I quickly discovered a lot of magic in my island house.
A lot of people were looking for me because I was a poet, not just the local dentist. I was becoming well known off Shelter Island and among the large community of artists who lived in the East End.
Here I was getting closer to a growing number of artists from all walks of life who were sources of encouragement and consolation for me. Among them were August Mosca, Luiz Coehlo and Bob Markell, who have all become precious friends. One was a man from Ram Island named Harold Schonberg. Harold is still, all these years after his death, considered the father of classical music critics. Another was Nik Cohn, known as the “Father of Rock Critics”. And one of them was author and journalist Robert Hughes, considered the world’s most important art critic. All of them had homes on Shelter Island.
But many of the people who nourished me with their kindness and their stories were bayans and carpenters, innkeepers and retirees with great life stories. I may have been the last dentist on Long Island to work entirely on my own and was able to set a schedule so that I could spend as much time talking to people as I was taking care of their teeth.
I have long bragged about the day I had a man named Phil Reilly in my chair. We enjoyed the four hours we spent talking so much that I was never able to do anything about his teeth.
One of the people I became close to was a strange and fascinating elderly woman named Marnie Hutchinson. Marnie made a living writing all the advertising copy for Estée Lauder’s many companies. She also let me know that she had seen visions many times in her life and that they all came true. One day, just a few years after starting my practice, she let me know that she had seen a vision of a great celebration of me as a poet, of a parade in town and of people watching. my office and noticed that this was where the Shelter Island dentist once worked. I was charmed then I forgot it. She hasn’t lived long enough to see this; maybe it had come true.
My life as a poet continued to grow and expand and the people I took care of at Shelter Island gave me the space I needed to be two things at the same time. They also inspired me, as did the transcendent beauty of the island, the place I had come to think of as my true home.
In 2005, I was named the second Suffolk County Poet Laureate. Stories followed in the New York Times, Newsday, and all of the Long Island weekly papers. Public television came to film my profile for a show featuring eight prominent New York artists. I have been invited to read all over Long Island and New York, as well as many places in Europe. The good people of the island were patient and supportive. I had people approaching me during the readings, wondering if it was true that I was a dentist.
In the early 2000s, my body was starting to fail. Dentistry has taken its toll; I lived with constant pain. My hands hurt so much that it was difficult to keep a journal to read. I tried to do what I could to keep going as there were a lot of people relying on me.
In 2008, I was offered a clinical assistant professor position at Boston University School of Dentistry and realized that my time on the island was over. I was both sad and hopeful. It took very little time for me to realize that all the issues in my life had apparently prepared me to become a teacher. I was 52 years old. I was reassured to know that I would be replaced by Frank Kestler, a very knowledgeable dentist who loved Shelter Island as much as I do.
After only two years of teaching, the Dean and the class of 2011 gave me the extraordinary honor of delivering the opening speech. That year and the next, I received two national awards for excellence in clinical teaching. As anyone who teaches at a college or university will fully understand, after five years I was completely exhausted and in 2013 I quit.
As for my career as a poet, it continued well. I have published 14 collections and some 400 of my poems have appeared in journals in 20 different countries. The latest collection comes from the fact that a student from the University of Bucharest translated 60 of my poems into Romanian and wrote a critical analysis for his master’s thesis.
My two previous collections were published in Ireland, where my Irish ancestors left in the late 1800s. My great-grandfather, Thomas Moran, arrived from County Mayo in 1888 with nothing but a hammer.
My patients often asked me about this hammer, which hung prominently on the wall next to my desk. Thomas Moran had worked hard and succeeded, but he never learned to read or write. I wonder what he would have said about having a great-grandson who became a doctor and a teacher, and had books of his poems published in Ireland.
And I often wonder about the many people on the island that I have treasured for their friendship and wisdom, friends who died many years ago. They were all part of my story and I often wonder if it could have happened otherwise.
It might deserve a poem.