Making Room to Remember While Visiting the Isles of Shoals

"It’s the only place I pray."

“The only time the island was closed for the summer was during both world wars. And last year, of course.”

I’m on a boat called the Thomas Laighton leaving the mouth of the Piscataqua River and heading out over seven miles of open ocean to the Isles of Shoals. It’s a trip I’ve taken countless times—mostly as a seasonal employee who lived and worked at the hotel and conference center found on Star Island from the age of 16 well into my 20s. I try to make at least one visit to Star every year. Except last year, of course.

The boat’s tour guide continues to tell stories about the historical landmarks we are passing as we head out to sea. An old fort. A naval shipyard. A lifesaving station that was once operated by the United States Life-Saving Service, precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. Some of the stories the guide tells are different than the ones I heard in my teenage years. Some are corrections. There’s no proof that Walt Disney ever was a convict at the Portsmouth Naval Prison, it turns out. Although it is true that Humphrey Bogart worked there before becoming a Hollywood legend, or at least they’re still telling that story on the tour. There are other corrections—maybe Blackbeard didn’t bury treasure on Lunging Island after all—but new stories too. Things change.

Things also stay the same. When the Thomas Laighton pulls into Gosport Harbor a group of Star employees are at the end of the island’s pier to greet us. I don’t recognize any of them, but they look exactly like we did over twenty years ago. Work boots, wool hats, raggy jeans, and t-shirts faded by the sun.

They also wear life preservers on the off chance one of them falls into the water while going for an errant line. But today the ropes are thrown and caught without fanfare, tied to the cleats as the boat is pulled in tight to the dock. We make our way down the boarding ramp and onto Star Island. Solid ground feels good under my feet after the rocking of the boat, and I walk towards the Oceanic Hotel.

The manager of the island is on the front lawn and I stroll over to say hello. We hug. Years ago, when I was still a teenager and he in his 20s, he talked me out of swimming across the harbor to Smuttynose Island by casually mentioning that the wetsuit I had “borrowed” from the marine lab would make me look like a seal to sharks. Had he mentioned that there’d been a great white spotted in the area? I ended up staying in that night. Safety first.

We make small talk and then he heads down to the boat to greet the other arriving guests. Before he goes we hug again, both of us pretending like hugs are normal and not a gift from God.

There is no town here. No stores, save the small gift shop in the hotel. No cars, save a few trucks used for trash collection. Just an old hotel, a smattering of stone buildings, a couple of graveyards, and the majesty of the Atlantic. When I started working on Star Island there were no computers or cellphones, simply a couple of landlines at the front desk for guests and one landline for all of the employees to share—a black chalkboard on the wall so you could schedule your calls home.

I follow a dirt path up behind the hotel to the highest point on the island. Usually when I come to Star my walk of choice is what’s called “a billy goat.” One complete circumnavigation of the 38 acre island only walking on the rocks, your feet never touching dirt until you are back at the pier again. But today I only have an hour, so I make my way straight to church.

The Stone Chapel was built in 1800, but there were two chapels there before it—the first one erected in 1685 and the second one burned by Shoalers (what residents who once populated the Isles of Shoals were called) in 1790. The fishing communities who used to inhabit these islands made their living off the sea and wanted nothing to do with the mainland, or the many missionaries who ventured to their rocky shores.

It’s the only place I pray.

After taking some time alone in the chapel, I make my way through the Stone Village, past the Art Barn, and out to East Rock. Off the ledge, out in the water, is the Atlantic continental shelf and then nothing but open ocean until you reach Portugal.

As much love as I have for this place, it’s good to remember that there were rough times too. Like the night I spent drunk, legs hanging off the edge of East Rock, staring at the black water and barnacle-covered rocks below. My feet playing with the open air until a friend found me and soothed me off the rock and back to my quarters.

Right now I am surrounded by beauty. I have hugged an old friend and rode a boat crowded with people. Recently I went to a movie and remembered what theater popcorn smells like. Soon I will return to New York City and the electric energy will be enough to make my heart burst. But I want to remember to make space for the sadness too. For the loss. For the grief. To make sure that my brain, desperate to move on, does not entirely erase the last year.

A horn blast from the boat echos out over the harbor and stretches to reach me on East Rock. It’s time to head back to the mainland.

When I worked on Star, with so few distractions, we made our own fun. For many of the workers that usually meant making out on the rocks, drinking on a wooden structure fondly called Shack Deck, and playing cards in our rooms. But once a week we would put on a show for the guests in the hotel lobby. That evening we weren’t maintenance workers or bellhops. Housekeepers or dishwashers. We were artists and musicians. Dancers and storytellers. At the end of the show we would sing the same song every week at the top of our lungs that all but allowed us to yell our humanity directly at the guests. Us in our work boots. Them in their boat shoes.

I had forgotten about this tradition until I’m back in New York City, far from the seacoast of New Hampshire. A couple of friends throw a party and suddenly I am surrounded by people I haven’t seen in so, so long. A woman picks up a guitar and begins to play—the chatter of the party slowly growing quiet. A live performance. I didn’t know how much I missed it. All eyes in the room are on the woman as she continues playing, and I allow myself to quietly cry as the people all around me begin to sing.