Nantucket Essays Nantucket Voices

Easy to See, but Hard to Recognize


essay by Robert P. Barsanti

We have had a run of remarkable weather. May, on Nantucket, is no longer wedding season: brides don’t plan fun activities for guests in the raw rain and fog. But when the weather does break, the sky glows, the trees and bushes gobble up as much warmth as they can absorb, and God is in his heaven.

On Main Street, you can still park your car. The line of traffic remains spotty and sporadic on a weekday afternoon, while the stores are training new staff and decorating the windows. In the sheltered warmth of downtown, hope springs eternal. The black and gray trees were edged in pink and green. The daffodils remained too long at the party, but the tulips and the rest of the spring flowers were making their moves for sunlight and attention. I was spending an idle minute or two on one of the memorialized benches, drinking a five dollar coffee and eating a twenty dollar salad.

In spite of the lightness of my wallet, I was floating on privilege this morning. My privilege, of course, is to be able to sit on Main Street, consider the famous cobblestones, look up through the budding elm trees, and enjoy the sun. If you live on Nantucket Island, it’s hard to find that line between “enjoying the privilege” and “being lazy.” I had a phone full of tasks that I had promised to do before Monday and another list for the rest of the week, but no boss was over my shoulder, no one was tracking my activity and whereabouts, and I hadn’t clocked in on a punchcard for twenty years. Instead, it was in the air. Working out here is a privilege as well, although it is hard to see it that way in a crawlspace among the spiders and mice.

Privilege is easy to see but hard to recognize. It doesn’t walk up to you with a button and a handshake. Nobody puts a special orange “Privilege” tag on your golf clubs, nor do they affix one to the bumper of your pickup truck. Take one boat ride away, and it becomes obvious why people work 51 weeks a year to spend one week on-island. But while you are here, going pillar to post at $5 a gallon, the blessings are hard to see.

Often, when I am in need of a recharge, I imagine what it would be like, right now, to be standing on the top deck of the steamship watching the town, the light, and the island retreat from me. “Finality” is a fair but hard word: how would you march through the moments of your life if it was the final time? For someone on that boat this is the final time they will be on Nantucket. And they will toss that penny.

Privilege implies two more hard things. First, it suggests that you didn’t earn it. I didn’t get awarded this morning on the Legends Bench in front of the Maury People. Nobody gave me a ticket or permission to sit in the spring sun and watch the summer leaves uncurl. It came to me through an accident of time and birth. I moved to the island at a time when I could live out here for the rest of my life. I stayed because I found profitable and meaningful work. I could have wound up in the grime and gravel of Fitchburg, but the wind blew me out here.

Second, privilege also implies duty and stewardship. It all goes away without intention and attention, or, as was beaten into me as a boy, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” If you recognize the blessing that has come to you, you must be humble in the face of this boon, and you must use it to mend the world.

Now, mending the world can mean eliminating war, poverty, and disease across the globe, but I tend to define the world in a much smaller and narrower way. Can I mend the world I live in? How can I improve this garden?

On a recent weekend, Litter Derby teams picked up 11.5 tons of trash. On any given Saturday, a smaller contingent of the Clean Team puts on the vests, picks up grabbers and bags, and heads out to clean up the mess left by those people who can’t and won’t identify their own privilege. Volunteers don’t forge the island, but they burnish the community that lives on it. In the words of the Shakers, they put “hands to work, hearts to God.” They teach swimming, they run a food bank, they set up warming places, they drop off Meals on Wheels, and, of course, they run the Hospital Thrift Shop.

The dedicated volunteers at the Thrift Shop see their endeavor as more than a business: they see it as service. When a family walks away with a $100 sofa, they have been helped. To volunteer is to acknowledge that your privilege allows (and requires) service to others, especially those who can’t order a white leather sectional to be shipped over from Hyannis. Thanks to the Thrift Shop, you can mend the world one loveseat at a time.

On our privileged island, we live a life of contradictions. Our community needs both money and time: gift bags and trash bags. Where we make our mistakes is where we build our walls. Our lives don’t require one or the other, they require both volunteering and fundraising. We did not earn this May morning on the bench, but like a pearl of very great price, we must do all that we can to keep it.

Articles by Date from 2012