Star Island - lessons in retreating

The day before I leave for Star Island my kids’ dad tells me a hurricane is on its way up from Haiti and will hit the coast off New Hampshire in the next day or two. I’m not sure what he expects me to do with the information so I do what I usually do and panic.

What if there's a storm when the boat is at sea? What if the entire week is spoiled by rain? It’s depressing when it’s grey and wet. I get angry at my girlfriend when she says “It makes no odds,” a British expression that to me means what I'm feeling doesn't matter. But she's right it made no odds.

On the ferry to the island two women heading to their annual church retreat describe what we are about to behold.

 “Aristotle Onassis came this close to turning the Shoals Islands into an oil refinery,” one of them says, holding her thumb and index finger less than an inch apart. “But the town of Rye rushed to turn them into a heritage site.”  We all sigh with relief as though it just happened. I look out into the ocean, the outline of the Shoals still barely visible on the horizon.

Generations are gathered on this boat, returning for the 10th, the 17th or the 24th year. We are greeted at the dock by a flock of singing pelicans, the so called group of shiny, tanned, tattooed and pierced young people who staff this Island. I hold back my judgment of names that feel excessively cute.

Weather in all its forms diminishes nothing here but affords the privilege of new lenses. Why would you want to see this place only through sunshine and blue sky? I take in the images each weather system paints and watch as they linger or rush by in quick succession.

A thin jagged line of lightning drives into the water then announces itself with a crack – a bit backward really. Rain follows, diagonally. I consider packing up the computer and leaving the summer room - a red-roofed gazebo, out on the point where I sit alone rewriting. During Water and Fire – the first day’s rule workshop, we are warned of the instantaneous way lightning has of firing up its mark. I could break my concentration and rush back to the main building or could act out of character and stay put. The sun applauds my choice.

Rustic doesn’t begin to describe Star Island – the site of my writer’s workshop with Joyce Maynard, where I’ve come for things, as yet unknown, that years of solitary attention to this craft won’t bring me.

Patti, one of the nineteen women in our group who struggled to get here – not due to distance, or personal challenge, but to traffic it seems plagues the region - suggests the accommodation is somewhat prison-for women.

“Not that I’m a Marriott type or anything but I can’t bear being so clammy all the time,” she says heading off to get a fresh towel from the main desk, hers covered with stains she prefers not to speculate about.

It doesn’t help that it has been raining for two days and my own towel, damp from an early swim in the ocean yesterday morning, still hasn’t dried.

Like the desolate hilly land from Jerusalem down toward Eilat it feels like stories from the bible might have been set here – like God might have chosen it as a site for a personal appearance and a chat with Jonah or Moses, Sarah or Miriam. I’m not a religious person.

Rocky and scrubby this tiny Island hasn’t much more room than that taken up by a sprawling old wooden hotel it’s doubtful was ever luxurious, a chapel and a handful of weathered cottages. They process all their own sewage and make their own drinking water we are told. You can tell, I think, after swallowing my first sip.

The larger hotels on the nearby islands have all burnt down over the years and have never been rebuilt. This shabby remnant is the last standing. I’m happy the Marriot or the Hilton have never set their sites on this rock.

My room is small, spiders my only roommates. Every bathroom carries the faint odor of outhouse, the towels, that of must. The "hot" showers in the communal bathroom in the basement of the hotel are buildings away from my room and open for limited hours, three days a week. Outside the shower room is a sign that reads These towels are for paying guests only. Ten miles out in the ocean on this desolate Island that houses only this hotel I wonder who else is helping themselves to the towels.

 I’ll linger a moment on the family-style food. The chipotle-pepper-blueberry-tofu seems an incongruous offering and my notion of a cookie and its relationship to salt has been successfully challenged. What comes as a surprise is staff’s lack of compulsion to confess to the sugar/salt mix-up in the kitchen.  Isn’t there something in United Church of Christ doctrine that prohibits this sort of thing? It seems frugality trumps straightforwardness where all things culinary are concerned. The pelicans are trained to flag and discourage excess.

In my world scrambled eggs call for ketchup and I inquire.

“We have run out of ketchup on the island,” is the response. Hmm? I wonder, questions popping. Did it all run out at the same time? Was no one alerted? Was there an unexpected run on ketchup this summer? Has the season’s supply dried up early? Are condiments a frill that puts too much fun in food?

The pelicans who arrive at our table, white paper in hand, to detail the evening’s fare seem trained in exuberance.  “My name is Sarah…” shouts the short girl with the big plastic glasses and the nametag that reads Monica. I wonder if we’re being tested.

On lobster night we sit patiently as a young man explains dinner. “The lobster biscuits don’t contain lobster but go well with it. The small bowl is for butter.” He points and a bunch of us, anxious about the repercussions of non-compliance, hurry to dump the biscuits we’ve rested in the butter bowls back onto the table. I have too few phobias about germs but still hope they wipe this down with disinfectant between meals.

“This bowl’s for the lobster shells. This one for the rubber bands that come on the end of the claws. Don’t throw them in together. We feed them to the sea gulls and that would be bad, fatal, in fact,” he says. On to the nut crackers, the napkins, the corn on the cob, the salad and vinaigrette, the cole slaw.

“I’m feeling stressed.” Laura says.

Two faces stick with me. Tracey’s - scrunched and focused in disgusted determination as with a first dissection of a fetal pig in high school biology. Lea’s horrified and quickly covered with her hands after watching me spoon some of the green mess from the belly of the beast into my mouth. “I’ve coined a new comparison,” she says. “That was grosser than the time Aviva ate the green slime from the inside of the lobster.”

