No One Is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
-John Donne (1572-1631), Meditation XVII

I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins at summer camp, several decades ago. I remembered that I loved it, but the storyline had left my memory. Out of curiosity I reread the book this weekend. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a children’s novel published in 1960 by Scott O’Dell (1898-1989). It is a story about getting on with life no matter what happens. And what happens to Karana, a Native American girl who finds herself alone on San Nicolas Island (known as the Island of the Blue Dolphins), off the coast of California, is among the worst fates that I can imagine.

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Original cover, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1960 (By Source, Fair use, via Wikipedia.)

The story—which won the 1961 John Newbery Medal “for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year”[1]—is based on a real situation experienced by a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island from 1835 to 1853.[2]

Karana’s mother has died before the novel begins. Then in the novel, Chief Chowig, Karana’s father, is killed in a battle with Aleuts who came to the island to hunt sea otters and have reneged on their agreement to share the pelts equitably. Later, because most of the men on the island have been killed in the fight with the Aleuts, the remaining islanders decide to abandon their home and leave on a rescue ship.

When Karana quickly discovers that her little brother, Romo, is not on the ship, she jumps overboard to be with him and await rescue by another ship. Before long, however, Romo is killed by wild dogs. Karana is then completely alone—to me, one of life’s most terrifying possibilities. Most of the novel tells the story of how she survives until her rescue years later by a missionary ship. It turns out that the ship that had taken her people to California had sunk before it could return for her and Romo.

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Map showing San Nicolas Island (By Lencer – own work, used:Google EarthUSA California location map.svg by User:NordNordWest for MinimapIdea: Californian Channelislands.jpg by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Karana has lessons to share.

Here is what I admire most about Karana:

  1. Karana comes to recognize that animals are to be valued and treated with respect as fellow sentient beings, rather than exploited. She befriends the leader among the wild dogs and his son, birds, and an otter and stops hunting or eating animals (other than fish).
  2. Of course Karana finds her life difficult—facing, for example, ferocious wild dogs, a tsunami and earthquake, and the eventual return of the Aleuts—but she finds pleasure, too, and never loses her hope, her courage, or her ability to get on with what needs to be done, no matter how challenging.
  3. In order to survive, Karana accepts the need to break the boundaries her people have set concerning appropriate activities for women. She tackles the tasks she must surmount to overcome each of the daunting obstacles she faces.
  4. Even though she is alone, Karana has self-respect and an appreciation for beauty. She makes herself a pretty skirt of cormorant feathers. During her brief, secret friendship with Tutok—a girl who has accompanied the Aleuts to help with chores during their return visit to the island—Tutok gives her a beautiful necklace that Karana admires. She makes a seashell headband as a gift for Tutok in return.
  5. Karana understands the need for and gift of friendship. Her animal friends are deeply important to her, but she never loses the desire for human companionship. And so when a missionary ship finally comes for her, she is willing to leave the Island of the Blue Dolphins. She has proven herself able to go on alone, but solitude is not her choice. The lesson for me is that she was able to live, even thrive, while waiting for human contact to return.

I am blessed with exceedingly close and dear friends, but sometimes when I close my apartment door, the weight of being alone smothers me like a blanket thrown over me. Can you imagine what life must have been like for the real woman who was alone on San Nicolas Island for almost two decades?  In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana, though a child and a fictional character, gives us an example to emulate.

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San Nicolas Island from the air (By United States Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

No one is truly alone.

Beyond following Karana’s example, what can we do to overcome our feelings of being alone, whether we are truly without human companionship or are in the throes of temporary loneliness?  Let me share what I imagine wise and loved ones in the light have advised me—and perhaps they truly have: Here is an excerpt from the essay “Alone,” from my memoir A Woman in Time:

You are not alone. You think you are alone, but you are not. Yet each person feels alone on this Earth to a certain extent. That is the human experience, but it is not the eternal experience in God’s world. It is a mirage, but a hard one, and a great gift to others is to help take away their loneliness.

You think that you are an odd duck, that you don’t fit in. You fit in as well as all do. Great popularity is rare, and even where it exists, there is the sense of being alone at the center. But it is just a sense, not reality. “We are born alone and die alone” seems true but is false. Your mother and father are with you, your Father is with you, and we are with you—and many more are with you, too. And on top of all these eternal connections, all human souls are connected, united, and you are with the woman in Africa and the woman and man in the Far East, and they are with you.

You can help others realize that they are loved and that they have love to give, even when they feel completely isolated and alone.

Enjoy the day, enjoy life. Give joy and help others by showing them that they belong, that we all belong to one another in caring and responsibility.

When I am feeling alone, I can also follow Karana’s example: confronting my challenges with courage, maintaining my dignity and sense of purpose, reveling in nature’s companionship and magnificence, and never allowing myself to lose hope.

