Big fish

You can call me Marlin. Yes, I just saw Finding Dory. I unabashedly admit I am a fan of Pixar and all things undersea. But I’m not referring to the clownfish in that flick. In this musing, I’m conjuring the billfish.

I’ve been trying to figure out why Nantucket is such a powerful force in my life. Like so many, I came here as a child, got the bug, came back and stayed. That might account for some of its pull, the nostalgia — memories of my pet seagull Chris, scalloping with the Orange Street octogenarians, opening a catch with my parents and their Sewickley cronies, raising not one, not two but three dogs here, morphing from a green kid into a working professional on this tiny patch of sand.

Of course, there’s the island’s singular beauty. Even in winter when the world here is simply grey. Sky, shingles, pavement, the cold metallic sea. Even in March when the damp and constant wind are bone-eating, and everything is grey, including the mood of most. But the soul cannot feast on scenery alone. So, what is it about Nantucket?

It’s been a niggling question over the last few days — why my heart is so firmly planted here. Then it dawned on me. Nantucket opened up a stream of opportunities for me, each  worthy of a lifetime’s occupation for those lucky enough to pursue just one and collectively, a tapas bar of experiences that this particular individual lucked into sampling. Just by being young and ambitious and a castaway.

Consider: on Nantucket, I have tried my hand at professional scalloping, both in the shanty and on the boat;  and cleaned the houses of the outrageously rich. I got my start in newspaper work stringing for the Cape Cod Times and then became news director of Channel 3, the local cable TV company, serving as the nightly news anchor. When I needed a job, I could create one — the Nantucket Writers’ Workshop, say, or the newspaper I founded and ran for nearly 20 years. Nantucket also was fodder for my freelancing career, giving me bylines in The New York Times, Boston Magazine and who knows how many other outlets. My hankering to get my feet wet in book writing was jump-started here too, when I stumbled into editing,then revising Building With Nantucket in Mind. Plays I wrote in my spare time found a home and production at the Theatre Workshop, for whom I later worked as artistic director. Once I was even hired to be a wedding photographer.

Each could have been a career in and of itself; each sustaining for an adult lifetime. Take the cable TV job for instance. In the real world, the entertainment industry is a union-driven field. In my two or three years at Channel 3, I leapt to the top of the profession as anchor, delivering the news every night (even if one viewer wrote in and complained that I had marbles in my mouth). Not only did I not have to slog up the ladder, corporate or union, I could cross lines unimaginable elsewhere. I learned how to handle myself in front of and behind the camera; I learned the sound board and all the technical facets of television broadcasting. Even the administrative tasks were not out of bounds. At a small station 30 miles out to sea, we all did everything. All four of us.Where else could I have done all this?

To recognize that on this little island I have worked in television, publishing, journalism, theater, education, photography, commercial fishing and done my share of menial labor is to contemplate a life so rich in diversity and so impossible almost anyplace else, especially for a woman of my era, I have to smile. I needed to recognize this gift Nantucket has given me or die an ingrate. That’s what happened this week: the ding-dong moment.

It goes without saying that I never earned any money. Money simply was never the point. Experience was. And I got it. Lots and lots of it. So now I get it.  Nantucket is a little pond and I got to swim around in it like a marlin. I could be embarrassed to confess as much. But I’m not. There’s a lot to be said for owning what you are.

— Belle Songer


Happy trance

I want someone to do to me what I do to lobsters.

Years ago a young friend named Rachel came to visit me on Nantucket with her brother and her parents. She was about 12 and a budding greenie, though I doubt if she knew it then. Because it was Nantucket and because it was New England, a lobster dinner was a required activity. Rachel looked at the squirming creatures, claws banded, fate sealed, as they scrambled helplessly to free themselves from the kitchen sink. At one point she made the crucial connection between the steaming pot on the stove and the five crustaceans. Her eyes grew wide. The color drained from her face. ‘NO!’ she would have screamed if she had not been well brought up and if she were not also cowed by adults she barely knew. Instead, she swallowed hard and turned away. The line was drawn in the sand: she was not about to watch as we sacrificed them to the boiling water; she was not about to eat the poor little animals she had practically named and adopted in her mind.

Why does my Headspace app fail to hold my attention? Why can a room full of college students fall under the sway of hypnosis, all except one, me? Why am I rejected for biofeedback and other homeopathic stress management techniques? How is it I can rewrite my dreams if I don’t like the direction their taking? Or even go back a night or two later and pick up where I left off if the dream interrupted was an especially compelling one?

