Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Psychic Maps

This was my script. While speaking, I embellished, compressed, and improvised a bit, but this is the gist of what I said. Before I started, I clipped a road map of Martha's Vineyard to a banner behind the podium and just to my right.

Which Martha's Vineyard do you live on?

Now there's a strange question. How many Martha's Vineyards are there? Just one, right? This one here.

We all recognize the map as Martha's Vineyard, but is this the map we use to get around the island? Not if we live here. Maps like this one are for tourists and newcomers. The map we navigate by day after day is the map in our head. Call it our psychic map.

Have you ever walked down a street -- say Circuit Avenue here in Oak Bluffs -- and gone into a new shop, only to discover that the shop isn't new at all; it's been right there for two or three years? It wasn't on your psychic map. You might have walked by it a hundred times, but you never really saw it.

If you're in business, you probably put plenty of effort into getting your store or company onto other people's psychic maps. You want them to think of you when they need whatever service or product you're selling, and even when they don't.

On my psychic map of Martha's Vineyard, State Road ends right around my friend Cris's house, across from Rainbow Farm, where it's Chilmark on one side of the road and West Tisbury on the other. Except when I have to go to the dentist -- his office is in Edgartown -- my Martha's Vineyard starts to dissolve about half a mile east of Barnes Road. The Martha's Vineyard I live on looks something like this. [Here I blocked off Chilmark and Aquinnah with one piece of construction paper, and Edgartown with another.] If I had a Magic Marker, I'd darken State Road and Old County Road so they looked like major arteries. On my psychic map, that's what they are.

Probably no one in this room has a psychic map that looks exactly like mine. No two people in this room have exactly the same psychic map of Martha's Vineyard, but our maps all have some features in common. I'm willing to bet that the Ocean View is on the psychic map of everybody in this room, at least on Wednesday. What else is on your psychic map?

No matter what our lives on Martha's Vineyard look like, nearly all of us adults have two regular activities: we buy groceries and we get the mail. So everyone's psychic map will include at least one grocery store and at least one post office -- even if you get your mail from a box on the road, when you need stamps or someone sends you a parcel that won't fit in the box, you go to a post office. What post office do you go to most often? OK, visualize yourself going to that post office. What road do you take? Where do you usually park?

For as long as I've lived on Martha's Vineyard -- that's going on 25 years now -- I've gotten my mail at the West Tisbury post office. When the main West Tisbury post office was at Alley's General Store, Alley's loomed large on my psychic map. When it moved down-island to its current location, my psychic map began to change. Over the months and years, Alley's faded and the stretch of road between the Tisbury-West Tisbury town line -- near which I was living -- and the new post office became more and more detailed. My mailing address didn't change, but my experience of getting my mail did.

For more than half my time on Martha's Vineyard, I lived in Vineyard Haven, so I also know the Vineyard Haven post office pretty well. I still go there fairly often. Both it and the West Tisbury post office are on my psychic map.

The Edgartown post office is not on my psychic map. I go there at most once a year. Going to the Edgartown p.o. can be a nerve-racking experience. Until I see the entrance to the mini-mall, I'm not sure where to turn off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, so either I poke along scrutinizing the exits and entrances, or I come to a screeching halt to avoid missing my turn. Once in the parking lot, I'm befuddled by the lines on the asphalt -- they're all of different lengths and where the hell am I supposed to park?

Keep in mind that I deal with odd-shaped parking lots all the time. The West Tisbury post office, where I get my mail, shares its parking lot with up-island Cronig's. Between the cars, trucks, pedestrians, and VTA buses, not to mention the occasional cyclist or skateboarder, navigating that parking lot is like running an obstacle course where all the obstacles are moving. The parking lot between Granite and the Edgartown post office isn't that bizarre -- I just don't know it very well.

So, having parked my pickup, I proceed to the post office door. I open it -- now what? Which way do I go? I don't recognize a soul, either in line or behind the counter. I buy my stamps, relieved that the clerks accept the currency I've got in my wallet, because it feels as though I'm in another country. In a way I am. I've fallen off the edge of my psychic map and into unknown territory.

