Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

Vermont Studio Center

I'd written very few stories since middle school. I remember writing at least one in a creative writing class in high school, and a few more in an environmental fiction workshop in graduate school. Feedback from my teachers was honest (this needs more development, this ending is a bit of a cliché), but also somewhat discouraging, and I never really tried to get better at this type of storytelling. But I had the feeling that my creative nonfiction essays were trying too hard to be essays, and that instead, they should be written as fiction.

I wrote my first story in years this past fall. Set in The Bahamas, where I lived for a year, the story deals with themes of friendship, place, and displacement. It came out in two short bursts, a rush that felt quite good—something that we wish always happens when we write. On a whim, on the deadline day, I submitted this story and some other materials to the Vermont Studio Center. A month later, I found out that I was one of 1,300 applicants, and that I had been accepted.

The Vermont Studio Center provides the time and space for writers and artists to focus on their craft. For the month of April, I would have a bedroom, meals, nonstop coffee, and a writing studio overlooking a small river in Johnson, Vermont. My studio had its own thermostat (this was nice, because April in northern Vermont is still very much winter), a writing desk, and a reading chair. The river rushed by, ceaselessly, and one writer pointed out that this flow was great inspiration for her writing work.

 
 

In my application, I wrote about a novel I wanted to write. It's about a young woman named Ava. Ava's mother was a field ornithologist in Australia, but she was killed in a car accident when Ava was 13. Ava is now 20, and she has decided to travel to the Atherton Tablelands in Australia, where her mother did her research, to discover who her mother was as well as the place that her mother loved. When I traveled in Chile in January, on a long bus ride, I dreamed up an outline for the novel, so when I arrived at VSC, I was ready to get started.

 
 

The preface to the novel, in which Ava is introduced and the fact of her mother's death is explained, came out quickly. I read it to an audience of writers and artists and received encouraging feedback. But getting started on the first chapter was harder; I had to shift in time from Ava as teenager to Ava as young woman, and I had to find a way to get Ava to Australia without starting too stereotypically with her flight landing at the Cairns airport. On top of that, I spent the first two weeks of my time at VSC fretting about what to do with my future and applying to jobs, which was rather a great distraction from the writing process. But about midway through my residency, I figured a few things out, and I was able to produce the first chapter of the book.

 
 

Though the residency is designed to provide one with the perfect conditions for producing art, life, of course, still manages to get in the way. I envisioned drafting much more of my novel during my time there, but I still feel that it was a productive experience. I read, a lot: two books of nonfiction, one novel, one book of short stories, and three literary magazines cover-to-cover. One of these books was Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which was the perfect book to read when feeling discouraged. "I tried to work and failed," Dillard writes. "After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodles overstepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read." I did my share of giving up, hating myself, and reading during that month, but I also accepted that this was part of the process and wasn't necessarily a bad thing. When I wasn't trying to write, I read, and I tried to more carefully examine the ways writers did what they did. This was helpful, and productive.

 
 

There were many other benefits of the experience other than forcing myself to sit at the desk and either producing or not producing any words on the page. Our group of writers got together weekly to share a page of what we'd been working on and set goals for the week; we sat in on two craft lectures by visiting writers; we talked about how to get published; we listened to each other read and talked about our favorite books and our writing processes.

The visiting writer for fiction during the month was Gladys Swan. Gladys is also a painter, and she had her own painting studio for the month. I hadn't heard of Gladys before checking the schedule for the residency, but my mother remembered her from her time at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Gladys was Wally Lamb's advisor there; Wally had written a short story, and, as my mother tells it, Gladys told him he had too many pots on the stove, that he was really working on a novel and not a short story at all. That short story became She's Come Undone. So before I met her, I felt like Gladys was someone whose judgment I could trust.

Gladys is in her eighties, but she's still making art. Due to vision loss, she can no longer read, but that didn't stop her from engaging with the work we were doing or working on her own stories. She stood at the podium and told stories about her writing life; she quoted authors without referring to any notes; she listened to each of our stories and gave pointed, detailed feedback without needing to ask any questions about a character's name or the order of events. She was sharp, and generous with her time and feedback.

After her evening lecture, during which another writer read from her books, I purchased  a copy of Carnival for the Gods, and I read it once I got back from my residency. I have some goals, you see, to keep writing a little bit each day, but on days when that isn't working so well, I want to keep reading, to keep thinking about how a writer crafts a novel. I want to create and maintain good writing habits, always trying to get more down on the page, or spending time on revision. Gladys, and the other resident writers, gave me plenty of tips. So now I just have to keep at it.

