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I'm not crying... it's the onions!

  • Written by James Shuman Carroll
  • Published in Shu's Views

We knew the day would come sooner or later. We were never really family. Which is not to say that we weren't treated well and always made to feel welcome and appreciated. Still, we knew that no matter how much we grew in the community, we would never penetrate the layers of its structure and history. How could we? That is not the cause of the tears.

The community you share is as unique and distinctive and potent and occasionally painful as an onion. Each of you lives on several different "layers" of that onion, and a few of you exist on almost all of them. At the very center core are the "old families" - the names on the roads and the farms and the buildings that have "always been here" in the minds of the residents of the last century; the names that are popping into your mind as you read that line. Surrounding that layer are the generations and "communities" that developed over years of growth; layers that have more to do with function or location than with longevity and history.

There are farmers and fishermen, ranchers and boat builders, tradesmen and artists - "layers" that cross generations of families and important periods of island history. Their unique roles still play a part in how these individuals define themselves and perceive their place. These are the historic engines of economy that have kept some people here, and have also sent others away, seeking more or different opportunities. They were here before the tourists.

Overlying and sometimes permeating these are the differing layers of permanence and socio-economic importance. There are core layers composed of generations of family business and/or property earned over time with the clichéd but invaluable "blood, sweat, and tears." These unwittingly jockey for prominence with recent but influential layers composed of powerful injections of "foreign investment" which are characterized by prime acquisitions. (California is still a foreign country, right?) It seems that at this time in America you are defined by what you own, whether the capital is lore or lucre. Like many others we are a community of haves and have-nots, and we are also a community, much more uniquely, of permanents and part-timers.

Our geography creates yet more layers, from Roche Harbor to the Cape. It may be a small community, but that's still a haul on foot! And we haven't even gotten our feet wet yet! Climb any number of high places and see the "outliers": Pearl, Henry, Brown and our other step-children, and then beyond to our strange cousins on Orcas or Lopez, or even Shaw.

As Hollie and I pick at our thin outer layers and appreciate our time here we know and accept that we were never "islanders". We always knew that would take more time than we had to spend. We also knew that in many cases it is a layer-label that is never earned, regardless of time. But we were year-rounders, which let us belong to the group that endures the gray and wet and wind and cold together; the group who knows what town looks like on the other 250 nights of the year. A group that recognizes that sometimes getting home is not just inconvenient, but potentially dangerous. We will miss belonging to that hardy family.

We will miss our Brown Island family - our micro-onion with its own layers of history and permanence, prominence and influence. The special bond that hauling trash or groceries or a bicycle or just about anything else on or off in a 13' boston whaler creates. I remember the first two "rules" of life on this island that a neighbor shared with me: 1) "Wet stuff dries," and 2) "Never leave the island empty-handed." Words of wisdom there.

We will miss our fire department family. Even though we were "new kids from out of town" we were greeted with open arms. We mistakenly thought for a while that it was because we were "pros" - retired career firefighters with thousands of calls in our "bank." But we soon learned that, at least under the current leadership, "you belong" was the prevailing organizational mindset. "If you are willing to do this for your neighbors, you are good enough to be one of us." Sure there are politics and divisions, especially as communities grow and morph as they must. Jim and Steve forgive me for saying it out loud, but some day your Fire and EMS folks will be the same people. It's the only thing that makes sense as you continue to grow. Just like you must know you never needed two fire departments.

Last, but certainly not least, we will miss our adopted theater family. We had really just begun to reach across the water and make the time to work and play in that particularly delightful layer of the island onion. Like so many other primarily volunteer efforts that define the community, it was sometimes more work than fun. But in the end the investment was, like others, returned a hundred-fold in joy and in a sense of belonging that was open to all who were willing to do the time. There will always be a little "Snoopy" in my soul.

So - I'm not really crying because its time to leave. You've seen it a million times. They come, they put down tender roots, till and water a bit, and for a while they flourish. But it takes a hardy soul and a determined effort to take deep root on these rocky islands. Like yours, our "home island" calls persistently to us to give up our foolish forays and come home.

Farewell, San Juan. We'll be close, and we've made some true friends, so it's really just "see ya later." When we do we'll be seeing through the happy film of tears that our four years of onion-peeling have created. It stings a little. But it also curiously sharpens our perception. When we return we'll be something less than islanders, but something more than tourists. That's pretty cool.


Last modified onThursday, 18 August 2011 10:31
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