Posts Tagged ‘Star Island’

About ten days ago, Ben and I returned from a stay at our last best place in the world, Star Island.  Pretty much we’ve been going there since before we can remember, and so it’s been part of our individual and combined family traditions forever.  I first arrived there at the age of eighteen months;  Ben was conceived there, and we are pretty sure we met there when we were four years old.  Our older child, Emily, went when she was a preschooler for the first time — thus securing the same kind of memory that we both held in our heads — and Abby’s first trip came when she was about nine months old, for an open up weekend in May.

My father-in-law helped build many of the buildings on the island and had a huge (now, forgotten by many) role in reopening Star Island after the second world war.  My mother-in-law came along with the kids, helping wherever she could, and making sure that her children had a great experience on this rocky, remote (and, in the 1950s) very rustic island with few services, drinking water imported by boat from Portsmouth, and one ship-to-shore radio telephone.

Over the years, generations of our family have had the same experience, and have gone to Star Island to spend a summer or an extended period of time working on what we call The Rock.  You really can’t go unless you can deal with seagulls, a couple of showers a week only, no cars, no televisions or media save what you might get from the wireless networks that can be up or down, and boat service that is sometimes subject to weather and engine failure.

And yet, we all pretty much remember it as the best time of our lives.  Where else can you spend the summer with just under 100 other young adults in a naturally pristine setting, feeling completely away from the rest of the world, working hard, playing hard, and drinking in the salt air and the starlight?  The shooting stars are better seen from the grass in front of the Star Island summerhouse or near the summer house; the swimming’s better in Smuttynose cove; the lime rickeys taste like nowhere else when they come from the Star Island Snack Bar.  It’s just the way it is.

And now, Abby.  Our second child is in the middle of that unparalleled experience and she is having the summer she, and we, always dreamed of.  She’s the fourteenth member of our family to spend a summer this way, and from all reports, it’s as magical as it ever was, as amazing as we dreamed it would be.  She’s sailing, trying out new jobs and helping out her friends, sun tanning and swimming, spending long days both working hard and celebrating summer in the perfect New Hampshire sea air.  And how bad can life be if you get up in the morning, gaze out the window, and see a sunrise and sailboats that look like a Childe Hassam painting every day?  Hassam, along with John Greenleaf Whittier and many of the top writers and artists of their day, flocked to the Isles of Shoals in the summer.  And we are fortunate enough to know why.

Photo of Abby on Star Island

A life like no other: Abby on Star Island, 2013

Before she went to Star this summer, Abby worried (as she has a tendency to do).  About whether she would have friends.  About whether she would like it. About (I think) whether she would disappoint us if she didn’t, given her family pedigree with the place.  About six hours after she left the dock in Portsmouth, bound for Star, I got a text:  “Made friends :>) ” And that was the start of this magical summer…the same one we’ve had, the same one our older daughter, Emily, had, and the same one we hope for the next generation of Soule…my nephew, Gabriel, now five months old.

With ongoing care and love, Star Island has endured, with its fishing cottages — dating to the early nineteenth century — and the grand hotel, built in the mid-1800s, preserved and still open for business.  The harbor’s the same, the scarlett pimpernel still blooms in the rocks.  The stars are still gorgeous at night, the water clear and pure, and the air brisk and clean.  Life is still very, very good on Star Island, thank heaven and earth.

And Number Fourteen’s on The Rock, working hard and having the summer of her life.  These gifts — given and received again — keeps bringing us blessings to celebrate, and to share.

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We drove to New Hampshire this weekend, looking forward to our “fourth annual pajama party” with two couples who are among our very closest friends.  We have known them for more years than I can easily count up, having met on Star Island, and through the years we have grown closer, sharing ups and downs of children, careers, our mutual celebrations – the mundane and glorious stuff of life.

This weekend was different, though. One of my friends is about to undergo a bilateral radical mastectomy – a surgery designed to not only take away the primary and secondary lesion found in her right breast, but to hopefully erase the possibility of cancer being found, in time, in her other breast.  She faces a preliminary surgery this week and the mastectomy will come the week after.

She is gutsy, my friend.  She set the table for dinner with place cards that carried this statement (author anonymous):  “Courage is looking fear right in the eye and saying, ‘Get the hell out of my way.  I’ve got things to do.'”  She has researched her procedure, she has planned her after-care, she has done everything she can to make this lousy turn of fortune go as well as it might.  Still, it sucks.