For a day or two or three after I've been to Edgartown, there's a dim glow on my psychic map representing the Edgartown post office, but it soon fades to almost nothing. Intellectually I know that every day cars are driving into that parking lot -- all day long, people are getting out of those cars and walking to the post office. The Edgartown post office, and Granite, and the bank, and Edgartown Pizza, are vital parts of the psychic maps of many Vineyarders -- but they're not on my map.

That is how I know that there are many Martha's Vineyards, not just one. They overlap at many points -- I'll bet that the Steamship Authority dock in Vineyard Haven is on just about everybody's map -- but no two of our Martha's Vineyards are exactly the same.

When a place doesn't exist on your psychic map, going there can be downright scary. In 1985 I left an urban community where I knew the ropes pretty well and landed on Martha's Vineyard, where I didn't know anything. The most detailed area on my psychic map was Tisbury Great Pond and the three miles of the Edgartown Road between the airport and Alley's. I had the psychic map of a summer person, and I was planning to stay for the winter. By the end of September, nearly all the people I knew had left. I knew exactly one year-round islander.

Fortunately some people are very good at expanding the psychic maps of others, and within a few months I had met one of them: the late Mary Payne, the founder and artistic director of Island Theatre Workshop. For those of you who didn't know her: Mary was a pint-sized dynamo who rarely took "no" for an answer, especially when she was recruiting for things theatrical. (She probably hit at least some of you up for ads, or window space to put a poster in, or items to clothe actors or furnish sets with.) She thought that theater should be on everyone's psychic map, whether they knew it or not. I didn't need much persuading. I'm a performer at heart, and I'd been reading my poetry in public for several years. Besides, I didn't know anybody on Martha's Vineyard and I needed a life.

Rehearsals were then under way for ITW's production of Molière's The Miser. Come by Katharine Cornell Theatre, said Mary, and we'll put you to work. My first winter rental wasn't far from Five Corners, and I'd done lots of walking around Vineyard Haven, so I knew how to get there. I knew that Katharine Cornell Theatre was above the Tisbury town hall on Spring Street. Mary rattled off the rehearsal schedule, most of which I promptly forgot, but I knew what her car looked like. If her car was parked on Spring Street, it was a good bet that a rehearsal was in progress.

Sounds simple, right? It wasn't. I knew where Katharine Cornell Theatre was, and what its exterior looked like, but it takes more than that to put a place on a person's psychic map. In a way, the theater was on my psychic map. It was the place at the edge of the known world where the old maps used to say HERE BE DRAGONS. Danger danger danger! I knew there were no dragons above the Tisbury town hall, or alligators or snapping turtles either. What I imagined was a huge, dimly lit space, like a warehouse, with ceiling so high and walls so far away that I couldn't even see them. In the far, far distant opposite corner there was light, and tiny people moving around with apparent purpose: theater people. It was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The people were absorbed in what they were doing. They didn't notice me. They were theater people, and I was not.

The space was overwhelmingly vast, the people so distant and so oblivious to my presence. I didn't dare go in. I didn't want those people to look at me like an annoying trespasser. I'd blurt out some explanation that began with "Mary said . . ." and they'd say, "Mary? Mary who? Anyone hear know someone named Mary?"

So I'd walk by the town hall at hours when no rehearsal could possibly be going on. That way I had an excuse for not going in.

One afternoon I mustered the nerve to walk up the stairs. Mary's car was parked on Spring Street, so I knew there was a rehearsal going on. I walked up one flight, passed the double doors, and continued down the other side, without stopping. I didn't dare open the door. What if I went in and didn't recognize anybody? What if no one recognized me?

Well, Mary noticed that I hadn't shown up at a rehearsal, and like I said, she didn't take no for an answer. She kept nagging me and I was running out of excuses -- the kind of plausible excuses that you can actually say to someone's face. I wasn't about to say, "I haven't come to rehearsal because I'm afraid that Katharine Cornell Theatre is this huge dark cavern and no one will recognize me and they won't know who you are." That sounded so ridiculous that opening the door seemed less scary. Besides, it sounded as though Mary really wanted me to show up.

So one afternoon I opened the door and went in.

My immediate impression was an all-enveloping green -- the pea-soup green of the old seats, bathed in light from the several tall windows on two facing walls. The stage was across the room, but even that wasn't far away; I'd been in living rooms that were larger than this theater. There were several people about, and to my immense relief one of them was Mary. There were also several dogs, a small black one, a small white one, and a medium-sized one that looked at least part border collie.

