By Margie Smith Holt
It’s early morning and I’m on the roof of my building scanning the sky for the waning moon, which is supposed to look like a hammock swaying beneath a blazing Venus, but there are no signs of the celestial show. No surprise. My roof is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and it’s November when, on many days, even the sun is a no-show at sunrise.
Also, I’m cold.
What’s waning is early fall — those couple of months when the city is so glorious: Central Park all gold and red, the Broadway and museum openings, crisp air mixing with the unshakeable belief that at any moment “something good,” to paraphrase Sondheim, “may come cannonballing down through the sky.”
Fall flashes me right back to NYU. (In the ’80s when, Too bad! we were constantly reminded, we had just missed the heyday of Greenwich Village, but hey, you could catch a glimpse of Madonna at the Limelight, and there sure wasn’t any Wegmans on Astor Place.) A nice girl from the Philly burbs, I was E. B. White’s third type of New Yorker, born somewhere else, coming in quest of — and here’s that word again — “something.”
For me, that something was a career in broadcast journalism. I wanted to be a TV reporter and cover the big stories. At 18, I had no doubts that if I worked hard and played by the rules, everything else — love, marriage, kids — would follow.
That frisson of back-to-school, anything-is-possible anticipation is, however, for September and October. It ends when we’re told to turn back the clocks. This time of year, you don’t have to have spent years chasing deadlines to know what’s due any day:
When the days get shorter and the afternoons darker, all I want is to head south to somewhere warmer, preferably tropical and blue-sea adjacent.
One November, on precisely the kind of damp, drizzly day that sent Ishmael off to see the watery part of the world, I did just that, and it changed my life.
I was living back in Philadelphia at the time, 40 was around the corner, and the dreams of that girl at NYU hadn’t quite worked out.
An award-winning run as a television reporter, mostly in my hometown, came to an abrupt end when a bad boss decided she (yes, she) wanted someone younger on the anchor desk. I had started working in nonprofit PR. Not my passion, but it had its perks — mainly better hours, a big plus since I was on the verge of getting married and starting a family. Maybe spending summers at the Jersey Shore. Or so I thought.
Then my relationship ended, too.
Seriously in need of a Plan B, I quit my job, put my stuff in storage, and bought a one-way ticket to the Caribbean.
I landed in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a place of astonishing natural beauty, two-thirds national park, and surrounded by the bluest blue water I had ever seen.
My new quest was simple. I was seeking sunshine. A break from deadlines. Balm for a broken heart.
My new neighbors had other ideas.
I got a waitressing gig at a burger shack called Skinny Legs, met a bunch of bad-ass women who taught me how to sail, and got stalked by a newspaper editor who — over my protests that I didn’t want to do anything resembling my old life — tricked me into writing it all down. I became a reporter again, albeit one who did a lot of interviews in flip-flops and a baseball cap, often sitting at a bar.
I fell in love — with St. John. With her people. With sailing.
I crossed the ocean on a yacht, boat-hopped from one exotic Mediterranean port of call to another, and eventually made my way back to the Caribbean, sailing across the Atlantic in a 30-foot boat with no engine, no electronics, and a bucket for a bathroom. Just me and the captain, who had built the boat himself like something out of Moby Dick. We navigated by compass, plotted our course with pencils, ruler, and paper maps.
Our voyage took the better part of a month. For 16 days we didn’t see land. At night, the sky dripped with stars. I learned the name of every constellation. I watched the moon rise out of the sea. We marked our days by sunrises and sunsets. We sailed across four time zones. And I decided when the time changed.
Are you ever coming back? Friends in Philly would ask.
I didn’t know.
I had achieved, as one city friend would say, cocktail conversation for the rest of my life. But it was so much more than that.
I had always thought of myself as a city girl who loved the ocean, equally comfortable in bare feet and high heels. Equally content in both worlds—even though I seemed to be spending way more time in the one with the shoes and the cold weather. When I moved to St. John, the balance started to shift. Somewhere along the way, an escape had become, simply, life. There was no going “back.” I was only moving forward.
