Shoaler Voices

A Break-Up with Technology: The Star Island Phenomenon

Written by Liz MacLean

A Much Needed Technology Break-Up (For the Day, Anyway)

Once the boat had docked and the masses of people unloaded, I walked up the front lawn and checked my phone. No service. For many of my friends, this would lead to heart palpitations and a minor anxiety attack. Going without a phone for the whole afternoon? It was nearly unthinkable. But I simply placed my phone on airplane mode, shoved it in the bottom of my bag  (away from my water bottle), and set off toward the snack bar.

After working for two summers in Star Island’s Portsmouth office, I finally got the chance to go out to the island. My dad joined me for the trip, and equipped with sunscreen and a camera, we explored the island I had heard so much about.

I had seen pictures on the website, learned almost everything about the conferences and programs, and delivered hundreds of packages to the Portsmouth dock, but had yet to experience Star Island and discover why so many people called it their summer home away from home.

As I headed up the path toward the iconic Star gazebo, I noticed a group of kids sitting on benches and rocks, painting the landscape around them. I quickly got out my camera and began snapping pictures. Completely focused on their paintings with an intensity I hadn’t seen before, these eight- and ten-year-olds studied the ocean, lighthouse, and hotel while they used watercolors to recreate the images on small canvases.

Some of the kids chatted quietly and others sat alone, bent over their paintings, unaware of the flies buzzing around their heads or me aiming my camera lens. As I reached into my bag to capture this moment on my phone camera too, I realized why the scene was so strange to me: none of these kids were fixated to a phone or staring at an iPad screen. Instead, they held beautiful paintings of the island and memories they put to paper themselves. I quickly stashed my phone in my bag and proceeded along the path toward a small beach to see if this strange occurrence could be found on other parts of the island.

Below a cluster of boulders, on the beach, a child ate a bagel while his parents stuck their feet in the water. A girl drew in the sand with her toes and a boy clambered across the rocks. No technology here.

Even in the hotel lobby, where I thought people would go to take a break from the intense sun and check their email or Facebook notifications, there was a lack of electronics. Two teenagers played chess while a group of kids started a game of Bananagrams. On the front porch, a little girl colored a picture of a boat while her older sister made a bracelet out of colored yarn.

As the day went on, I felt more and more relaxed. I had no desire to check my phone for texts or contribute a picture on social media. I just wanted to explore the trails that lead around the island, take pictures of the ocean that was so incredibly blue, and sit in a rocking chair, watching families tie dye t-shirts on the front lawn.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been without my phone for five hours during the day. This may seem absurd for many people, but young adults today seem to be spending more time looking at a screen than looking at their friends’ faces. At college, I’ve noticed everyone has their phone on them at all times and is constantly checking their email and social media pages. We live in a keep-moving-don’t-stop-always-know-what’s-happening society, and when you can’t get a break from the endless stream of information, it can be physically and mentally exhausting.

That’s when I understood the Star phenomenon. It’s not another vacation spot with unlimited wifi and free movie streaming and social media contests. It’s a place to get away from those tiny white screens that are a distraction from the surrounding people and natural beauty.

As I took some final pictures of the grand Oceanic Hotel and tried to imprint the island on my memory, I studied the faces of the other Shoalers. Their eyes were not squinting at a screen, but instead, wide open in amazement as they discussed that day’s lecture, squeezed shut in laughter as they played a board game in the grass, and relaxed as they sipped lime rickeys on the porch, studying the sailboats that drifted through the harbor.

Whether Star Island is a time-honored tradition or a new experience, it offers one thing among many that everyone can benefit from: a much-needed break from the electronic world, a place where reflection and discovery is cultivated, and a chance to reconnect with nature.

Photo by Norman MacLean

Shoaler Voices


A hymn for Star Island

Music from Finlandia by Jean Sibelius
New lyric by Steven Ratiner

This is our time, the chapel bell is ringing.
Our way is lit by lantern and the moon.
This is our time, this night, this island-hour.
The path is old – our passing makes it new.
This is our song, the ocean strums the rhythm.
I feel so blessed to share this time with you.

When time has past, like fog dissolved by sunlight –
when we are gone, and others claim this view –
we leave behind no tears to stain this chapel,
no telltale cries which others misconstrue.
This is our home, our memory wets the sea rose –
the bell, our voice – the path, our gratitude.
–  Steven Ratiner


Steven’s Star Story

“My introduction to Star Island came in 1980 when I was invited to teach poetry at the Arts Conference.  I attended that first morning’s chapel – out of politeness – but I fully expected it to be my one and only island service.  Now, after more than 35 summers on Star, I doubt if I’ve missed more than a couple of the morning gatherings in all those years.  I fell in love with the chapel itself, its rough features and resonant space – but loved as well the great enthusiasm people brought to the morning worship – especially the hymns.  Since most were new to me, I’d hum along and watch how the faces would brighten with the song.

One hymn especially captivated me – and, in the island hymnal, they had two versions linked to this same tune: “We Would Be One” and “This Is My Song”.  Once I saw that the melody was taken from Finlandia –  a symphonic poem by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius – I understood why, upon each hearing, it would not leave me for the rest of the morning.  But to be honest: I didn’t love the words.  I’m not saying they were  terrible – and I mean no disrespect if these are among your favorite in the hymnal.  But they just didn’t feel, to my ear, like they were in accord with the emotional climate of the Finnish original.  As a poet, though, I realized that composing a lyric for a hymn is no easy task; still I hoped that one day. . .

