This week there was a fog that covered Shelter Island for an entire day. It was light enough that standing in the middle of it, the warm colors of the autumn leaves blurred together a little like the yellows and reds of a Van Gogh. The distant trees on a small hill could’ve been any mountain in the Smokies of East Tennessee. Or, that is to say, had the fog been a little thicker, I might’ve questioned what world I’d woken up in. Forty feet out into the Peconic, there wasn’t a bay anymore. There wasn’t the sight of the North Fork I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these past few months. There wasn’t even any water. Just a white, endless haze lingering for what seemed forever. Haunting. Beautiful. And unlike every low-hanging cloud I’ve ever experienced in my life, this one didn’t lift.
On Tuesday, scallop season opened, and as luck would have it, I had a free ticket (worth some $22) to a local 41st annual scallop dinner. As I’d never had scallops before, this seemed like the right way to be introduced to them: caught that very day there in the waters by my home. The dinner – hosted by a church in Cutchogue – was so well-attended that there were three seatings over the course of four hours, and I heard-tell of people traveling as far as two hours to come to the meal. One couple at our table, in fact, had driven around from the South Fork (or, perhaps making their meal a $60 meal, taken the two ferries through Shelter Island) to get there.
The dinner conversation was pretty standard for what you might expect being seated with strangers. You know, the usual questions people ask you about what you do and where you live, the best ways to prepare scallops, etc. A woman across the table, on hearing about life on Shelter Island, asked about the local post office, casually dropping the name of the Postmaster (who is really quite wonderful). [As no mail is delivered on Shelter Island, the Post Office becomes a kind of hub for islanders to meet-and-greet and gab on about the weather or whatever else, and though I’ve only introduced myself to my Postmaster once, she has remembered not only my name but my P.O. Box, as well. And that makes the place feel incredibly warm and inviting.] It wasn’t until the end of the meal that the woman inquiring about the Postmaster revealed that, in fact, the Postmaster was her daughter.
At another point in the meal, having said that I lived in Morocco for awhile before moving to New York, a woman sitting next to me mentioned that you can pick up Ras Al-Hanut, a Moroccan spice, at the Love Lane Market in Mattituck, and the gentleman across from her mentioned that he’d lived in Morocco working at Port Lyautey at the Naval Air Station there in the early 1950s and that a friend of his had been a Flight Mechanic in Casablanca during World War II. Small world: so was my grandfather. Another couple yammered on about how bad this winter might be, yet another about how much the East End has changed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.
Stories. All of them containing pivotal little moments – when someone’s daughter became the Postmaster or when someone found themselves on African soil or when there was the one winter way back when no one has ever forgotten. Those were the stories being told. Within them, I knew, a thousand layers, not only to what was told but to how it was told, to what was left out, to what had been forgotten or intentionally kept quiet be it momentarily or forever. Lately, I’ve been painfully aware of the way our lives are constructed by the stories we tell, even the brief ones to strangers over a warm meal. And I’ve been painfully aware of what’s contained within those stories: the hellos and the goodbyes, the questions of roads not taken or frustrations over the ones that were. And we seem desperate, clinging in a way to determine what our story should say or how it should be told – the thousands upon thousands of decisions that could make or break our story, whatever we wanted it to be. More than that, we sometimes seem so caught up in the book cover or in how well it could sell that we don’t actually just live it and see where it goes.
But that’s all because it comes back to the fog. We’re plagued by that fog more than anything else. The one that some day may not lift. We’re plagued by the questions that arise in it, by the unfamiliarity of it, by how hard it is to find anyone else – let alone ourselves – out there in the haunting yet beautiful abyss. The questions of the fog cripple us from living our story. But the thing is, the ferry still runs in the fog. In the distance, you can hear the foghorns, the bells tolling, the gongs striking. The little birds you couldn’t see through that white haze you could nevertheless hear playing, fishing, flapping their wings unconcerned over the lack of visibility. The fish rippled through the waters, their world unaffected. And those of us upon finding ourselves in the middle of the fog kept on walking discovering the beautiful autumn leaves were still very much visible – that right here, right now, right where you are trudging forward without seeing perfectly clearly what’s ahead and that might still be good enough. There might yet be plenty of beauty in that. We might find ourselves as someone else’s foghorn or playful bird or unconcerned fish. We might find that we can, in fact, embrace the fog and live to tell the story after all. And if not? Well, at least the scallops were fresh.