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Posts Tagged ‘vacation’

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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Some of us who are a certain age remember the Eddie Albert/Eva Gabor sitcom which aired from 1965 to 1971, called “Green Acres.”  In it, a New York City couple decide to run off to the country and take up life on a farm.  Hilarity ensued as they tried to figure out how to run a tractor, cook, and breathe in that clean country air.

For a few days, a tiny part of that country life is mine, for I’ve run away to northern Vermont …to the lovely home of our friends, Rod and Sally, that has no TV, some patchy internet access, iffy cellular service, and a view out the front window that can take your breath away.

Although I have lived most of my life in suburban or urban areas and for a long time have resided just west of Boston, I love life in a setting that takes me this far away.  True, I can’t jump on the “T” to go to a Red Sox game or go shopping at a large mall (not that I really like that).  But here I can go to the Vermont Lake Monsters Class A baseball game, as I did last night, and get a reserved seat for $8.00.  For no extra fee, Champ the Lake Monster mascot, dances on top of the dugout with the kids and between innings, children dressed as ketchup and mustard bottles run around the bases to see who gets to the hot dog the fastest.  It is small town America at its best.

Here there are winding country roads with poplars, evergreens, and birches waving in the breeze.  And while there’s no TV, I’ve had a pretty good show out those windows:  wild turkeys walking around in the yard, two pre-adolescent white-tail deer and rabbits playing in the field, monarch butterflies and a hummingbird, all fluttering around.  At night, standing on the steps of the house, I look out to Lake Champlain and later, in the dark, I can stand in the front yard and see the Milky Way with definition that you just don’t get in an urban area.

Pretty damn nice.  Farmers set up stands along the roads, and when there’s an offer of “fresh chicken – 24 hours notice,” you know it’s because the chicken you buy will really be fresh and local, just like the eggs and the squash and corn.  The water comes from the lake, the neighbors are far away, the grocery store takes 1/2 hour to get to, and time moves more slowly than at home.

The feeling I get when I come here is similar to the one I had as a child, visiting my grandparents in New York state.  Life allows me a chance, here, to slow down and savor what I see and hear, to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells (organic as they may be, with a farm every 1/2 mile or so).  It is a good life here, marked by the simple pleasures of a Maple Creamee (maple soft-serve ice cream) bought from the local orchard and farm store, or a canoe rented from the Sand Bar State Park that also offers swimming and kayaking at a discount.

Last night I fell asleep listening to the peepers in the pond in the back yard, and I awakened to the sun streaming in the window and illuminating the fields that stretch down, past a stand of trees, to the lake.  I love these Green Acres, and bless the ways in which they offer me, and my family, a chance to pause from the life we usually lead, and just breathe.

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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.

Watch:

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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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