Jim and I just wrapped up a house-sit on Mason’s Island off the southeast corner of Connecticut. It was peaceful and lovely. The island was small, able to be walked with a few hours of your time. The landscape was mildly rocky, boulders jutted out of the ground in clusters laden with lichen and moss, amidst marshlands and forests.
When the stray car or truck passed by on my walks with Violet, our spunky little terrier for the week, she would attack only the largest cars and trucks. A fierce and tiny bodyguard who endeared me to her spirit.
“Bark! Bark!” She yelled, while hurtling herself full force at the passing vehicle, appearing as a flying squirrel, her four legs spread eagled, almost soaring through the sky only caught by her harness which stopped her mid-flight, keeping her grounded with the rest of us mammalian mortals.
The oh-so-quiet strolls around this little island where all the drivers smiled and waved filled me up with a special type of romance that only seaport towns offer. The ocean lends itself to writing in a way that carries a legacy of authors like Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O’Neill. There is a longing about the ocean that pulls the human species into nostalgia for a more archaic time in our ancestral history.
“Ah there is something so romantic about the Fado music of Portugal,” Our host wistfully sang in praise of the music of sailors and seamen when we met her.
In my bones, there is a penchant for that romance, that melancholy serves me and sometimes I slip into this shawl of shimmering tears of nostalgia to soak in its comfortable essence that indulges my inner child. On an island in January, with its soggy, salty, and foggy chill, this was awakened in me as a rather quiet stillness, almost brooding if not for the optimism of the open waters that gave it a more pensive quality.
At night, the quality of the atmosphere was still, yet breezy like a white noise machine and the sky was dark, dark, and darker the further I walked towards the heart of the island, away from shore.
If I was closer to the shore at a certain nighttime hour, a quaking overtook the island bubble and shook us as the rumbling train took off from across the marina, on its way to Old Saybrook and New Haven, eventually New York City, and the world. The lit windows along the body of the train dotted the darkness as a string of lights playing with the other lights of downtown Mystic, creating a pretty picture of a seaport town from any decade.
One can really lose themselves in time on an island as undeveloped as Mason’s Island. There is almost zero commercial development, just a couple of marinas and a restaurant which didn’t appear very open when I passed by. There is also a connecting bridge off one rocky shore to a place called Ender’s Island.
The day Jim and I visited Ender’s Island it was a somewhat overcast day. It had rained the day before, and while the atmosphere was showing glimmers of sunlight and warmth, it was still clearing out the rainy, grey hues.
When we arrived at the junction of Mason’s and Ender’s, the waves buffeted the small and rocky bridge. Wind blustered all around us as we zipped our coats up tight, drawing the hoods over our heads and steeling ourselves against the chaos. We ran into a handful of people on our walk. Another couple was walking their dog, whose leash got tangled up in Violet’s, as the two hounds curiously sniffed each other. A woman jogged by, flashing a smile while talking busily into her Airpods about business or whatever.
Immediately, I noticed two qualities about this island: small and rocky. There was a compound of stone buildings on this island and more stonework in the spaces between. A stone wall ran along the rim, enclosing the entirety of this tiny island, and creating the perfect juxtaposition with the ocean to bring to mind stories that pair the two: stone meeting ocean.
Countless tales, fiction and real, play out this archetypal landscape. The Count of Monte Cristo, the notorious prison of Alcatraz, Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba, a Russian film I saw once and never forgot called The Island, about Anatoly the monk who lives on a desolate island in sole devotion to his prayers, and many, many more.
There is a common thread of repentance, penance, or atonement that I see unraveled here. And perhaps that is what I found this past week and a half.
The day we arrived on Mason’s Island, I turned 30 years old. It seemed to have crept up on me with quiet trepidation and full force. As if I’ve been unknowingly holding my breath, waiting for its arrival, and when it did, I released that stale air in my lungs with one big bellowing whoosh!
It was as if I crossed over an imaginary line in the sand, and this was confirmed by my younger friend over the phone, “Annette, you’re like an Adult-Adult now.”
That day, there was as a soreness in my throat that morphed slowly into congestion and sneezing. And by the time, my head hit the pillow that night, it suddenly grew into an onslaught of a hacking cough, body chills, and heightened skin sensitivity. Anything brushing against my skin felt like an abrasive, coarse sack cloth and I couldn’t have it touching me but I was freezing otherwise. This meant I was wildly vacillating between throwing off the covers and running to put on more layers, keeping Jim up all night with me. My stomach was a bubbling witch’s cauldron, steaming hot, lively potions through the pipework of my intestines. I tossed and turned every which way and was spitting up phlegm from a mucosal army invading my being and I spent the night between coughing up a lung and running to the bathroom. It was a stormy night of fever, chills, soreness, phlegm, and gas: a strange, torrid, and turbulent night.
