2021 Phot Contest, Sandra McKeehan, Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Essays

The Sand Is Shifting

by Robert P. Barsanti

The sands are shifting in October. The cars depart downtown early, leaving the sidewalks to the leaves and gulls. The visitors still come to the beaches, and, on particularly warm afternoons when the sky is Canadian blue and the water rolls, the islanders will venture out for another visit. But that stretch of Nobadeer that had so many towels and bodies and surfboards lies empty. Your footsteps will stay for days.

The stores are closing, of course. In particular, restaurants are closing up for the season and longer. They are being sold off to investment firms and private clubs, with one last dinner for the old staff who moved out here way back when and for the friends and for those long time guests who tipped well and are remembered. The quaint market inefficiencies of Nantucket have been disrupted by the modern world. We no longer have enough beds, work permits, or patience. So they close and sell to the highest bidder. Money will out; some will say it has always been this way.

The gray square toes of winter step to us on the horizon. We shut the windows at night (save the bedroom). The bushes get cut back, the school buses are running (mostly), and the neighbors have left. The autumn has its own colors: the moors are red and the meadows are purple. Like a sunset, the island is burning dimly into the gray of winter.

Other changes wash around us. Wedding season migrated from the cold and foggy mornings in May to the bright and warm Saturdays in the fall. The restaurants close for “a private event” on Fridays and Saturdays while all of the wild young ones come over on the Friday boat, then struggle off with “Friend of the Bride” t-shirts on Sunday. On some of the weekends, forty or more weddings will commence and send out new couples and new families into the world. The couples find beautiful corners of the island, then fence them off for their special day. All you need is the money.

If you have lived on Nantucket long enough, the seasonal sand shift reels in three quarters time. Each weekend strikes a new turn of the dance, spinning us through the marital fall and into the quiet winter. I don’t dance, it is my sin. I stand, resolute to time and tide, and watch the dancers fade into November. Change comes to other people. They buy and sell, they arrive and leave, they reel about the floor while I get to stand against the wall and watch them. But that is my sin. I am also dancing, just not as well. Even if I stand against the wall, the bass player keeps hitting that beat and the sand still shifts under my feet.

I restarted a correspondence with an old friend who knew me in my very first years on-island, back when Hector was a pup. The years had heaped up like old newspapers: a couple of years became thirty-five stacks tied together in twine. I am not sure what I have to mark all of those years while I stood against the wall and watched the dancers spin. A builder can drive along a street and point to the houses he built; perhaps, as Bruce Killen did, he left a signature in the cedar. An artist can point to a mural, a hedge funder can point to his Forbes position, even a plumber can point out the toilets he unclogged.

Moreover, for my old friend, the last five years have been active, with marches and signs and protests. Bullhorns, flags, signatures, and worn sneakers have marked those years. The last election brought the right president and the wrong senator—the fight continues. And what had I done in the war?

I could point to the odd porch roof and step that I had helped fix, but I don’t know if that would really count. I wrote some essays, and I raised some kids, and I did a little bit to clean my own backyard. But I had not marched in Washington, I had not occupied Wall Street, I had not even given a speech in favor of rights, justice, or peace. All I did was teach Moby-Dick and Huck Finn, correct some spelling and punctuation, then proofread the graduation speeches. My graduates have spread to the wind.

But some come back.

If I have taught anything over the last thirty-five years, it has been troublemaking. I teach them to speak up, listen sharp, and stand up to be counted. If someone is angry with you, you must be doing something right. So, when the current chair of the Conservation Committee started reading the agreements and causing trouble, it did my heart good to recognize her name. There she was, against the realtors, and the lawyers, and the bankers, and all of the “Let’s Just Take It Easy There, Little Miss” folks who don’t want the hedge funders mad at them. And as those old gray heads railed at her, she stood firm, with their agreement rolled up in one hand and the other in a fist.

I had a hand in that. Not a big one, not even an important one, but my name is on the transcript. I read the essays, graded the discussion, and pushed a bit; not a lot. But when I think back on one thing that I have done in thirtyfive years, its that I helped raise some good trouble.

Because the sand is indeed shifting; my age is ending. The town fathers are retiring to the bench by the Pacific Bank, while rising generations stand forth. We have left them with a mess: the ocean is warming, the homes are going into portfolios, and doctors can’t afford to live here anymore.

But if the young can keep throwing sand as she is, the island may make its way into some good trouble.

Articles by Date from 2012