Friday lunch reaches a new high in culinary lows. We spend too much time speculating on the ingredients in the gluten-free mac and cheese - sugar, pablum and dried tofu cheese powder, is as far as we get. I eat a mountain of broccoli and cauliflower, beets and carrots for which I pay later. Perhaps the strategy is to have lunch function as a foil for the last supper. 

After checking in at the front desk I’d waited for my key. There are no locks on our doors I am told. I soon stop worrying about my laptop, wallet, camera and passport. The staunch New England character of this place that refuses to be pushed or pulled into a century not of its choosing gives me pleasure.

Location, location, location a real estate agent might say and they’d be dead right. This island has the best of bones and there is nothing more inspirational than to sit on them a while.

There’s room enough, with the 150 or so people staying this week, to wander the paths on the far side of the Island and get lost for a few moments, out of site completely.  In the morning I head out to run but it’s too beautiful. The trade off between burning calories and living, seeing, slowing may not be a trade off at all. What is it I fear I might lose?

I encounter no one but bold seagulls whose right to be here far exceeds mine. I begin a conversation with one of them who, despite the fact she’s at my feet, is in my face.

“I’m sorry, I’m just passing through.” She squawks aggressively un-placated by my soothing words. Behind her, camouflaged by their rock and scrub colouring, are her chicks - designed this way I can’t help thinking, by God or some supreme being who plans well. Their feathers are so fluffy they are almost her size.

There are a number of vocal congregations here on the Island and while our group of outspoken women is in the running for this title the seagulls are by far the loudest.  They’re busy exchanging warnings, greetings and observations many of which I’m human enough to think are about me.

“Someone’s coming, she’s getting closer, hide the babies, why the fuck is she here anyway? Probably that communing with nature thing they all love to say they’ve done. Ya we know that because they bring their cameras so they can save time by capturing and having the experience simultaneously.” I’m surprised no one pooped on me as a lark or a lesson.

The words that come to mind to describe this landscape seem trite. Its magnitude and force make me cry but then a lot does this week so perhaps that’s no measure of anything. What strikes me, other than everything, is the way the rocks are pilled like toys haphazardly thrown on their sides in a toy box. What game ended like this?

But unlike toys these rocks don’t move. No matter how small and awkwardly positioned when I put the full weight of my body on them they do not budge.

On the evening of the sunset I run for my camera proving the seagulls right. But all of this rough beauty is just the setting, the backdrop for this story, because the best part is what’s happening here - some serendipitous gathering of extraordinary women whose stories each one has deemed our group worthy of hearing. I want to retell them all, want to cast each one as the star of her own film, all films I’d pay to see. But they are not mine.

I hope each one of us gets to tell our stories and be heard by as many people as we each want to be heard by – our stories of puking, pig farming, cattle ranching and music, of death and stale biscuits, murdered dogs, excess and rocks, loss and clutter. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of us showed up as characters in each other’s novels. I’m not the only one that cries and that is the way it needs to be.

Joyce laughs with her whole body, cushioning the blows of sharp critique, with her desire to make all of us better at this thing we’ve come here to do. Otherwise we’d have to believe she was some kind of sadist.  

None of us is left unpricked, as she hauls out our truisms, bad clichés and empty words - never on a whim or as if in a trance, and forces us to digest then reject the devastation and magnitude, confidence boosting, earnest work, disturbed reverie, aching and gnawing fears, invisible breezes, meltdowns and grounding pain.  All of which I fear tug at our heartstrings.

Bob Bausch plays Joyce’s foil - our dose of testosterone in a baseball cap, gently pushing his Nike-like advice to just do it and re-do it later. “Write your way to the end,” he says on the heels of an insightful list of questions for building character. He follows with a joke about his underpants. Joyce is not a Nike kind of girl. Her advice “whatever you do, don’t just do it” spars with his in the middle of our circle and we are left to sort it out for ourselves. Clever.

Joyce always follows the gutting of her prey - our writing just to be clear, not us - with tools guaranteed to create a better moose, or deer or rabbit if we can only remember them. And we all get good news – not fabricated or inflated but genuine. She unearths the seeds we have to work with and forces us to replant them. Words of wisdom are dropped like cluster bombs. We run for them despite their impact.

“There’s no place for envy. Always set it aside,” Bob says to me. “Be open and generous to your colleagues. Celebrate their successes.” A tip as profound as any I will receive this week. I struggle with envy.

This morning’s walk is beautiful not peaceful. The remnants of last night’s dinner are scattered across the rocks. Anxious and unsure I keep changing directions and glancing at my watch. I should be more relaxed not less by now which adds to a sudden feeling of failure. I hope it’s hormonal. Flute music is coming from the open door of the chapel. I lean against the stone wall to listen, six  seconds, then rush away for my bathing suit regretting instantly that I have left the music behind but staying my course - exercise.

I think about envy, about my need for attention, about my constant worry that elsewhere might be better. FOMO syndrome I heard it recently called – Fear of Missing Out. Is there a drug to take for that?

I’m already afraid some of the insights and tools I’ve gleaned will be left behind in this rock toy box. Will the magic that is in great part the product of our collective work find its way home with me? Just make room for it I think, examine each one and commit it to memory before packing it away. It’s not likely to push my bags over their forty-pound limit. The Le Creuset pot and Frye boots I bought in Portsmouth have done that already.      


Luminous writing. Reading it, I was transported, once again - I could hear your voice reading these words. Thank you. :)


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