What it Means to Know a Place, or Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

For the past month, when I’ve been driving around, I’ve had the radio on “scan” just trying my hardest to get a feel for what Long Island and Connecticut (since we pick up some of those stations) have to offer. I’m fairly certain at this point that there’s some kind of unstated rule where every station has a Billy Joel quota to meet. But aside from that, Long Island radio is what I imagine would happen if a few of Nashville and Memphis’s best radio stations got together and said, “Let’s make it impossible to find awful music in this area.” I mean, I have to say, I have not been disappointed. Even the public radio station out of Southampton – WPPB – has to be one of the most impressive radio stations I’ve ever heard.

BikeySo, earlier today, I folded up my bike (cause it does that), hopped into a friend’s Honda Fit, threw on a pair of silly sunglasses, and took the ferry to Greenport. Sidenote: There’s this magic thing that happens the very moment you cross the ferry where a huge sense of relief comes over you, and you realize that you’ve been “water-locked” for the past however long it’s been since you left the island, and now that you’ve escaped, the possibilities feel endless. Maybe it’s some kind of cabin fever, since an island is basically just a big anchored boat. I haven’t figured out what it is about the ferries or the island that make it feel like this exactly. Although, yesterday, I overheard a conversation that went something like, “Oh yeah, I was biking down Nordstrand Avenue, and it just ends. I didn’t realize it would just end like that,” and then someone else interjected, “I mean, it’s an island; pretty much all roads on this rock are going to do that.” Fair point. It reminds me a little of the weeks on end in Morocco where I hadn’t left my village for a long time, and then the moment you got into a taxi to head to the capital or anywhere really, this excitement inevitably came over you.

So, I’m cruising off the ferry, listening to Long Island Public Radio, and this George Harrison song I’d somehow never heard comes on, and all I could think was that you never really know a place until you have come to know its radio stations. And I started to think about how quickly Long Island has become my home. In just a short two months, I’ve driven through the City and back more times than I care to count, learned the names of all the places out here that end in “-ogue” (though I’m still not sure how to pronounce them all, and it even seems they don’t all have the same pronunciation). And I’ve finally reached that point where I’m not using my GPS anymore to get to the places I need to go – both on and off the island.

All that is to say, there’s an ownership in knowledge. A friend made fun of me on Facebook for referring to Shelter Island as “my island,” but the more I’ve come to know the place, the more that’s exactly what it is. There were times in Morocco where I distinctly remember thinking, “This is Morocco, and don’t you forget it. Don’t you let this place ever lose its newness. Don’t let the desert become your normal. Don’t get bored of looking at camels. Don’t take it for granted,” but as I came to know it and grew frustrated with sandstorms and the struggle of Arabic and the slowness of time, and as that all became my work and my life, it was only when someone new showed up that I was reminded to see it as new again, through fresh eyes. In a manner of speaking, the same is slowly happening with Shelter Island. As I come to know the place, the love of it grows and fades together. To learn about the islands history with slavery, to see it as a cushion of continued white wealth, to hear some residents use “summer” as a verb, I’m made painfully aware of what lies beneath the pristine little pearl of the Peconic. And yet, for the frustrations that pop up the more I learn about the place, I find that I love it anyway. I love it in spite of the things I don’t like. I love it, in some ways, SHAbecause of the things I don’t like, and there’s a part of me that feels like that’s an important way to love. We’re a society that wants so badly to toss away, to ignore, to forget all the ugliness of our history, of ourselves, whether that’s over a flag or statues or celebrating that “love wins” eager to move beyond the ways in which love is very much still losing in some places. It would serve us well to love more “complexly.” It would do us good to acknowledge that the “better angels of our nature” don’t render the rest of our nature devils. Or when the devil within is what we choose to see, that we would see it more fully, that we would see the whole self and not merely the part we love or the part we hate. That task is not easy. Most of us, often myself included, would rather just flip on the radio and get lost in the music.

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