Walking through that door stretched my psychic map of Martha's Vineyard to at least double its previous size. All I did for The Miser was to help with PR -- writing press releases, putting up posters, that kind of thing. This was enough to get me admitted free to any performances I wanted, and that was enough to get me hooked on theater. Theater people became my first island family, the ones I hung out with and learned the ropes from, the ones who invited me to join them for holidays and special events. Theater also expanded and enriched my relationship to the written word; when, many years later, I was working on my novel, I drew continually on what I'd learned in island theater, as a stage manager, actor, and reviewer.

More than a dozen years after I first set foot in Katharine Cornell Theatre, not long after I'd got back into horses after 30 years away, I was startled to hear another horsewoman ask where Katharine Cornell Theatre was. This woman was only a little younger than I, she'd grown up in West Tisbury, and she didn't know where Katharine Cornell was? Further conversation revealed that she, of course, knew where the Tisbury town hall was; she just didn't realize that the space above it had been Katharine Cornell Theatre since 1971.

This mystified me -- until I'd been involved with horses for a year or so. Having a horse pretty much takes over your life. If you work full-time, it doesn't leave much time for other recreation. Theater likewise eats up all the free time you have available, and then some, especially when you're involved in a production. This other woman had been involved with horses nearly all her life, while working full-time and raising a family. I was no longer surprised that Katharine Cornell Theatre and the whole island theater scene weren't on her psychic map, or that horse people and theater people tend to live on such different Martha's Vineyards that they don't run into each other very often, or know each other very well.

Psychic maps aren't just three-dimensional. They have a fourth dimension: time. Once upon a time, there was a car wash behind Alley's General Store, and then a laundromat. Those long-gone places are still on my psychic map, even though they aren't on any current paper or online map.

This road map doesn't acknowledge time. If a new road is cut today, it won't magically appear on the map. This map doesn't change through the seasons either. As far as the map is concerned, Martha's Vineyard in January looks just like Martha's Vineyard in July. You and I know better. We know that it takes more time to get from West Tisbury to Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven to Edgartown in July than it does in January -- barring a major snowstorm, of course. The distance doesn't change, but the time required to travel it does.

My psychic map of Martha's Vineyard exists in all four seasons. For many, many people, Martha's Vineyard exists at most during four months of the year: June, July, August, and September. Summer residents and visitors have a very different psychic map of Martha's Vineyard than year-round residents do. I didn't know this until I moved here.

In the early 1980s, when I was still living in Washington, D.C., I read a story in the Washington Post's Sunday magazine section about people on Cape Cod who had to move twice a year. Year-round rentals were hard to find because landlords wanted to get top dollar renting to summer residents and vacationers. The upside was that winter rentals were cheap and plentiful. The downside was that you had to find somewhere else to live during "the season," which might run from the first of May to the first of October, and that during "the season" affordable accommodations were very hard to find. I was shocked. How could anyone live this way?

So I landed on Martha's Vineyard on changeover weekend of 1985, and in the next three years I moved eight times. Moving twice a year was hard, but it was no longer shocking. Plenty of my friends and acquaintances were doing the same thing. My psychic map of Martha's Vineyard was expanding. I was making the transition from summer visitor to year-round resident.

During my first year on the Vineyard I wrote a poem about it. I called it "Picture Postcards," and it goes like this:

At Alley's, picking postcards from the rack
beside her friend, the stylish lady says,
"The year-round folk are taciturn and mad.
There's no one here in winter." So she says.
"The isolation does it. Makes them mad
as hatters." Squatting down to get my mail,
I mutter to the wall, "How madly glad
I'll be when all you summer folk have sailed
away to entertainments, mainland style.
Next summer I'll be local color, wild
and surly, stinking like a lobster boat,
and making snide remarks to tourists. No,
I won't appear in any postcard scene,
where waves stand still, and every beach is clean."

That turned out to the first sonnet in a six-sonnet sequence called "Winter Rental," about, you guessed it, moving twice a year and, more generally, about my first year as a year-round Vineyard resident.

