Nantucket Essays

Shouting Down the Status Quo

by Robert P. Barsanti

The moon surprised us.

The marginal fog had simmered away until the beach settled clear and blue. We were lolling in our chairs on the south shore before an insistent, distant, and muttering surf. All around us, pink skin stretched over towels, under umbrellas, and in front of phones.

During the week, a longshore current had scooped and sculpted a steep beach. Waist- and shoulder-high waves broke right on shore, scooted up the wall, then raced back into the teeth of the net wave. It made for a dramatic show, when you looked away from your book or phone.

Then, without announcement, the tide began poking up over the wall. The water demonstrated what it could do, if it were deeper than a quarter inch. The ocean came scooting under the beach chairs, dampening feet, and warning of the moon.

Then the ocean became demanding. It marched up and over the edge, swept clothes, shoes, and towels out in front of the wave. A nearby family, complete with newborn, found all of their gear lifted, pushed up beach, and then swept back into the water. They recovered it all, (including the baby) but retreated back into the safety of their Yukon. The water, however, stopped retreating. Instead it smoothed away the footsteps and pooled up in long, shallow ponds that kept rising.

Up the beach, squeals exploded when a bigger wave pushed up over the wall, over the towels, over the purses and backpacks, and lifted the coolers. The bikinis and the jams leaped up out of their dramas, rescued what they could, retreated, and cast a hairy eye on the ocean. Tonight, they would be praying to the gods of rice.

Eventually, the tide pushed us all back to the dunes. The tidal lake had become more permanent with each successive wave. The tide then formed a channel and sucked all of that water back out to sea, along with sandals, some shirts, and the white lifeguard storage locker.

We all agreed that we had never seen that before. We had seen an angry ocean, of course. And we had seen high tide, but not like this on the south shore. Some thought it could be an incoming tropical storm, others thought global warning. Eventually, the truth emerged. The Sturgeon Moon, faded in the electric August sky, had ambushed us. Fifty years of living by the ocean, and I still get surprised by the tide.

Driving back to town, we had to slow for the new stop signs—and other signs. Surfside Road, these days, is awash with signs. They sit like flamingos on the yards, sounding “Black Lives Matter,” that the African American Meeting House needs results, and that Surfside Crossing remains a threat. One spray painted sheet of plywood simply bore the name “Breonna Taylor.” In mainland America, a ubiquitous sign proclaims the Apostles Creed of the suburbs: “In this house, we believe…” Those have yet to wash up on-island in any number, but they probably will.

The signs annoy old friends of mine. “It isn’t Nantucket,” they say, with some dark comments about the H.D.C. And, to be sure, the signs aren’t Nantucket. In the summer, the island likes to keep its politics locked up in the shed with the snow shovels and the deer rifles. So many of the mortgage payments, tuition checks, and HBO subscriptions are directly tied to the good feeling and well wishing of the right-leaning plutocrats. If they don’t like the politics of your bumper stickers, they can find someone else to mow the lawn and trim the hedges. Silence is never natural—it only comes from power.

As an island, in August we are meant to be beyond the ebb and flow of politics. Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives are supposed to hang their debate points away with their ties and socks, then settle into their beach chairs. Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire who funded Troopergate and Swiftboating, walked the course at Skinners unprotested and unmolested. In August, politics should be like baseball: distant, pedantic, and inconsequential. The presidents on that other island are not welcome to golf here. The various elections should have the same consequence as a pennant race: engaging for those who are involved, but Not Our Kind, Dear. Should such topics arise at the table, a knowing smile will blow it away like so much passed gas.

But those days are done. The signs are everywhere. If the ultimate displays of power are the echoes of silence, the deafening mutter of yard signs shouts down the status quo. If we have to virtue signal the platitudes and cliches that “Black Lives Matter” and “Science is Real,” we must think them to be revolutionary slogans. You shout the truth only when the silence believes the lie. You recite a creed to not only re-affirm your own beliefs, but to proclaim them to the unbelievers.

All of those signs recite the same creed. All of those signal the same virtues. And, as a wave will drown in the sand, so will all of these signs. But by the time that happens, the beach has changed, people have moved, and the status quo has been shifted to a place where police can’t shoot a woman in her own house and doctors can say more about disease than politicians.

That night, we shared this year’s favorite dinner; corn, tomatoes, grilled red potatoes, swordfish, and key lime pie. After dinner, I stepped back out to the grill to reassure myself, and others, that I had indeed turned off the gas. The Sturgeon Moon shouted out the dark and lit the island blue. Above it, Jupiter reflected its distant light and, somewhere hidden in the moon’s glare, the Perseids meteor shower had begun.

You should never be surprised by the moon.

Articles by Date from 2012