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.