I believe the answer is that I have a love affair with consciousness. Since I was a squirt, I hated to think I was missing something. So acute was this malady that it did not matter how excruciatingly boring the ‘something’ was. When I had to go to bed and my older siblings didn’t, I would wait up until they came in and settled down for the night. When a lack of a ready sitter forced my parents to take me along to one of their endless bridge games, even then, when sleep would have been a reprieve, I refused to nod off. To this day I recall how painful the struggle was to keep my eyes open, my head falling off my neck, then jerking upright, only to loll again the moment I let down my guard. Sleep, the enemy. Sleep, the oasis.

Which brings me back to lobsters. We had lobsters for dinner tonight and I demonstrated to some Down Easterners, believe it or not, how to tranquilize the critters, manage their pre-pot stress and reduce their execution anxiety.IMG_1709


In other words, put them in a happy trance, one that is said to damp down the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. That nervous system is not called sympathetic for nothing. It’s what operates the flight/flight response in all organisms; it’s what shoots adrenaline into the blood which, in the case of lobsters, is believed to toughen the meat. Ergo, a relaxed lobsters is a calm lobster, and a calm lobster is a tender one.

So, I’ve been doing this as a kind of dinner party sideshow for years. Do I believe it? Let’s just say I reserve judgment. My young friend Rachel didn’t buy it, not for one second. Our guests this evening did not weigh in with an opinion but they were duly impressed by a counter-full of lobsters in the “Claw Position” (sounds like a yoga pose, doesn’t it?)  and were not shy in their compliments to the chef.

What I can tell you is that this insomniac would welcome such a happy trance. Especially one that lasts seven or eight hours at a stretch. Perfect prep for a swan dive into the roiling pot of everyday adult life.

— Belle Songer




Half mast

Our flags are at half mast. Again. This time for the slaughter in Orlando. Fifteen times since he’s been in office President Obama has had to express the nation’s grief for a mass killing. Fifteen times in eight years.

I shy away from writing about politics because I don’t think I have much new to offer to the discussion. But here I make a rare exception. When the news broke about the shooting in Florida, I turned away from the television thinking to myself, “Oh, not another one.” That, I realized, was the first step in becoming inured. I can’t have that happen. Not to me, not to my country. Repetition is the thief of insult. Experience something often enough and it loses its vigor.

These massacres are so frequent, the very terminology surrounding them is losing its punch. Massacre. Slaughter. Assault weapons. Terrorism. They are on everyone’s tongues, so often they approach cliche. In today’s world, what American schoolchild can’t spell those words?

I can echo the thoughts of countless, powerless millions in this country and around the world — why are assault rifles and semi-automatic guns sold for sport?  When the ‘sport’ they were designed for is assassination. Why do we let the NRA bully us with the Second Amendment? The right to bear arms when conceived by our founding fathers was meant, not for the execution of our neighbors, but to be armed when a militia was needed for the defense of home and country. And to protect property — the odd marauding bear or rabid dog. But I am no more effectual than anyone else, however outraged or grief-stricken or terrified. I am rendered silent, no matter how loud we scream.

Once before in this country, the Silent Majority got its point across. But now why are each and every one of us held at metaphorical gunpoint by spineless politicians who have traded whatever integrity and love of country was behind their initial run for office for whatever it takes to get the votes to stay there? How is it the voices of so many ‘concerned,’ ‘educated,’ and ‘politically active’ Americans demanding gun control are not heard? This new, toothless version of the Silent Majority is profoundly worrying.

So much of what I see in this country today terrifies me:

• The NRA’s ridiculous political clout; its mastery of intimidation.

• The polarized climate in Congress; the human values gone missing in those esteemed halls, of integrity, of honor and of a universal embrace of justice for all people — exactly what the Declaration of Independence dictated; to say nothing of the racism there that has stonewalled a president for two terms.

•The proliferation of hate, as if the work for inclusion has backfired but good. Whatever happened to liberty and justice for all?

•Add to that the success to date of the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States — the candidate of hate and of intimidation, of grudges and walls. It’s impossible not to ask: what is our country coming to if half our citizenry supports a fascist for president?

Yes, those flags are at half mast for Orlando and the half hundred murdered there. But, to my mind, they also are at half mast for America itself. My heart is breaking for our broken country.

— Belle Songer, Flag Day, 2016



Kiss in time

The last lynching of a black man in the United States took place in 1964. But there were many other travesties perpetrated on American blacks in the mid-part of the last century to make it clear that racism was very much alive in this country. Emmett Till was murdered for purportedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. He was fourteen. The slaughter of four little black girls in a Birmingham, AL church happened in 1963. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s saw a surge in the activities of the Klu Klux Klan, not a diminishment.

When Robert Alderson kissed me in 1967 he handed me his life. I was seventeen, he was about seventy-five. It was not a predatory kiss. He took my shoulders in his hands, drew me to him and kissed me passionately, tongue and all, but he never otherwise touched me. I believe he was as surprised by his action as I was. He had to have known the risk he’d taken in that rash, impulsive gesture.  I did not. Not then.

