How to Live in a Small Island Community

Dear new comer, later comer, and all those who think they've got it down about this island living, by the power invested in me by absolutely no one, I welcome you. 

As I approach my ninth year here, yes NINE YEARS, I've decided to offer all of you curious about small town island living some unsolicited advice, the best kind of advice there is. Kidding kidding. But, after nine years of living and listening I do have some perspective, and kinda wish someone older and wiser than my soon-to-be 25 year old self back then, had sat me down and said, honey, here's how it is, and here's how you do it. However that DID not happen, and many hard lessons were learned, and learned again.  

ahem... not our ferry landing!

ahem... not our ferry landing!

Do not expect people to be direct here.
If anything you will hear word of your situation long before you have added a dot to the sentence of the story you were telling at the bar. If you get pregnant, cheat on your spouse, or heaven forbid decide to move off the island, you will be the last to know. Accept this. Stop caring. Seed a slanderous rumor about yourself and then have a good laugh. Here heart breaks happen in public. You can either turn into a bitter hag or lighten up and move on; having lived through it, I suggest the latter. That being said learning to hide out for you own protection is good self care, and given that so many of us are introverts here, no one will notice you missing for a while. 

Keep going. 

If you are "white," semi-good looking, look slightly smart or "outdoorsy," have kids who are free range, have money, work in tech but consider yourself a "hobby farmer," willing to work several 21st century feudal jobs to make ends meet, you will probably do ok here. Meaning people will invite you to their potlucks, share their joints with you around the fire, if you do not marry rich, come into a sizable inheritance, eventually you may be able to own some overpriced scrub land where you park a trailer, or move into a not so affordable land trust house, either option you will have to work several part time jobs if you are not a lucky one to have full time work, to keep the roof over your head.  (side note, this island is not really for "poor" people because what poor person has $18,000 to buy into an "affordable" housing neighborhood? That being said, it IS an option for many, and a good quality of life, if you compare it to what you'd get on the mainland. The bigger issues at play here are for another post, another time. I do not mean to denigrate, just to point out the obvious that systemic issues of affordable housing, economic viability and creation of a middle class are tremendously tricky when much of our economy is driven by seasonal tourism).

If you scowl, are poor, and I mean poor where you never learned to cook,  speak properly, or grew up in a terrible home situation and had absolutely no hand outs or hand ups, are of "dark" skin, especially, lets be frank dark skinned and male, look "different," dress unconventionally, do not fit the monogamous/hetero/gender binary/nuclear family gig, did not grow up here, thereby, you have a foot in the door to land access, free child care, free friends, family labor support, cheap rent, infrastructure, etc. it may take you some time. You are different. We do not understand that hard work does not always mean a roof over your head. We do not yet understand that our so called right to an air-b-n-b when our neighbor doesn't have a stable place to live, yet our pockets keep getting deeper, are intertwined, and their poverty is actually not their fault. "You cannot be rich if your neighbor is poor." I still swallow hard every time I remember how I told a friend in an off hand way, judging some folks with a rundown home, "oh they must have a poverty mentality." It's not quite so simple is it? But I was in full infatuation trying to fit in with my new age friends who talked blissfully about manifesting whatever they wanted, confident that their dreams would come true, speaking as if there are no limits. I knew better then, and am better informed now. Anyone who talks about universalism or "no limits"  raises a red flag now, as those new age words are thin veils for mono-theism and growth economics- both systems of homogenization, destruction, and oppression.

So if you "look" different, remember your struggles reflect back what we don't want to face. We might not know how or admit we need to check our misguided ways at the door. 

If you are in a circle holding hands and someone says "we are all one," and you feel queasy inside, because this statement is clearly bullshit given the millions and millions of diverse organisms that populate planet earth, know you are not alone. 

I have heard this island called the land of the black sheep or the home for misfits and broken toys.

Welcome. I lived in South Carolina as a vegetarian and grew the hair out under my arms and buzzed off all my curls, rode my bike to school, and attended protests about the School of the Americas- and THAT was considered radical. Radical means getting back to the roots. There are lots of ways to do that but it all comes back to food. If you want to keep living something has to die so you can keep going. There are a lot of good farmers here. Get to know them.

