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Essay
Volume 39 Issue 17 • Aug 27 - Sept 2, 2009
now in our 39th season

Dayenu

by Robert P. Barsanti

To the disappointment of many, Hurricane Bill passed a hundred and fifty miles to our East.  He passed without much commotion; if we had had no weather service, we might not have noticed, save for the waves on the south shore.  In leaving us, Bill threw a few showers, heaved a couple heavy breezes, set the ocean to rumbling then faded away in the night.  Islanders woke up the next morning to dry pavement and hazy sun.  Another one, dud and gone.

Those Eagle scouts who pulled their boats out days earlier woke up with other words on their tongues.  Prudence, discretion, and a healthy dose of self-righteousness hauled their Makos out onto trailers.  But, instead of the “I told you so” mudball they hoped to throw Sunday morning, they found themselves spattered on the receiving end.  The old salts still afloat smirked and whispered over the transom “They always miss.  You should know that.”

Many of the summer visitors also took the storm for its betters, and slipped away with days left on the rental.  Every hurricane these days has the second name of Katrina.  No one wants to be on CNN for a week.  

Safe and dry back in Greenwich, they watched the Yankees and planned  next year’s summer trip.   It would be better then when they could have the whole family to dinner.  Without them, downtown declared “September” a week early, opened up the parking places, breakfast spots, and the line for corn at the Bartlett’s truck.

The storm did not disappoint anyone on the south shore.  That same ocean which floated the kids on their boogie boards expunged the beach of footsteps, sand castles, and names.  The saltwater scourge of God scraped the shore clean.  If you stood on the edge of the dune, saw the fifteen-foot waves lined up to the horizon and listened to the great breaking roar carefully, you could hear the voice of God.  He was ranking you in the great scheme of things.

Surfers are deaf to those words.  On Saturday, before the full complement of waves hit us, they floated out beyond the breaking waves like sharkbait. Then, in pairs or singly, they dropped down the face of a wave, zipped into the boiling wash, and rode it into the shore.  Some went back out, but the rest gave themselves a medal and called it a day.  A blond young man, poised with his board for a reporter and an imaginary minicam, gave an interview on the bluff.  The waves were pretty good, he said, but the wind was wrong.

We are always disappointed;  the wind is always wrong, the storm always misses, and we could have stayed a couple extra days.   We star in our own mental movies only to find the reality so much less than what we had hoped.  Our wins are dull, our defeats merely embarrassing, and nothing builds to anything.  We spend years paddling out into waves that barely get above our waists and whine about how we never get good waves anymore.  When the great scudding drifts finally arrive and build well over our heads, the wind is wrong.  Our mental Orson Welles yells cut and screams at the boy with the fan: “ I said on-shore wind!”

The problem with summer is that no one is in charge.  If someone, even  a hack,  was directing the action everything would make sense…if not to us, then to somebody.  The film would open in June, introduce all the characters, have painful but educational conflict and then, under the whirl of an impending hurricane, an emotional, satisfying conclusion would blossom. Everything would finally make sense.  Storms would bring resolution, bankruptcies would lead to fortunes and divorces would pave the ground for true love.  The summer would end well.

Of course, nothing ends well, because the only thing that ends is us.  After the surfer caps his summer with a graceful swoop down the face of a storm wave, thousands of swells line right up behind it.  His performance is lost, along with the sandpipers skipping, the terns darting, and the heroic scuttle of the sand crab.  No swell of music, no roll of credits, no slow fade away; the surfer puts his gear on his car, drives home, and pays the light bill.   The waves will still roll in, long after he has moved into a new apartment and sold the longboard.

Across the island, hundreds of families are also waiting for the credits to roll.  They wait for the dramatic Jimmy Stewart rescue when the money starts to flow back in.  Instead, they will sell their family home and move off the sandbar forever.  Those houses, like the swoop of the surfer, will soon only exist in memory.  Their last night, like Hurricane Bill, will have a little water, a burst of wind, and a rolling troubled sea.   The sun will rise on dry pavement, hazy sun, and a one-way boat ticket.

To live on Nantucket is to live on a sandbar.  Instead of looking for the peak Hurricane moments, you need to enjoy the boring afternoons when the waves roll in, the sun is high, and current is gentle.  Eventually the tide will come in and, with astronomical insistence, threaten your life.  So, the highlight of the summer won’t come at the end of August but on some accidental afternoon in July.

On the sandbar, it would have been enough for us to sit on a porch with old friends deep into the night.  It would have been enough for us to sit with them, and eat harpooned swordfish, fresh corn, and quahogs from plucked from the harbor mud.  And it would have been enough for us to look up at Pegasus, Orion rising, and the Pleiades.

Each night is a feast. Let us eat sweet corn together before summer ends.

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