Life on an island: water, rocks, high tide, repeat

Grog_2_Aug2013READ THIS POST on our new blog.

One of the surprising things so far about our Gap Year is what I’m learning about Sam, my husband of 40 years. The most surprising thing, of course, is that there are surprises.

I knew he was a good writer, for example. But I didn’t realize how good until I started editing his posts. He writes with a lovely cadence (short sentences mixed with long), provocative phrases, precise descriptions.

What he says about my family’s island is so spot on that I can’t improve upon it. I’ll repeat so you can enjoy:

An island evokes a kaleidoscope of feelings that is so reproducible from year to year that it acts on the brain like a hard reset on the computer. There are feelings of isolation, power, exceptional independence, safety, danger, vulnerability, and (curiously) a primitive eroticism. >> More.

But I do want to add a few words. I won’t name the island because the privacy and isolation are what my siblings and I cherish the most. My father, with amazing foresight, bought the property in the late 1960s when he and my mother were cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Family lore has it that he moored his sailboat in Stonington’s protected harbor on a foggy day. Then he rowed into the town dock and walked around the, then, largely undiscovered fishing village.

There wasn’t much going on in those days other than fishing (meaning lobstering). But there were several real estate offices along the main street. He wandered into one, sat down and inquired as to whether any of the dozens of small islands in the Deer Island Thorofare were for sale.

There was one, quite small and conveniently located a ten-minute boat ride from town. The price was low. So he bought it. Then he rowed back out to their boat and told my mother. Ha!

July and August are the golden months on the island

Of course there is a lot more to it than that. I must check the details with my dad. It seems there was some dispute over title to the island and it took several years to clear up. Not until the early 70s was ownership firmly established. It was then that my parents built the cabins. They are simple but “modern” in design with sloping roofs and lots of windows. Forty years later they are still in remarkably good repair.

About a decade ago, my dad gave the island to his four children so we could manage repairs and maintenance, pay taxes, etc. I won’t get into the family drama of how we decide who will use the island when during the summer. Suffice it to say that July and August are the golden months and we squabble – despite having a clearly organized rotation of who gets to pick which week first.

Grog_rainbow_Aug2013I was #1 this year. So I called primetime, a stretch that included the first weekend in August. Some old friends joined us.

As is usual on the island, we had every kind of weather from rain and fog to blue skies and hot sun. A double rainbow one evening was stunning but not without precedent.

On the island you don’t think, you feel

As for my reflection on our island, it comes down to this: my scurrying, worrying brain goes into hibernation. I don’t think. I feel. At high tide I drink in the sight of the perfect clear water lapping on the rocks.

We live by the 10-foot tides. High and low are separated by six hours. They occur four times every 24 hours. Low tide is good for collecting mussels. One year (a long time ago) we were awash in starfish. They clung to the rocks so you could only reach them at low tide. My mother paid each grandchild a quarter per starfish. I can still see them, pink and prickly, piled up on the granite blocks.

Mostly, we wait for high tide

Grog_E_RA_Aug2013Mostly, on hot sunny days, we wait for high tide to fill the little cove so that it’s perfect – despite the frigid temperature of the water – for swimming and sunning on the flat rocks. The pure, physical beauty of the island with its pink and gray granite rocks, evergreen trees and mossy paths is a tonic and, as Sam puts it, a reboot.

I can never get enough of it.

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Life on an island: an annual hard reset

Grog_4_Aug2013There is nothing like your own island.

It’s a private island but we’re not talking Richard Branson’s Necker. We have spent the last week on a single-family eight-acre island off the coast of Maine. In other words, it’s a piece of property that happens to have water around it.

We timeshare it with other family members. There are five rudimentary cabins. There is no electricity. There are gas lamps and gas refrigeration. There are three flush toilets and three buckets. There is running water in two of the five cabins.

We have spent several of the nights alone and several with friends.

An island is a hard reset for your brain

I say again, there is nothing like your own island. An island evokes a kaleidoscope of feelings that is so reproducible from year to year that it acts on the brain like a hard reset on the computer. There are feelings of isolation, power, exceptional independence, safety, danger, vulnerability, and (curiously) a primitive eroticism.

As I look at the sunrise across the water I feel the protective moat that surrounds me and buffers me from the world of high society and health systems. I feel the wonder of disconnection. I am the master of my domain. It is a geographic domain, not a social or business domain, and that geography feeds a primeval sense of self.

An island’s physical and emotional challenges

Grog_Aug2013An island is a physical challenge. It requires loading and unloading – like cruising on a boat but raised to an exponential power. Everything to be used on an island (and I mean everything, including firewood, drinking water, food, propane gas, clothes, laundry, construction materials, repair equipment, replacement parts) has to be carried from the mainland onto the boat and then off the boat for distribution to the various cabins or project sites on the island.

Later, the process has to be reversed. Everything has to be collected, carried down the dock, transferred to the boat, transported to the mainland, transferred to the town dock, up the ramp and distributed to the waiting automobiles, homes, trash dumps and other destinations.

This is physically strenuous work. Because the cabins are sited on hills and along root strewn pathways significant climbing is involved. The main cabin is sited thirty feet above high tide. That means the ramp is a stiff climb up if it’s low tide. [Ed note: one of the pleasures of Maine are the 10-foot tides.]

An island is an emotional challenge. Although the mind can be occupied for a good deal of the day with the details of coordinating meals, repairs, and everyday logistics it is always possible to lean back and let feelings of peacefulness, aloneness, power of domain, isolation, and vulnerability sweep over you. Although the power of one’s personal domain is inspiring, to look across the bay and see a storm line build is a reality check of unequaled dimensions.

I prefer life on a small scale

I have always preferred to live life on a small scale.

I wanted to practice community medicine and never had designs on leadership positions or an academic career. I never wanted to be on the “bleeding edge” of new technology.

I enjoyed caring for Washington celebrities, socialites, ambassadors and cabinet secretaries but I did not seek them out. I preferred a few friends to a complicated social life.

I enjoyed the public golf course and preferred a pub with a “heavy pour” to a country club or social club.

Maine, a low-density state, is small scale and this island is the smallest scale possible. I am not a hermit and I do not want to stay here forever, but now is my chance to learn how long I can enjoy it.

The puzzle of turning vacation days into “real life”

When we started my Gap Year we planned to spend the first few months doing for weeks what we used to do for days. [Ed note: hat tip to my favorite Uncle Bobby’s naughty variation on this phrase.  – Debbie] We planned on turning our vacation days into our “real life.”

At first, that plan seemed to lack imagination, both when describing it to others and while living it ourselves. But now it feels right.

At first I was disappointed that the extra time did not lead to an explosive personality change and the inspiration to take on giant new challenges. Now it is ok.

Embracing my old, small world feels right. Enjoying it now without time and schedule constraints is right. Our plan is a good one. By finding our old selves we will learn to find our new selves and expand our horizons.

There is nothing like your own island to help you see your horizon.