You found your way here by some strange winds and many other forces. Remember that the wake of your wave reaches the shore BEFORE the actual boat you are coming in on, arrives. 

Meaning the locals (and by this I mean the non-human ones as well) pick up your scent long before you land.

Do not be alarmed by this. This is simple physics. Make offerings to them and ask for their guidance. All the old trees were killed long before you got here, but you can still make offerings to them. Take your concerns to the sea- she will accept you in any state- buoyant or broken, you find yourself in. Even if you can't be right by all your human neighbors, you can do right by the cedars, or the cooper's hawk. 

Do not expect introductions, or return invites from folks. There are so many hermits and self professed introverts, and so many people we COULD have dinner with. Many people are also self-employed and focused on keeping their livelihoods going.  

It will take you a while to find your groove. Keep going. 

Assumptions, first name basis, loose boundaries, and rumors rule here. Do not expect to hear about how you crossed someone or stole something from someone until many many years later. Instead of calling you and asking you to clarify your FB post about said issue, they will tell on you. Learn to develop a keen sense of intuition- that way you can determine who has got your back and who doesn't and promptly unfriend them. 

I was incredibly lonely my first year and when I confided that to someone I had just met, she glibly said, "oh we all come out in the summer." Did she soften and say, oh I know how it is? Did she invite me out to meet new people? No and no. There is no newcomers welcome. Do not confide your loneliness to just anyone- your loneliness is a precious well to be shared only with those who can understand that well. There are some of those here! (I have found them after many years of looking). May you find your way to them. 

Those who do extend their hospitality to you unconditionally need to be taken note of and praised accordingly. There are plenty of them here! Ask for you what you need and there will be plenty of those willing to step up and help. But we can't read your mind. Learn to make yourself vulnerable without feeling sorry for yourself. 

The people who are actually going to be there for you are probably the ones you least expect it. Some times these people will be ones that others in the community readily slander and gossip about. Never you mind, just make your own judgement. It is especially important to sing the praises of these marginalized, off the beaten track ones. 

Here, there are really good people disguised behind beards, terrible musty fleece jackets, cranky attitudes, hot pink fingernails, white collars, massive age differences, poor social skills, terrible pasts, and well earned wrinkles. It takes some time to recognize them, and once you develop this skill keep honing it and don't take it for granted. Also, and this is hard earned lesson, don't let your seeing wreck someone else before they are ready to be wrecked.  

The soul finds its own companions. And I expect that your soul has found its way here for something it is needing, but also something this little community is needing from you.

Don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

After some time the wake of the boat on which you rode in on will settle back into the sea, but in the meantime remember you are still arriving. It is proper that your arrival is causing a ripple. Bow down to that, knowing you are a person of consequence.

It's right that it will take some time to settle in here. Don't give up so soon. 

Yours truly,
your neighbor
Eleanor Burke


Dark Remedies

As the dark time draws nigh  

Could it be that the seasonal affective disorder, and all the snotty noses are reminders that part of what is needed in the fall is to turn inward and rest? How might it look if we were to support an inward journey, instead of quickly banishing the oncoming darkness with lights, proclaiming “safety” and “celebration?” These days, there is little example of skill in navigating those dark peripheries. The shadowy sides brought forth in therapy are left in therapy- no one in the community is privy to the gift of those shadows. We quickly banish anything resembling hurt or sorrow, all too often labeling them as dark, though the dark, as we know is much much more. 

It is rare to hear someone say, “I must go inward now, do not worry about me, but wait for me to come out of the dark place. Please have ready some hearty meat stew, a thermos of tea, a wool shawl for my shoulders, and a warm place by the fire to sit. Take care of my family and home. I will return when the moon is bright again. Ready our good people, and upon my return, gather them in, for I will have need to share with you what came from the dark.” Just as unlikely is it to find the one who will do this task for you- who will greet you on the other side, afraid of the darkness just as much as you, but like you, in utter accordance with darkness’s will and want. For darkness needs to be nourished, just as much as we need to be nourished by it.