[1] http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/aboutnewbery/aboutnewbery.

[2] https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-critical-look-at-odells-island-of.html.

Moon Dreams

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Moonrise, by Stanislaw Maslowski, 1884; National Museum, Kraków  (Stanisław Masłowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

“Moonspinners.  They’re naiads—you know, water nymphs.  Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning.  They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight.  In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself. . . . all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky.”[1]

The Moon-Spinners, by Mary Stewart (1916-2014), tells the story of a young Englishwoman, Nicola Ferris, who works for the British Embassy in Athens and is on vacation in Crete with her cousin.  While exploring in the mountains on the day before her cousin arrives, Nicola discovers a young Englishman, Mark Langley, and his Greek guide, Lambis, who have witnessed a murder.  The murderers have shot Mark and left him for dead and have taken his teenaged brother, Colin.  Nicola tends to Mark’s wound and then ignores his and Lambis’s instructions to go on with her holiday without getting further involved in their plight.  The characters Nicola meets in the tiny hotel in the village of Agios Georgios turn out, of course, to be in the thick of the mystery, and Nicola remains anything but uninvolved.

Transporting Teenaged Me

The novel, with its captivating and exotic setting, romance, suspense, and—of course—happy ending, helped me to endure high school, during which I dreaded every day.  Most of my teachers relentlessly repeated the mantra, “If you don’t have top grades, you won’t get into college.”  I felt unbearable pressure to sustain my good average and a constant fear of failing to continue measuring up.

In my high-school class of 550, friends were available even for the socially insecure, as I was.  I liked my friends and always had a place with them in the lunchroom, but I didn’t have a high-school through-thick-and-thin best friend the way I’d had a best friend at summer camp, and I craved that kind of friend.  I also wanted a boyfriend.  Senior year I did have Wayne, whom I’d met at camp, but he lived three hours away, and I never did manage to talk myself into caring about him without big reservations.  I played the flute in the school band, but prime social scenes such as the yearly musical and the cheerleading squad were closed to mousy me.

The Moon-Spinners and other Mary Stewart novels were my escape, my salvation.  I read them in between, and sometimes instead of, my towering assignments and daydreamed about finding a handsome young man in distress to rescue.  When I hear the name “Mary Stewart,” I see myself sprawled on the pink spread covering my bed in my room on Rockingham Drive.  Mother and Daddy are in the kitchen and will soon call me to supper.  The notebooks and textbooks surrounding me are taunting me, not always loudly enough to make me turn to them but raucously enough both to taint and to sweeten my time with Mary Stewart’s romantic, adventurous young heroines and heroes.

Still Inspiring Yearning

The Moon-Spinners was not quite as appealing to me when I read it this week as it was when I read it in the 1960s.  The frequent lists of flowers and other plants, for instance, seem contrived, or perhaps it’s that I don’t share Mary Stewart’s fascination with identifying every single plant as it is confronted.  Nicola Ferris’s cousin, Frances Scorby, is a botanist, which explains Frances’s knowledge of plants, but Nicola also names one after the other, even as she is worrying about potential murderers around each turn.  Then, too, the climax of the book seems forced, with Mark, Colin, and Lambis—with help from Nicola—defeating the villain in a somewhat cartoon-like brawl.

But The Moon-Spinners still stirs my yearnings.  Teenaged me told herself stories of finding a young man like Mark who needed my tender care to recover from some dire illness or injury and who would love me absolutely.  To go to sleep at night, I daydreamed my way into his story, over and over.  I still remember how I visualized Mark’s/my young man’s cave-like hideout in the mountains.  I continue to dream sometimes of a similar man—although healthy and no longer young—whom I would tenderly love and who would love me absolutely in return.

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Windmills such as Nicola might have seen on Crete  (Photo by Pavlemadrid, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Beyond the inexhaustible plant life, The Moon-Spinners vividly describes the scenery of Crete, and the sails of the Greek windmills helped spin me into the world of the story.  And so as I read The Moon-Spinners this week, I wanted to be overseas, minus the criminals of course, at least for a few weeks of quiet and wandering.  I still yearn to explore foreign lands, sleep in quaint villages, taste cultures and lives vastly different from my own.  I’ve had the blessing of visiting Europe five times, but I crave returning.

Transforming Yearning

That dream is perhaps more likely to be real than is the arrival of the man whom I sought so earnestly in my younger years and for whom I still keep a candle burning.  Even now the longings sometimes tug at me:

Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.

The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Turned-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Again-two-three.[2]

Yet other times I think I am too busy, too happily overbooked, to welcome Prince Charming into my life at this point.  (But he’s welcome to stop by; a woman can change her mind.)

