Somewhere back there this spring we celebrated 15 years of living here in Prince Edward Island. Our anniversaries were a little out of sync: I came in the true dead of winter, Catherine followed on a month later when the trees were just opening up. I was 26 years old when we made the move, an age that I recall seemed very old at the time and now seems impossibly young.
I’d known Catherine for all of two years; as her grandmother told me the day before I set off from Ontario, moving east was about as close as we were every likely to come to getting married. And she was right.
We came for 18 months, two years if I did a good job and had my contract extended. I truly don’t think either of us expected to stay longer than that. But we bought a house, found some friends, got other jobs, found some more friends, moved to town and bought another house, had a child, got other jobs, and just kind of forgot to leave. Not a unique experience, certainly — the woods are full of summer visitors with a VW microbus that broke down in 1968 and hasn’t gotten around to being fixed yet.
Our love for the Island has been nowhere near consistent, nor has it always been requited. There have been months — years — when it felt like we were trapped on a remote Island prison. Mostly these episodes have passed. But not completely. What can one day feel like the warm embrace of a close-knit community can sometimes, the next, feel xenophobic and insular. But the good, somewhat aided by inertia, ultimately outweighs the bad.
As much as here feels like home now — I’ve lived on PEI longer than I’ve lived anywhere else — I’ve reconciled myself to always being more of an anthropologist than a true resident. For the longest time I found this frustrating. Then I began to realize that anthropology can be fun too (and the well here is very deep — and it grows deeper the more you look at it). And so I’ve ended up in a not-unpleasant purgatory with one foot on the Island, the other in the, um, real world.
David Weale, in his book Chasing the Shore, writes the paragraph that for me best captures what being a Prince Edward Islander means:
Being a Prince Edward Islander is something different: something layered over top of being an islander. It’s not about land, sea, and shore, but about custom and tradition, and being influenced by powerful undercurrents of ethnicity, piety, and political tribalism. It’s about the unwritten laws of community life and the tricky and deliberate dynamics of inter-personal relations within a tightly knit community where little is forgiven and nothing forgotten. It’s about feeling alert to those nuances of body language, and subtleties of vocal inflection that signal approval or anger; about being proud and prickly and deferential all at the same time; about learning the art of understatement; and, sometimes, about making a fist in your pocket. And, as in every other place in the world, it’s about pursuing our own visions of kindness, and our own habits of cruelty.
You could spend a lifetime parsing those words and trying to understand how they play out in those that circle round you. I suppose that’s what I’m doing.