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Tolerance

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November beach south shore Nantucket

The wind turned.  We went to sleep to a dirty, wet wind from the northeast.  It smeared the moon, washed over the stars, and built up on the windows.  We fell asleep in the starless dark to foghorns and the roll of distant surf.  Then, in the morning, we woke to china blue skies, frost on the marsh grass, and the over-worked growl of the Cessnas overhead. 

Winter on island begins at Halloween and extends through June; eight months of November blowing over the moors.  Melville’s cold and gray November rises in everyone’s souls.  Snow occurs sparingly so that the photographers and the school children will hope for favors from the meteorologist.  The wind is cold enough to call for sweaters and sweatshirts, but rarely harsh enough to call for a hood to be pulled up.  On island, winter is marked by what isn’t; we have lost color and we have lost people.  The great island stroll, for most of the eight months of November, wanders alone in brown and black moors under a rolling gray sky.

We now have big weekends on island.  Somewhere in the hedge fund rich towns of the mainland, a weekend on the November Island has become fashionable.  They come down for long walks on the shore and quiet dinners in town.  They read and they shop and they take time away from the parking lots full of Volvos and Land Rovers to come to our streets, also filled with Volvos and Land Rovers. On Saturday afternoon, I drove out to Cisco for a quiet walk with the Old Squaw migrating over the horizon and was met by a crowd in polar fleece and North Face, as well as three men in dry suits and on surf boards.  Not for me.

Then, on Sunday, they line up at the Downyflake.  We sat at the counter while the weekend was recounted in tales worthy of the L.L. Bean catalogue crossed with the Sunday Times Style section.  One grace at a table wanted to know what vinegar the cook used when he poached eggs.  Her sister asked if they could re-heat her donut.  The father of both graces asked if they could make him an Americano.  Then we heard that the fast boats had been cancelled for the morning. 

When you live on Nantucket, you only think about boat schedules and weather when you are on the Cape trying to get back on-island.  The rental car has an extra clock attached to it, counting down the hours so that you return to the Hyannis dock early.  When you live off-island in America, you get the same clock attached to the dashboard of your car on-island.  I was staring at that clock and it was flashing.

So we finished breakfast, came home, and packed for the noon boat.  We all know what it feels like.  The doors are closing, the walls are pressing in, and the clock ticks.  We are beyond the point of reservations, beyond the point of going earlier, beyond the point of getting on a plane before eight o’clock tonight.  A surge of humanity, wrapped in wool and Gortex, was also packing and racing for this boat. 

And they got there ahead of us.  The line started at the boat ramp, extended to the end of the wharf, then curled around to the gangway for the fast boat then back.  One boy stood at the back of the line while I stood in another line inside for tickets.  The clerks smiled and answered the same five questions over and over again.  Then, they turned to me, I gave a familiar, knowing, “what is with these people?” smile and bought my tickets.  Then I returned to the line. 

When you stand in line, you strip yourself down to the basics of life.  Everything that you valued in yourself and in others gets dropped off in the luggage cart.  Your wallet doesn’t advance you and your poverty doesn’t hold you back.  Your friends can’t bring you to the head of the line and your loneliness doesn’t doom you to the rear.  Natives don’t get any special permission to board earlier, nor do the voters from Simsbury, Newton, or Westchester.  Your child does not need to get to school more than someone else’s: your job doesn’t need you more than another’s job needs him.  In line, you are merely human; perhaps with a phone, perhaps with earphones, perhaps with a delicious box of pastries.  At core, you are one cold person shivering behind the first and in front of a third. 

The Beatles sang that “Love is All You Need” and, as much as I love the lads from Liverpool, I can’t agree.  Love doesn’t work well over the long term.  Inside our little rooms, it works fine.  Its fire warms us into a hundred little sacrifices and compromises that we might not have consented to in the outdoor cold.  In the streets and public spaces, love wears thin and grows skeptical and sore.  We feel vulnerable, we feel selfish: we feel taken advantage of, we are not appreciated.  The flag droops, the fire goes out, and we curse our own cupidity. 

Tolerance is all we need.  Tolerance is a dull emotion; no one will sing songs or build statues to it.  The Greeks had no gods for tolerance and the Romans made no sacrifices.  It stands against our American ideals.  We don’t tolerate racists, bullies, or slackers.  As Americans, we praise people who get in their face.  Chris Christie, Ron Reagan, and even Barack Obama are praised for their intolerance of any number of bad things.  We have just finished a grand election where 52% of the people chose one man over 48% who chose another. Half of the people in this country made a stupid decision at the ballot box.   And now we stand in line with them. 

Tolerance acknowledges our limitations.  We don’t know everything and we don’t know everything.  We no more want a Republican inside our brain, rearranging the furniture and changing the wallpaper than he wants a Democrat in his.  Our lives, were we to fairly judge them, have more than a few moments when our character failed.  As do the others around us.  Were we to all be in line before St. Peter, we would all cry for mercy and not justice. 

Instead, we set those things to the side.  In line, we don’t cry out for judgment or reward, instead we mutter at the cold and lean together in the wind. We are united in our humanity and equality.  We all need to go somewhere.  We all are stuck by the weather.  And we all believe, at core, in civility.  To be civil is to acknowledge that someone else has as much right to wait as you do: to be civil is to recognize that you came after those people and before these others.  And that that ordering of life is fair. 

Down deep, tolerance requires an act of imagination.  You cannot stay secure in the observatory of your mind, sure of all of your beliefs and be tolerant.    Instead, you must venture forth and stand in another’s place.  He has three small children and all of their luggage.  She is older and cold, though she is wrapped in fur.  We should stand in their sneakers, in their Uggs, in their boots and feel the heat of their lives. We are just as crazy to them as they are to us; their lives have the same inane trivia as do ours.  The wind is as cold to them and the donut is as warm. 

We all left the island on Sunday.  Some left on that boat, most left on another.  Our cars spread out from Hyannis in the evening and took us back to the gated communities and apartment houses that sent us forth before.  In those living rooms, we watch news broadcasts tailored to us and get catalogues marketed to our zip code.  We settle back into our comfortable niches and smile at all of the people who agree with us.  Our toleration can be put back in the closet, along with the raincoat and the road flares. 

Winter will return to the island on a Wednesday.  It will come blasting off the water and throw the trees around.  The ducks will continue to migrate, the seals will swim just off shore, and the deer will bounce through the thickets.  He who is alone now will remain alone forever.  But even he, standing on the frozen sand, is waiting in line with everyone else. 

 


Comments

You put me in wind's way. I'm on nantucket when I read your work. Love this essay, Bob. Thanks.