Intact cultures around the world had rituals, and specific folks who held the ability to travel inward to dark places, to other realms, and to commune with those they found there- often these were ghosts, spirits who could not rest, and thus were causing havoc on the other side. The astral travelers were the shamans and medicine people, but others were sent on vision quests as well, at certain times of year, or before an important battle, in order to glean wisdom from the other realms, from the multitude of the ancestors of that place and those people.  Nowadays we have new age folk forever heralding the light, and very few willing to extinguish it with you, looking over your shoulders as you do, dark quieting raucous light, pleading with her to be sensible.    Here in the Pacific Northwest, the dark has been falling steadily without me even realizing it, carrying on with my never ending to-do/gotta get it done list, racing against the sun even when the cool air and the rosey hips dotting the hedgerows whisper, “slow down… don’t work so much, don’t worry so much, take a walk, here, harvest this medicine, you will need it when the nights go cold.” Until….earlier this fall a gnarly cold found its way into my body- sickness’s gift forcing me to take heed, stay  home from work, linger in bed, and to succumb to much needed rest, and much needed introspection time, namely in the form of writing.  All the while I battle with the voices that say, “buck it up,” and “suck it up,”- dominant culture’s mechanized mode of life nipping at my heels, economic anxiety a never ending current in my days. Despite my best early efforts to fight it off with my favorite herbal allies, this one hung tight, and almost a week later did I come out of the dark, back into the light. 

There will be no mention of what herbal remedies you can take to get through the dark time (though a little rose elixir or love potion to get you through wouldn't hurt;)) There is a poverty that underpins every showy Instagram product herbal pic, and I do wonder about this. This is not going to be yet another post about how much Vitamin C our wild rose hips have, or how you just need to take more Vitamin D (lard is a great fat soluble source) to get through the winter, nor will I offer my recipe for elderberry gummies (maybe later); though all these  remedies have their place, and indeed could support your health, but let us not forget that pain, illness, suffering, and frailty are just as much part of the human condition, and worthy of our regard.  When we are constantly offering up a remedy for a time of year that is meant to be grieved and mourned, we have functionally turned our beloved plant medicines into one more coping mechanism. Herbal medicine in our collective cultural history has indeed arisen aside capitalism, but a way of being with plants in the place where you pass your days has nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with relationship. Yes we can support our immune system all we want, but the deep sickness in our bones, that soul longing for something to make it right has to do with what has been missing for a long long time- knowing our place, knowing our people, caring for our living, and tending to our dead. This sickness has no herbal remedy for it.  

I believe the proper remedy this time of year is darkness itself. 

Here the evergreens remain stalwart in our cool but temperate landscape, the few deciduous trees we do have show gold, and then turn to brown. Wool is a perennial favorite fiber around here, for its warmth and its ability to withstand the drizzly rains we have so often in the fall and winter. We dress in layers year round, many work three jobs (or more) in our summer economy; in fall we grieve our temporarily lost income as we celebrate more time to focus on creative projects; we don our muck boots, add another log to the fire, and await the dark and the rains that we pray will fall, to nourish us should another long dry summer make its way to our island fields. 

When I succumbed to my sickness but obligated to a work deadline, I went for a half day at the office and found myself, after an hour at my desk, almost cowering under the pressing light of the overhead fluorescence. Now, if you are a psychologically minded person you may asses this reaction as “mental health issues,” and make it be about my personal mental faculties and my ability to “deal,” instead, I implore you dear reader to ask a bigger question, as I have been taught to do: what befell a people such that now, when the darkness falls all around them, they must, instead of gathering together to welcome the dark, be succumbed to endless sources of artificial light?  To me that is insanity indeed!