My other friend and I got together and planned a gift bag to present during the visit, filled with things that we hoped would help, at least a little – a special shirt for mastectomy patients that holds drains and tubes and velcros on and off; trashy magazines, a book on CD, chocolate, a picture frame for the hospital, and much more.  And of course, we brought food for the freezer and fridge, so that no one would have to worry about whether there’s some good soup or a meatloaf or pasta casserole available – it will be there.  We love each other like we were born from the same mother, I keep thinking, wanting to be there, support each other, help to take away some of the pain — even though we know that isn’t possible.

And the spouses — the amazing, supportive spouse of this woman, who has loved her for more than forty years, since they were teens — and the other two husbands…they talk as well.  My friend’s husband loves her not for her breasts but for her loving and generous spirit, her warmth and unflinching devotion to home and family. Sitting together the men ask questions about the procedure; they worry, and inside, they think, I am sure, “there but for the Grace of God…”. What else can you do, but (as Bob Franke wrote) ‘work and hope’…and believe that all will be well?

Last night at dinner, we drank a toast to the riches we shared, to the blessings of friendship.  We are so fortunate, all of us, to be in such good company, to know that we will continue to be there for one another.  As we talked the night away, ate amazing food, went from reflecting on the upcoming surgery to thinking about spring flowers and then on to politics, faith, our kids, and our upcoming vacation together, I kept looking around the room.  “How did I get so lucky?”, I kept wondering.  I can not imagine my life without these people, can not remember what it was like before I knew them.  They are part of our chosen family, not the people who share our blood – but they share our passion, our love, our values, and our commitment to one another.

On Wednesday my heart and head and spirit, and my prayers too, will be up north, in the operating room as my sister of the heart is wheeled in.  And I will also be sitting, in my mind’s eye, with her husband in that waiting room, hoping for the best possible news as nodes are analyzed and initial procedures done, knowing that there is so much more to this life that needs to be explored, celebrated, relished – for them, for all of us.

Yes, we’ve got things to do and much to celebrate.  And these people are more precious than gold, worth caring for and treasuring beyond all else.

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It was a perfect day, I remember.  I got up, sent Abby off to second grade that morning, kissed Ben goodbye, and went to work.  I kept looking at the sky as I commuted on Storrow Drive with my car pool buddies.  It was gorgeous, sunny, warm, skies clear.  Folks were out on the Esplanade along the Charles, and summer was hanging on and holding us in her embrace.  I was determined to take a walk at lunch time across the Common, at least, just to drink in the richness of the moment.

Then, it all happened.  All the tragedy, the unspeakable disaster, the terror of ten years ago.  Perfection, and innocence, vanished in moments.  We were told to go home, be with our families, be safe, get away from the State House and Beacon Hill.  And as I drove back home to Lexington, I kept wondering how such a beautiful day had turned into such a hideous catastrophe.  More than that, I really did wonder if, as T.S. Eliot suggested, the world were ending, “Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

My mother called, wanting to take us out to dinner at a really nice restaurant.  “If we’re going to blow up, we might as well have a good meal first,” she proclaimed.  Sure enough, I remember ordering Duck a l’orange for my entree, with escargots for a first course.  “What the hell,” I thought, my dad was right:  “When you’re on the Titanic, go first class.”  As we left the restaurant, we could hear the military planes taking off and landing from Hanscom Field nearby.

When we got home and had tucked Abby into bed and talked to our older daughter, Emily, at college, we went outside and stood on the steps and looked up at the night sky.  It was so…eerily…quiet.  No other aircraft, of course, just military planes circling Boston and other major cities, trying to protect us from a danger no one really knew.  We went to bed, held each other, cried, and hoped, for our children’s sake, we’d all live to see the next day.

I remember asking Ben whether we should try to get to Star Island.  Star, a place we had both grown up spending summers on, is only seven miles from Rye, New Hampshire.  Yet it feels like a million miles…like safety…like a refuge.  It’s an illusion, of course.  If major catastrophic damage struck the East Coast, it would almost assuredly hit the Isles of Shoals too.  But the feeling of being away from the madness was so strong, and my need to find somewhere safe to be was so palpable, that I was seriously thinking about running away with everyone to hide on Star.

