Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 18 • Aug. 14-20, 2008
now in our 38th season

Send Out Ripples

by Robert P. Barsanti

Summer comes to its zenith in the first two weeks of August.  Everyone is here: the workers, the students, the day-trippers, the weekenders, the monthly rentals, the summer residents, and those islanders who haven’t rented out the family hearth.  We all leave for the beaches by noon, come back to the Stop-and-Shop by four, and are in town by seven.  We seem to all want parking places and ice cream at exactly the same time.

Weatherwise, it has been a tremendous time.  The heat and humidity of July blew out over the Orion shoals and the cool, dry air of September has filled in behind it.  Gigantic anvils of thunder and lightning passed to our north and delayed the baseball game in Boston.  Twenty miles away and three miles up, the lightning branched from cloud to cloud while we kept body surfing and shell hunting.  There was no reason to get out of the water. 

Later, I sat in the Episcopal Church with a full stomach and a pressed shirt.  The great windows looked out on the shingled walls and roofs of million dollar neighbors caught in the fading gold of an island sunset.  The westerly breeze rattled the great oaks and elms.  Inside, most of the men wore blazers and ties, most of the women had chosen summer dresses and expensively plain jewelry. Lily Pulitzer would have its midnight sale in a few hours.  Two hundred of us sat and listened patiently while a speaker told of us of genocide, refugee crisis, and untimely and unbidden violent death.  The guilt was palpable.

All of us in the audience lived lives of unspeakable opulence.  In the entire history of humanity, no one has lived better than we had.  We had warm clothes, loving families, reliable police, good health care, and indoor plumbing.  I didn’t have to make a meal out of U.N. cornmeal.  Instead, I had just finished a dinner of lamb and key lime pie, washed down with Bahamian rum.  The money from my meal could have fed a large family in Rwanda for a month.  My clothing would have kept someone alive through a bitter night.  And my time…

I live my life, as others do, in a small frame.  I can see five years behind me and about three miles around.  Within that neighborhood, I rank myself by my neighbors, their cars, and their dinners—and that rank is pretty low. But expand outward to include Iraq, India, and China and we appear as ants atop a mountaintop of wealth. The Club Car and the Atlantic Café become very similar from a third world perspective.

After listening to Samantha Power, the best among us would chuck it all.  Saints and heroes would sell it all, pack a backpack, and join the fight.  We could be a giant wave that would raise the poor up.  Ten years from now, the saints and heros would stand on a hill in the equatorial heat with a small town and hospital over our right shoulders, and talk about all of the work left to do.  But I am not a hero nor a saint.  I am no Indiana Jones, riding off on a white horse in the desert.  I like my lamb shwarma and indoor plumbing far too much, and I would miss my boys and my friends.  I have grown comfortable in the narrow frame of my life and do not wish to leave it, no matter how high a wave I could cause.  At best, I could only make a ripple.

That’s all that Bobby Kennedy asked for, all those years ago in South Africa.  He asked us to “to perform numberless diverse acts of courage” that would spread out as ripples, build to a wave, and knock down the walls of despair and tyranny.  Samantha Power addressed her well-fed, well-dressed audience and asked the same thing. 

Speakers have come to Nantucket for two hundred years to ask for that same thing. The Quakers left Nantucket with a call to “mend the world.  They came looking for volunteers, for money, or for just some attention.  To the island’s great credit, they often received all three.” Lucretia Coffin Mott filled the Centre Street Meeting House every summer, Frederick Douglass would pack them into the Atheneum, and Ralph Waldo Emerson drew them to the Atheneum, along with hundred of others.  They spoke to the same audience.  We don’t change much; the young, the well-to-do, the concerned all gather on a cool August night in the same golden light and listen.  The causes change, but the ripples still go out from the island. 

And some ripples stay right here.  Our mountaintop of wealth has been scaled by the hard working poor of the Caribbean, Central and South America.  They have come to paint, to wash dishes, to clean up, and to prep.  In order to live and make money here, they sleep twenty or more to a house, eat rice and beans, then pedal to work.  Sometimes, you can see them walking up the path at Sanford Farm with a boy’s tackle.  And sometimes they die in an afternoon while catching dinner in a pond. 

In Samantha Powers’ audience was at least one person who made ripples.  She and her husband had a small apartment in the center of the island that they rented out at below market rates.  Only one family stayed there at a time, while she salted half the rent away.  She and her husband guided them through the legal hedges and fences before the tenants left with a downpayment for a house of their own off-island. 

Others do as well.  They teach E.S.L., they seek to provide decent housing, they pay decent wages, or they just send money to the right places.  They mend the world in one small place, at one small time.

I don’t know why they do it.  Perhaps they acknowledge their luck at being born in the right country at the right time.  Perhaps they see how fortunate they have been to live atop Nantucket.  Perhaps they see that America works best when they can give someone a chance.  Perhaps they get a tax break.  Perhaps they have been to enough speeches on golden evenings.

But they send out ripples.

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