Reflections is written by Island Fellows, recent college grads who do community service work on Maine islands and in coastal communities through the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.
By Maddy Bruno
I recently attended a workshop with a stellar group of 8th grade students in which the following question was posed: How do you experience community?
For someone who self-identifies as working in community development, I should have had an answer, but I sat there confused. I still don’t have the words to describe the way I have experienced community in the past two years.
The concept of community doesn’t fit into a single definition for me. Instead, community is often messy and large and changing and hard to describe. It can be felt in the moment, but also not recognized until years later.
Community can be tangible and in your face, like dragging a neighbor out by the arm to witness a spectacular sunset. Or opening a glittery Valentine’s Day card from Ms. Jen’s class at school. Or arriving home to find a bag of lobsters on your doorstep with no note.
Community also exists in tacit form, like knowing there is a list of people happy to watch my sweet yet poorly behaved dog, or the camaraderie in the shared challenge of Johanna’s exercise class.
Perhaps this nostalgic reminiscing comes as I stare down the finish line of my Islesboro fellowship, but it seems that I find community in the strangest places these days.
I found it recently while waiting in a rare line to buy coffee at the local store. It was one of those April weeks that leaves you wondering if your calves are getting toned from the weight of the mud on your boots, and has you wondering if longed-for summer is stuck in a dungeon of fog off Grindle Point and will simply pass the island by this year.
I came out of those vitamin-D deficient thoughts and realized that everyone around me was also sharing quips aimed at the weather. There is camaraderie in shared experience, even if it is just being fed-up with the lack of sun. At least I wasn’t alone in my foul weather foul mood; I had a community with which to commiserate.
Another strange way community exists here is in the way we interact with as we step off a boat onto the island. When I walk down the streets in Portland or my home town of Denver, I see people differently than I do on the island. They exist in their own worlds, and I in mine. You don’t know them, and you likely never will—there is an inherent anonymity to a large population.
On the island, we all live in the same world, for better or worse. You will hear it if you don’t return someone’s wave while walking or driving. You also see someone you know each time you walk into a room. I think this forces recognition of others’ human-ness. Each has feelings and a life story that matters (and you probably know way more about each other than you want to let on). There is community in sharing space, heightened in a place with defined rocky boundaries.
And finally, I found community while planting seeds on a Saturday in late April. It felt like summer had found her way out of that dungeon fog and made it onto our rocky shores.
As I opened envelopes and pushed each pumpkin seed into its perfectly square container of dirt, I got an uncomfortable feeling in that weird space between stomach and chest that is somehow tied to indescribable melancholy. I realized there was a good chance I would not be harvesting these, come the Halloween celebration.
But even in that sad realization I found community, for I know that someone will cut these pumpkins from their stems in the fall, because that is how islands work.
A community is a place with people who, especially when pumpkin pie is involved, will finish what you started if your path takes you elsewhere. I like to think this is true of the small amount of good I have done these two years. Whether or not I pack each project into a box labeled “finished” and hand it off to someone, I know my hard-to-describe, beautifully messy, and often strange community will find the time to finish anything worth doing that helps those within the island’s rocky boundaries.
Maddy Bruno works with the Islesboro Community Center to support health and wellness programming across the island.