Nantucket Essays

The Currents of Time

by Robert P. Barsanti

The lilacs have bloomed. The purples colonies of flowers dip down into the sunlight, and suffer the ministrations of the bees. If the wind isn’t blowing from the east, the heavy drift of their scent washes through the windows and pools up in the air.

I don’t know much about flowers and bushes. I suspect lilacs are activated by sunlight and not necessarily warmth. In this new climate we are wearing, the air hasn’t been all that warm this spring, but the fog has been a bit lighter. Either way, our lilacs have received the correct biological stimulus and they have dropped and hung their weights of flowers.

In the exuberance of youth, we planted these bushes. We were celebrating children, and then we kept celebrating with a few more bushes. Before the lilacs, the property had been bordered by rosa rugosa. Those red flowers bloom with hardy strength and humble colors, along with thorns. Hardy, humble, and thorny are the appropriate markers for successful marriage, but we would rather celebrate the pendulous fertility of smelly purple flowers. And here they are.

Our children have grown and aged, as have the lilacs. A small bush that could fit into a pot and sit in the back seat of a Jeep Wrangler has crept both skyward and earthward into a thick knot of life that would overfill the backseat and the car, if we could even fit the plants in. Those flowers come back every year, just about at Memorial Day, along with Figawi, graduation, visitors, and the hope for the Red Sox.

So much of my affection for our island comes from this impassive repetition. The lilacs will bloom every June, the sailboats will come, and the tennis courts will fill. We are an island in the currents of time. On the mainland, malls transform from stores to hospitals, skyscrapers fill and empty, and new streets worm their way into the landscape. Out here, the calendar seems to freeze in an eternal June, with fog, chill, and the vulgar smell of blooming flowers.

In June, visitors come out to check their bearings. Off-island, snow and ice have taken away the beloved maples, the economy has moved our neighbors to North Carolina, and a hedge fund has decided we really want to buy frozen yogurt instead of a Fribble. But, off the boat, visitors go to their favorite beach and find it the same, the moors have not changed more than a little growth, and the winking “Brownie A La Mode” remains on the menu. God remains in a waffle cone.

Islanders have similar touchstones, be they locations, people, or food. Last week, in the celebration of a birthday without a number, we ate in a timeless restaurant. I ordered the same “Steak Frites” I had been eating since I moved to the island, with the same bernaise sauce and truffle fries. Dinner ended with coffee and a chocolate pot du creme. We knew the waiters and the bartenders, they knew us and we walked out under the fog and in the benediction of time.

In addition to lilacs and bernaise sauce, this season also brings graduation. At the high school, the days pick up velocity. They march by at the same pace, dribbling on through the spring when jobs, futures, colleges have all been decided but for the awards. Graduation exerts its rampant gravitational pull, tugging the young people through exams, proms, yearbooks, caps and gowns. “Here, honey, let us take a picture of you in this one last moment…”

Of course, graduations are all the same, year to year, decade to decade, century to century. The kids put on a gown from the middle ages and follow the dance steps that everyone else danced before them.

I attended one of the boy’s graduations this spring. It was not all that different from his graduation from Lighthouse or Nantucket High. Under a cloudless and fogless sky, the paying audience heated and burned. But on stage and under the mortar boards, the same events passed as have passed for centuries. Words washed over the young, followed by a “shake with the right, take with the left” then lunch, followed by more photographs.

After that costumed, accustomed, and ceremonial timeless moment, time came swirling about them in the growing heat of a Vermont afternoon. The college wanted them moved out by 11 p.m. Diplomas and canes were packed into cars, along with comforters, plants, and the posters that made Room 223 their homes. Then their community burst; the calendar’s velocity tore them from each other and back into the future.

Their future has the usual monumental problems. The climate is warming. AI has challenged the value of all of their expensive educations. Phones, Instagram, and LinkedIn freeze us in an endorphin fueled doom spiral where we aren’t thin enough or rich enough. We can never get enough likes. This generation will marry later, have children later, and carry student loans on their backs like loads of bricks. They are more anxious, more lonely, and more accomplished than any previous generation.

The winds have brought the graduate back to the Island That Time Forgot, with its ice cream, beaches, and cobblestones. He knocks about in his room. His former tribe has ridden on the winds to other meadows and other lawns. He grieves them. I feel the same: I miss the community of my college, the late nights on the floor of Hepburn, the mornings in Voter Hall, the drives along the shore of Lake Champlain, deafened by frogs. Forty years and thousands of miles later, I still drink in the early morning orange juice and the Dvorak of an early summer morning in Vermont.

For all of the timeless illusions of Nantucket, from the cobblestones to the waves, we live in the sandy velocity of sun and soil. Our charge, and the ones for our children, are not to freeze in the past but to creep into the future. Our roots will dig deep, our branches will spread, and our flowers, iridescent and stinky, spread our scent into the wind. We don’t live for yesterday, but for tomorrow.

Articles by Date from 2012