Today, sadly, I leave my favorite place in Maine — Vinalhaven! It’s the most amazing island I’ve ever visited. Yes, even including Hawaii!
I am forever grateful to Sarah and her dad, Phil. Their care for their community is inspiring. Their appreciation for PFAs (people from away) is touching. I never would have learned what I did without their help, insight and support. They offered me a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience island life – with all its complications and contradictions.
In my brief time on Vinalhaven, I was greeted with immense kindness and generosity. I was humbled, yet again, to watch as a small (really small!) group of fiercely committed leaders take on the environmental, social, and economic challenges that swamp many bigger cities. I was honored by the number of people who opened their hearts and homes to share their stories with me.
On this small island of only twenty-three square miles, almost all the pleasures and contradictions of American Life can be found. Waking in the morning as the sun painted the sky in rich hues of red and gold eased me into my days with reverence for such nature. I’d fall into bed each night as the streaks of magenta and blue slowly faded into black.
Vinalhaven is an exquisitely beautiful place where bluebloods and bluecollar rely on the harvest of the waters as summer residents saunter down main street in summer hats and capri pants. Lobster is king in this land of ‘ease’, as leaders, market-makers, and fisher-people work in tandem to catch, sell, and forward the island’s international renown. The structure of the hierarchy within the industry reminded me a bit of the south when cotton was king.
Seventeen hundred miles from Mississippi, the ties between these two places are curiously strong. In fact, as I researched Vinalhaven, I discovered that back in the 1800s, one of Vinalhaven’s first families to fully settle left the island to fight for the south in the civil war. Today, a hot summer’s day, confederate flags on the back of pickups ride proudly through the street, taunting progressive city tourists.
It’s the home of acclaimed pop-artist icon Robert Indiana, most known for his LOVE sculpture and the lack of ‘love’ shown by his caretaker and art dealer accused of isolating and exploiting him. If you’re not, literally, born on the island you’re not a Vinalhavenian even if your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are. It is the ‘land of lobster’ where the lobstermen could easily exchange their boats for horses and fit right into the rugged ways of the west.
On this island, I met of some of the best leaders and saw the strongest cohesion of any place I’ve been. Their city council is diverse in class if barely so in gender. And of course, like the rest of Maine, and much of America, the race is white, white, and more white. I keep looking for a town where race, class, and culture mix with respect and equity, but have yet to find it on this journey. Colonization still rules this land, for sure.
I watched a legacy in the making as father passed his family’s past, in the form of The Tidewater Inn, to his daughter and sat back allowing her to take the lead. We need more legacy makers in rural towns.
It’s all here in exquisite hues of blue, gold, and vibrant magenta at dusk and dawn.
Before you judge, just know, each and every one of those elements resides in every city in America. But, when on a tiny island with less than 1,300 people, all is seen in vivid detail if you take a moment to look. Here, all live, work, and play side by side.
In my oh-too-short time here, I learned what lifelong leadership means in a land where wifi can often feel like a scifi idea and phone service is almost nonexistent. An odd concept for most of America, this progressive town in the middle of the sea takes on these contradictions, not even to mention the way they combat the threat of a rising sea that floods main street during winter storms with thoughtful, well-researched planning and execution.
This is an island where the strong-minded women have gathered to fight the drug epidemic plaguing our nation. If you met the two women, of the most unassuming manner, who were leading this charge, you might think, “How could they succeed?” They seem so meek. They appear so mild. But, on this island of fierce independence and determination, these two ticket takers at the ferry watched as drugs were smuggled from the mainland. They witnessed their own children’s descent into a grip of hell that was so utterly opposed to their hope for a haven. These two mild-mannered women have made such a stir that the Academy Award nominated director of a documentary film following 4 young men and their roads to recovery chose this tiny, teeny island to premiere their film. Amazingly, over 40 people attended. ‘Pishah’ if you will. That would be like having 3,000 people show up to the premiere in Portland, Oregon.
Vinalhaven, thank you for the lessons of resilience and drive that you taught me at a visceral level.