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A rural road in Tuscany

With or without a plane ticket to Europe, I can answer some of my other longings.  I wish to wander the Tuscan countryside.  But whether I ever return to Tuscany or not, I can walk by the pond in our community and explore the grounds of nearby Longwood Gardens and Winterthur.  They’re not Tuscan, but they’re filled with beauty.  I can continue studying Italian, read books in Italian and about Italy, and go on loving and listening to Andrea Bocelli, with a concert to thrill me from time to time.  And I have been to Tuscany and have masses of memories to savor.

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris  (Photo by Zuffe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

I remember the last time I saw Paris, or rather the only time I saw Paris.  I was young and Paris was magnificent.  How blessed I am!  I may not return, but as with my Tuscan reveries, I can remember how it was, study the language, and throw myself into vicarious adventures via books, movies, and music.

Becoming a Moonspinner

Whether or not I again see distant lands, and whether or not my aging prince ever gallops up to my door, life goes on spinning beautiful tales under my waning but still-shining moon.  The darkening moon is with me, with us all, as completely as the full moon.  As the Moonspinners “see that the world gets its hours of darkness . . . by spinning the moon down out of the sky,” the waning moon gives us time to see the stars that illuminate our lives with their subtler lights.  And so:

I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.[3]

I will nurture peace within myself.  Then perhaps I can become a better Moonspinner, sharing comfort and serenity, harmony and repose.

 

[1] Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962), p. 74  in the Kindle edition.
[2] Winifred Burgess Hayek, “The Waltz,” A Woman in Time (CreateSpace 2016), p. 160.
[3] Winifred Burgess Hayek, from “North Country August,” A Woman in Time, p. 255.

 

Trying to Turn What I Say into What I Do

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In becoming a classic, you don’t have to be perfect.

Sometimes I’m pretty wise about other people.  After all, I’ve been hanging around earth for quite a while, and I’ve been paying attention.  My powers of observation, however, substantially exceed the example I set.  In this post, rather than citing others’ work, I quote some of my own advice from my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic.”  But then I explore the gaps between what I say and what I (am so far able to) do.  This essay is in the second person because I am giving myself a good talking-to.  Perhaps some of my self-talk will also be relevant for you.

The Point of It All

I’ll begin with a piece of advice that is both an obsession and a challenge for me: Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.

Winnie, since your earliest adulthood, you have sought a sense of purpose, a way to serve, through writing.  But you have wanted the heavens to open and present you with the perfect project, the golden one that will engage you for the rest of your days and give meaning to your existence.  Even if the heavens did give you what you seek, would you be able to move forward, or would your fear of not being equal to the task soon send you back to procrastination and distress?  You have had dozens of adequate ideas for major writing projects, but you have sooner or later rejected nearly all of them as either defective ideas or as ideas for which you are defective in your ability to bring them to life.  Finally, however, your editing your parents’ memoirs, publishing your own, and finishing your novel are evidence that you are not irredeemable in your inability to move forward in your writing.

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Birmingham Meetinghouse, West Chester, Pennsylvania – Drawing by Mason Hayek, from his memoir, Growing to 80

And as you are beginning to recognize, your writing is a flexible way for you to serve and to express yourself.  Just as you have sought and pursued a wide range of experiences in your life, you will do best and find greatest peace of mind if you accept that you will write in the service of many different subjects, people, and areas of expression.  Yours is a life about broad, varied activities and not about devotion to a single area, such as virtuosity on an instrument—or repeated excellence in novel writing.  This is not to say that you can’t write a novel, even a good novel—and, of course, you have already tried your hand at a novel that expresses some of your heartfelt interests and values.  But your life is not designed to parallel, say, Jane Austen’s, Elena Ferrante’s, Isabel Allende’s, or J.K. Rowling’s.  And so: Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).

Dance Skirmishes and Other Melees

Another situation preying on your mind right now is the kerfuffle in your dance session on Friday.  Let’s figure out what happened, why you let yourself get upset with a member of your amateur dance troupe; we’ll call her Hilda.  You have, for years, objected to Hilda’s sometimes imperious (in your opinion) ways and railed against what you perceive as the unfairness of her dictatorial (in your estimation) pronouncements.  The obvious question is: why associate, when you don’t have to, with people who upset you—and, at this point in your development, inspire responses ranging from headaches and stress (the usual outcome) to letting your feelings fly, as you did on Friday.  You were reacting rather than attacking; it was a defense that you mounted, but an ineffective one that certainly did not inspire Hilda to engage in self-reflection or decide anything other than that you and your views are (in her estimation) worthy of rejection and resentment.

