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Volume 37 Issue 16 • August 10 - 16, 2007
now in our 37th season

Island Angels

by Robert P. Barsanti

For many people who come to the island in the winter, their eyes see what isn’t here.  They sail into an empty harbor punctuated with white moorings, scallop boats, and derelicts.  They walk up Main Street to closed stores and open parking places.  They ride with a realtor out to a hole in the sand, decorated with trucks and wood. Then, they come back to the inn, sit down, and listen for ...anything. 

To them, the island is an empty stage.  The famous and the rich are not here; they are back in New York or in Hobe Sound.  The parties are not here.  The golfers, the caddies, and the professionals aren’t here.  The fishermen sail warmer waters.  The tennis players swing and strike under a hotter sun.  The surfers have gone on to the next endless summer.  Even the workers have gone back to Rosedale and Romania.  The empty stage cries out for their art and their presence; they can fill it with money and a dream.

While daunting in December, they have a vision of hope.  When they travel around the island, they see what the island could become.  To some of them, that vision has an acre under air,  a putting green, a media room, and a spectacular Hospital fundraiser next July.  To others, a green transportation hub sprouts from a liquor store and a public arts space from a sagging movie theater.  Neither the empty page nor the white canvas intimidates the visionaries; the island can be made better, either for the community or just for them.  They do not seem but are; do not dream, but do. 

There is much to be said for the visions of these Angels.  Nantucket has a long, varied, and exciting history of civic childishness.  We voted against roads, schools, plumbing, running water, and cars.  Many of the buildings and institutions that we prize on island came from the singular vision of a handful of very wealthy individuals and in spite of the will of the town fathers.  The Atheneum began with the vision of Coffin and Joy, the N.H.A. began with Mitchell and Starbuck, and the Conservation Foundation with Larsen and Beinecke. We have long lived under the wings of Angels; we would hardly know what to do without them. 

And we need our Angels right now.  Islanders have traveled a long way down the highway to Damascus, but we have not yet heard the voice.  Instead, we have seen the light and are afraid.  We see the sewer system growing like a long buried fungus, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.  We have seen dozens of workers boating and flying in every morning, while island builders stare at the phone.  We see the golden goose of real estate fall infertile. Foreclosures mount, friends and family move, and scallop prices dive.  The long Saturday night has become Sunday morning.  We look for the firm, guiding, and paternal hand.  Our troubles build like the winter storm waves: grim, gray, and implacable.  Our eyes search the sky for blinding light of an Angel on a Gulfstream.

However, you must have a mind of winter to see the island more than an empty stage and less than a poor man’s prayer.  You can come to the island and see what isn’t here or you can come and see what is. 

In winter, you can walk Sanford Farm in wind-whipped silence.  There is nothing there.  Within five steps, the island blooms in browns and grays.  The dry grass surrenders to the north wind, over and over again.  The scrub oak rattles itself over the mud.  Dry pine needles fall onto the paths of deer and rabbit.  From the clearing, you can see the whitecaps march into Cisco and Miacomet under purple clouds and a white sky.  You can watch the sea ducks cloud west on the horizon and the red tail hawk turn lazy, hungry circles over Ram Pasture.  If you get to the bench at the right time, you can watch a pale moon rise into a pale sky. 

You don’t need to go far from the Madaket road before you get some distance and perspective.  Sitting on the bench at Ram’s Pasture, the years reduce to numbers.  Once there were schooners beyond the surf, cod fishermen on the beach, and sheep in the grass.  Before that, the whalers waited in huts until the famous cry went up, and they rowed out and onto the whale.  Before that, there was just the hill, the grass, the birds, and the slow rising moon.  The only angel in attendance wears your shoes and shivers in the damp air.  We can all see with the timeless eye of God; it’s just hard to recognize your own divinity.

Luckily, children do that for us.  On island, winter is the season of the child.  Summer ends when the ninjas, princesses, and Harry Potters parade up Main Street the last day of October, and Winter begins at half-time of the Vineyard game.   They rise before us as the stage empties of clients and customers.  Any list of winter events comes back, over and over again to children.  We take the Turkey Plunge for our kids, we set up Christmas trees for their decorations, we organize reading groups and sports teams and trips to Honduras and Tanzania.  They play basketball at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, they swim at the pool, they skate at the rink, they study and party and sleep deep and peaceful under the eyes and wings of their angels. 

On a recent winter weekend, I brought my boys to a birthday party at the high school.  For an hour, they played and swam in the pool.  Most of the other children wore big yellow life jackets as they splashed about, throwing small balls and making fire hoses out of the exercise noodles.  I joined them with a watchful eye and brought the errant back from the deep end.  Later, we took pictures of them as they ate cake, or opened presents, just ran in circles through the cafeteria.  Outside, the wind blew and the spray flew, but inside Ravenclaw took on Griffendor in the cafeteria Quidditch field.

A child sees what isn’t and pretends that it is.  He pretends that the Golden Snitch is in his grasp, that the Superbowl is played in November, and that there will always be cake and presents.   An adult sees with the eye of winter.  He sees what is and treasures it, whether it be a theater, a child, or a thin sliver of a moon rising through the purple clouds of winter.   We can’t wait for more billionaires to fly in with a heavenly host of lawyers and accountants, The only angel that will ever save us reflects in the eyes of a child.

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