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Posts Tagged ‘Star Island’

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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If life had unfolded the way it has for the last twenty-three years, I would now be en route to the site of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, getting a crew of fifteen or so volunteers ready to report, blog, video record, produce podcasts, and photograph this annual conference.  But since I was laid off in March, things are different this year.

Mostly I’m finding that I don’t mind the thought of missing GA — at least, not too much.  I will be sorry to miss the presentation of the Association’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism to a good friend; I am sorry I won’t be on the plenary floor for what promises to be a really interesting debate on whether to move the 2012 General Assembly from Phoenix to another location.  And God knows, I will miss the friends and colleagues I’ve connected with all these years.

On the other hand, I don’t mind the break:  I have had a delightful spring, filled with planting my garden (and now, beginning to harvest), engaging in yoga at a level far deeper than before, re-connecting with friends, blogging (yes, this blog), and finding out what the rhythm of my life is like when it’s not driven by very demanding and pressing deadlines and complaints.  This sabbatical has been a real gift and I am grateful to my core.  I feel like I have gotten a part of my life back.

And this weekend will bring something else I haven’t had in four years:  a trip to the Isles of Shoals and Star Island, for a full week of vacation.  The last time my husband and I were able to attend a full week of the Star Island conference we are most connected to, was 2006.  Since then, the General Assembly schedule and the island conference schedule have not agreed, and Ben and I have had to send our daughter out to the island with friends, and content ourselves with a short half of a week in which to try and relax and rejuvenate.  Not this year.

So on Saturday morning, we’ll get on a boat with friends, bring a gourmet picnic with us, and get ready for a wonderful, music-filled week in the place I love best in all the world.  Ben and I met on Star when we were four years old, and we have raised our children on this island as well.  Our daughter, Emily, has worked on Star for many summers, as Ben and I did when we were young adults.  Our daughter, Abby, looks forward to the time – in just a couple of years — when she, too, will be old enough to join the summer staff and experience Star from the ‘inside,’ for a whole summer.  We have to content ourselves with this one precious week, and a long weekend or two through the rest of the summer and fall.

Much has been written about Star Island, by famous writers and poets, and ‘just folks’ who fall in love with the place.  For me, there is something remarkable that happens about ten minutes after the boat I’m on leaves the harbor headed for Star:  the mainland releases its grasp, the news headlines and concerns of the world fade away.  The cold, crisp air fills my lungs.  My hair gets tangled in the wind, the salt spray mists my clothes.  And I realize that I am there, in the now, on the sea, and it is all that I care about.  Docking at Star, I walk up the path to the old hotel, past the flowers and the flagpole that I see with the eyes of the child I was…it is all the same now as it was then.  The bell on the long piazza rings to announce events of the day, the voices of children and adults drift in and out on the breeze, there are no cars or TV’s or billboards.  And, seated in a rocking chair or on the rocks themselves, I look out.  Across Gosport Harbor, I watch the sailboats slip in and out of port, the rowboats moving as folks explore the coves of Smuttynose Island across the way. Life has slowed like heartbeats that calm after a half-hour of meditation.

I want no more than a Lime Rickey, a conversation with Ben or a friend I’ve known since childhood, back on the island with their family as am I.  Life moves at a completely different pace here.  It is all very, very simple and very, very good.

This is Island Mind…a time to reclaim the calm and peace and beauty that lives mostly in our imaginations, but too rarely in reality.  Others find this bliss in different places:  mountain tops, canyons at sunset, fishing on a placid lake.  For me, Star is the place.  I yearn for my island mind, which sits, somewhere inside me, waiting for its release.  And I will, once more, be carried away.

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