All these thoughts came sweeping back into my mind because we were, last weekend, on Star Island on another beautiful, perfect day.  Ten years later, we were blessed to have both our daughters with us.  The sun shone, it was warm and the sky was deep blue.  I officiated at a Service of Remembrance for those who have helped to shape Star Island into the iconic and magical conference and retreat center that it has become.  Standing in the new Memorial Courtyard, leading worship as memorial stones were laid to honor our ‘ancestors,’ I could hear the waves crashing on the rocks, the cry of the gulls, feel the breezes, smell the salt tang in the air.

Later our family members helped Ben run an amazing treasure/trivia/scavenger hunt for our friends – an activity fun and fascinating.  We drank Lime Rickeys on the old hotel porch, Ben and Abby painted, Emily napped, I caught up with people I’ve known since childhood.  We ate lobster together, sang songs we learned when we were in college and working on Star, played board games with our niece and nephew.  And we posed for pictures which a dear friend (and professional photographer) offered to take of us.  All of us there, together, on an absolutely beautiful day.

Ben and I remarked that night at how fortunate we were, to have been blessed with that day, to have had our children and loved ones with us, to have been on Star, our own best place on earth.  Another beautiful day, ten years later than one that had begun so similarly and ended so differently.

May there be more beautiful days, more simplicity, more opportunities for all of us to revel in the ordinary beauty that comes from appreciating the gifts life holds and the family we so cherish.

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Tonight, I received word that my friend, Bill Clegg, had died.  Bill, who had been diagnosed with a bile duct tumor about eighteen months ago, lived longer than he had expected, and worked to make the most of all the time he had.  He loved his biological and extended family, music, travel, Star Island, his friends, the arts.

Bill was jokingly known, to some of his friends, as “The Mayor of Star Island” during the time when he was President of the Star Island Corporation.  He understood what a small, inbred ‘town’ Star was, and viewed his role as President as one akin to being the Mayor of a small village:  keep the peace, help move the economy in productive ways, perform good works to advance the position of the town, shake hands with visitors and newcomers, honor the history of the community.

He was a very, very good Mayor, and — in my opinion — helped to save Star Island from possible bankruptcy during his Presidency, through his dogged work, determination, and good management skills.  All of us who visit Star for a day, a week, or a lifetime should take a moment to say a small word of thanks to Bill for helping to ensure that the place has remained open and available for us to visit:  it was not a given that this would be so.

Bill kept his eye on the essential values of small communities, reminding others of those key values.  He treasured his friends and shared with us his wit and his considerable musical skill, which he happily shared with his daughter, Ellen, and his adopted son, Theo. No one present at the All Star One conference last year will easily forget Bill playing piano to accompany Theo’s smashing vocal offerings, or performing a remarkable duet with Ellen — he on piano, she on steel drum.  I think we all knew that it might be our last time watching and listening to Bill perform, and he — and we — were determined to make the most of it.

Bill had the ability to focus in on a problem and wrestle it to the ground, analyzing all sides of an issue until he understood it and had some sense that you, too, had a grasp of all the pro’s and con’s.  I used to joke that it was simply not possible to have less than a thirty minute conversation with him, because talking meant exploring every detail of a subject and considering every potential result.  But the thirty minutes were always well spent, and I never ended a conversation without feeling that I had learned something during the course of it.

Bill Clegg had an easy laugh, a sharp wit, a gentle hand, and a loving heart.  He faced the end of his life with bravery and spirit, modeling all that songwriter Bob Franke lifted up when he wrote in his song, “Thanksgiving Eve”:

“…What can you do with your days but work & hope
Let your dreams bind your work to your play
What can you do with each moment of your life
But love til you’ve loved it away
Love til you’ve loved it away.”

I was honored to call him friend, mentor, advisor, confidant.  And there is a hole in my heart that will never be filled, from his passing.

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This weekend I spent time in Rhode Island with a group of people who have all been chairs (well, four of them are about to assume that role over the next two years) of the Star Island conference we attend.  About sixty people show up, and this group — diverse, smart, interesting and holding divergent opinions — come together to share stories and conduct the business of our conference.

My parents were members of this group, as were the parents of several others now present among us.  We are a self-perpetuating alliance, and we follow a sometimes-bumpy but always well-intentioned path designed to ensure the longevity of our conference, a legacy we seek to hand on to those who will follow us.

Some of our closest friends are part of this clan…people we love as brothers and sisters or kindred souls.  People who are like surrogate parents, people with whom we have shared the birth of our children, the death of our parents, the loss of jobs, the estrangement of family members, serious illness.  In other words, the stuff of life.

