Notes From Squirrel Island

Circa 1940s. Wikipedia (It hasn’t changed much)

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“A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope—the three sister Graces of our mortal being.” Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

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I copied this quote from explorer Richard Burton into a pocket notebook, where it has remained for the last couple of years, along with any number of passwords, titles of books and movies people have recommended, email addresses, ideas for writing projects, directions for setting up new AV equipment, grocery lists, descriptions of sunsets, coffee shops, beaches, and airport terminals, Al Anon acronyms, and other quotes that have struck my fancy.

I can’t recall when I didn’t carry a pocket notebook and a pen. They are as essential a part of my wardrobe as underwear.

And before I add this notebook to the others going back to 1965, I’ve flipped back through it, trying—often unsuccessfully—to remember where I was when I wrote an entry, why it was important to write it down, and whether it’s important to me now.

What intrigues me is how the Burton quote helps me flesh out another entry a few pages later: a page and a half of description of a trip I made with my wife Mary Lee last July to Squirrel Island, Maine.

For those of you who don’t know, Squirrel Island is a small island in the Gulf of Maine—about 2 square miles, I think—established as a summer community in 1871. Apparently, it got its name not because of its squirrel population but rather because the shape of the island looks like a squirrel holding an acorn. Practically all its inhabitants are summer residents—I think there might be a caretaker or two who live there year-round—and most of the families have been coming to the island for a hundred or more years. The only motorized vehicles allowed are for maintenance workers. A boardwalk circles the island.

Besides beaches, tennis courts, a library, and a restaurant, there is also a chapel.

And for the last several years, Mary Lee has been asked to preach there one Sunday a summer. I go along as eye-candy.

To get to Squirrel Island, you take a ferry from Boothbay Harbor. It’s a nice half-hour trip (another reason I tag along), and this year, I remember the weather was warm and sunny. A nice woman from the chapel Board of Directors met us and took Mary Lee into the church to go over the various technicalities of the service, leaving me to walk the boardwalk until I found an Adirondack chair overlooking the water, where I sat, and, as is my wont, began to scribble in my notebook.

My first line noted the rotten egg smell of low tide, and how a smokey southwest breeze swayed some yellow lilies in front of me. I went on to describe a small harbor of motorboats pointing out to sea and the weathered cottages with gambrel roofs and wide verandas on the shore gazing out at South Port Island.

Reading those lines now reminds me that the first time I ever heard of Squirrel Island was when my Grandmother Cleaves worked summers into early October as a cook and caretaker for an old woman living on the island. I remember Nanny’s letters to me from there when I was in college, and how I chuckled at her rambling stories of people I’d never heard of and the latest gossip from the movie magazines she devoured like popcorn. (“Liberace’s Wig-maker Tells All.”)  Today I know my grandmother was an unhappy woman, the ex-wife of an alcoholic, who for years took her anger out on my brother, my sister, and me, but at the time, I denied the fact that she scared the hell out of me by imagining her as a comic figure. These days, I’m trying to accept that both her acid tongue and her love for her grandchildren were equally true.

My notebook tells me I noticed a seagull “dive-bombing a lobster boat,” and some sparrows chirping in the large mounds of beach roses under a blue sky “scarred with thin white stripes.” I mentioned the distant hum of lobster boats, the cry of an unhappy baby, and the “coo-coo-coo” of a dove. Which made me remember my friend and mentor Al, a retired Episcopal priest, who facilitated our church’s men’s group for many years. I wrote in my notebook of his love of pigeons, and worried about his severe asthma, compounded by heart problems, which had just sent him to the hospital and then to a nursing facility.

Al died about a month later, and I’ve just been asked to read at his funeral. I’m honored. Al was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever knew, humble, with a great sense of humor. He was also a courageous advocate for social justice and civil rights. He attended Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963 and organized transportation from Newark, N.J. to the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He continued to work for equal rights for all, and in his last years wrote passionate letters to the editor urging us to become better stewards of our planet. He approached his death with dignity and curiosity, looking forward, he said, to the next stage in the journey. I hope to have the same attitude when it’s time for me to pass on.

I made more notes of white moths dancing over some sumac bushes and of a middle-aged woman in a black and white sleeve-less jersey walking her terrier along the boardwalk,  but when I heard the church bells from the chapel ringing out the old hymn, “Let Jesus Christ be Praised,” I thought again of Al, who, a year or so earlier, had written a children’s book, Soren’s Story: A Parable About Bullies and the Peaceable Kingdom.

As the full title makes clear, the book is not only about pigeons, but also about the dangers to children of bullying. I suspect Al, who had come from a dysfunctional family, had suffered bullying himself.

Soren’s Story ends in an old church, not unlike the one on Squirrel Island. Here’s the conclusion:

“Nor did anyone quite know how to explain it, but the great bell in the meeting house tower, long silent, began to move and then to swing and ring out ….

‘Hope on,’ it said. Gong!

            ‘Do justice and love kindness.’ Gong!

                        ‘Take courage and confront evil,’ it rang out. Gong!

                                    ‘And remember mercy.’ Gong!

                                                ‘For there is no future without forgiveness.’ Gong!”

 Reading notes from my Squirrel Island journey, I realize the truth of Sir Richard’s words. Memory takes me back to that day, imagination leads me to my grandmother and Al, and I’m hopeful. As I’ve written in these blogs before, hope for me is not based on some expectation of the future, but on what I’ve learned from the past. Keeping these various notebooks and going back to them, I can see where I’ve struggled, where I’ve been blind, where I’ve been down-right wrong, and yet how I’ve not only survived but thrived afterward. I can also sometimes see where I’ve had inklings of God of my not Understanding, often through mentors like Al, who give me hope that even in this time of threats to our country, both from home and abroad, in this time of one climate disaster after another, love, kindness, courage, and forgiveness can ring out.

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