Making a small place enormous: A love letter to 2018 on Martha’s Vineyard

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Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, shown here at a performance in May, are one of Merissa Nathan Gerson's many Island pleasures. — Anthony Esposito

It is easy to forget the world beyond Duke’s County living on this Island. It is one of the reasons many of us remain here, loving the way the ferry ride cuts off the city and all of its ties in the slow float toward Martha’s Vineyard. And similarly, everything that consumes us here, it seems to drip away by the time I reach Woods Hole.

This year was both a blessing and a curse, my work weaving in and out of urban scenes to speak out against rape, equip communities with tools to cope with current and past traumas, and standing up for community solidarity in times of violence. The return to the Island after each work trip sometimes felt like wrapping myself in a cocoon, and other times it was challenging, as if the issues, the world, the whole of the life I led elsewhere had altogether died and disappeared.

People often ask why I live here, why I endure the chopping off of the urban world, the solidarity of activism in groups, the witnesses to my work and my words that I get when I do a gig in a big city. I often give a cardboard answer, something dry and two dimensional. I can’t easily explain the joy I get from hearing Delaney sing with Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, or Allison Roberts’ smoky blues, or what it’s like on a Friday morning at Mott’s — that American cheese gushing, the greetings, like clockwork, offered from the men at Against the Grain Cabinet Makers and others. Izzy at the Scottish Bakehouse and her deep sarcasm and witness, the lovely ladies of Morrice Florist, Sam’s love and care at the Art Cliff counter, and Jefferson at the Larder, glowing bright regardless of the weather.

This year was storms and ice and wind, it was the loss of Jon Harris and Jack Clark and Tobias Shepherd, it was the end of Martha Fleishman and Peter Simon and Trina Kingsbury and so many countless others that were part of the fabric of this Island for decades. In the turn of this year’s American tides there was wildfire, over and over, and bloodshed, in groups, and we were all implicated in national violations of human rights, hands seemingly tied, horrified.

To make the choice every week, as so many did this year through the fire this country breathed — from Kavanaugh to the moral atrocity of incarcerating small children, from facing the real live wounds of murder to listening to government voices sanctioning the violation of women’s bodies, the slaughter of black and brown Americans — to choose not to go numb, not to close eyes, not to give up on a moral compass that values human life, equal rights, and standing up, over and over again for those rights in the face of systematized hatred requires fortification and rooting.

This Island has nursed, loved, revived, and held us through this emotional and trying year of being alive, where the things we trust and cherish are thrown into question, where we no longer have the luxury of outsourcing moral goodness to the White House — where we have been forced to step up ourselves, time and time again. These moments, like how it feels to hug Sian in the bread aisle at Cronig’s, or to see Primo by the vegetables, keeping us all aware of the teetering fragility of the lives around us, and the strength we all retain — these moments fortify.

These moments of living in the Island community are reminders of what it means to love and be loved, even in passing, even in brief moments of care. From the steady and brilliant presence of our librarians to those who pump the gas, they take away the sting and bite of human degradation, of shootings en masse, of swastikas and “die Jew rats” signs. On a good day the bite of the world is softened here — not forgotten — but softened and not just by the boat ride or the glory of Lucy Vincent, because somehow down our dirt roads and shut in by the fires in our hobbit homes come winter, we are still reminded in these passing encounters that we are not alone.

Tall women made gorgeous babies this year, and tall men garnished weddings with gorgeous flowers and this Island continued, despite horrors immeasurable, to tick, to honor the earth, and to choose community in small ways that beg repeating. Nothing shook those values, not even the hot wind of anti-Semitism, nor the hell-freezing-over new, and old,  reality of racism and xenophobia in our midst.

I believe here on this Island, when we choose to, we do love differently. And for that, I am grateful. For this reason, I don’t stop watching the world as it all but crumbles. I remain inspired by We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos and their diligent weekly meetings, and by the Rev. Cathlin Baker and Rabbi Caryn Broitman’s united front against racism in their teachings to Island youth, and the challah baked on Wampanoag land at the great Juli Vanderhoop’s Orange Peel Bakery.

Melanie Englert’s restaurant reviews on Islanders Talk, Nancy Aronie’s home glowing from the side of the road to Aquinnah, the simple act of hearing Kate Taylor’s or Jemima James’s voice in song, or Kimberly Cartwright’s Ancestral Healing workshops that plunge us safely into the depths of knowing — this Island is rich. And not for the summer 1 percent, but for this nest of care that winter offers, for this place that allows room to let go, to fall down, to tear into the indulgence of brutal emotions, fortifying all of us to face the tasks of stopping rape, ending the opioid epidemic, standing up vehemently against racism and bigotry, coping with the aftereffects of genocide, and the current effects of the tyranny of ICE, and allowing LGBTQ inclusion in otherwise separatist worlds.

This list of people and care is just mine, and just the tip of the iceberg in my small corner of this vast Island. Everyone has a list and every list is different. It’s what makes a small place enormous.

In 2019 I will not turn a blind eye, and I will have the strength to do so in part because of how this great Island loves.