We eat lunch and meet on Saturday…a (too) long meeting, with a break for dinner.  In the evening, there’s poker playing to raise money for our conference financial aid fund, partying, dancing, more catching up.  And then on Sunday, after breakfast, there’s a fund raising silent auction (again, to help our financial aid program), and we worship together with a lay-led service of music, reading, reflection. After that, we all fly away, only to (with heaven’s grace) gather again on Star Island in the summer.

Today, as one of the worship leaders, I started to sing the Appalachian folk song “Bright Morning Stars” as a way of drawing us together in a not-very-worshipful space.  I had the song worked out in my head, and I stood up, and started the first verse:
“Bright morning stars are rising,
Bright morning stars are rising,
Bright morning stars are risng,
Day is a’breakin’ in my soul.”

As I began the second verse  (“Oh where are our dear fathers, Oh where are our dear mothers, Oh where are our dear fathers, Day is a breakin’ in my soul”) I looked out at the faces.  There, I saw the Vermont psychotherapist who tells Vermont folk tales and whom my father, a social worker, adored.  I saw the ‘elder statesman’ couple of our group, the sometimes-cranky-but-loveable retired radiologist and his wife, an artist, therapist, and ultimate sensible and upbeat surrogate mother.  And then, the retired lawyer and his wife, former conference treasurers, who had been my parents’ closest friends for decades.

And I lost it.  I had gotten caught by a flood of emotions and memories, all tied up in that room, which I had not been expecting and which my head could not manage.  My life is inextricably bound up with these people, and my heart controls these emotions, no matter how hard I might wish for it to be otherwise.  I tried taking a deep breath to stop the sobs.  Nope.  I motioned for my husband, who (saint that he is) dove under the table to join me in the center of the room, holding on to me.  Together, we got out that second verse, and then the third (“They have gone to heaven shouting…”).  I was a mess, for I had forgotten what the people — even away from the place — mean in my life.

I resonate with what my friend, Rev. Nancy Wood, wrote about her experience last summer on Star Island: “I spent time with friends I really love … here they were again, rocking beside me, through grace alone. I watched my children fly kites and play on rocks, make new friends and eat too much ice cream, sing their hearts out in the talent show and sail out into the harbor on a homemade raft. I shared meals with really interesting people and there, breaking bread together, they told me the stories of their lives. Through it all, I could be present for what was, not needing to make the moment or the people or the place into anything other than what was right there.”

That place, these people, those feelings…all these things, our hearts control.  Not our heads, the place where we make tough decisions, manage large businesses, decide what investments to make.  These people own my heart, and probably I, theirs, at least a little.  It is surprising to come to the realization that it is so.  So often I want to be smart, on topic, incisive, a player. Here, I am at once the little girl on the swing in the breeze on the island lawn, the teenager with the flowing hair heading out to East Rock to watch the sun rise, the woman in love going off with her beloved to share a quiet moment in the tall grass, the reluctant adult, mourning her parents passing in the old stone chapel with the community of souls she has known for so long.

“All life is one,” the hymn says, “a single branching tree.”  With these friends, these symbolic parents, and the memory of those gone to heaven shouting, I continue to be blessed.  They speak to my heart.

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I was supposed to be on Star Island this weekend, but Hurricane Earl’s appearance has changed our plans and so we remain in Lexington, waiting to see what will blow in over the next twelve to eighteen hours.  It’s hard to imagine that big storm while it’s still relatively clear, partly sunny and warm, but sure enough, a still-dangerous storm is churning its way up the east coast.

Hurricane Carol – which hit the northeast coast in 1954 – is a storm that my husband, Ben, remembers as a very small child.  His family was visiting relatives who had a beach cottage on Chalker Beach in Connecticut.  Warning systems were not what we have now, and Ben’s dad loaded the whole family – including the dog – into the station wagon to ride out the storm.  The roads were blocked with falling trees and power lines, and they ended up sitting in a parking lot for hours.  When they returned to the beach house, Ben’s dad remembers that the place had been flooded, and they found the silver drawer in the refrigerator…lots of damage and much to clean out.

As a graduate student in Boston in 1976, I had a summer job running the box office of the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.  I’d also decided that I really needed glamour in my life, and gotten fancy porcelain fingernails – long and red and lovely – applied.  That was fine until the hurricane warnings went up for Hurricane Belle, with predictions of a serious hit to the Boston area.  My apartment looked right out on the Charles River, and the night that the storm was to hit, with businesses closing down all over the city, I went home to make preparations.  There I was, with my fancy fingers, trying to tape the windows in the apartment to stop them from shattering in the event of hurricane-force wind gusts, or worse.  As I struggled to do practical things like fill the bathtub with water, put batteries in flashlights, and so on, I decided those fancy fingernails had to go.  I ripped them off in hot water – I still remember the pain – but felt free, afterward, to continue on with my preparations for a storm that never did really come.