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You can and need to find the lessons in the situation, lessons you have not yet mastered from earlier such occasions.  From the past several years, we can think of two to-dos with similarities to Friday’s.  That’s not a lot, but you’ll acknowledge that you’ve also had many, many episodes of saying to yourself, “Let me out of here—I’ve got a terrible headache!”  The causes are similar.

One all-out to-do involved your crying in a post office in Rome, Italy, and telling Sylvia, your traveling companion, “I resign.  I quit as translator and tour guide.  I don’t want to have any more responsibilities for you or anyone else for the rest of this trip.  I’m going for a walk.”  And off you flounced in the opposite direction from the convent where the two of you were staying.  When you did finally return, you and Sylvia tenuously reconciled.  But during the night, she called friends and family back home to update them on what a rotten time she was having with you.  Fortunately for you both, you managed to part ways two days later.

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Sometimes it’s pleasant to explore alone.

And then six years after Italy came the time you sat crying and distraught in the office of Mattie, the acting CEO where you worked.  She had, by anyone’s estimation, been truly out of line and unbearable, but she was your boss, and distraught crying is not, as you know, an effective career strategy.  Nor is it an effective reaction to any sort of bullying or other unfair behavior, no matter how egregious.  And now, ten years after your work meltdown, you have had your encounter with Hilda.

To repeat an earlier point: Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.  If being with someone is stressful and no necessity exists for being with this person, make the choice to stay apart.  Obviously you would come to Hilda’s aid if it were your place to do so, and certainly you will look on her with good will, but you don’t need to dance with her.  Yes, you love dancing.  Yes, people in your community expect you to dance in the community’s annual talent show.  But also yes, you can stop dancing with Hilda.  You have other ways to practice and perform your dancing.  But even if you didn’t, you need, as your wise mother sometimes phrased it, to take your sails out of Hilda’s wind.

Before boarding the plane to Italy with Sylvia, you should have, as you now know, established clear, mutually understood ground rules—such as, “We will each be free to go different places and pursue different activities.”  In other words: In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.

Better yet in this case, you would have recognized the ocean of differences between your interests and personality and hers and would have avoided trying to travel together at all.  With Mattie, your job prevented you from avoiding her.  But you could have surmounted the fear, the sense of being threatened, that led to your upset with her, as well as with Sylvia and Hilda.  You believed you were about to drown under the tsunami the other person represented for you.  While each tsunami was different in its size and perceived power and danger, the image holds true for all such cases in your life.  But instead of being tsunamis, most challenging relationships represent a series of smaller waves that—if you act from a base of confidence, resolution, and mutual respect—you will be able to navigate calmly and justly, one at a time.  Of course if you can simply step away from the water, why not do so?

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Know when to get out of the water.

An Age Full of Possibilities

Other areas of your life also need attention.  You watch House and Garden Television and relish the transformation of other people’s homes.  But your own woodwork has black stains; the veneer on the kitchen cabinets is peeling, and the curtains need washing.  Again, however, your all-or-nothingness intrudes.  You are so overwhelmed by the volume of things that need doing in your little apartment that beyond keeping the place neat, you usually only act when necessity becomes profound—such as when guests are coming.  Do you also feel you don’t deserve a pretty home?

Certainly granite countertops are not one of life’s necessities, but your failure to upgrade your home in small ways that could be attainable is evidence of your unvoiced belief that life has passed you by and that you don’t deserve the possibility of having your small and large dreams realized.  Of course your life is blessed exactly as it is—particularly in the parents that were yours, in your friends and community, and in the education and life experiences you have had—but you have not fallen out of possibilities, not aged out of worthiness to hope, whether for pretty cabinets or for a return to Italy: Know that it’s not too late.  Know that you’re not too old.

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Age is a strength.
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All seasons are beautiful.

Let’s directly address the issue of aging.  While you are, for now, considered relatively young by your friends, you are not young, and most of the world does not look at you as youthful.  You subconsciously think you have slipped up somehow by letting yourself age.  While you would prefer an unlined face, your wrinkles are not enormously distressing to you, but you don’t like the “such a sweet old dear” reaction from younger people who hear that you tap dance and study French and Italian.

You sincerely believe that your older friends have enormous possibilities open to them and are inestimably valuable human beings. But perhaps because you’ve always felt that you’ve failed in so many ways to meet life’s expectations, you struggle to avoid feeling tossed out of the circle of life and into the bleachers to look on for the rest of your days.  So instead: Practice being fully present in the moment.

Look at the beautiful day you have, this very day: Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.  The sky is bright blue, and red buds are beginning to appear on the trees.  The region had a ferocious nor’easter at the end of last week, and another is expected this week, but now the sun is coming in your window, which is rare because your apartment faces north.  The light is reflected from the building across the way, rather than shining in directly, but you can be grateful, too—and you are—for light however it comes to you.  Remember: Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.  And it is.