Shelter Island is brimming with the colors of autumn. The trees are surrendering their leaves eagerly, and gold and crimson paint the landscape against a still-green grass. Needless to say, I am mesmerized by it, caught up in an awe that leaves me wandering around the island – quite literally – as though I’ve been transported into a dream, a surreal landscape of colors made only in the movies. Now that the summer residents have vacated, the island emptier and quiet, there’s a kind of freedom to everything, and watching the leaves fall doesn’t tell, as autumn often does, of the impending winter with all the deadened silence it promises. Instead, there’s the sense that the leaves are just doing what it’s time for them to do and are glad that now is their time. Even the trees that are already bare don’t seem cold and sad to me the way they did in other climes. Here, it just feels so much more like a kind of invitation, as though they’ve shed their heavy fur to better stretch out and feel the breeze against their naked skin. And this process is happening all around me at once. It’s as if the breeze has whispered to them all, “Now, now! Become light!” And to be in the midst of it is thrilling and humbling.
I started drinking my mother’s Russian tea again and am eager to carve pumpkins and warm up some apple cider. The cooler air doesn’t yet freeze: it just invites other reasons to bring about more warmth in other ways. As I’ve taken to exploring more of the island, I’ve wanted to see every tree I could and feel and smell the sea-breeze anywhere it might blow. And it’s lead me down some interesting paths:
One such path, in fact, has been to venture to estate sales on the island, and this past weekend took me to a four-story house overlooking the Heights. From the top floor, you could see the little peninsula – Jennings Point – where I live and beyond it all the way to the edge of the North Shore where Long Island Sound stretches to Connecticut. Strangely, I was more taken with the views from the house and with the house itself than I was with what was in it, but everything was for sale. I guess that should be obvious given that it was an estate sale, but I’d never been to one, and it felt sudden and intense like the changing leaves. Just somehow sadder.
Nothing had been moved. It all sat exactly where it had been when it was last used (some of which may have been a very long time), and the only difference was that a tag had been added claiming what it was believed to be worth in dollar amount and not in sentimental value. I wondered whether estate sales were ever happy events? Wasn’t the natural conclusion that someone had died? And so much of their stuff, the things they’d held dear perhaps, was now just a reason for someone to make money to be able to buy more stuff or pay off what was already owed. The words of the Teacher, that “everything under the sun is meaningless” (Ecc. 1:14) were on my tongue but were held within. Outside the leaves were still rushing to the ground to make a happy, final journey, and I hoped much of this story and the many stories the stuff therein lent to an equally happy end.
But as I wandered around peering into room after room, I realized that without those stories, the stuff felt flat to me. I kept thinking that if someone told me about the grandfather who carved the wooden giraffe in the corner, I’d just have to have it. Or if I overheard a conversation about the old trunk in the middle of the room, I’d long for it, too. A few months ago on my first yard-sale outing, I came across something that looked like a clock but one that counted high tide and low tide instead of time, and as I looked it over, a gentleman in his 70s smiled and said that he’d made it himself, carved the wood by hand. It wasn’t pride that he spoke; just the assurance and hope he conveyed that something handmade would have the right home. I smiled back and told him that my grandfather had done a lot of woodwork, too, and I bought the little clock on the spot. Stories extend the impermanent; the better the story, the longer the permanence of a thing will last.
All of that is to say, my mind lately is so heavily-focused on things that last amid major change, on the movement from old to new and seasons doing what they must. But how can you tell a leaf from a tree if they had the same roots? How can you know what of the past isn’t just a dusty tradition but is something that belongs?
I am not from New York, and this is something my southern drawl, faint though it is, reminds me and my coworkers of daily. And yet, I pride myself on the little accomplishments – on learning how to correctly pronounce “Lawn Guyland” and maintain that pronunciation each time I say it. For as much of a belonging as I feel I have gained here already, there’s still much acclimation I have ahead of me, acclimation borne in the task of determining what belongs and who I am to make that call. My job right now, in fact, is deeply tied to this question as I prepare a new season of camp, one that will impact some 700 people directly and countless others along the way.
Part of being so “new” to a place is to learn how to dissect, understand, and respect the cultural differences of that place and how you either fit into it – or don’t. And, along with that, what to do when the fit doesn’t happen as nicely as you might wish it did. As a Peace Corps volunteer, the first six to nine months of my life in Morocco were devoted almost entirely to this aim, the process of adjustment, and so it’s interesting that in a culture where I speak the same language, eat pretty much the same food, and share the same nationality, I can still find myself needing to “adjust” to a different kind of culture shock, the kind where, say, a four-story mansion leaves me feeling likes the leaves rushing to the ground outside but still wanting to know what my place is in waltzing about ooing and aahing at the beautiful view. Peering across the Peconic Sound at my home from a mansion in the Heights was eye-opening to say the least —
I have come to feel strongly that in order to do my best job, to be my best self, I have to have a very clear understanding of the vision that’s been laid before me. It’s important to me how I worded that, too. Note that I didn’t say “my vision,” though I hope to shape the one that’s long been a part of this place. To have vision is more than merely peering selfishly into the future to foretell the best possible outcome or how to get there. It requires understanding the past in all its flaws and with all its greatest triumphs. And in looking backward and forward together it requires remembrance, something that is markedly different from simply “remembering,” which is a cerebral process, but remembrance is instead an action, if not even a kind of ritual that moves from the cerebral recalling of a narrative toward the acting it out. Vision takes the “stuff” cluttering our homes and hears the old stories, but, instead of leaving the stuff to gather dust, picks it all back up again and makes a space for new stories to stand alongside it. That is, vision is wholly utilitarian. And it requires community. A vision for yourself is dead. It’s not merely a fallen leaf. Those grow back or replenish the ground. Vision without community is dead at its roots. Vision with community knows how to decipher the leaves from the trees. It celebrates change not as an end but as part of the regrowth process. But not every leaf will understand that’s what’s happening as it falls or will grasp the beauty of the process, and that’s why change is sometimes so much harder than it should be; that’s why vision, which includes change, demands seeing the whole picture: not merely the leaf but the tree; not merely the tree but the ground and the roots below; not merely the roots of one tree but of the many they’re connected to; not merely the many root systems but the whole of the forest and its ecosystem.
Walking around the little downtown of Shelter Island Heights, I ended up in Dering Harbor just off Bridge Street on the 114 between the North and South ferries. A car pulled up and the window rolled down, “Can you tell me how to get to the ferry?” someone asked. I pointed them in the direction and assured them they were on the right road. Another car. Same question. And another. Somehow just walking down the street, I joked to myself, I must look like a native. I must seem like I know where I am and what I’m doing. I don’t. None of us really do. Even when we are natives to an area. But I’m gaining the ability slowly but surely to look back and know where the roads I’ve traveled lead. I’m looking forward and pointing out the best route I know for now. Isn’t that all any of us can ever really do? At least until the time comes that, we too, will happily fall from the tree to replenish the ground, and the whole season will celebrate what’s come before and what’s coming after.