Some years later, I lived in Stony Creek, CT, an idyllic place that was mostly like a piece of Maine dropped into Long Island Sound.  In 1938, the hurricane that did enormous amounts of damage to the northeast coast also managed to tear up the Connecticut shoreline, including Stony Creek’s Thimble Islands.  Forecasting wasn’t what it is now, of course.

In 1985, I was doing reporting for WELI Radio in New Haven when Hurricane Gloria hit.  Reporters were dispatched to different locations, and I was told to report from Stony Creek.  Microphone in hand, I stood  near the railroad bridge with the wind wailing around me, providing details of flooding and people who had gone into the fire station for emergency shelter.  Suddenly, behind me, there was a loud crack and boom.  A huge tree limb had come down, perhaps two feet away from me.  If I’d been a little closer, it would have gotten me and the results would not have been pretty.  After that, my reporting moved inside, thought not before I stood there and had the wonder of watching the eye of the storm pass overhead…a remarkable sight.  Stony Creek and the surrounding area lost power for five days in the aftermath of Gloria.

In 1991, having relocated to the Boston area, I got to experience Hurricane Bob, which was projected to make a huge hit on the Massachusetts coastline.  This is noted as the last ‘big’ hurricane to hit this area, at least until Earl.  When Bob hit, the electricity went out and we amused ourselves by playing board games, making cards with our extensive rubber stamp collection, having real ‘family time’ as candles burned, and we made dinner on our camp stove on the porch.  We called Star Island to see how our friends were doing, and spoke on the phone with the iconic Fred McGill, island historian and patriarch, who had been asked to man the phone to provide calm and reassurance to the nervous parents of employees (the Pelicans) still on the island.  Star escaped serious damage;  Martha’s Vineyard, however, was clobbered and when we went camping there later in the summer, the damage was sobering.

And now there’s Hurricane Earl, barreling up the coast past the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and threatening Nantucket and Cape Cod.  The governor and the state emergency management team have put every possible precaution in place, and the likelihood is that this storm will be one that comes close, but doesn’t pound the Massachusetts coast – with the possible exception of Nantucket – with its full force.

Aside from those who remember the Hurricane of ’38, most folks who reside in the northeastern part of the US probably haven’t experienced anything close to the kind of horror and disruption of life that those who live in the Gulf Coast area have survived, more than once. Last week, the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was observed with music, flowers thrown in the river, with prayers and remembrance and solemnity.  I thought about those who I’ve come to know who call the Gulf Coast home, knowing that their life has not returned to normal in the Gulf Coast region.  It has gone on…different from what it was.  Still, these remarkable people have endured and many have made a commitment to come back to the region they call home.

We all long for a place called home…whether it’s in Louisiana or Mississippi, on Cape Cod, or on Star Island.  And while we wait for the eye of the storm to pass over, we pray for the calm that we hope will follow.  Peaceful, without loss of life or property.  May it be so.

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A couple of weeks ago we paid another visit to the in-laws on Cape Cod.  My sainted mother-in -law, who will be 92 on August 26th and survived a near-fatal infection this winter, kept diaries during many of the periods when she traveled.  She wrote in journals while in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Fiji, in Georgia and Michigan while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, during the years she spent participating in Shaker Seminars, and she kept records of different vacations she went on.  She wrote a couple of entries in a book when she took a trip to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to visit the civil rights sites Martin Luther King, Jr. had traveled to; she kept more notes during many other journeys to craft shows when she and my father-in-law were selling their Shaker boxes or exploring some new location on a vacation.

Phoebe is curious about everything and loves to read.  She’s also — at nearly 92 — experiencing short-term memory loss, which means that she forgets what she’s read or discussed recently and sometimes, she forgets where she is.  My father-in-law wants to reduce clutter in their small apartment, and he’s keen on throwing out books and papers that he deems unnecessary.  And so Ben and I found three bags of diaries behind the couch, waiting for us to take them away (because we had asked my father-in-law that they not be thrown out).

When we asked Phoebe if she was content to have her diaries taken away, she said, meekly, that she would like to go through them and re-read them.  So although my father-in-law was not happy about it, I said that we would not be taking the diaries away until Phoebe had had the chance to re-read her reflections from those earlier parts of her life.

