Monday, September 24, 2012

Islands

For those of you who know me well, this will come as a surprise, but I've been having trouble lately finding things to write about. Crazy, right? Can you imagine? A writer's block, I suppose you could say. But it happens. To everyone, even those of us who are unusually verbose. And I can't say it's because there's so much going on. Most of the time this isn't true. In fact, I've been finding myself rather dull-witted in very part of life. Beve calls and asks what I've been up to all day, and I can't think of a single thing, though the day passed one way or another. Thankfully, tomorrow I see my neurologist who may be able to help determine whether there's a medical or pharmacological reason for this unremitting fog in which I've been dwelling for the last month.

In the meantime, I press on.

My baby brother (who is old enough that I really should stop calling him that, but that's the breaks, BB) moved to an island last month, San Juan Island of the group of islands in Washington state also called The San Juans. In a very quick, the-nick-of-time, God-ordained decision he took a high school science job out there, flew back to Massachusetts, and drove his life across the country with our daughter, E, along to help drive. They made the made dash in 3 1/2 blurry days, and he drove onto the ferry to San Juan Island less than 48 hours later to begin a new life.

I love islands. Really love them. I love that (at least in my experience) they are only reached via ferry, and, once there, a person is stuck, at least for a time. It makes going and being and living on an island an entirely different thing than on the mainland. Intentional, I suppose. Planned and thought about. Not taken for granted. So something emerges that can be sweet and rich. It might be called Koinonia. Fellowship. Community.

San Juan isn't the first island in BB's life. Nor the first island in the history of our family, for that matter. When our ancestors landed on the rugged shores of this 'new world,' they set up shop--a fur trading company--on an island in what is now Boston Harbor. My mother (and therefore BB, my siblings and I) are direct descendants of the man for whom that island is named, David Thompson.


Four hundred years later, my Thompson grandfather, Chief, took his family to two different islands as he was posted in the Pacific as a radio man in the US Navy. Mom spent two years of her life out in the Pacific Ocean in the Hawaiian Islands well before it was a state (which begs the question--would a person who was born in one of our territories, like Hawaii before 1959, be eligible to be president? Just wondering...;)). She didn't remember much about living in Honolulu, but definitely remembered the next island she lived on, which was Tatoosh, a tiny island 1/5 a mile off the NW coast of Washington State (making it the most western point of the contiguous forty-eight states. And when I say tiny I mean minuscule, about 17 acres. These days it's protected land for birds, housing only the famous Point Flattery Light House, but back in the 30s, when mom was a child, it was a naval station where about 12 families lived on its barren top.
This is what it looked like about the time Mom and her family lived out there. Pretty barren, right?

About a decade later, my dad's parents were spending what seemed like an exorbitant amount of money to buy a vacation place on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. I'm talking break the bank kind of money. Like 1500 dollars or there about. It was a real stretch for this University professor and family. But they did it. And for their stretched-too-thin money, they got 15 acres which included a gorgeous meadow full of apple trees, high banked beach, two room farm house with no running water or electricity, barn, chicken coop and all freedom one could ask for. AND what would become the hub of a family for going on five generations now.

In the kind of symmetry I've come to appreciate about God, BB was born on this very island about 25 years after my grandparents first bought the place. The very first 'home' he came to was this one, the first bath my mother gave him was in the old white square tub used to wash dishes and babies alike--including every single grandchild and great-grandchild who's spent a night in under these eaves. You can't tell looking what this island place looks like, but I can smell it as I write. It has the smell of baking bread and forest and rain on the grass and salt water on the skin.  It has the smell of community.

But then, each of these islands in my families history has meant community to those who lived there. David Thompson, the fur trader, like Abraham, like Moses, left a settled life in Plymouth, England, ventured to an unknown future and found community on an island as he set up the first trading companies in New England. My mother's dad, who was gregarious and expansive, larger than life even in his 6'4" frame, found community wherever he went, and the navy served his purpose very well. But his daughter, also tall, was less gregarious. Formed by the constant upheaval of following her father's ports of call, she never felt at home until she found community on the top of an isolated island with a small crowd of people who knew and accepted and gave her space to grow. It was there that her life's desire to teach took root, a desire that was the last thing to leave when Alzheimer's began holing up in her brain. And our island place has made us a family when we might otherwise have drifted apart. I am conscious of strong differences when I'm around my cousins--differences in interests and faith. But there's community between us, shared stories and history lived together.  Whidbey Island is a long, lean island, with several towns and a highway running down the middle, but to our family, these acres on the south west side are the place we call Whidbey.

I could write of Vashon Island, where my mother first taught elementary school as a University of Washington graduate at the grand old age of 19, living out the dream she'd had since those isolated days to the west on Tatoosh, experiencing a different kind of community fulfilling what she was surely made to do with her people group--children. And of Chichogof Island in the panhandle of Alaska where the tiny Tlinget town of Hoonah lies. Beve, our children and I learned about community in the form of short term mission trips with high school students. It was community both rich and difficult. 42 high school students, six adults and 6 small children in a church with no showers, two toilets and only a small kitchen is gutty community. And living among people who eke out their lives as the Tlinget have for generations before we were a glimmer on this continent was a revelation. Those three summers changed us, changed our children, gave us family while we were at work and prayer and table together. And I could write of Galiano Island, part of what is known as the Gulf Islands off Vancouver Island in British Columbia. During my years in seminary, Galiano became synonymous with community for us. There in the cedar-sided house overlooking a bay, my favorite professor brought classes to learn more about the word Koinonia--fellowship, community--than one can ever learn sitting in straight-backed chairs in a classroom. We were privileged, by virtue of my unique-- and yes, privileged--relationship with him (and his brilliant straight-spoken wife) to spend more than our share of time in that home. Cooking together in the kitchen, serving others, eating and sitting around a table. It may have been the best of all the islands of my life.

So my BB has moved to another island. Full circle from his birth. Or from our ancestors, I suppose. And across the continent from where a community splintered and hurt him. From where he was excluded from what should have been his closest community. But on this island he now calls home, he's already beginning to find what he lost. He's been welcomed in like he was always headed there, like he was what was missing, who they'd been waiting for. I watch him emerge, listen to his voice take on the lighter cadence I recognize as his true self. And am reminded again of how islands can form Koinonia.

"No man is an island," the old quote goes. But perhaps, every man and every woman could do no better than to dwell for a time on an island. And discover community.

2 comments:

Elle said...

I think community is rather easier to find on your islands, since they're relatively bigger and better populated on that side of the world. Here, the only community on an island is the community of seagulls and seals. Hmm, maybe the lack of community is why I like to leave this country!

Pamela M. Steiner said...

I enjoyed learning about your family history and island stories. This was fascinating! For someone having difficulty writing, you sure said a lot! LOL! And it was all good.
I'll be praying for you as you visit your Dr. about other issues. Praying that the "fog" will soon lift. I understand. Been operating in a bit of a fog lately myself. Exasperating! But sometimes we just need to "Be still and Know that I am God',and let Him guide our thoughts and words. Sometimes He just wants us to be silent for a while and let Him refuel us. But this was good.