Thursday, March 17, 2005

Sense of place

They discovered they possess a sense of place. Everybody lives somewhere, of course, but not all places have that spiritual aura that we call "a sense of place." Only places that are inhospitable to ambition have that. We use that phrase only to describe locales that change slowly, that are remote, that are wedded to the old ways more than the new, where opportunities for fame and riches are few. Writers used to call such places stifling backwaters. Ambitious high school students dreamt of getting out. But to members of the educated class, so burdened with opportunities and demands on their time, the changeless places are oases of contentment.
-David Brooks, BOBOs in Paradise (221)

In this paragraph, the author is writing about Montana and its current popularity as a spiritual destination but it just as easily describes Orcas Island. The population here pretty much doubles in the summer as people come to actually inhabit their gigantic summer homes full of local art or to rent someone else's. It is also a popular retirement spot for wealthy people of all ages. A recent demographic study done was reported in the newspaper, stating that 70% of the population makes $80,000 a year passively (i.e. rental fees and investment income), while the other 30% makes an average of $18,000 a year total. Brooks writes, "These upscalers have built a part-time, affluent Montana atop the real Montana. Their spiritualized Montana feeds off the idea of Montana and the beauty of Montana while rarely touching the lower-middle-class grind of the actual state" (221). This is exactly the situation here. Every house that I've done landscaping for has been empty.

However, I was certainly brought here for the same reasons. The only difference between the "upscalers" and me is income. I have the same background, values, education and tastes that they do. I was also "so burdened with opportunities and demands on" my time before I came. I guess the other difference is that I gave up even the middling teaching income that I had in order to stay. I'm proud to call myself a local at this point and to contribute to the low end of the average.

Jeff is getting a new roommate and he was visiting yesterday with two of his friends. They all road-tripped up here from Olympia to bring some of his stuff. They made dinner last night, and so I was invited out to join them. When I got there after work, Herreld and Joe were preparing dinner and about half an hour into our conversation, Joe wandered into the living room and eventually fell asleep until we woke him for dinner. A little while after Joe disappeared, Ann climbed down the ladder from the bedroom upstairs. She had lines in her face from her nap. At dinner, we talked about this sleepy phenomena and it caused me to think about my own first experiences with the pace and the beauty of the island. I feel like I was asleep every 3 or 4 hours for 3 or 4 hour naps for the entire week that I visited and then the first week that I lived here. I really do believe that my body needed that time and rest to spew out the spiritual toxins that had been building up in me from the life I was living in the suburbs. This morning, Joe talked about what a beautiful view Jeff had out his breakfast nook window and I remember just sitting and staring at the ocean, unable to make even polite conversation while Jeff cooked me meals and cleaned up after me. I was like a convalescent. I even took a picture of that view through the window. I think one of the characters does this in the movie, Enchanted April, too and I remember that scene resonating with me when I watched it a few years ago.
Some of the locals resent the part-time residents. I'm not sure I do. They don't really interfere with my journey and I don't have the experience to know what the island was like before there were so many of them. Now, I don't like that some of the speculation that they can do because of their wealth limits land-owning opportunities for locals but in November we voted in a local government that really does seem to represent local interests rather than money interest. It's a neat example of democracy working in a small community. I think that might even out the balance of power. I figure that the part-time residents will have to see at some point that if all of the working-class artistic back-to-the-land types are forced out because they can't afford to stay, then the island will lose the charm that brought them there in the first place. I hope.

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