We hold on to memories and lived experience in different ways:  through photographs, sketches and paintings, journal entries, the stories we pass on from one generation to another.  My father’s story of buying a gallon jar of mustard for his older sister’s engagement party, when a small jar had been desired, became legend:  his father, a poor man, declared, as the little boy came home with the mustard, that if the boy had paid for the mustard, the family would be keeping it.  The parable was:  if you make a deal, you stick with it, no matter what.  I’ve remembered, and told my children, and I hope they’ll hold on to it – as well as the reason why the Weiners tend to keep lots of mustard in their houses.

The Soules are known for what they don’t say — that is, if you don’t ask the right question, you might not find out something pretty important.  But if you ask, you find out about Phoebe and Dick’s Sunday School classes taught by Jimmy Carter, about their travels to Tibet and other exotic locations, about rebuilding Star Island after the war had ravaged the old hotel and cottages.

If we are lucky, our lives are built from our own lived experience and from that of our elders and beloved family members.  We pass on the stories, both true and mythical, to our children, and they to theirs.  This is the way I got my grandmother’s Chili Sauce receipt (from the 1880’s) and my Aunt Estelle’s Chopped Liver recipe; this is how Ben learned about his great-grandparents’ experience when the Confederate Army burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania,  where the Gillan family lived.

The text of the old Quaker hymn says, “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation, I hear the real, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing, it sounds an echo in my soul — how can I keep from singing?”

Phoebe’s diaries sound such an echo.  By holding on to them — even if she never does get to reading them all — she maintains a connection to her past, and to all the journeys that have shaped her life.  They are like gold, and like other pieces of a life well-lived, are worth our protection.

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During the past week, there were times when I said to Ben, “I think my head is going to come off.”  There was so much music, so much commentary and discussion and hands-on experience focused on music and rhythm and sound and the intersection of African influences and world music, I just had to go off for a little while and be quiet.

Star Island offers lots of sounds before anyone says a word out loud, and those sounds provided the underlying rhythm and pulse for all that went on during the week of music, music, music.  If I’m paying attention, I can hear the seagulls – both adults and the tiny, thin cry of insistent babies — as well as sandpipers, swallows, and other small birds.  There’s the bell buoy in Gosport Harbor, with its persistent yet comforting clanging, day and night.  There’s the fog horn on White Island Light.  The waves crash against the breakwater that runs between Cedar and Star Islands. There are sounds of kids at play and of swings going back and forth.  Occasional work vehicles move on the truck trestle roads hauling food deliveries and luggage to or from a boat. The wind whips the flag on the pole that sits on the front lawn.  The feet of the night crew can be heard as they make their rounds from 11 to 6, and there’s the sound of water as they pour pitchers of hot washing water for people to use at 7 as they rise.  Lots of ambient sounds.

Then, layer on the remarkable musical discussions offered by our All Star 1 theme speakers, all on the subject of “Ears Wide Open:  A Musical Odyssey.”  There’s Robert Levin, a drumming master of West African music, who took us on a journey into a Ghanaian village, showing us drumming and dancing and lifting up their influences on world music. And there’s David Garland, host of WNYC’s “Spinning on Air,” a composer/musician/musicologist who introduced us to avant garde music and the ways in which sounds have been combined, processed, and packaged to create music through different cultures and periods. Stir in a healthy dose of conference co-chair Carl Sturken, a songwriter and music producer who’s worked with Christina Aguilera and Rhianna, among others, and who is a walking encyclopedia of creative energy on music, its history and influences.

Add to that the constant presence of the All Star 1 “house band,” which includes a powerhouse of pro and semi-pro players who regularly blow our minds:  Theo Griffin (bass guitar), Kemp Harris (keyboards and vocals), Adrian Sicam (keyboards and vocals), Adam Osgood (harmonica and vocals).  On top of that add drumming wizard Ellen Clegg, keyboard master Ray Castoldi, Carl Sturken and John Robbins on lead guitar, plus several saxes, a clarinet, a french horn, a trombone, and (at another gig) Appalachian fiddle playing, guitar and banjo and spoons, and you’ve got a boatload of music.  And, oh yes, there are top-flight vocalists running around, too.  And a West Ghanian drumming and dancing class with Levin, every day.  Plus a performance by Victor Koblavi Dogah, a West Ghanaian drumming and dancing phenom who now studies at Berklee School of Music.  And did I mention the mini-concerts, and then, just for fun, a “Stump the Band” event in which the house band comes armed with the Billboard Top Ten list for the last sixty or so years, and folks pick a week to try and catch the musicians on a song that they can’t quite fake their way through.  That doesn’t happen very much – the house band is amazing.

