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Stop and smell the lilacs

| Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Let me introduce you to a little island between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. The name, once ‘Mitchimakinak’ now shortened to Mackinac, comes from the Native American word for “Great Turtle.” If you pronounce the ‘c’ in front of me, prepare to be ostracized.

You can only visit Mackinac by ferry, meaning there are no cars. Instead, the Island teems with bikes and horse-drawn carriages. Home to the world’s best fudge, epic limestone geological formations and historic Fort Mackinac, you wouldn’t believe how much life is squeezed into that little island.

Okay, enough of the travel brochure. Can you tell I love Mackinac? Trust me, I don’t use that word lightly. In fact, I think it’s extremely overused. Still, it stands. I love Mackinac Island. 

For some background, I worked at the Mackinac Island Town Crier last summer, and the almost-magical place once scattered throughout my childhood became even more amazing than the island I thought I knew. Despite the rose-colored glasses of youth, Mackinac exceeded expectations in a way I didn’t expect.

While working at the newspaper, I had the opportunity to meet an array of local characters and experience the ins and outs of daily life on Mackinac. I tried to explore every corner of the place, and it proved so much bigger than I originally thought. From the sequestered apartments above Main Street shops and the slanting white steeple of Sainte Anne’s to the Grand Hotel’s swanky dancing room filled with live jazz to Fort Holmes at the highest point on the Island and everywhere in between. (Seriously, if you need Mackinac hiking, restaurant or activity recommendations, please come find me. I swear no one is paying me to say this.)

These things would not have been so memorable if not for the people who made them that way: the incredible Island employees I befriended, the locals who described how the Island changed throughout the generations, the tourists visiting from around the world, the Jamaican seasonal workers I played soccer with each week and the seasoned business managers who made a point to learn my name.

And even though I love Mackinac now more than ever, it’s different than when I was a kid. Back then, I only saw the bright side of things.

Last summer, I witnessed a fire break out in a historic cottage, a bomb threat on the Mackinac Bridge and plenty of other horse droppings (literally and figuratively).

Most heart-wrenching, in July, the Mackinac Island Town Crier ran a brief report in the Friday paper about an Island employee who was found dead at the base of Arch Rock, a prominent tourist destination.

When I first arrived, the keyhole-shaped rock was pretty to look at, but after news of the death, it took on a more nuanced role.

When my friends and I woke at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise through that rock during our last week together, “pretty” would have been an insult to the tension of the moment. Sadness and a hefty sense of disillusionment battled with gratitude and a resolve to do more. I still can’t quite describe it, but I definitely better understand what Ernest Hemingway meant by “the sun also rises.”

No, the Straits of Mackinac couldn’t protect my friends and me from the grimmer parts of human existence, but they did force us to appreciate the little things and appreciate each other.

Bad news struck, yes, but it only made the place more real. And I’ve never been a big fan of loving things that aren’t genuine. 

On Mackinac, there were sad news articles, long days of work, rude vacationers and difficult assignments, but hey, if you bike quickly, you can still make it to West Bluff in time to watch the sunset. There was something magical about the ordinary and the simple, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the sad stories. At least for the month of June, it was actually difficult not to stop and smell the lilacs. I’m not kidding. They’re everywhere

It’s hard to pin down my experience working on Mackinac to just one phrase, but if I had to pick, I think that’s what I’d say:

Stop and smell the lilacs.

The lilacs bloomed along the sidewalks of Grand Hill last summer.Maggie Eastland | The Observer
The lilacs bloomed along the sidewalks of Grand Hill last summer.

These are a lot of things journalists don’t cover in the newspaper. We try with feature stories and heartwarming photographs, but most of these lilac moments come and go before anyone has a chance to snap a photo or write down a quote. (The irony of writing a column on this topic is not lost on me.)

Even a ferry and a state away, I can’t stop thinking about those lilacs, those people who blossomed into friends right before my eyes and those memories I’ll cherish forever.

And here at Notre Dame, I can’t help but stop and admire the little snow ducks on the sidewalk, or the way the morning sun beams through the windows of North Dining Hall, or a friend’s smile as she waves to me from across the quad or a dried hydrangea blossom blowing across the sidewalk like tumbleweed. 

No, these things don’t plaster the front page. They don’t make up for the horrors of an unjust war happening in Ukraine. They don’t compensate for the anxiety you might be dealing with. They don’t solve grief caused by the death of a loved one. But maybe life was never meant to be calculus.

The flowers are going to grow regardless. You might as well give them a sniff. 

Maybe, just maybe, the little things aren’t so little after all. Maybe they even give you the hope to make the bigger dreams possible. That might be an overly optimistic hypothesis, but there’s one thing I do know for sure.

My blip of a summer on an island only eight miles around doesn’t feel very little right now, and I hope it stays that way.

You can contact Maggie at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Maggie Eastland

Maggie Eastland is an Observer Assistant Managing Editor majoring in Finance and minoring in Journalism, Education, and Democracy at Notre Dame. When she's not writing business news, you can find her reading a book, going for a run, or carrying around a bottle of Heinz ketchup.

Contact Maggie