After fifteen years at Arts, now I attend Midweek II each September – and in all the time I’ve been on Star, I’ve never had a week where the island didn’t coax new poems onto my notebook pages.  I feel honored that our conference leader often pencils me in to lead an evening chapel service, where I can share some of the summer’s new poems.  Two years ago, out of no where, a lyric to the Finlandia melody erupted for me on the page.  I taught it to our gathering and, since I had only a single verse, we sang it twice together.  But my spine rippled with pleasure to hear my verse given such full-throated spirit.

The next morning, the moment my alarm woke me in Cottage A, I sat up in bed and the second verse of the hymn was being spoken quietly in my head.  I had to wait until the following September, but then I experienced the utter delight of hearing our little conference launch the completed poem – my rickety craft –  riding on the waves of Sibelius’ gorgeous melody.  I’ll come right out and say it: my poem is likely no better than either of the earlier Finlandia lyrics in Star’s  hymnal (not to mention the dozen other hymns, anthems, and fight songs which have, in earlier years, latched on to this melody) – but it does have one thing going for it: its imagery and its heartfelt mood are inextricably linked to our little loved island – to all those who return to it gratefully every year, and feel as if they’ve left something of their very beings behind when they ferry home.

Above is my lyric, in case you’d like to see if it will carry you.  And if not, perhaps you should choose a melody which is anchored in your heart and compose your own.  Such words serve as a map and help you to navigate – especially when storms erupt and you are far away from a safe harbor.  Travel well!”

A bit about the author…

Steven Ratiner is a poet and educator, and his work has appeared in dozens of literary journals in America and abroad.  He was also the poetry critic for The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post and, for thirty five years, as taught as a poet-in-residence in programs throughout New England.  But of special interest to Shoalers: his poem written on Star Island on 9/11 was recorded in Gosport Chapel on the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy by WBUR in Boston.  Here is a link to the video:


Photo courtesy of Dennis O’Keefe

On the Island

Spring Volunteers Needed!

Star Island needs you! We depend on volunteers who love the island to keep it well-maintained and spring is a magical time to be experience it all. New and old shoalers alike are welcome. We deeply appreciate your interest and hope to see you at Star Island in 2016.  The deadline to apply is March 20 – don’t miss out! 

Each spring volunteers help the Star Island staff prepare the island for summer conferences. Star Island Spring volunteer positions are physical in nature. Requirements can include, but are not limited to, lifting up to 50 pounds at a time. If you have difficulties with climbing stairs or lifting objects, consider volunteering in the summer when we have less physically demanding work available for volunteers, and when we are also very grateful to have volunteer help.

In the spring winterized systems are not yet up and running, and facilities are limited. As a result, spring volunteer weekends are limited to about 20-30 people with the exception of Memorial Day weekend, when we can have as many as 60 people on the island. For the first two weekends in May we seek people who have volunteered before during the spring, and are familiar with Star Island and the pre-season work. We also seek people with professional skills in areas needed, such as carpentry and engineering. During the two weekends in June work will focus on deep cleaning of living spaces. These last two weeks are open to experienced volunteers and also open to people who haven’t volunteered before.

While there will be time to relax and socialize in the evening, you should come prepared to put in 8 hours of old-fashioned hard work each day.

All volunteers must be at least 18 years old.

We seek people who want to give something back to the island they love. This is no vacation, but is a wonderful way to experience Star Island with others who share that love.

2016 Spring Volunteering Dates

  • May 13 -15
  • May 20 – 22
  • May 27 – 30
  • June 3 – 5
  • June 10 – 12
  • June 13-18 (We need experienced past Pelicans only to help while new Pelicans are in training)

Click here for the spring volunteer application.

If you have any questions, contact Linda Leehman, Volunteer Coordinator, at


Photo: Sean D. Elliot

Star Island Corporation

Star Island Hiring Museum Interns for 2016

Star Island Corporation seeks two museum studies interns to fulfill the requirements of our IMLS grant for Thaxter Museum collections during June, July and August, 2016.

The Star Island Conference and Retreat Center on the Isles of Shoals represents moments in the history of New England fundamental to an understanding of our American heritage. This unique island hosts conferences, retreaters, day visitors and researchers who visit and use the Thaxter Museum. The persons hired will learn the fascinating history of Star Island and the Isles of Shoals from its origin as a 1600s fishing village, to its fame as an 1800s resort and its present day role as a conference center. Read more…

Star Island Corporation

Jeffrey Spoor Wins Star Island Veterans Raffle

Jeffrey Spoor recently won the Star Island Veterans Raffle

On Monday, December 14, Star Island drew Jeffrey Spoor’s name from among over 70 entries in the non-profit’s third annual Veterans Raffle. Spoor, a Navy and Army National Guard veteran, wins a free week-long stay on Star Island during the 2016 summer.

“What veterans give to our community, including Mr. Spoor, can never be truly repaid,” said Star Island CEO Joe Watts. “But we hope our bit of appreciation through this raffle provides a meaningful experience to last a lifetime.”

Read more…