of residencies, “home,” and Cancer

Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time.  I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.

While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.


Orcas ArtSmith Residency Day by Day

Orcas Residency Day 1: long, long travel day to Orcas Island. Taxi driver tour of the “main points in town,” did some major editing for 2 hrs, then had a fabulous (vegan!) dinner and great conversation with our host and fellow attendees. Wish I could stay here for a month. or a year.

Orcas Residency Day 2: woke up to dark (except 1/4 moon). Currently rediscovering: there is such a thing as too much coffee (even fancy WA State coffee). Fixed the sudden laptop crash. Currently hacking the novel into tiny pieces – somewhat inspired by the sound of a chainsaw in the distance.

Orcas Residency Day #3: woke up to dark again. This whole late sunrise thing is a drag. Smell of coffee got me out of bed. The quiet here leaves my ears feeling like I’ve been holding shells to them all night. Spent the morning drinking coffee and discussing Ph.D. programs and critical theory with our host. May go for a walk in the rain soon or just inside looking out at dripping trees. Oh & writing. Splitting my manuscript open like an overripe peach & digging out the rot.

Orcas Residency Day #4: up early and went with the group up to Cascade Falls. Hiked the lake loop hike (5? miles) and part of another hike before my knee gave out. Then back to K. House for hot tub and shower and dinner and some weird modern version of the exquisite corpse game. And now, time to write.

Orcas Residency Day #5: can’t believe how quickly the time has passed here. This morning woke up to a 5am call from my vet’s office. Mina is sick (still) but in good hands. I wrote all morning until my back was screaming. Headed out into the cold for a walk to the beach where I found many interesting things including a partial view of REAL mountains. Stuck my toes in the ocean and then was joined by Nancy Lord who told me it was too cold. We walked back while she looked at birds (red winged blackbirds, starlings, chickadees, thrush, a very fat robin, and some harlequin ducks). I went off to soak in the hot tub and now more writing. We’re all heading out to Doe Bay for dinner tonight and then it’s down to the final stretch.

Orcas Residency Day #5: one window shows blue sky, the other shows grey. About to have more coffee and head down to the beach to look for mountains. And then, back here to write and write some more.

Today is apparently David Bowie’s birthday. I spent most of it sitting at the beach, staring at mountains, writing bad poetry and listening to Calexico. And now I’m going to listen to more Calexico and write some (hopefully) good fiction. Sorry Bowie. Maybe later.

Orcas Residency Day #5 (part 2): day started with coffee and writing then beach (!!) where there was some blue sky and also, mountains. I wrote a poem at the beach and met a new dog friend. Then back to the house for more writing followed by a field trip with the awesome non-fiction Alaskan writer Nancy Long to the Island Hoppin’ Brewery where we shared a flight of beer and made friends with some local school teachers. Then back home for more writing followed by another wonderful home-cooked meal. After dinner, we each shared some of the work we’ve done while here – really powerful writing – and then talked until late. I will indeed miss these new writerly friends of mine.

Orcas Residency Day #6: last full day at the residency. Got up early and had breakfast with our host and a couple fellow writers then I walked down to the beach. Sun reflecting off all the melting frost. The beach is cold but there’s a clear blue sky and a full view of the mountains. Only seabirds for company. Back now for more coffee and some writing. This afternoon, we’ll be at the East Sound Library joining their writers’ group then dinner in town and likely back here for a last night of quiet and writing. The long trip back to Seattle tomorrow and then back to NYC.

Orcas Residency Day #6: settling in for some writing after a long day. Started out with coffee and then a trip to the beach to stare at Mt. Baker. After that: coffee and more writing. Then walked to East Sound with Nancy Lord, stopped at the book store and bought one of her books. We met the other writers at the Library where ArtSmith’s Jill facilitated a very packed writing round table focused on “place.” Lots of creative people on this island. I read two very short pieces and got some kind words from some locals. Overall a good afternoon of hearing and sharing work. Then we had a great Mexican meal followed by some hot tub time and now wrapping up another long day of writing and enjoying the culture and nature on this beautiful island. Tomorrow two of us head back to the mainland (Anacortes, then Seattle) and too soon, I will be back in NYC.