Place-Based Books

For many years, I have loved learning about place through literature, and whenever I travel to a place, I seek out books from or about that place. I'm not sure when I started this habit. When I lived in Australia, I read books by Australian authors, and I discovered one of my favorites, Eucalyptus by Murray Bail. When I interviewed for a program associate position at SIT Study Abroad, I hoped that I would be selected for the Asia and Pacific region, as I had experience there, but when I found out I was being considered for the Middle East and North Africa programs, a region I knew next to nothing about, I went to my bookshelf. I found books like Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany, and I started reading. This was a natural way for me to learn. So when, at SIT, colleagues and I joined together for a TED Talk lunch and watched Ann Morgan's "My year reading a book from every country in the world," I was both excited (especially by this list of books she created) and surprised that this seemed like a novel idea to my colleagues. While essays have been sprouting up on the internet about bookshelves being too crowded with books by dead white men, I'm proud that the bookshelves I've curated over time are not only gender-balanced, but place-balanced.

I've been lucky over the past year and a half to have traveled and lived abroad quite a bit. So my reading for that time has been largely place-based, and what I've read and learned has contributed to my role as an educator and as a visitor to these places. Below are the books I've read.

My next trip is to Copenhagen and the Faroe Islands. Any recommendations?


The Caribbean


Jordan

 
 

Mexico

 
 

Chile

 
 

The Sea Was Still Going On

Years ago, I discovered The Island School by way of a NOLS job listserv. They were accepting applications for teaching fellows, and I promptly applied for the literature teaching fellow position. At the time, the high school English class was called “Literature of the Sea,” and students at The Island School (mostly American sophomores and juniors) would read Derek Walcott’s Omeros and discuss the role of the sea as a character and as a force. I was invited to interview for the position, and I did my best to get my hands on Omeros. The local library didn’t have it, but they had a collection of Walcott’s poetry, which included excerpts from the epic poem.

In preparation, I remember reading these lines from Book I of Omeros:

Then silence is sawn in half by a dragonfly
 
as eels sign their names along the clear bottom-sand,
when the sunrise brightens the river’s memory
and waves of huge ferns are nodding to the sea’s sound.

I couldn’t believe how perfect the position was for me. Not only would I train for a four-mile ocean swim, interact with sea turtle researchers, and engage in experiential, place-based education, but I would have the opportunity to analyze literature from an ecocritical perspective in the classroom. What role does nature/landscape/seascape play in this text? What do we learn about human relationships to nature from these descriptions? How is nature personified, and what does that mean?

I didn’t get the position that year. But I kept my eyes open in search of a copy of Omeros whenever I was in a used bookstore. And I continued to apply to The Island School. Two years after that, I interviewed again, this time for the teacher position, and I found more passages of Omeros through the library at the college where I was completing my master’s degree. I was in Australia at the time, and I looked for Omeros in the used bookstore in Yungaburra, the nearest town to where I lived. They didn’t have it, and I didn’t get the job that year, either.

Two years after that, I interviewed for the literature teacher position again. As weeks went by after my initial interview, I visited a bookstore in search of a travel guide to Iceland, where I would be traveling for work. After picking up the travel guide, I noticed that the bookstore had a used book section, and I was drawn to the poetry shelf. There, the familiar book was placed with its cover facing outward. Is it a sign? I wondered, and I purchased Omeros for six dollars.

A week later, while searching for the northern lights in Iceland, I received an email that I was not a finalist for the literature teacher position, and I chided myself for believing in signs. I hid my disappointment as best I could and decided I wouldn’t apply to The Island School again. But more than a month later, I was contacted again, and eventually, offered the position. After interviewing on three separate occasions, I knew I had to take the opportunity. So I relocated to The Bahamas, and I brought my copy of Omeros with me.

Omeros is challenging for any reader, but especially for high school students. Much of the beauty that I find in the poem is lost to my students by their frustration and misunderstandings as they struggle their way through the text. For me, it is a welcome challenge to help students reach an understanding of this text, and I am looking forward to introducing them to it next week.

On Friday, I learned that Derek Walcott passed away. It came as a shock, mostly because Omeros has been such a central feature of the Island School literature curriculum since the school's inception in 1999. While I have known about Walcott and his work for years, he has moved on when I am in the midst of truly discovering him.

After years of pining after this job, I finally have the chance to read and teach Walcott's work. Furthermore, it is because of his work that I have been introduced to a new world of Caribbean and postcolonial literature, and for that, I am grateful.

Omeros ends with these lines:

A full moon shone like a slice of raw onion.
When he left the beach the sea was still going on.

As Kei Miller tweeted on Friday, a giant has gone to sleep. However, the sea is still going on, and we have Walcott's poetry to explore the many stories of that sea and its people.

Sea Kayaking

I recently returned from three days atop southern Eleuthera’s sparkling waters and two nights on starlit beaches. Our students had been in The Bahamas for all of ten days when we set out on this journey, our kayaks packed with tents, food, snorkeling gear, and our placebooks—journals with empty pages for self-reflection and recounting our days’ adventures.

