

For unto us a puppy’s born. Early January 1995.

In 1994, the performances were on December 19 and 20. On December 17 I’d seen the litter born that included the future Rhodry Malamutt. My imagery for “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” that year was all about puppies, and I still can’t sing that chorus without thinking of Rhodry.

1994 was also the first year that Peter Boak directed. An experienced choral conductor who’d recently become a year-round resident, Peter was naturally interested in directing more than Messiah, and year-round instead of just at Christmastime; in the years following, the Messiah singers became the original core of what has flourished as the Island Community Chorus. The 1997 program is the first to identify the Messiah ensemble as the Island Community Chorus, and subsequent programs do likewise.

My program collection comes to an abrupt end with 2001. Peter understandably wanted to conduct other works from the Christmas repertoire. We went out with a bang, performing the  whole Messiah, parts 1, 2, and 3, on April 7 and 8 of that year. That December (I’m pretty sure it was that December, but if there was a program, I don’t have it) a sing-along Christmas portion of Messiah was held, with soloists, at St. Augustine’s. As I recall, it was well attended but it didn’t happen again. That was it for Messiah on Martha’s Vineyard.

I continued to sing in the Island Community Chorus until 2006, by which time it had grown too big and too elaborate (e.g., instrumentalists imported from off-island) for my taste. Peter is a great teacher-conductor, and I learned a lot singing with him, but I still can’t quite forgive him for killing off an important holiday tradition.

However . . .

In the fall of 2015, a friend at Grace church (the longtime sponsor of Messiah on the Vineyard, from which I many years ago bought my copy of the score) confided that the chorus “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” was going to be sung at the Christmas Eve service and singers were sought to augment the church’s own choir. Of course I jumped, I rehearsed, I sang.

From the 2016 program

One thing led to another, and — wonder of wonders — the next December the whole Christmas portion of Messiah was performed again on the Vineyard, this time at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. The Grace church group, with ringleaders Jim Norton and indispensable conductor Wes Nagy, brought it back. “An Island Family Tradition Returns” said the poster and the program.

Of course I was there, along with an ensemble more manageable than the giant choruses of the 1990s: 10 sopranos, 8 altos, 12 tenors, and 7 basses, along with 8 instrumentalists and the awesome pianist Griffin McMahon. We did it again in 2017 and, last Saturday, in 2018. For good measure a smaller group sang the Easter section (part three) at Eastertide in 2017.

No, it’s not the same. The Whaling Church is less cozy than the stone church, and the front row of the chorus is no longer face-to-face with the front row of the audience. We finish with a rousing “Hallelujah” and don’t sing the “Amen.” I see fewer young children out there: our audience, like the Vineyard in general, is aging. So, of course, is the chorus. Some of us sang regularly in the 1990s, but quite a few of the 1990s singers have died or left the island. Time moves on, but not all is lost, and some of what was lost comes back.

Which is what “Lord of the Dance,” Messiah, and celebrations of the winter solstice are all about, isn’t it? The country has been passing through a dark and turbulent time, but signs of awakening life are everywhere. Hallelujah!

The other half of the stage, altos in front, tenors in back. The empty chair behind the poinsettias is mine.

Warming up before the 2017 performance. The sopranos are in front, the basses behind. Conductor Wes Nagy is at far left, bass soloist Glenn Carpenter is standing up, and Griffin McMahon is partly visible at the piano.


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