There was so much music and rhythm, all set on Star Island with its own underlying beat…so much to consider about how music is made, what role it plays in different societies, and how sounds from one culture have become an integral part of another.

The intersections are truly mind-blowing:  not only is the music and rhythm and culture of West Ghana present in the jazz and second lines and Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, the same rhythms influence the Bossa Nova of Rio and the Latin music we hear today from many world artists…and of course those beats and chord progressions also appear in popular music of the United States as well.

Carl Sturken ended this amazing musical odyssey with a long excerpt from the award-winning film, “Black Orpheus,” released in 1959 and featuring the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.  He said, “two years ago, when I was imagining this week, this is how I saw it ending — because this film sums up everything that we have been talking about.”  As we watched the clips that sewed together the elements of juju — magic or voodoo — with West African beats, bossa nova rhythms, a classical story drawn from the legend of Orpheus and Euridyce, dialogue in French, the poverty and celebrations of Rio at Carnival time, the interconnections of the sound stew we’d been tasting all week came home.  And what a trip!  Please, sirs, may I have some more?


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As readers of this blog know, I’ve been away for the last week, vacationing off the New England coast on Star Island, a part of the Isles of Shoals. Star Island is incorporated as a religious and educational conference center and has existed as such since the late 1800’s, although its written history extends back to the early 1600’s.  For about 3 months during each summer, week-long (or multi-day) conferences gather, held by the stark beauty of Star Island, and then go away for another year.

A dear friend spoke of the experience of our Star Island conference being like “Brigadoon,” the Lerner and Loewe musical set in the misty hills of Scotland, where a town disappears in the mist of time, only to reappear for one day a year.  All the residents must stay in the town or the magical spell that keeps them alive will be broken.  And so, for that one day a year, life resumes as it has for centuries, and then the town ‘goes to sleep’ again for a year.

The week-long conference I’ve been part of since I was a toddler is called All Star I.  This gathering, attended by nearly 280 adults, youth, and children, is one where the attendees aspire toward beloved community.  And like the musical, annually the community gathers and reunions are held, the same routines observed, and then, like Brigadoon, everyone disperses, with only memories to hold them till the same reunion is observed one year later.

Of course it’s not really just like Brigadoon:  during the ‘off-season’ time, children grow up, have their own families and lives, people die, tragedies do occur, and no one’s life is frozen in time.  But the gathering of the clan brings catching up for those who haven’t seen each other during the year or stayed in touch on email or Facebook, a time for the extended family to mourn passages and celebrate milestones together.

People also try to engage in the activities they’ve held on to for all the years they’ve been part of Star Island, just to renew the memory or share it with someone they love. For me, that starts with looking at the flagpole and the walkway up to the old 19th-century Oceanic hotel, where the flowers bloom.  When I was a child, there were petunias planted along that path, and now, it’s nicotia…but … close enough.  The fisherman’s cottages that once housed the Newton, Randall, and Caswell families in the early to mid-1800’s are still there and now house us in minimalist comfort.  The view from the long piazza that runs along the hotel out to Gosport Harbor is the same year after year, offering views of the neighboring islands of Smuttynose, Cedar, Malaga, Appledore and beyond them, Duck; off to the left, Lunging, Seavey’s, and White – with the historic White Island Light — provide a sense of continuing reassurance to my eyes. If I walk toward Doctor’s Cottage, I’ll find a huge bush where the island blueberries grow — a sweet treat that I’ve sought out since I was a kid.  And out toward the old Ice House (now the Art Barn) are the rocks with the best view of the pounding surf and small clots of scarlet pimpernel tucked in, operating as the “poor man’s weatherglass”.  All this, and more, are burned indelibly into my mind.

Newcomers arrive each year into this extended family, and some of the family does not come back – separated by schedule conflicts, family crises, or the economics that have challenged most of us.  And conflicts do occur:  despite our wish for harmony, it’s not all Kumbaya here, and sometimes we bump up against each other, differing perspectives and values, and it gets dicey.  And a week on Star is no longer a cheap vacation, although it is not an extravagant one, either.

