Nantucket Essays

You Don’t Need To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here

by Robert P. Barsanti

The fogs of spring have descended along with the firstĀ  tropical storm of the season. The planes sometimes flew, and the boats sometimes sailed, but the island felt itself cut off again from the mainland. We like it that way. The traffic, the malls, the fast-food-everything but the Hyannis Stop
and Shop circular, we would prefer to leave on the mainland.

Summer arrives early in a teenaged June. It arrives pimply, wet, and shaggy, but it settles in and on those rare days when the blue fingers of fog remain out over the Atlantic and the showers hold off, the island shows you a glimpse of its adult beauty. The trees have filled out with their leaves, the beaches have returned to their summer shapes, and even the roses have begun to climb and bloom.

All sorts of transitions happen in June, or at least recognition of transition. The Seniors were ready to graduate months ago; we are only ready to let them go after Prom and the last pop fly has been caught. All of those couples were ready to be married long before the flowers were chosen, the dress was let out, and the cocktail napkins were monogrammed. Yet, their parents only shove them down the aisle in June. On my way off-island this Sunday, I shared the outdoor chairs on the Hy-Line with six bros who were just recovering from sending one of the frat off into the unknown perils of marital bliss. In deep fog and blustery cold, they sat with headphones, sunglasses, shorts, and matching tribal tattoos. It’s a hard life for a bro in June.

It’s just as hard for a bro at high school graduation. Legends are made at the prom party, embellished during Seniors week, and carved into ice at Senior Ball. Then, spring comes, the ice melts, the tassel swings to the other side and it is all over in a flurry of mud, sand, and empty cans. Over the course of July and August, everyone drifts away and you are left, the oldest kid at the skate park.

We are told how important college is. In North Carolina, President Obama said that the unemployment rate for college graduates is half that of high school graduates; that college graduates have twice the income of noncollege grads. In “today’s economy,” you need a college degree but “today’s economy” doesn’t quite break through the fog to come to our island. For every five unemployed college graduates, we can find one over employed plumber or landscaper. In one of June’s papers, they will list the graduates with their plans for next year. This year has a remarkable list of colleges; Stanford, Dartmouth, Princeton, and a raft of others that would sit well on the bumper sticker. But alongside those lofty names, are a series of other names that are either traveling or working. Finally, several are still “undecided.”

Every Nantucket diploma should have, inscribed on the cover, the time-honored bartender’s cry: “You don’t need to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Every year, a group of seniors hunker down and wait for time to pass over them like a wave. They fail their senior classes, skip a month of school and wait for everything to return to eighth grade. Then, when the wave passes, they can pop back up unchanged. We always want to stand still and freeze time. There’s a bed, there’s a refrigerator, there are still a few friends, and the fading echoes of your last triumphs. But, staying on Nantucket locks a young person into the not-uncomfortable yesterday. No one ever forgets who you were, nor will they let you forget. You can keep the same job, do the same work, hang out, and wait. You wait for the business, for the clients, for the weekend and then the world changes and flicks you off into Fitchburg and Leominster.

On the other hand, travel and college take you away from the ice cream and beach parties of the island, and puts you amid ignorant faces and strange voices. When you’re in Chicago, no one knows who your parents were, where you used to live, or what Wing Night was. In the city, the night is yellow and it buzzes. Cars and trucks announce the dawn. In college, you learn quickly what you can’t do. You can’t learn German, you can’t putter through accounting, and you can’t crank out an essay at midnight in the student lounge. Your limitations focus you into the work that you can do. Failures educate.

Further, you learn the way of the stranger. He doesn’t look you in the eyes, he doesn’t call attention, and he keeps to himself unless he is needed. No one on this bus is going to tell your parents that you are crying. No one in this taxi will tell your parents where you are going. No one in this party is going to help you get home. Which will make that moment at three on a winter morning, in Waterville, Maine all the sweeter when two strangers take you into their car, cash your check for you, and help you onto the bus. Because there was no other way.

James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wrote that the “way to Tara is through Holyhead.” Tara was the Irish paradise, but that the only way to get to that paradise is through Ireland’s main port, Holyhead. You had to go away, in order to come back.

So it is with the island. To understand why so many people will hurl thousands of dollars in order to spend two weeks in a damp and dripping cottage with sand in the sheets and mildew in closets, you have to know what the lights look like before dawn along the I-635 in Denton, Texas. In order to appreciate the friendly nods and waves on the ferry, you need remember the indifference and silence of the subway. In order to see the treasure, you have to look at the trash.

Nantucket never changes. It will always be 25 miles out to sea, surrounded by warm waters and fog. We will still be here when you come back and you know this place, finally, for the first time.