by Robert P. Barsanti
Peace comes at a premium in August. It hides in the shadows and corners, away from the linen and the hydrangea. It steps back from the traffic, the shoppers, and the selfies, and settles itself on hard and varnished wood in St. Mary’s. Inside, the air did not particularly cool you and the walls did not insulate you from the Suburbans and the Yukons passing outside. I was just separated, apart from the ebb and flow of Federal Street.
I knelt for a departed friend.
We have many holy spaces on Nantucket. The woods and moors have been well documented by poets and painters. The Quakers have a silent old schoolhouse, tucked away on Fair Street, that is as well-appointed as a broom closet. Across the street, St. Paul’s boasts dark woods and glittering Tiffany windows. Two other churches, within easy walking distance, have towers that reach to heaven and meeting rooms of such grace and art that they would lift the congregation there. St. Mary’s remains close to the ground with the builders, waiters, painters, and workers of the island.
I have been a long time away from the faith of my parents, and I had no desire to find my way back to the Holy Mother Church. However, faith has its own tune. You can’t spend much time in a church and not think of all of the people who have sat, stood, and knelt there. Their names grace the walls of St. Mary’s: Egan, Mooney, Terry, O’Neill. Not whalers, not captains, not owners, but people with two feet on the ground, eyes to see around them, and voices to sing. My troubles were their troubles, my blessings were their blessings, and my song was their song.
In almost every service, Christian or otherwise, the worshipers repeat their creed. It doesn’t particularly matter what the creed says—let the theologians argue about comma placement—but it matters that everyone says it together. The chanting unites all voices into one voice. Singing does the same thing: when you sing with everyone else, your voice melts into the one. When we sing, we don’t necessarily join in with the words, but we join in with each other.
My father was a horrible singer. Not only did he have no sense of tempo, key, or even notes, he found a way to separate himself from the rest of the congregation and finish Take Our Bread a few seconds after everyone else. At Stroll in a long ago December, I took my parents to dinner at the Languedoc. The Flanagan family came in to sing carols and my father joined in, with his own stumbling pratfall of a voice. My now departed friend stood next to him, held his hand, and made him keep time with her.
Singing requires humility, a trait that we have weaned ourselves from. We either hide from the world in our earphones and screens or we broadcast our individuality with a puppy dog filter on Instagram. We live in a world where Netflix knows just what I want to watch, Amazon knows what I want to buy, and Apple knows what I want to listen to. Everything from the phone in my pocket to books on my shelf tell me that I am my own star. But I am not. I dance the same dance and I sing the same song. When I sing, I don’t sing my own words, I sing someone else’s. Faith just opens my ears to the tempo we all move to. We dance in communion, whether we know it or not. We are not better and not worse than the names on the wall or the names in the paper.
She, my departed friend, saw that as a responsibility. Just as it was a responsibility for her to stand at the front of the church and sing, so it was a responsibility to be Town Clerk. A clerk is not select or special; you do your work with a pen and a stamp. The clerk stands up when lives are shaking and changing. A baby is born, and the name needs to be registered. A commitment is made, and the bond should be affirmed. A person is lost, and the loss must be annotated. A clerk serves when life shakes. When I was getting divorced, I took a boat to the island for the court hearing. I needed to drop my bags someplace and see a friendly face. So, with my life fracturing into large legal pieces, she held my luggage in her office and said “Tomorrow is another day.” And so it is.
At one point, on her desk, she had a paperweight given her from her dad; “Illegitimus Non Carborundum” (Don’t let the bastards grind you down). It was their song. Tuneless, it sings of faith; in order for the bastard to grind you down, you have to stand. You don’t run, you don’t retreat, you don’t excuse or hide or lie. You stand. She stood on faith in the communion, whether it be the communion of the saints or of the sinners.
Our community is not an easy one to stand with. Our wallets make claims that our children will have to pay for. We vote for fools and knaves who promise that tomorrow will be just as good as yesterday. Put a big sign and a waving moron at the rotary, and the island will select him. Over the years, she counted more than a few votes that she wished went the other way, but throughout she knew where she was and who she was with.
But now our choirmaster has gone. The community stands mute.
Inside St. Mary’s, the warm air smells of sweat and wax. A jet flies overhead, then the talk and tread of the passersby mark the minutes. The wind blows the fog out, the tide comes in, and the hours without her mount. Somewhere, her replacement waits to clear her desk in the town building, remove her pictures, and try to fill the long, but fading, shadow. Somewhere else, the poor look for housing, the old look for company, and the sick look for relief, And the “bastards” grind.
The only thing she left us is her song. Let us lift our voices and sing.