lisa carey   A Mainland Expatriate  
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  Though I was born in the city, there is something about rural island life that has always tempted me. I wrote my first novel on an island off the west coast of Ireland, and now I am writing my second on Chebeague Island in Maine. For me, islands seem to function like little countries, and when on them, I feel like a traveler who is considering becoming an expatriate--a mainland expatriate.

Aesthetically, these islands couldn't be more different. Chebeague is woodsy, and there are many spots where the smell of pine masks the odor of the sea. Peeking from the shadow of trees are New England homes: white clapboard, graying seaside shingles, attic gables which whisper about the secrets they contain. The seaside here is mostly rock, barnacle and seaweed, so that beach walking is a workout rather than a leisurely stroll. Lobster traps are piled high in back yards, sailboats stranded in the boatyard, iced over, waiting patiently for spring. There is the pervading hum of chain saws, as the islanders are still cleaning up the fallen trees from February's ice storm. At night, I listen to raccoons giggling in the yard, and in the mornings I am occasionally lucky enough to see a fox or a deer glide across the lawn. When I walk along the road, everyone I pass waves at me. This gesture is so easily ingrained in me, that when I go back to Boston for a weekend, I find myself waving at college students in Kenmore square.

There is not one tree on the Irish island. Trees do not survive the sea winds of winter and neither do two story houses. The island is a landscape of flat white beaches, craggy bogland sweetened by heather, and sharp, dangerous cliffs that face the Atlantic. The houses here are the size of an American garage--simple rectangular structures with thick cement walls and the occasional blue or red windowsill. Since only the hotel has central heating, the strongest smell on the island, besides the sea, is burning turf--a dense, complicated, earthy smell. It is an island where you can walk for ten minutes and imagine that no one has ever lived there. There is only one road, and those that pass each other here do more than wave. Since it is not wide enough to accommodate two cars, every time two island vehicles meet, one must back up for a spell and pull aside to let the other pass. If the islanders are friends, this action is accompanied by a chat that might last until the next car comes along. If rivals, their idling engines make stubborn noises, and there are words about who should back away, which can last long enough to cause an island version of a traffic jam.

When I lived on the Irish Island, I helped my friends run the youth hostel. Every day I would greet eager Americans, Germans, New Zealanders, all with impressive hiking gear and the smell of those who feel they have more important things to do than change their socks. Their first question was always the same: What is there to do here? Of course, from one point of view, there was nothing to do on that island. We gave them maps, with ancient sites circled and exaggerated, and this kept the energetic tourists out of the hostel. They would hike frantically for three days, spend their nights studying tour guide books about where to go after they left the island, and then depart, exhausted, and without, we felt, having seen the island at all. (When you live on an island, snobbery and tribal loyalty are intuitive, you whisper about tourists, and decide on first glance whether they will have any appreciation for the place.)

On my first kip to this island, I was as frenetic as those I ridiculed later. I spent the first week power walking with a map, the second week sleeping all day, moaning about the lack of entertainment, and lethargic from my manic need to occupy myself. But one morning I woke up and settled in. I walked slowly, stopping to talk to islanders and help catch the occasional runaway cow. I swam and napped in the sun, let myself grow hungry before I even thought about what I would eat. I piled my coins on the bar at the one pub, ordered pots of tea and talked, depending on who I was sitting with (which depended on the time of day, the pub had its routines) about literature, music, politics, knitting, lost love, salmon fishing, the fallen state of the priesthood, and snooker secrets. I stopped wearing my watch. Time seemed to lose it's meaning, or rather, stretch itself to mean something different than it had before. It was not just vacation-time--because I was working. I cleaned the hostel, read and researched Irish history, wrote ten to twenty pages a day. I had time to do all of this, and time to do nothing, because I was no longer distracted by details. Living on an island means that you don't have many choices--one shop, one pub, one road, one hundred residents, four directions in which to walk no more than three miles. Without so many of the little choices, it is useless to spend time worrying about them. It is the absence in island life that I think opens some people to a calmer, deeper, more contemplative existence. Those people that stay past the point where it drives them insane, that is.

If you live on an island, you know one of two things to the bottom of your soul: Exactly where you belong, or specifically where you do not. Moving off an island is not like relocating to another town, it is more like leaving a country, an intimate one. I have been told that an islander, no matter where he goes, remains an islander forever. I have also been warned that if you are not born an islander, you will never be able to become one. I think that moving to an island is like being an expatriate--even while you choose another country because it speaks to you in ways your home does not, you will always be a foreigner on some level. Perhaps this is always why I have been drawn to island life as much as I am drawn to Irish life--details, and even shortcomings, in a foreign country are much more interesting than the ones at home. Strand me on a island and I know where I am, I learn every inch of it, and love it with a fierce, protective admiration, because there is nothing next door to distract or call me away. Islands hold me hostage, and then slowly teach me to remain of my own will.

Today on Chebeague Island, Maine will be like any other day, and not like any other day. I will walk to the one store, on the right side of the road if I want cars to offer me a ride, on the left side if I'm out for exercise. I will have a cup of coffee and listen to the islanders voices, their accents Maine accents with a deeper island twang. I will go home by the beach and think about what I will write.

At some point the thought will creep through the silence of my mind: There is nothing to do in this place. But even as I hear it, the voice will sound excited rather than frustrated, as though it speaks of a privilege rather than a limitation.

There is nothing to do here, the island whispers. Find something within yourself.
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Copyright © 1998 Lisa Carey.