Because I grew up in a psychologically oriented culture, and have walked with that model’s understanding of depression for many of my days, when I took to my bed to nurture my cold infected body, an upwelling of grief and anxiety surfaced with the thought, “maybe I’ll just stay in bed, disappear; no one can find me.” This voice spoke directly to my soul’s deep longing for retreat, introspection, and rest, but with language hearkening back to my orientation of depression as bad or wrong. The upwelling of the grief and anxiety stem from the fear I carry that by taking time out of “my life,” (the busy capitalistic doing model) to focus on nourishing myself through rest and introspection, that I will be ridiculed, scorned, or risk losing my job- thus my entire security hinges upon this. After a life time of walking with depression and understanding it from the impoverished view point of the individual, I can say with confidence that what shows up for me as “depression” or my inability to “deal” or “be” in the world is not a personal failing, or something I need to fix- be it by more therapy or St. John’s wort tincture. They are more often signs of a soul’s cry from the dark ethers of something the darkness is needing from me. You can call this egotistical all you like, but I’ve earned enough white hairs at this point to claim my gifts, and writing is one. I am sure any introvert, visionary, or creative can relate to this. For it is only by approaching the darkness, courting the darkness if you will, by allowing time for rest, retreat, ritual, isolation, and introspection, that those who dwell in darkness make their way through us and out into the world. For me this week, rest and introspection ride in on the sickness, giving me “excuse” to retreat, to stop doing, to take heed of fall’s dark arrival. 

Can you imagine then, if as a people we had some skill with which we employed to grieve summer’s end and court fall’s darkness? No human evolved to be staring at screen all day, to be bathed in hours of bright lights, or to be carted back and forth in a mechanical vehicle hurtling through space at high speeds. Instead of fleeing to Southern climes as soon as the chill comes, we face the darkness with wonder and awe. Instead of rousing children before sun has kissed the gray sky, making them rush bleary eyed to catch the school bus, where their days will be spent showered by artificial light, we let them sleep, letting their natural bio-rhythms be nourished by the dark. Why this mad insistence to keep going at the same pace as summer’s long hours permit us too? No wonder so many folks plunge into a seasonal depression- I suspect if more folks cried at summer’s end, economic sources adjusted work hours accordingly, municipalities ensured that those who needed it most had what they needed for winter- money for heat, a proper tea set, heat tape around pipes, good food in the larder, loads of firewood, hearty sweater for winter walks, numbers of friends to call for nights of knitting, talk, book groups, etc., depression rates would drop. 

The dark time asks us to remember from whence we came. We give thanks for the sun’s heat, mourn summer’s death, all the while knowing that we, like the earth need a fallow period. With the dark time and now, Winter Solstice, we welcome the returning light, let us linger with what the longest night of the year offers. With a little humility, a little heavy heart, a slower walk, we can begin to wonder out loud with each other, what might it look to approach this darkness? How might I bring some reverence and love to this dark time, before the powers that be extinguish it with their fake revelry, their 24 hour shopping, and the lighting of the town square? Let darkness have its way with you. Do not rush too quickly to singing back the light. Be not afraid to linger long into the dark night, for when else do stories of forgotten ones come alive, when else do whispers of your future dreams dance in your sleep, when else do fires burn their brightest?

Only in the dark.

May this winter solstice bring memories and visions from worlds unseen, may you find the wisdom to act on said visions, for the darkness does not bring what you want, but what is needed. 

Together, again

“So we seek lovers and mentors and friends that we may be seen, and blessed.” James Hillman.

A friend remarked about my last blog post, “That was a good post, but I wonder if you’d write about friendship. I know you’re interested in sex and desire in relationships, but what about friendship? I see my partner when she is with her friends, having fun; we don’t have too much of that anymore. What about friendship with your partner?”

Ah… friendship. I would argue that my last post on desire and the need for mystery stand side by side with friendship. For what is friendship but the ability to be seen by one you love, to have one who is consistently compassionate and honest with you? When we feel seen by one we love, we are more able to open into the energetic spark of desire, of creativity, of mischief, of loving kindness!

