Life at an Appropriate Scale, or why I live 23 miles out to sea

When I first came to Ocracoke, North Carolina in the early 90s, I was working on a book and needed a place to make the final push. I’ve been coming back as a visitor and then to work part of the season here. Like so many, I am drawn back again and again by the endless stretch of ocean, the richness of island culture, and the pace. But there’s more.

My friend Debbie tells of returning from a holiday trip to Atlanta, walking back into the Variety Store (if they don’t have it, you really don’t need it), and breathing a deep sigh of relief. “This is life at an appropriate scale,” she remarked to me later, adding that she would not miss the big-box stores of the big city.

The phrase, “life at an appropriate scale,” continues to ring out when people ask me why I have chosen to spend increasingly more time out here. Being on a small island with no traffic light, movie theatre or Target helps me remember the difference between what is essential and what is extra. It gives me a new perspective on my patterns of consumption, what I consider to be entertaining, and how I most want to spend my days. And this sandbar, at the mercy of the whims of nature, also reminds me so viscerally how bigger forces impact our fates.

In 2013, I decided to spend much of the fall and winter on the island. Friends cautioned me about the dual hardships of isolation and dampness, but I am a practiced hermit and was undeterred. I loved how the energy began to quiet towards the end of October; it seemed that with each passing week something else fell away. The pervasive noise of air conditioner and compressor units faded out and the population dropped to its year-round level. People had more time to connect and with most restaurants closed for the winter. I was invited to potlucks and movie nights. In December, Christmas lights sparkled throughout the village and the season was full of community festivities. I had time to volunteer at the Ocracoke Preservation Society, and helping to organize the archives allowed me to literally touch more of Ocracoke’s history.

Slowly, my own life on the island grew more spacious. I spent my days writing and working, cooking and sewing. I went for a long walk at the ocean every day, relishing an empty beach, frequent dolphin sightings and the magical two months of the Snowy Owl visitation in 2014. Instead of feeling lonely, I felt more connected to the natural landscape, to myself and to God.

When friends say, “Welcome home” each time I arrive back, I feel the truth of those words because I feel I am in the right place. I have become more invested, for example, in how people will continue to navigate some of the juicy tensions here, particularly how the island celebrates the compelling history of its past while still preparing for the future, with all of its economic and environmental unknowns.

I now have a library card, a commuter pass and a post office box on the island. So I think I am likely to be part of the future as well.

A version of this article first appeared on the Ocracoke Observer.