But by morning this torrent of illness had passed as suddenly as it arrived. And like a ship at sea that survives a storm, the next morning was a lull of peace and stillness, and a collective wonder of I went through something last night and here I am on the other side. “What happened last night?” I wondered aloud to Jim. The symptoms were expelling something from me. Out of me. Cleaning out the mucous that had collected over the years and whose time had come to be swept out of their dusty corners.
The cozy house where we lived was my very own hermitage. Nothing existed outside the walls and we awoke into a rhythm like we lived there for years. Walk the dog, soak in the peace, read, write, exercise, take a bath, walk more, walk again, cook, and eat.
The past year had been full of relationship plagues and troubles with finding myself and my voice. I had been resisting life and insisting on my made up stories about what is. Pulling that mantle of melancholy closer to me, I wrapped myself in this self-created substitute of a mother’s womb. And instead of nourishment, it had kept me as a child, a caricature of a child, sucking my thumb and reliant on its breast, suckling on the tit of drama and negative emotions. Instead of creating my own joy, I’ve relied on my external circumstances.
The salty air out here seasoned me, sucked the moisture right out of me, dehydrated my body, and lay me out like a piece of jerky curing in the sun for my next metamorphosis. Here, I inhabited the penance of all the people before me isolated on cold, rocky islands feeling the beating of the waves like the heartbeat of earth, holding us close in an embrace of time standing still.
The buildings on Ender’s Island are owned by the Catholic Society of St. Edmund and dotting the retreat grounds were many icons and statuettes to Mary and other venerated figures in the Catholic tradition. As we rounded the last bend, we passed another stone building with a stolid personality and, noticing its stained-glass windows, I was immediately pulled to it like a magnet.
“I have to go in!” I said to Jim leaving him outside with Violet tethered to him, or perhaps he to Violet. The two were the cutest couple.
Stepping into the chapel, I was immediately shaken by the stillness. It was so loud, it was almost uncomfortable. The energy was polarized or pressurized or ionized or magnetized, there was just something so apparent there, like a vacuum of air or a thousand pair of eyes on me, that I stood for several moments in the vestibule, gathering my bearings together. Once I calibrated to the energy of the room, I stepped into the quiet and mesmerizing hall.
It was set up with the standard podium and pews one
expects from chapels. Candles were lit in one corner and medieval style pictures hung along the wall in chronological order, each slide telling one part of the story of Jesus Christ. Later I found that this chapel also houses the literal arm of St. Edmund of Abingdon, who lived between 1174 to 1240 and was venerated for his self-sacrifice and discipline, the eponymous figurehead of the organization. Perhaps it was his energy I felt so strongly present there in the room.
The rest of our stay on the island was peace punctuated by a few troubled bouts of turmoil. At the time I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s, A New Earth, and learning about pain-bodies, energetic imprints of trauma, individual and collective, that people carry with them. The pain body is what is prodded and activated when people are “triggered”. It is the cause and agent of the subsequent reaction. What bubbled to the surface in this learning was an awareness of my own and the intensity of its strength.
Ah, so that mantle of melancholy that I’ve come to know and love is my pain body! It carries with it its own vortex of morose gravity like a weighted anxiety blanket that feels safe, familiar, and soothing in its heaviness. But it is dangerous and voracious; unchecked, it spreads like a cancerous sprawl sucking everything into its tornado of drama.
Next to the crackling fire that Jim made almost every night and tended to with the loving dedication that he brings to everything he does, we shared the passage of the nights here on Mason’s Island. Things were settling into glowing embers between us. A soft and steady glow was replacing the rapid-fire crackling and activity of dry leaves and kindling that set us ablaze this past summer and fall. The distant cascading sound of thick and solid logs burning is similar to the constant white noise of the ocean that inhabits an island, settling on it like salty air. And against this backdrop, we find ourselves finally meeting at an understanding we’ve been bridging the past year.
I found something on Mason’s Island. An uncovering and re-discovery of who I am. I discovered joy in January. A smiling, a laughing, and a lightness that I forgot about or was scared to bring forth because it would forgo and invalidate the mantle of melancholy that kept me safe and that I had grown to love in some fashion as our symbiotic relationship grew.
This lightness that comes from within spreads like a new Spring in bloom. In this season of my heart, I can hear birds chattering and twittering above, and see morning dew that drapes the world in glittering baubles, and notice how the nascent buds pucker green on fresh, spongey branches, full of life.
Who knew that 30 would bring such vigor and possibility back to me? In my wary approach of this age, I had held my breath, not knowing that what was coming was a welcome firmness beneath my feet. Some solid earth and fresh, salty air, an expectorant for ghosts of the past or energy that got stuck in the joints of my being.