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Small World

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The thunderstorms cleared the air last night and brought back the stars.  I found them when I was evaluating the soaked car upholstery.  In the clear 3 AM air, the stars hung low in in the early morning.  The early morning dark lets you know your place in the universe and it isn't very roomy.  The sky was active, however.  The summer ends in meteors.  They flashed across the Milky Way and then disappeared.  The summer constellations still play through the evening, but in the early hours, Orion, the principal, starts to rise and shuffle everyone back to school.

After the rain and the dawn, the young men and I stood in line at the Downyflake.  Like the sandbars, the lines on island have been forming in odd ways this summer.  On this morning, a twenty minute line extended out the take-out door for donuts while tables inside sat empty.  We were long line, but a friendly one; we stood with our not entirely amused and patient children and tried to keep them calm with a mixture of games, stories, and veiled threats about the Ravenous Donut Goblins.  A Mercedes SUV with Wyoming plates parked in a slot beside us and a father left his iKids in the car to join us in line.  A conversation arose: "You have a place in Jackson Hole?  Me, too.  Small World, isn't it."

It can be, it just depends on which small world you want: one has you at the center, the other has Altar Rock. One has the stars staring at you, the other has you witnessing stars.

Fall hasn't arrived yet, but it has made reservations.  The blackberries have deepened and swelled; there are no more hard green berries not the vines.  The farm tomatoes fill buckets and the corn is heaped in piles. Even the far away whirling ladies of the Caribbean have sent us some waves.  Nonetheless, the fields of Hotchkiss and Tufts call the surfers, and their parents watch the stock market as carefully as they once studied the weather reports.  Even the cars have begun to migrate; they have massed by the dozens in Hyannis.  Most of the tourists and travelers will join them over the next few weeks and leave the sand behind.

We are an island of both tourists and travelers.  On Nantucket, nothing is truly native but the wind.  Everything else, from the beach roses to the rabbits to the Coffins, got blown here.  Once we got here, we all made a choice between being a traveller and being a tourist; travelers make a home here, while tourists just make a visit. 

When a tourist leaves Nantucket, he takes nothing with him but a t-shirt and a receipt. He arrived sealed, packed, and bubbled into an identity fully formed off-island.  That packaging never cracks, no matter whether he was here for a day or a decade.  Once off the boat, he has a checklist of items and foods that he needs to see, photograph, and eat.  His golf buddies have sent him on a treasure hunt; Lobster, Cisco, Sunset, and Pops tickets.  He ticks the items off, photographs them, then sticks them on his screen saver at work. 

The tourist loves his small world and he lashes out, open handed, at any who threaten it.   He protects it the same way that some protected their blanket kingdoms at the Pops Concert; "This is my space, don't you dare cross it."  Inside this bubble, the tourist knows his rights and others' responsibilities.  He is not responsible for the sand castles, so he can let his kid kick them down.  He drives Main Street as if it were Route 9 in Framingham.  He paid good money to come here.  Should he want to play fire tennis at the club, he can.  When he leaves Nantucket, he returns to his own small world, with its own rules and rulers, goals and guides.

Unlike the tourist, the traveller has no treasure hunt.  He travels as an individual, not as an scout for the herd.  A traveller to the island doesn't have any place that he "has to" see; he may not make it to the beach or to the windmill, but he finds his way to the heart of this sandy “small world.” He also is less aware of rights, and more aware of consideration.  If he found a missing phone at the Demo, he would return it rather than keep it; "Finders, keepers" is a rule for the city.  He will leave tips at the restaurants, books at the Take or Leave It, and only footprints on the beach.   When he leaves, as we all have to, the island has changed him, more than he has changed the island.

Most of us came to Nantucket as tourists.  We had homes and friends elsewhere; they wanted us to get bottle of blueberry vodka and an ACK sticker for the car. And some of us stayed that way.  They give wrong directions to the lost, built for their wallets, and hogged the beach in four wheel drive bubble with a “Native” sticker on the bumper.   Most of us got lucky, the bubble cracked and we found ourselves when we weren't looking. 

The Sconset Chapel got me.  In my first fall, I slipped into the chapel on a wet and windy afternoon.  I found what others have found;  A smell of dust, mildew, and cleaning wax.  Small creaking benches.  And the work of all of those hands.  I sat on one of the pews and saw all of the needlepoint.  In each kneeler were the hands that made it and the hands that kept them whole and, finally, the hands that kept them here.  Not only are there very few places on this earth that could make a Sconset Chapel, there are even fewer that can keep it.  Too many tourists want souvenirs. 

This is the small world of Nantucket, not the small world of Black American Express card holders, Mercedes SUV drivers, or even members of the Angler’s Club.  This world has no seats reserved for the mighty, no cuts in the Juice Bar line, and no private beaches.  This world was knit together with a thousand threads of consideration; made strong by those with a sockless humility.  We live on a beach beset by wind and wave and drowned in starlight; held together with nods, waves, and the perspective of someone else’s shoes.

The island will continue to empty in the weeks ahead.  The tourists and the travelers will go, as they planned.  They wind will take them, as it will take all of us.  For the travelers , we will hear in the wind the last hymn: “God be with you til we meet again.”

Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published this summer.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here.