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


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