This weekend I have had the great fortune to enjoy community on an island off the coast of Washington, directly across from Port Townsend. While much of my time was spent gazing across the sound, listening for the nesting eagles just off the balcony, I still had the chance to see first hand community in action. It would be very tempting to describe island life as charming. To do so would diminish the hard work and intelligence of those building and maintaining community here.
On the island, one decides which way to walk to and from the post office cum general store not so much by distance or traffic, as by who and what you want to see along the way. People don’t just walk past piers, they walk to their edges to see the water, check on the condition of the boats. A man waves from his dingy, a healthy terrier at his side. It takes a moment to realize that this guy who is off to his boat moored in the bay is wearing a tartan kilt. He had come from the store where my old friends stop to drop off their recently read magazines for others to peruse around the wood stove in back.
Shelves in the store boast the largest jar of Nutella on the planet and discount bread. The single staff person on duty welcomes everyone with a smile, calling out their names, and asking, “Who’s this?” in response to seeing a newcomer. The next person in the door jokingly calls out, “I’ll have 14 venti lattes to go!” He grins his tongue in cheek response, “I am working on number 74. Take a number.”
Over the door, a sign suggests, “Join the army to see the world, have adventures, meet new people, and kill them.” Absolutely no one avoids politics here.
Talk in the store turns to a widower whose husband died a few years ago. Straight people and gay repeat their tsks about his condition, shake heads, eyes moist at his still fresh loss. Someone changes the topic to the double rainbow of last night, the symbolism lost on all but me. When my pals and I leave, I have a sense of confidence that talk will continue among those inside, either not about us at all or all about us with respect and fondness. We walk away, and my friends detail what the next several months will involve: the triathalon (technically not one at all, but fun from start to end), Memorial Day family weekend, the heraldic weekend in a nearby town, and the harvest festival. We talked of the reduction in post office hours and the protests that preceeded it.
Drivers give wide berth or get quite close, stopping to say hello, checking to see if we will joining a party later in the day. Someone asks what movies are playing in the nearest town. The postal carrier does not look over as he drives by; everyone knows him to be very shy and agrees that the job is suited to him in every way except he’d prefer to ride his bicycle.
Before we reach our weekend home, the neighbor to the north waves us over. Her handshake is so firm it surprises me. She talks of a fallen tree, a fond memory, an upcoming even. She assures us that her husband is well, though he stumbled recently, clobbering a chicken with his cane in the process. Yes, the remaining hens are fine; their eggs are brown.
In one morning walk on a sparsely populated island, I have witnessed more conversation, more familiarity, more candor, more humor, and more concern than in a week at home where my neighborhood is sometimes called tight knit. What stuck me most during this visit was the effort and consiousness involved in developing and maintaining this island community. Its residents are not operating on the fumes of communities past; they are engaged in community today.