Where Does the Time Go? Islanders Are Busy Doing “Stuff.”
We all think we’re going to paint our bathrooms just because it’s winter.
There’s supposed to be such a thing as the quiet island winter, with nothing to do but sit by the woodstove and read, or knit, or learn to play the guitar. This myth, this utopian mirage, this beloved fantasy--the uninterrupted peace of a Currier and Ives island winter-- might exist but we rarely see it for more than a day at a time. We want it so badly, but it is an elusive ideal, a moving target. “It’s more,” like Bill Nye used to say about Absolute Zero, “of an idea.” All summer, we tell each other what we’ll do “next winter, when there is more time.” We’ll spin wool, we’ll do the website, we’ll fix up the workshop. We will surely build this or repair that. Winter will be a time for power tools, simple living, great art, and homebody comforts.
Sounds pretty nice.
We’ve all got lists of home improvements, resolutions and good intentions for which there isn’t possibly time during the warmer months. Theoretically, winter should bring plenty of open space on the calendar in which to swing the hammer and the paintbrush, do the pushups and make the sweaters and clean out behind the refrigerator. In reality, it doesn’t work that way. Regular life doesn’t obey the schedule. Things just appear, and people call up who need stuff done, and the little errands expand to fill up all the time anybody’s got. Winter seems to defy the space-time continuum. The tourists always ask, “What do you people do all winter?” Stuff. We do stuff. I don’t know how it happens, but there is never the spare time we think there ought to be.
Maybe we talk too much. That eats up a lot of time, to be sure. Each of the 15 or 20 telephone calls I’ve taken or made over the last two or three days has gone on for a long, long time. There are about 35 of us on the island right now. Maybe we need each other more than we think if we are hanging out like teenagers on the phones so long, when all we meant to do was tell the town treasurer that we’d bought a tank of oxygen for the rescue, or find out if the road was open to the west side of the island, or ask when the school kids were going to the Farnsworth. We’re not lonely, just gabby. That might have something to do with the time of year.
Personally, I love those days when nothing happens to take me anywhere. I’m content to stay home, dressed only in sweats, with unbrushed hair and unmatched socks, parked in the kitchen with warm feet up on the woodstove oven door, peacefully occupied with a pile of Bangor newspapers and a pot of coffee. I love the smell of the firewood beside the stove, and snow doesn’t bother me a bit now that I’ve got my four wheel drive. I don’t even worry if the power goes out (helps to have the lineman living right here). Life is rough; yes, I know.
A neighbor calls, all upset and describing a medical need. It turns out that an isolated islander just wants reassurance, just wants to be checked on…by their own admission, wants company. Hmm. Others with ongoing health care needs require the community to muster and assist from time to time, and so we do. Somebody needs their furnace checked; another has a problem in the breaker box and at least three suffer constant struggles with their heaters. Others have sick or injured pets, freight arriving on the next plane and no wheels, or maybe just slippery doorsteps. Handyman types, people with reliable vehicles, and those who connect well with disgruntled animals are called out again and again. Snow has to be moved. Groceries, prescriptions and mail has to be collected from the pilots (and often delivered to those without trucks). Heat creates a constant source of work for many of us, be it wood, kerosene, diesel, propane, pellets or coal. School children do projects which involve adult members of the community. We have CPR and First Aid classes, school meetings, town and power company business, and Lana teaching us how to use the various technological miracles now in place at the school. We open up the recycling facility a couple of times a week, and we still have to unload the propane, load the trash, ride that ferry and drive that truck to the transfer station on the mainland. Parents of small children have no less work than they have in the warmer months; if anything, kids with very few playmates make home life even busier for mom and dad. Who’s got rock salt? Who’s got gasoline? Who’s got extra milk? There are flu shots and court dates, lobster traps and college kids, hockey games and frozen pipes and mandatory meetings to deal with. For some, there is a surprising amount of paperwork. For others, a pile of fishing gear to under-run. For yet another segment of our little society, the realities of this year require some time spent on the mainland in order to make a living. There is plenty to do. No wonder we never seem to get the bathroom painted.
All summer, while the advertising suggests that the rest of America is deep into “light summer reading,” running up and down beaches or lounging on new patio furniture and assembling their refreshing Sunday-supplement dinner salads, we of coastal Maine multi-task like crazy. Most of us work two and three jobs and rarely find time to relax in the uncommon sunshine. All through the fall, lobstermen work double-time. The Christmas season is entirely nuts on this island, with families reconfiguring and reassembling, merging and splitting like amoebas almost daily. Travel and weather become full-time jobs. After that, the cabin fever, screeching wind, gelled-up heating oil, and the short-daylight blues are very real, and make one think twice about getting up so early.
We have at most three months in which to perfect ourselves, our homes, our habits, our hobbies, and our credit scores. Between New Year’s and spring, we’ll empty the attic, burn the brush, floss our teeth, eat kale, write the great American novel, walk 10,000 steps a day, learn to speak Italian, do our taxes early, cut wood for next year, give up bacon, read that pile of books, fix the truck and bake more cookies with the kids. You betcha.
Maybe the other two women who had the paint all picked out for their bathrooms have got the job done, but I sure haven’t. I was just going to slap another coat of white primer over the old white, just to clean things up a little, but now I’m wondering if we shouldn’t invest in some brilliant yellow or cobalt blue. It’s a time-of-year thing. Maybe we should paint a big rainbow all over the wall. Palm trees, even. Come summer, such a thing would look patently ridiculous. In January, it might just be sound mental health. Thing is, I don’t know how I’ll find the time.
Eva Murray has to go put wood in the stove now.