Then I got cancer. Cities trump islands when you need an oncologist.
I returned to Philadelphia for treatment. I was lucky and got cured and, as a bonus, I met a guy. He was a friend of journalist friends who had been following my adventures. Would a visit to NYC lift my spirits?
Steve lived on the Upper West Side and our first date lasted a weekend. We went to hear Irish music in the Village, saw Rigoletto at the Met, and, wanting to do something New York-y that neither of us had ever done, took the D train to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone. (Twice.) We ate and drank in the neighborhood: At Rain. (Gone.) Jackson Hole. (Gone.) Comida. (Gone.) We kissed for the first time on the roof of his building. The calendar tells me there was a waxing quarter moon that night. And I definitely saw stars.
I had fallen into my own West Side love story, one with much better prospects for a happy ending.
Steve and I got married at the Jersey Shore, honeymooned on St. John, and returned to the UWS, my new permanent address. At 46 I was a newlywed and, again, a New Yorker.
Immersed anew in city energy, I vowed not to lose my island sensibilities. I was, after all, still on an island, surrounded by water just a short walk away.
I grounded myself the way I did on the boat: By the sky. I could still see the moon. The sunsets were spectacular. I learned that — except for these weeks, right now, on either side of the winter solstice, when the sun is so far south my own building blocks my view — I could even watch the sun rise from the roof.
I discovered that, save for the occasional call of a blue jay in the park, it’s quiet there, up on the roof.
When I found myself getting so caught up in so-much-to-do that sometimes I forgot about the sky, I set a pair of alarms on my phone. Dusk and dawn reminders to go outside and look up.
And in between, I wrote.
I wrote about my time on St. John, how it inspired me and healed me. I wrote about how maybe — just maybe — I really had found paradise. And just when I had finished writing about this beautiful little island that launched a great adventure and changed the course of my life, two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes tried to wipe it off the map.
I returned to St. John to report on the storms and the devastating aftermath. My story was inextricably entwined with all those victims — survivors — who had helped me get where I am. I wanted to tell their stories, too. I wanted people to fall in love with the islanders and their island the way I did.
Here in my UWS apartment, I rewrote an entire book about the Caribbean, called Not On Any Map. With unflagging support from my New Yorker husband, I got it finished and published.
Don’t you want to go back? Readers ask now.
You see the recurring theme.
I’m tempted to deflect with a joke, or answer with a trite to everything a season, yadda yadda yadda, as another famous UWS-er might have said.
But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of “paradise,” and that feels like a cop-out. So I’ll say this.
There was a brief but intense period in my life that, on a timeline, may look like more of an interlude than a sea change. But the experience pushed my limits, fundamentally altered how I think and what I prioritize. And, in a roundabout way, it brought me right back to New York.
I never want to stop dreaming. But I try to resist this idea, self-imposed or otherwise, that wherever I am, someplace else would be better.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both of my adopted island homes, it’s that things are always going to change — and the better I get at adapting, to just looking around, making peace with it, and recognizing whatever opportunity it brings — friendship, beauty, challenge, purpose — the happier I am.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” Milton writes in Paradise Lost.
Do I want to go back?
On a dreary November morning, you bet.
I want to see the friends I miss and swim in that impossibly blue water. I want to marvel at the resilience of an island battered by climate change. I want to reunite with that piece of my heart that will always be left behind.
I want, in other words, to visit.
Soon come, as they say down there.
But tomorrow, here, I’ll pull on a warm, bulky sweater and walk in the park and watch the last of the leaves fall to the ground. It’s almost Thanksgiving and while the world feels so dark right now — and not just because of some time change — there are many reasons to be grateful.
After that, who knows? It’s New York. It might just be great.
And in a few more weeks, the sun will start to move north again, and one morning, not too far off, I’ll be able to see it rise right over the park while standing on my UWS roof. My home.
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