Robert came to work for my family when I was about twelve. He was retired from the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and looking to pick up some extra cash doing yard work. He was unskilled and, I’m pretty sure, all but illiterate, so he was prepared as he’d probably been all his life to do whatever came his way that would bring in a little spare change. He was well recommend to my father and was soon an adored fixture in our family. Hard working and kind-hearted, Robert ended up doing more for us than just work alongside my father around the yard. He bartended at my sister’s wedding (and looked the other way when I, at thirteen, stole a bottle of champagne and proceeded to get rip-snorting’ drunk). He looked after the house when we were out of town. He kept an eye on me and reminded me often that he knew what I’d been up to and so I’d better return to the straight and narrow, pronto.

Robert, time would teach me, had no choice but to let me steal the champagne and to turn a blind eye when I stayed out all night with a boy. I was the white daughter of his white benefactor. He knew the rules and if I complained about him, even if the stories were lies to cover my own bad behavior, it could cost him his job. Or worse.

And my father was his benefactor. When the L&N tried to renege on Robert’s railroad pension because he was making money working for us — albeit only pocket money — my father went to bat for him, taking on the railroad and defending, successfully, Robert’s right to his retirement benefits.

Time would also teach me what history books could not when I was just a teenager — how slavery wasn’t something that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, that Reconstruction only provided different constructs for racism and discrimination, that having the right to vote didn’t mean you were welcome at the polls, that Jim Crow wasn’t a Native American but a decades’ long campaign to denigrate and dehumanize America’s black citizens.

Until this week, I’ve never told a soul about Robert kissing me. Not because I was ashamed. I never was ashamed. Shocked in the moment, yes, but never ashamed. On some level, I knew what he’d done wasn’t ‘right’. But I also knew what I’ve always known: Robert loved me and I loved him. In that pure way that sometimes can overwhelm you with its need for expression. I was about to leave for college and he did what was in his heart, paying no heed to the red light in his mind.

It may have been the most courageous act of his life and certainly was the most dangerous, to put himself at the mercy of a white girl in a society that needed no excuse, no excuse at all, to put him away. Some might think, What a terrible burden for Belle to bear! But it wasn’t. It was just a secret, and a sweet one at that.

— Belle Songer


Dueling angels

Seven hundred fried twenty-somethings staggered off the Nantucket ferry onto the dock in Hyannis yesterday. Fried in every imaginable way. I wanted to hand out sunscreen, an urge that reminded me I’ve grown into my mother.  But it was too late anyway. They were crisped. Red racing stripes running down downy white legs, across the back of necks and making provocative arrows pointing alluring toward cleavage.

They were also fried in another colloquial sense. It was the end of Figawi Weekend, known alternately as Memorial Day Weekend, an event that once-upon-a-time was supposed to be about a sailboat race from Hyannis to Nantucket, a fact lost long ago. The atmospheric ‘fog’ in Figawi (as in ‘where the f__k ah we?’) morphed into a well marinated kind of fog before the first sailor found (bumped into?) Straight Wharf. It’s a party. It’s a brawl. The only thing these legions of foot soldiers on the battlefield of youth were memorializing was the grey cells they’d sacrificed on their parade route from bar to bar.

This year Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, two chiseled specimens of the male species who are icons of the Patriots football team were so out of control at Cisco Brewery, they drew a crowd. The proprietors, being no fools, began to sell tickets to this celeb mayhem. The boys became the entertainment. The word from my spy is that they ran up a $3600 bar bill which said proprietor, being no fool as I’ve mentioned, forgave. After all, you cannot buy that kind of publicity if you own a brew pub. Mentioned on the evening news, as they were. To the boys’ credit, they left the barman a $1000 tip. But was this appreciation for taking over his job and opening the taps? Or do they even remember doing it? It’s a toss up. Or maybe, since today is opening day of football practice, I should say it’s a coin toss. Or maybe, when Coach Belichick is through with them, their little gluts shining as red and sore as those sunburns, we could call it a spanking.

Which brings me back to the beginning and all those baked babes coming off the boat. The matronly angel that hovers permanently by my right ear, feeling smug and judgmental, despairs for their skin and their grey matter and the unruly behavior they visited on Nantucketers well into the wee hours this past weekend. But, TinkerBelle, that mischief maker, who is always buzzing my left ear, sees things differently. She is the patron saint of youth and lost boys. And she is always reining that matronly old buzzard back into line.

“I’ll take a Gronk six pack any day,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “Better youth and beauty, bad judgment and bad hangovers ,than the slippery slope of the moral high ground.”

Yeah, baby. That’s my Tink.

— Belle Songer