Retreat on Star Island: Minds clear, cares fall away

We will come back, we did come back. We are Shoalers!

Lynn Veazey Rockwell

"Oceanic, Oceanic, rah, rah, rah..."

'When we go out from the Chapel to meet the world,
we carry in our hearts
something of the strength of the granite,
something of the peace and quiet,
which we find within these walls.'

Candlelight service was held at Stone Chapel.

Suspended between hazy summer and crisp fall are a few perfect days in September.  Enjoying just such an afternoon, we headed out to Star Island in the Isles of Shoals for our weekend conference, departing from Rye Harbor State Marina on the 149-passenger Captain’s Lady.  Our luggage was to come on a separate boat later in the day.  No matter – we were on our way to retreat, reflect and renew, and such concerns could melt away as we headed across the ocean on such a glorious day.  The fresh breeze and salt spray filled the senses, allowing minds to clear and cares to fall away in the short half-hour trip.

Approaching the islands reveals the lighthouse on White Island, various cottages and buildings smattered on the shores, all dominated by the Oceanic House on Star.  As a first-timer, I was unprepared for the spirited chant from the dock –  “S_T_A_R,  S_T_A_R, Oceanic, Oceanic, rah, rah, rah.  You did come back, you did come back, you did come back!” Clearly, many of my fellow passengers were repeat Shoalers, as they enthusiastically shouted right back – “S_T_A_R,  S_T_A_R, Oceanic, Oceanic, rah, rah, rah.  We did come back, we did come back, we did come back!”  We quickly disembarked and headed up to check in.  The huge main lobby and front desk feel as if stepping back in time, providing a glimpse into the life of the Grand Hotel Era.  We were efficiently registered and immediately directed to the mandatory Orientation Session to review safety regulations and policies on island living.

The familiar landing dock as seen from the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island.

Fire is the greatest threat on the island.  The hotel management has worked closely with the Town of Rye Fire Department to develop safe practices that are strictly enforced.  As many of the conferences held on Star Island are spiritual in nature the use of open flame is of special concern.  Special lanterns are used instead of candles.  Smoking is limited to a certain safe porch, and sensitive smoke detectors and sprinklers are everywhere.  Fire drills are held frequently, at unpredictable times.  The intensity of the lecture is a poignant reminder that we are 10 miles across the ocean away from the fire trucks and safety vehicles that we normally take for granted.

There are three kinds of water: drinking water, cistern water, and salt water.  Drinking water is produced by two desalinization (reverse-osmosis) units and must be used sparingly.  Cistern water, collected from rainwater, is used for showers, which are offered infrequently.  Salt water is used in the waste disposal system, which, naturally, must be treated with respect, with nothing extra being flushed.

Dangerous weather signs are reviewed, with extra emphasis on the seriousness of lightning and the swiftness with which squalls can approach.  Preservation of nature, no littering, and respect for animals, artifacts and poison ivy seem rather minor and obvious after such a safety lecture.  Fortunately, mild weather was predicted for the entire weekend.

The peace and beauty of the rocky island jump out at you.  Exploration time is all we crave.  The paths are winding, the huge rocks are inviting.  The sea surrounds you on all sides, compelling you to watch as the waves throw themselves against the rocks.  The ocean smell, the seagull’s calls, the sparkling sun and the splashing waves are immediately calming. The huge wrap-around porch is covered with rocking chairs, inviting you to rest and reflect.  The serenity is pervasive, and you instinctively preserve it, for yourself and for others.  There are a few hundred people sharing this island with you, yet you can be as social or as alone as you wish. Throughout the weekend, we all engaged in the ebb and flow of public and private, as the mood or the schedule allowed, but always there was the call of the sea surrounding us, gently slowing our pace and our pulse, and I sensed no tension all weekend among the conferees as we went about the task of unwinding together.

The rooms were small, comfortable, and unpretentious.  After a short nap, dinner in the buffet-style dining room was ready.  Delicious, hearty food was expertly served.  The workers behind the scenes, providing all of the food, maintenance and hotel services, are approximately 100 young adults known as Pelicans, who clearly love the island and become a very close knit group over the summer.  Former Pelicans are special alumni, and have their own unique conference every summer based on this shared experience.  I envied their opportunity to see the island in all its variety of moods and seasons.

The luggage arrived after dinner without a hitch.  I missed the sunset as I was busy talking at dinner, but vowed to see it the next day.  Our group gathered for a wonderful evening program.  Though it had been a full day, being so far from the light pollution of our normal life allows for a greater appreciation of nature’s beauty, and I couldn’t resist walking out among the clear night with hundreds more stars than I can usually see.  Most of us were housed upstairs in the hotel, some in the surrounding cottages, and we headed to bed to sleep soundly.  Our conference leader’s motorized wheelchair was able to take him almost everywhere he needed to be, which was a relief, as older facilities can often be a concern.

Saturday brought gorgeous weather, and we all realized that we had over-packed.  We landlubbers had assumed that we would be cold out in the ocean.  Windbreakers were helpful for the sea breeze, but were quickly discarded, as it was easy to warm up while hopping rocks, strolling paths, sitting in the sun or attending our various conference events.  There were four distinct groups doing separate conferences – Yoga, Women, Contra Dance and Singing, and we co-existed perfectly.  There was room enough in the facilities to each have our own space without disturbing others, yet comfortable public spaces for cross interaction.  My particular conference was fabulous and enriching, and the sunset was breathtaking.

Pond adds to sense of calm; Rev. Tucker monument is seen in distance.

In the evening, we participated in a long-standing tradition of the Candlelight Service.  With special lanterns, we climbed the path in complete silence to the little stone chapel at the top of the hill.  The lanterns are hung inside the chapel, and no words are spoken except those of the service until we return the lanterns to the porch.  We read from Allison Brayton that “When we go out from the Chapel to meet the world, we carry in our hearts something of the strength of the granite, something of the peace and quiet, which we find within these walls.”

Sunday morning brought small rustling noises in the hall from the extra-early risers.  I joined them and was treated to a glorious sunrise from the eastern rocks, looking out across the huge ocean expanse.  Another half day of conference programs, a group photo on the porch, and then it was time for our boat departure.  As we left, we all chanted again “We will come back, we will come back, we will come back,” for we now knew the magic pull of Star Island.  We were Shoalers!

Seemingly a stone's throw away is Appledore with Smuttynose to right.

(Top two photos are by Lynn Veazey Rockwell; others by Jayne de Constant who went on Isles retreat last year.)

October, 2006