But once again, the story of the one romantic partner bound to fulfill all unfulfilled needs often sets us with such a bevy of expectations, that the lightness that is needed to tend to our friendship can crumble- leaving us bitter, tired, and resentful- singing the same old song. However- that spark of light and laughter my friend sees when her partner is with her friends is what needs to be paid attention too.  

Each relationship we have comes with different expectations- whether we are aware of them or not is another story. If you are questioning how to bring some joy back into your dominant partnership, begin to ask, "What are my expectations of my partner?" "What can I do to feed my partner what she/he needs?” The answer to this latter question often takes a deep plunge into the heart of vulnerability, because so often what we need is simply more softness. The answers to these questions, when asked in a deep honest way can bring up discomfort- could it be you are not too good at asking for help? Is there an old hurt that needs tending too? Is there an appreciation we are holding back from saying? So often we hide behind work, kids, family obligations; we tune out and numb out through drink or drugs or media. When we begin to ponder these questions, we begin to step back from the clandestine hold of the dominant partnership and see ourselves in the bigger story of our life- where does this relationship factor into my life story? How does our relationship feed our greater community? Coming to the table from the vantage point of the bigger picture, immediately there is space for some lessening of the hold of expectations- you can come to your partner as a friend and ask, “How are you?” “What can I help you with today?” Together then, perhaps you can begin to wonder if your current model of relating is good enough for the two of you! There is not one model fits all! Some partners want a relationship where sexual activity, mystery, exploration and desire are key. Others are content to have friendly companionship day in and day out, where maybe the spark is no longer there, but you have a deep love and regard for the one by your side. Others sacrifice much for their children, veritably waving to the other partner from across a pile of soiled diapers, muttering, “See ‘ya in eighteen years!”

If only we each had the ability to rise every morning remembering that we made it through the night!

Not all of us are so lucky.  That simply remembrance thus roots us in gratitude reminding us that our partnership could turn south at any moment, our friend could take ill, a loved one may end up in a freak accident. When we orient ourselves to that knowing, imagine how your day might go! But we are only human! And humans forget sooo easily. This is why we need to cultivate many relationships outside our dominant  one, so that our soul is filled and we can be reminded of the goodness of life, and the fact that we are not alone. For as my son’s father used to quote, “shared sorrow is half sorrow. Shared joy is double joy.”
What makes for a good friend? 

Earlier this fall the theme of friendship kept coming up in many of the conversations I had. One friend was pondering her relationships, asking out loud, “Who are my friends? You’re my friend, so and so is my friend, and yet I am so busy I rarely have time for my friends!” Many years ago I had the privilege of exploring the good work of community building with a gray haired man who’d had a stroke; given this and his deep love of life, he began to call himself “Lucky,” for he knew that indeed he was Lucky to still be granted his life, despite how, in certain ways, the stroke incapacitated him.  Attuned to the troubles of our times, he wrote extensively about community and relationship; summing up one of the greatest heartbreaks of our time, writing, “The economy depends upon our isolation.” And so it goes- many of us stretched thin, living paycheck to paycheck, with needs for safe housing, consistent loving touch and affection, health care, good whole food, mental health, and the like going chronically unmet, we struggle just to get by, leaving little time to nourish ourselves or heaven forbid our friendships! Thus, friendship must be prioritized- despite the cost it comes with, we simply cannot thrive without it. 

With the question, “what makes a good friend?” Courtesy and etiquette beg to be wondered after. 

Oh sometimes I think I was born into the wrong century! How liberating to live in a day and age where there were culturally shared understandings of courtesy, etiquette and hospitality. You knew what to do when someone was ill- what medicine to take them, and the in turn they knew how to receive you at the door- certain phrases and pleasantries were extended so neither of you stood about too awkwardly- you took comfort in the form of the ritual of what the visit intended. You knew which songs to sing when the harvest was poor. When someone died there were rituals you participated in, certain dress was called for; certain patterns delineating when and where you found yourselves in the world, so that those around you could recognize you and be recognized. You did not wring your hands mourning, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do!” At a friend’s birth, afterwards, we women attending spoke of our bereftness at not knowing a proper birthing ritual with which to offer our friend-we stood firm in our presence with her, but we each keenly felt a lack- could we have placed a knife under the bed? Sung a bringing down song to the little one as he made his way from womb-space to earth side? Having lost such traditions, we did not know, and a fake ritual was worse than no ritual at all. 

