Islanders, Insula

Oak Bluffs II 2015 —Alison Shaw
For a writer, how much alone is too much alone?

Photograph:’Oak Bluffs II, 2015′ by Alison Shaw.

When I first summered here, there was a tiny filler column in the Vineyard Gazette, all of about a paragraph, called “Things Insular.” In typically succinct New England style, it spoke volumes about life on this or any island. Those pithy items of minutiae became formative to my understanding of what draws some people to visit here in summer and others to stay throughout the year.

I enjoyed reading the items with amusement, as would an outsider or voyeur. But their meaning really sunk in when I lived here year-round. In my first Vineyard winter, back in 1979-80 — when the population was about 7,000, when Helios and the Seaview and the Square Rigger were just about the sum and substance of winter Islanders’ nightlife outside of dinner parties at home — Island insularity took on a rich complexity I had not anticipated, even for someone who says he is quite happy to be alone, the hermit writing crab.

Rock fever set in mighty quick and mighty bad. So bad that one night in deepest February, I drove from Vineyard Haven to the A&P in Edgartown (now the Stop and Shop) for no other reason than to just be inside some place with bright lights and colorful objects and living human beings moving about, none of whom I actually spoke to, or necessarily wanted to speak to.

By then, the walls of the fairly spacious house I’d rented started to close in. Then the walls of my mind, and what felt like the very neural pathways of my ideas, started to grow narrow and eventually shut me down.
A trip all the way to downtown Vineyard Haven — from Lower Lambert’s Cove Road, mind you — seemed like a journey across the Asian subcontinent. Edgartown? OMG, pack a lunch and let people know you’re going out of town. Sometimes — OK often — moving from my bedroom to my writing desk was way too far to travel.

But this is at least part of the appeal. Island life is by definition insular — the word derives from the Latin “insula,” for island. People live on islands to get away, to be “far from the madding crowd,” which book title English novelist and naturalist Thomas Hardy stole from Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

That moat around this mass of glorified sand dune acts as a protective shield from people, places, and things we’d sooner forget. If we could. It took me many more years of life on Island and off to realize that wherever you go, there, sometimes regrettably, you are.

For a writer, despite the pitfalls and inherent dangers, this insularity is a necessity. You have to pull far away to hear your own voice, especially in these days of very loud media voices. But go too far and, well, the phrase “stir-crazy” must have been coined by an Islander.

No other writer, in my opinion, captures that feeling more than Annie Dillard, the great naturalist and author of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” who in an essay for Esquire magazine many years ago described the perils of the insular writer’s life: “Without the stimulus of other thinkers, you handle your own thoughts on their well-worn paths in your own skull till you’ve worn them smooth. The contents of your mind are so familiar you can forget about them. This is the torpor of deprivation. Soon your famished brain will start to eat you. Here is some excitement at last: You are going crazy.”


“The trick of writing,” she concludes, “which drives previously sane people around the bend, is to locate some weird interior spot our brains don’t seem well programmed for: the spot that enables you to be wholly alive while wholly alone. A few hours a day of this is quite enough. When it’s over, I’m ready for lunch. Lunch with familiar people I’ve come to care for.”

Brigham Young University social scientists corroborated Dillard’s suggestion, but added that insularity can drive any person more than stir-crazy. They found that isolated people have a 30 percent higher chance of dying younger than those who had regular social contact, and noted social isolation was as great a risk factor as obesity and could be a serious threat to public health. It was the last two findings that brought me back to the Vineyard: that affluent nations had the highest rate of people living alone; and that social isolation would reach epidemic proportions in the next two decades.

Affluent Islanders, take note.
Of course, having access to the Internet has made it more difficult to achieve a state of isolation when community — or at least a virtual community — is a click away. It takes a true and disciplined desire to be alone to resist punching that “Enter” key. Enter what? The web of the wide world, the Internet being an ultimately lonely place to live.

When Chilmarkers first rejected cell towers in the late 1990s, voters said they feared that the towers would spread radiation, and that they would be a blight on the pristine rural landscape. True enough. But I hold that they also saw them as an encroachment on their Up-Island exclusivity (read insularity), an invasion of their three-acre-zoning mentality. Slowly, however, up-Islanders capitulated. The move was spearheaded first perhaps by the summer moneyed folk and their need to call their man at Morgan Stanley in July, later by year-rounders’ realization that “No man is an island,” as the 17th English century poet John Donne put it.

The same insight brings me full circle. As a writer and as an Islander (at heart and soul, if not always in body), it has become harder to pull back, a need I considered essential both personally and professionally. The global marketplaces — the metaphorical Stop and Shops — call. Even while typing this, every “ping” of an incoming message, or the need to fact-check a quote, seduces me from my Island/mind into the world Out There. In the years since I lived on Lambert’s Cove Road, time somehow has shrunk the distance to Edgartown. As much of a social outlaw as I have always been, I now see the need for balance; I strive to be in the world but still not necessarily of it, as the old saying goes.

The other last lines of that Donne poem, taken from “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII,” now ring true to me: “… every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
I first experienced this deeply when I was the features editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times, editing obituaries of people I had never met, yet feeling some kind of sympathetic loss as I witnessed the effect of death ripple throughout a community in which, isolated or not, we are all often separated by just one degree.

This all has brought me to a new understanding, which I call the Tao of Island Insularity. That is: Maybe we can be together while being alone.

Perry Garfinkel, longtime contributor to The New York Times, is the author of “Buddha or Bust,” a 2006 national bestseller published by Crown/Harmony. He wrote it while living on the Vineyard, where he also wrote millions of other words over the course of some 30 years on the Island. He also teaches writing workshops.

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