But for me and our family, it remains priceless:  where else can you find a history of pirates, famous painters and poets, the clearest waters off New England, and a community of amazing people, all wrapped up in one package, along with three showers a week?

It’s glorious, though it’s not Brigadoon, of course.  During the coming year I know that several in our community will likely pass away.  Some new babies will be born.  Children will leave for college or new adventures.  Several people will lose their jobs, and others will find new ones.  And who knows what will have happened in the world in a year?  Yet we will gather again.  I believe, with the same assurance that makes me trust the sun to rise each day, that this extended community will gather in the old stone chapel built in 1800, where the candle lanterns now used to light services at night once burned in the windows to guide fishermen home.  The blueberries and wild strawberries will still grow, along with the rock roses and the wild cat mint and mustard.  The energetic and friendly island staff of college-age youth, of which I was once a part, will be there to cheer arriving boats that emerge out of the fog of the mainland, welcoming us once again to our island home.

So in this year we will connect, and pull apart.  And next year I will see the same people that I played with when I was five years old, there with their families and the stories that the passing year has written.  It is a place where lifetime commitments are carved out and held.  Out of the mist we appear, and into the mist we depart.  It is the stuff of which dreams, and legends, are made.


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I can not remember exactly when it was that I first went fishing.  We had gone to visit my mother’s aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm in rural New York, in the Neversink River Valley.  Aunt Laura and Uncle Arthur were folks who lived simply, feeding deer by hand as they came to the farm house through the meadows.  Arthur had made copper still moonshine years earlier with his brother, Willard (we still have a little in a large jug) and blueberry bushes were everywhere, providing a sweet summertime treat (and an activity to keep me busy) during my visits.

But it was that first fishing trip that has stayed indelibly in my mind.  Arthur and Laura had a small lake on their property, as I recall, and one day Uncle Arthur, my dad and I went off fishing.  Arthur had a cigar box in which he kept hooks and bobbers, and we dug some worms (which I have always found intriguing – don’t ask me why) for bait.  We took bamboo poles, got into the boat, and rowed out into the lake.  Someone baited the hook and handed the pole to me, and I practiced throwing it into the water, and then waiting.  Not very patiently.  My dad explained that fishing takes patience.  So we sat, and Dad and Uncle Arthur talked.  I watched that bobber like a hawk.  Not much happened for a long, long time.

Then, I felt a little tug, followed by a larger one.  I thought I had something, but the hook had become stuck in the muck on the bottom of the lake. We tried again.  Another tug, and more persistent this time.  Uncle Arthur helped me jerk the pole a little, and sure enough, up came a catfish!  This was so exciting to me – I had to try again.  We spent the next few hours fishing and pulled up some sunfish and a few more catfish.  When we were done, we rowed back to shore, carried the fish to the house, and although I don’t remember this part, I imagine they got cooked for supper.  The sure thing is that I, too, had become hooked on fishing.

Years later, I lived in Stony Creek, CT, a part of Branford that, despite some pretty fancy real estate, feels like a small Maine community that got dropped into Long Island Sound.  I’d take my fishing pole — I had acquired several by this time — and go out of Branford or East Haven on a boat owned by the radio station for which I worked.  While doing occasional boating reports was my penance for hitching a ride on the station’s boat out into the water, it was a pretty small price to pay for a day of sunning, picknicking, and occasionally hooking something.

Even better were the days spent on the dock in Stony Creek.  It was the best place to catch up on the local news, as I watched the comings and goings of fishermen, folks taking an excursion out to the Thimble Islands, or people responding to an emergency.  I remember well the time when a bunch of men jumped in their boats to go out to Governor’s Island, where part of cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s roof had fallen in — the day before he was to marry Jane Pauley.  The residents responded to the emergency, and the wedding went off as planned.

My favorite catch off the Stony Creek dock was the baby blues that ran in August – small and not too fishy.  My uncle Irv, a physician, who also loved to fish, had taught me how to clean them, and without much ado and a little butter and lemon, I had a fabulous summer dinner.

But saying you’ve gone fishing is also a metaphor, of course, for vacationing…and it could be anywhere.  That’s what I’ll be doing, starting this weekend.  I’ll head to Rye Harbor, then out to the Isles of Shoals and Star Island.  I’ve fished in Gosport Harbor many times (mixed vegetables make fabulous chum to attract the pollack and flounder that one most often finds there) and I may or may not put a line in the water.  But I will let go, relax, and — at least emotionally — go fishin’.  I hope you have the same opportunity in the coming week.

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