29 August 2009

Reflections on Star Island

Two weeks after my first visit to Star Island and attendance at the Life on a Star gathering, several scenes are still vivid in my mind: the dark interior of the tiny chapel gradually filling with light as shoalers (island lingo for attendees) enter with lanterns, carried up the hill from the main hall; lace curtains dancing on ocean breeze at windows; the clamor and frenetic energy in the dining hall at meal times; late-night cocktails with new friends under the generous branches of a rare tree (there aren't a lot of trees on the island).

A parting gift to staff and workshop leaders was a refrigerator magnet photo of the island. The part of the island shown in the photo is not an area I frequented; it may have been one of a few off-limit areas. The scene is of a curvaceous, lonely, rocky coastline. At first glance, the photo appears shot in b/w because the contrast between the sea's brightness and the profound black of the shoreline rocks is stark. Closer examination reveals a diverse palette of blues and greys. It's an eloquent visual representation of the spirit of the land as I felt it.

As a new shoaler, I was paired with an "old" shoaler whose responsibilities were to welcome me into the community and explain various traditions. It was a match made in heaven. Besides being handsome and a good listener, he was a splendid conversationalist and a model "family man" with a gorgeous, sensitive wife and two bright, stunningly beautiful daughters. [Note: David also writes for Fortune magazine and emailed a couple of pieces yesterday. Not surprisingly, I discovered he's also a fine writer. The tone of his work reminds me of this blog but his vocabulary and timing are more polished than my blog writing.]

Preparation and facilitation of my play-shop was a primary focus throughout the week. The playshop succeeded famously: attendance remained high all week, participants reported having fun and doing things in the sessions that they would usually "never" do (I regret now not pressing for specific examples...); and I learned a great deal that will benefit future play-shops.

My love-hate relationship with the Unitarian Universalist movement goes way back. My time on Star Island increases the love side of the equation. Not to say there weren't some "characters" on the island; not to say issues of white privilege and confused regard of race didn't come up; not to say the UU penchant for over-talking and over-thinking wasn't in evidence. Not to say any of that.

But I met some people of enormous intellect and uncommon passion and compassion. I heard beautiful music -- there were several accomplished pianists among us and adept renderings of Chopin and Brahms floated in the dusk air many afternoons. I laughed with tears in my eyes at least twice during the week.

The seven days I spent on Star Island felt like a much longer period. Of course, magic contributed to the distortion. But other factors include
  • everyone being on the island intentionally,
  • many of the people had known each other for a long time;
  • some only saw each other once a year on Star Island
  • a critical mass of attendees held the conference theme, "Building Community" in mind
  • every stage of the human life span from infant to elder was represented
"You will come back" is a traditional chant on Star, most notably heard on the pier as boats depart at the end of the conference. Star Island touched my heart--both the people and the place--and I shed tears as our boat pulled away. I don't know when or if I will ever return but I want to.

A residual of the Star Island experience--and my trip overall--is a surge of creative inspiration. I'm playing and writing a lot since returning home. Although there were plenty of pianos scattered around the Island, I did not play much--mostly for lack of sufficient down time, i.e., quiet solitude, to allow the mood to play to arise in me. I was distracted by the opportunities for conversation that existed at every turn. I noticed old shoalers were more skilled at gracefully exiting and carving out spaces for introspection and solitary recharging and renewal.

Overall, I missed the food of New Orleans. Memorable exceptions include a couple delicious cookie recipes. And I definitely ate more vegetables than usual--a change my body enjoyed.

The island snack bar served Lime Rickys in plastic cups but they were no less bright and refreshing than the version in this picture. Yum! I want to try my hand at making them here at home. After drinking my first, I was often either thinking of drinking one or surrendering to the craving for another.

My stay was cut short by one day due to Hurricane Bill. The sweet irony of being so far from New Orleans but still dealing with hurricanes felt like more proof that I am becoming a New Orleanian.

For the record: the next time I go I'll bring:
  • guitar
  • piano music
  • better sandals
  • "fancy" shoes for dress-up night
  • an extra pack of cigarettes (if I'm still smoking)
  • camera
  • sketch pad and pencils
  • blue jeans
  • swimsuit
  • flashlight
  • toiletries dispensed to smaller containers (Newark airport security confiscated everything on the return trip)
  • sleep mask (many thanks to Sam for loaning me hers)
  • insect repellent (thanks to Carlton)
  • Bourbon (thanks to David)
  • backgammon board

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