Up until very recently there still lived common courtesies about invitations and such. Now it seems we cast a wide net and see who we catch, or we very intentionally limit our circle to only those we feel safe with, all the while heralding our belief in “community.” Say you invite someone new over for dinner, you talk for hours, you have a good time, and you say good night. Weeks go by and you hear nothing from this person. You think at the very least it would be proper to have an email thanking you for the dinner, perhaps extending the invitation, and when nothing comes, you begin to wonder, “Did I do something wrong? What happened?” Now does this make you more or less inclined to reach out to this person, leaving the chance to build a relationship really up in the air. In a day and age where anything goes, more often than not we are having to navigate someone’s personal orientation to the world, instead of navigating a shared understanding of cultural norms. To me these things seem obvious- send a thank you after a dinner, leave a message when you call someone- return the message, follow up. If you are not able too then a simple apology and explanation would be in order. The new age self-help books have pounded it into me, “DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY!!!!” And really I don’t, but I stake a claim in the ground that we, as folks who claim to care about community, begin to ask ourselves- how am I showing up for my community? Who am I letting down by not communicating honestly?” 

This is also begs the question- are we really that overextended in our relationships that we cannot return a simple phone call, send an email? Perhaps so, which is another heartbreak. When a shared understanding of these things ruled the day, it meant that village life and the villager’s obligation to the health of the community still stood a chance! Now days, we don’t extend invitations to folks because of our “feelings” or “stories” about them, we bail out at commitments at the very last instant and then don't bother to apologize for letting the person down, shrugging our shoulders to the tune of “going with the flow,” or simply, “I don’t feel like it.”  

I am of the mind to be inclusive even at the cost of discomfort. Here in our small community so much of the community mindedness seems to be naively centered on the old maxim, “why can’t we all just get along?” or the even more cringe worthy hippy commandment, “we’re all one!” We cannot get to a place of “we are all one” when we are unwilling to sit together, talk story, and walk a mile in another person’s shoes. We must be willing to spend some time sitting and sweating it out together, and this could take many years, before we come to some semblance of understanding. 

My deepest friendships are those I’ve been able to walk through the fires with. Friends I’ve had misunderstandings with, friends who have been unafraid to speak up, get fierce with, extend ourselves in loving kindness again and again. I have also seen clearly the cost of relationship when your orientation is only to the surface interactions you have with people on a day to day basis- you never develop a shared understanding, never make yourself vulnerable by opening up, and the relationship stays stunted, and you stay safe- never fully letting anyone in to love you and see you, making for a very lonely existence, denying that you have any needs or wants hiding behind the other heart-numbing new age cliché of, “it’s all ok.” I know many people were not raised in homes where debate, expression, and emotion were allowed and valued, such as at my family’s dinner table- and I am beyond blessed to be able to speak honestly about deep matters with both parents and my sisters without fear of condemnation or reproach- our dedication to the greater good of the family, our shared value of service for the greater good, a constant thread in our kinship. 

Perhaps on some level you don’t think you’re worthy of a good friend. Do you slink away from obligation, making excuses, because you don’t know how to show up? Perhaps you were taught you weren’t supposed to ask for help, as is such a common theme for so many men. Do you fear you might not have much to offer? A wise one I know says, “you’re here on the planet right now? That is a sure sign you are needed! What other proof do you need to go on?” We are mammals, we are tribal folks, our entire DNA is knitted up in knowing we survived this long on planet earth because of cooperation, by working and living and dying together.

Vulnerability takes courage, but without it, our lives become dull and flat.

To speak up, reach out, connect and connect again, to find ourselves laughing after a shared meal, toasty after wine and poetry read aloud together on a blustery dark night, to singing together on a summer’s day- these are the riches of the human way, and we must find ourselves together again.