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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

An Essay of Place


All photos taken by JLR Grace 2010-2014
The Vineyard.

“How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those who are wise and of good will.” Albert Einstein


In the year 1835, not far from where the ferry came in on the tide to bring souls to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Jeremiah Pease selected a “venerable grove of oaks” to be a place of worship and revival. This spot would be the roots that would grow to become Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. In August of 1836 the first Love Feast was held, and the following year more than 2000 people were coming to attend the tent revivals and camp meetings held in this special place . Known today for its affluent summer residents and the plentiful number of prominent Presidential Democrats who vacation there (from Kennedys to Clintons to Obamas) this island is instead rooted in a rich history of common people - many seeking a deep spiritual experience on its sandy shores.

I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in July of 2011 and I found it to be beyond what I imagined. When you can smell the sea on the air and  see the light of the sky reflected back on itself, mystery of mysteries how there seems to be a song that rolls in on the waves. I have lived most of my life on the shores of the "Inland sea", and Lake Ontario is one Great Lake, I am no stranger to glorious sunsets and the beauty and peace that comes with residing by water. I was however, unprepared for the grandeur and majesty that is the Vineyard in the midst of the Atlantic. Six miles out to sea and surrounded by only the steel blue waves, the night sky patterned with innumerable stars - a place that transports you back in time to when the tales told in the heavens and the lights from above guided our way.
Working and living Up Island, in the small operational fishing village of Menemsha, I found myself removed from Edgartown and its Yacht Clubs and men in Pink sweaters with Nantucket Red pants, those affluent summer residents. Instead, I lived where once the sunset in an orange fire into the deep water, all you could hear was the song of the bell on the buoy, keeping time with the moon and her tides. In the morning and as the day dawned in the wee hours before, the cries of the fisherman, in their weathered carharts and stained hoodies, could be heard echoing through the Harbor along Squid Row. Setting lines, getting gear in order to head out for the days catch, which could include Bluefish, Albacore Tuna, Striper Bass - caught that day and then served that night, at the oldest restaurant on island -Home Port, where I managed the dining room. It would sometimes take 3 or 4 men to carry in a 300 pound fish, scales gleaming and glistening silver flashing in the sun from the boat on the dock to the back of the pick up truck, through the parking lot and onto the Chef’s table. A team of guys breaking the beast of the sea down, from tip to tail, all parts used and served to the masses who would wait for an hour or more for a table, to be read the daily specials of the ever changing chalkboards created by yours truly and my young effervescent hostess. The floor would be dangerously slick with butter as Lobstah after Lobstah went out to the tables, guests dining on crispy fresh fried fish, whole belly clams, seared scallops and the best yet - selections from the raw bar; Katama Bay Oysters or little necks, plucked hours before from the water and shucked before your very eyes.
My move to the Vineyard was a whim, a friend lived there - a seasonal job opened up, she knew the owner, she recommended me for the position. My children were both over 15, and my family thought they could survive without me for the summer in New York, so off I went on what would become an incredible learning experience and the adventure of a lifetime. It would end up becoming our home. Giving up the only place we had ever known, for an existence only attainable by air or sea. My oldest son joined me after about a month, then his brother a month later (both going right to work in the island’s Hell’s kitchen's). Meeting extraordinary people from all corners of the globe, was one of the most educational and emotional experiences of my life. The world came to this place, and many became family. My husband, Nate,  had put in his notice at work by the fall, we had found a place to rent (that was not a Windmill, where we all had been staying for the summer, pictures below) he had secured employment on island, and was blessed to end up doing some incredible high end finish carpentry work. Nate was able to learn so much about traditional American craftsmanship while we lived on island, it was like living history at the edge of the world in more ways than one.
When I began researching the local history of the Vineyard and discovered that the town of Oak Bluffs with it’s colorful, quirky, unique gingerbread cottages, had been founded when thousands had journeyed to the island for those summer camp meetings - steeped in revival and a passion to worship God, I was struck by just how many stories a place can hold. The tales that could be told by that “venerable grove of oaks” as well as the rolling rock walls placed by early settlers, and the trails through forests by a people far more ancient than that. The Vineyard is home to the Wampanoag Indian tribe, the only Native American people to retain their original ancestral land in this country, as well as holding the claim to fame of being the very tribe that hosted that first Thanksgiving all those years ago over on the coast in Plymouth. The purple marbled Wampum that is still made into fashionable jewelry today, is dug and ground from quahog shells just as it was hundreds of years ago, the tourists clamor for it - and the trade is good for the people (see my one and only piece in photo below, it reminds me of a Supermoon).
I, like Dorothy, have learned in my life, that there is no place like home. That you can go searching for yourself all the way to OZ and back, but you really needn't look further than your own backyard. I have also learned that home is where the heart is - where you hang your hat - where you are surrounded by those you love. Many of those I loved then and now, are far from me, some in actual miles, some near- but unreachable-separated by the distance of illness and decay, some unreachable and gone from this time. It is because of the fleetingness of place and home that we, therefore, must hold those we love in our heart - no matter where we physically find ourselves. I have always felt myself a stranger in a strange land, whether in the small lakeside village where I grew up surrounded by friends and family who had known me my whole life, or as I found myself, on a tiny island surrounded by strangers - proud New England Patriot Yankees, to be exact. I must admit, despite living in one of the top vacation destinations in the US - I had an ever present longing to return "home". Although, it was not so much the shores of Lake Ontario that beckoned me to return, but again, the sense of that strange land which called me back. This call could be heard most clearly however, through the bell on the buoy out there in the lapping waves themselves - there it came from a distant time, and the voices became many and long. John F. Kennedy, a sailor on the Atlantic waters I was blessed to call home for a while, once said;
“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came.” (Brainyquote, n.d.)
[ Source: https://goo.gl/images/tNkFq6 ]

My years on the Vineyard afforded me the interesting opportunity of solace and solitude, soul searching and seeking by the sea. While the summer season had me working 70 hours a week to meet the demands of the 120,000 tourists there to do business, the winter found me among the few 20,000 hearty souls who stayed to weather the bitter and harsh cold. I spent this time, bundled in front of a fire or at the Chilmark library - not only researching local history, but exploring my own. I became a bit obsessed with tracing my genealogy and discovering my own roots, looking for that strange land that seemed to call to me through the eons. The Vineyard for me, was a place of personal discovery, where the winds blow fierce off the Atlantic -especially in the bleak and brutal winter months. A shore where you must learn to stand solid and firm -in the face of whatever may come in on the tide.  As with the many who came during the Victorian era across the water for tent revivals, looking for a spiritual awakening, I surely found mine among the venerable oaks, the green pastures filled with sheep, the red clay cliffs, all with the velvety night sky hung above… even the Zodiac gracious enough to include me in its extraordinary tale.
Wampum Bracelet by Wampanoag Tribe 2016



References

MVCMA.ORG. (n.d.). History - Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. Retrieved from http://www.mvcma.org/history.html

Perl, S., & Schwartz, M. (2014). Writing true: The art and craft of creative nonfiction (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Brainyquote http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/johnfkenn151955.html




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