Like some of the students, I was a little nervous about the trip. On a similar sea kayak voyage back in August, when I was new to the island, I battled seasickness and struggled to paddle as hard as the rest of the group. Prior to our trip, the weather had also been the coldest I’ve experienced in The Bahamas so far, with very strong winds. But when we unloaded our boats from the trailer in Rock Sound, the sun was out and the water was crystal clear. The wind had died down, but was still strong enough to push us along on relatively calm seas.

We stopped for lunch in a quiet cove; as soon as we paddled there, the roar of the wind was blocked, allowing us to hear the pleasant sound of our paddles dipping into the water. We took shelter from the sun beneath the shade of casurinas. Our group of thirteen students and three leaders relaxed into getting to know each other, sharing responsibilities, and enjoying the sleepy beaches and lapping waves.

We traveled seven miles on our first day and cooked rice and beans over a fire when we arrived at our campsite. Our second morning was sunny and clear, and we lazily paddled another five or so miles, reaching our second campsite at lunchtime. Once there, we had hours to enjoy the sunlight on water and the breeze through the trees before building our campfire and taking moments of silence among the group chatter to look up at the stars.

Sleeping on soft ground with the ocean as a sound machine is the best kind of sleep, and our bodies, sore from paddling, were grateful for early bedtimes. The morning brought the sunrise into our tents, and coffee by the campfire, looking out at a bottle-green, glittering sea, made us wish we could stay on our secluded beach forever. But with dark clouds looming in the north, we reluctantly got in our boats and paddled the remaining two miles to campus, the rain sprinkling the sea and our group relaxed and filled with good cheer after our journey.

Kalaallit Nunaat | Grønland

"Our planet will be called not Earth, but Sila, the Greenlandic word that means, simultaneously, 'weather' and 'consciousness,'" writes Gretel Ehrlich in The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold. Sila refers to the visible world, the one the Inuits can see with their eyes. It means weather, world, day-clear consciousness, sense, and mind. Sila is interconnected with Silap Aappaa, the other world, inhabited by the souls of humans and other living creatures.

I learned of these concepts after my arrival in Greenland, but after spending a few days with the snowy, bright, and simultaneously peaceful and unforgiving landscape, I could see why these people used the same word to describe these things. How could you live in such a near-uninhabitable place without matching your hopes, desires, perception, and timing with the weather, with nature’s forces?

I had flown over Greenland at least once before and I remember how remarkable the white mountains below me were against the rich, blue nighttime sky. This time, flying low over the landscape in our small, 28-passenger plane, my neck ached as I strained to keep my eyes glued to the window. So much blue and white, so much snow and ice—Sermersooq, the municipality that surrounds the capital city, Nuuk, means “much ice.”

The population of Greenland is around 60,000; the population of Nuuk, where I visited, is about 16,000. This is larger than Brattleboro, Vermont, where I currently live, but it felt smaller, likely due to some combination of isolation and the slower pace of life. Nuuk is a very calm, quiet city; I never noticed any commotion. But from a conversation with someone who works at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, I learned that the people who travel to Nuuk from other parts of Greenland to attend university find the city too busy, too urban, too fast-paced. Perception is everything.

Greenland is about 90% Inuit. This was apparent in my day-to-day wanderings. It seemed to me that for such an urban setting, tradition is alive and well, from muskox on menus to sealskin clothing for sale. Though now autonomous, Greenland was a Danish colony, however, and it would be difficult to ignore the impact of this colonization on the country and the culture.

I spent most of my visit to Nuuk walking around the town and meeting with local businesses and institutions for work, but there was still enough time to enjoy the color of the place, from the painted houses to the sunset on the water. The days were long, with darkness setting in close to eleven at night, so it was almost impossible to feel rushed. I enjoyed the pace of the town, the quietness of it, the sounds of the gulls and the waves. I bundled up against the cold temperatures but enjoyed the sun on my face almost every day.

I couldn't ignore sila though—the power of the weather or the force of the ocean. On my last day in Nuuk, I had hoped to have some time to explore some natural landscapes, whether hiking the snow-covered mountain that stands sentinel over the sleepy town or being a passenger on the sea, searching for whales and pelagic birds. But a storm blew in, powerful wind gusts battering the house all night and into the next day, waves sloshing on the frozen shore, rain slanting toward the windows like daggers. The gulls never stopped screaming; the wind never stopped howling. The Greenlanders must be used to these kinds of noises, these kinds of movements. For me, it was somewhat frightening. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes about the fear that comes with a harsh landscape like this, where ice can freeze you in or destroy whatever shelter or ship you have. "I looked out at the icebergs," he writes. "They were so beautiful they also made you afraid."

After twenty-four hours of wind, the evening brought calm. The waves were less choppy; the clouds seemed contentedly settled over the water. My last views of Greenland were still blue, but a darker shade than before. Our plane left this large island in the morning, brave enough to fly in the strong winds. The clouds shrouded the peaks of the mountains, shaped by ice and wind and water—shaped by sila.