Charity’s column: Are we O.K.?

On Memorial Day weekend, I went for a bike ride, and hit a pothole. I was going slowly when my front wheel went in, so as I flew over the handlebars, I had plenty of time to reflect on my fate. This could end very badly, I thought. It’s the same way I felt about Shelter Island’s fate in the first weeks of the pandemic. Are we going to be O.K.?

The strangest summer season is now under way. The events have been cancelled, the inns are empty, and restaurants will soon supplement their take-out and truck offerings with outdoor dining.

The rental market entered a time warp, with more people seeking a place to hunker down for the entire season than we’ve seen since the days of commuter dads and stay-at-home moms. Children who would ordinarily be in school somewhere else are riding their bikes and splashing in pools (when not studying). On weekdays, the Island feels like one big bungalow colony.

This all sounds nice, but it comes with real pain for Islanders struggling to adapt their livelihood and their lives to this strange season. Some of them are going to be O.K., but some are not.

Suzette Smith teaches exercise and stretching year-round to a devoted group of Islanders, and as I sat on the side of the road beside my slightly-bent bike, I was grateful for the flexibility I developed in Suzette’s pilates class. I was bruised and sore, but not broken. A week later, a black eye was the only sign of my inability to escape the yawning jaws of that asphalt abyss.

Suzette’s classes, which she started teaching on Zoom when she was forced to close her studios in March, had probably saved me a trip to the ER in midst of a pandemic, but her business has been broken by the coronavirus.

Still paying rent, but with no way to conduct group classes, she’s trying to make it work by teaching every day, but she needs a lot more people in her online classes to keep going. Her business, like so many other year-round businesses on the Island, is not OK.

In March, to keep students, their families and teachers safe, our school stopped holding classes in classrooms, all team sports ended abruptly and “Matilda,” well into rehearsals and poised to be one of the best spring musicals the Island has ever seen, stopped in its tracks. For seniors in particular, the pain of losing the best part of their big year has been acute. Senior Jonas Kinsey wrote about his feelings of loss in the June issue of The Inlet saying, “I guess this is what real grief feels like.”

Students are also facing a summer without guaranteed employment that has practically been a Shelter Island birthright. With many of the largest employers closed, including Sunset Beach, The Pridwin and Camp Quinipet, summer jobs are scarce.

This summer will be hard for older people, as well. Shelter Island has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the country; a person living here can reasonably expect to live into their 90s. Before COVID-19, nonagenarians were everywhere, in the pharmacy, at the library, lining the pews and cruising the aisles at the IGA.

Town leaders such as Supervisor Gerry Siller and Police Chief Jim Read acted early and stayed “ahead of the curve.” The town rolled out senior-specific shopping hours, deployed over 80 volunteer errand-runners for people who could not go out, normalized the use of sanitizers and masks, and helped shape new rules for recycling, ferry riding and picking up mail.

In spite of every precaution, two residents died from effects of the virus, and families who lost a loved one, whether through the virus or other causes, could not mourn them in the usual way.

Meanwhile, in the natural world, things are going well. Every week this spring, 65 people, including me, have watched their inbox for the weekly email from Linda Hacker-Toner, organizer of the Mashomack nest box project, a volunteer-led initiative that tries to boost the population of tree swallows and Eastern Bluebirds by protecting and maintaining nesting sites. This year, the virus has kept most of the volunteers in their own nest boxes, unable to participate in the annual account of bluebird reproduction.

Early in nesting season, Linda reported disappearing eggs, and dead hatchlings, but June brought better news — 18 eggs at last count, a number so robust that the Mashomack bluebirds could challenge Sylvester Manor’s hens to a laydown.

“In spite of our earlier losses, the bluebirds are on track to have a good solid year,” Linda said. “The number of eggs now is positive.”

It helps that the birds are doing well, because many of us humans are feeling real loss, whether it’s lost opportunity, lost income, or the loss of someone we love. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.”

About bike riding, I have learned something. That thing about wearing a helmet? That worked out well. I’m definitely sticking with that.

I’ve also learned something about Shelter Island. I used to wonder if we really do take better care of each other than other places. Now, I think we do.

I like the way we shop in each other’s stores, and eat locally made food. The way we look after children and older people. The way we support people who have lived here since the 1950s, and people who came over on the ferry this morning to enjoy our pebbly beaches and catch some fish.

Maybe this pandemic is a hard fall, but I think we are going to be all right.