Neighbourliness

I’ve been thinking about neighbourliness. It’s a cumbersome word for what goes on on this island.

My first day here, J, gruff yet kind-hearted neighbour from across the way, appears on the porch as P and I drink wine, recovering from the trip from Vancouver. He never drops by, but he saw the lights on and came over to check. People keep an eye on things here, quietly.

As the light starts to fade and the cedars breathe out their mysterious evening perfume, J lowers himself into a deck chair with the reluctance of the very shy. In his low, halting voice he fills us in on island doings in the past year, who’s moved away, how the winter went, and the latest gossip on the melancholic dude who runs the General Store, the only commercial establishment on the island.

I mention wanting to be able to eat outdoors this summer (there is barely any patio furniture here). He asks us if we have eggs.

The next day, a table arrives for the deck, and local free-range eggs have been placed in my fridge.

It’s been like that all month long, the length of time I am staying here on Remote West Coast Island.

While I’m out walking, G. my next door neighbour brings over her unimaginably tasty garden lettuce, carefully washed and layered in paper towels. As doors remain unlocked here, she leaves them on the kitchen counter. (We ate them last night, dressed only with kosher salt, a splash of balsamic, two splashes of olive oil. They tasted alive, like no storebought greens ever will).

I walk over with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to pass onto her grandsons visiting this weekend.

When 13 year old B was visiting me with her mom, G gifted B with some prints she’s had made, beautiful images of orangutans.

Beloved books with little yellow post-it notes attached get passed from hand to hand.

I call it the eternal potlatch.

This is a large-ish island with a small population. You have to know how to be alone (those long, dark, rainy winters!) and you have to know how to get along. The combination of those two factors, a kind of bitter and a kind of sweet, make being here a uniquely civil and oddly joyous experience. After three years of coming here, I finally get how special this place is.

I never know if I’ll be able to come back, if my academic or research schedule will permit it, if the place will be available next year, if I’ll have the chutzpah to lug books and laptop and clothes and food to a remote island for a month, just to write (and what if I don’t write, or the writing is not good enough to justify the large effort on its behalf?)

But I will carry the shape and spirit of these days and this island inside me for many months after I leave. And that, I’m starting to realize, is the real reason I’m here.

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