My second winter on Martha's Vineyard, I started volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse, whose home that winter was at the youth hostel on the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. I worked in the kitchen, making coffee and popping corn. I also organized a few programs featuring the spoken word, and got plenty of practice reading at open mikes -- when you read poetry to an audience that's primed for music, you can't afford to be boring. So one evening I read the whole "Winter Rental" sequence. The last poem begins this way:

The planet's very axis must be skewed
to make these lopside seasons. Here it's spring
yet we prepare to pull our winter roots
and move again. Relentless summer flings
the unattached before it, so we cling
like barnacles to shells, or learn to ride
the tidal wave like surfers. . . .

A woman came up to me afterward. She said she'd enjoyed my reading, but she thanked me especially for the "Winter Rental" poems. She and her kids moved twice a year. They were managing, but it was hard. And this was the first time she'd heard a poem or story that spoke to her experience.

This is the kind of thing that keeps a writer going: to know that her words have made a difference to another person. I kept writing poetry and giving readings. I also went to work for the Martha's Vineyard Times first as a typesetter, then as a proofreader, and eventually as the editor of the Calendar and Community sections. I reviewed lots of plays and wrote lots of feature stories. Newspapers can be a hub of a community's life: all sorts of people find their way there, to place ads, pay bills, deliver press releases, or chat with one of the editors or reporters. For a relative newcomer, which I still was, there's no better way to expand your psychic map of a place. All I had to do was listen.

But writers do more than listen. Writers, like actors, musicians, photographers, visual artists, storytellers, and others, have the potential to expand the psychic maps of everyone who comes in contact with their work. We can take you to new places, introduce you to new people, or perhaps show you familiar places and people from different angles.

To make a long story short, that's how I came to write The Mud of the Place. I had written poems about Martha's Vineyard, stories about Martha's Vineyard, newspaper articles and op-eds and essays about Martha's Vineyard, but the longer I lived here, the more clear it became to me that the story I wanted to tell wouldn't fit into a single poem, or story, essay, or play. I wanted to take readers behind the scenes, to show a little about how people and places interact with each other to get things done -- or not. For this I needed a bigger canvas. I'd never written a novel before. I'd never written anything longer than 40 pages. I had no idea how I was going to do it, and now I couldn't tell you in any detail exactly how I did.

But here it is.

In The Mud of the Place I'm still talking back to that woman at Alley's who said, "There's no one here in winter." As its title suggests, The Mud of the Place takes place at the tail end of mud season, in late April and very early May. And I've never forgotten the woman who loved my "Winter Rental" poems -- not to mention that I've moved twelve times in my twenty-five years here. As I got to know my characters, I asked them the same questions:

What do you want?

What are you afraid of?

Where do you live, and how do you pay for it?

Often they weren't sure, or they didn't want to talk about it, but I persisted. Leslie, the newspaper reporter in the novel, was embarrassed both because she was living rent-free in the summer house owned by her parents and because here she was, working for a weekly newspaper, at an age when her journalist father had already won a Pulitzer Prize. Alice has nowhere to live: the house she was living in with her young son just burned down, and what she wants most in the world is to move off-island to where she grew up and where her mother and sisters still live. Shannon managed to buy her own house, with help from her neighbors and a former partner, and she's doing pretty well as a graphic artist and volunteer -- but she's also a talented painter who locked the door to her studio several years before and doesn't dare unlock it. Her friend Jay, a native islander who lived off-island for twenty years and then moved back to take a perfect job, is afraid he'll lose both the job and the love of his family if they find out he's gay. And Wayne, Jay's ex-brother-in-law, blames Jay for the breakup of his marriage to Jay's sister and will stop at nothing to get even.

It takes about 400 pages for them, and several others, to work it all out, but they manage pretty well, with a lot of help from their friends. They open some doors and close others. Some psychic maps expand in the process. Others resist change and even begin to shrink.

Most of the places in The Mud of the Place are probably on the psychic maps of everyone in this room, although some of them no longer exist, like the old terminal at the Martha's Vineyard Airport, and the Get a Life Café. But you won't run into any of the characters at the post office, or the grocery store, or walking down Circuit Ave. I can show you on this map where each of them lives, but if you go looking, you won't find their houses. If you want to add them to your psychic map, well -- you'll have to read the book.

 

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