Nantucket Essays

Island in the Sea of Time

by Robert P. Barsanti

The ocean, they say, is a great bluffer.

I am a person who checks the weather. I fell to bed last night to the threat of a great storm that would scour the land, lash the water, and shatter the bluffs. I woke in the early dark. As I listened for the singing power lines and the incoming rattle of catastrophe, the fine hoot of the Nobska horn (on the 6:30 Eagle) came pulsing through, same as always. And there was some wind. And there was some rain. But the 6:30 left on time.

Once, the Great Storms arrived without announcement. Blizzards and hurricanes came rolling over the waters, cast ships up on the beach, washed houses out to sea, and flooded the island. Now, in the time of satellites, computers, and cable television, every afternoon shower gets a name: Alberto, Bridget, Constance. With that name, they become imbued with that wonderful power of personification. Our ancient Aunt Constance is mad, and she is threatening to bury us in a foot of snow. But, as often happened to dear Aunt Connie, something distracted her, she lost her anger and her path, and we were left with drizzle and rain. The ocean, as they say, is a great bluffer.

Which is not to say that Jim Cantore and his merry band of tricksters will always be wrong. Nantucket is an island in the sea of time, but that sea is rising. Somewhere in the near future, Winter Storm Horton will descend upon us, as predicted, the boats will stop, and I will regret not buying more canned soup and bottled water while I could.

Today, however, in the gray light of a racing sky and in the spray of a northeasterly wind, I drove to work. The cars and trucks on the Madaket Road are no longer strangers from New Jersey and Texas, but old familiars from Bartlett’s, The Bean, and The Box. I know the drivers, and they know me. We wave from behind headlights, heaters, and windshield wipers. We see enough to avoid each other inside our loud, fogged up little bubbles.

Things aren’t good inside of the bubble; I am having a hard time listening to the radio on the way to work these days. We live in a time when I can hear anything I want for the ten minutes I travel. Usually, I suffer the news and probe it like a toothache, each time I poke it hoping that the pain has gone. My fingers don’t want NPR’s disaster and deference as opposed to Drifting Away with Dobie Gray.

And the world outside looks so unkind. Fires, floods, and fools stack up on each other for the headlines of the day: NPR is not bluffing. Most days, I wonder how the radio can devote only three minutes to the fires in California or to the monsoon in the Pacific, or to any number of horrors piling up before moving on to the next fundraising block.

I am a person who subscribes to newspapers. I will bear witness. I will be informed. But we live in a time when information—real, consequential, fundamental information—comes in flights of arrows and transfixes you to your seat. I know that thousands of people have died, but I can do nothing. The billionaires are tilting the economy into their mouths as if the dollars were the dregs of a soup bowl: I can do nothing. And I know that I live on an island in the sea of time, but the sea is rising.

Alone in my truck, blowing more carbon into the air, the one power I have is to flick Dobie Gray back on again, return to the mid-seventies, free my soul and get lost in your rock and roll. Then drift away.

The greatest danger the modern world poses isn’t weather or climate. It isn’t soldiers and protestors. It isn’t politicians and billionaires. It is in the front seat of a car, idling in a parking lot, transfixed to NPR. It’s isolation. Hong Kong, Chile, Washington, Ukraine, North Korea keep us pinned and wriggling to the driver’s seat, alone, afraid, and ashamed.

Luckily, I needed coffee.

I get coffee every day. I could make it at home, but I don’t. Instead, I stop, wait in line, consider a cinnamon twist, hand them my travel mug, chat, smile, collect the mug, pay, and tip.

I am a person who tips. I can’t balance the unfairness of the economy with a check or a vote, but I can help make sure that the coffee people can tip the bar people and the bar people can tip the cleaning people and the cleaning people can tip the coffee people again. In a desert of economic injustice, a tip is a dixie cup of water—a small act, but mighty.

This small act will save us, because it pulls us from ourselves. The world is too much with us. Our legs are too short to kickbox with God, but are long enough to dance. On-island, up close, in person, we can help. We can do things that make this place better, even if it is only to tip in cash.

In the end, we are what we do. We aren’t what we fear, or what we love. We aren’t what we survive or what kills us. We aren’t what we believe, or say, or think, or follow, or listen to. We are what we do.

On this island in the sea of time, the sea is rising. The time will come, again, when the ocean will not bluff, the boats will stop, and NPR will spend three minutes on our island. When that time comes, we will do what we always do. We smile, we help. We pour coffee.

We last.

Articles by Date from 2012