Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

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.

Fear

I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a book about creativity that details some of Gilbert’s tips for leading a creative life—everything from keeping your day job to not worrying about creating something that isn’t perfect—sprinkled with fun anecdotes from Gilbert's writing life. It feels like a self-help book at times, but she makes the point that she’s not writing it for anyone else as a self-help book; she’s writing it so she can sort through these ideas and challenges in her own brain. Because writing is about exploration. Even though many of the ideas in this book are ideas I’ve already had—things I’ve already considered as I face my own challenges with regard to my writing—it is still refreshing and inspiring to see them written down and to consider my own methods of overcoming certain challenges. It is, I would say, helpful.

One of my biggest challenges is the fact that I am a perfectionist. Gilbert says, on page 166, that laziness and perfectionism are “the essential ingredients for torpor and misery." She continues:

"If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want is to cultivate quite the opposite: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.”

Being a deeply disciplined half-ass sounds terrifying to me—which leads me to the topic of the first section of Big Magic: Courage.

I am very much a lazy perfectionist. I’m lazy because I make excuses. Everything needs to be perfect in order for me to create something, and I intend for the thing I create to be perfect. I don’t sit down to write if everything doesn’t line up. Under the subsection “Scary, Scary, Scary,” Gilbert lists “the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life.” The one that stands out to me is

“You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of work space, or financial freedom, or empty hours in which to focus on invention or exploration.”

I have made a list of excuses surrounding this fear for years, but especially within the last year or two. Here are some of my poor excuses:

  • I need a large, table-like space to write. All of the surrounding conditions need to be conducive to my productivity: a certain amount of either quiet or white noise, the perfect temperature and lighting, and preferably someone being quietly productive next to me.
  • I am too tired of looking at a computer screen by the time I get home from work to look at my computer screen. And no, I don’t want to write by hand. I compose better when I am typing.
  • If I could just quit my job and focus on my writing, I would have the brain energy and inspiration to create so many wonderful things.
  • I need to read at least half a million more books before I’m ready to write a book. I still have so much to learn.
  • I haven’t written in my blog in nine months, so my first post after that gap has to be really great. It has to be perfect.
  • No one reads my blog anyway. Does it matter if I’m posting content regularly or not? Does it matter if I'm writing anything regularly, if no one reads it?

Obviously, the only person who suffers from making these excuses is me. And the point is that because of these excuses, I’m not writing, even though writing is supposedly the thing I love doing. So, in my first fearful attempt to be a deeply disciplined half-ass, here is my far-from-perfect blog post after a nine-month hiatus—one very small step toward making writing a part of my daily existence. It’s scary, scary, scary.

Also, this is my life.

Rivers and Waterfalls

I moved to southeastern Vermont in mid-September, and by the time I was settled in, the leaves had fallen from the trees and winter was on its way.  That's not to say that I didn't get outside, on trips to the raptor center, attending a classic Vermont apple pie festival, cross-country skiing a few times, and walking the dirt roads near my office on my lunch breaks, but I never really explored the region.  Now that summer is here, I'm excited to see more of my new corner of this beautiful state.

A few weekends ago, I went with Joe to Jamaica State Park, about twenty minutes northwest from my apartment on Route 30.  The road parallels the West River, which eventually meanders through the park and was once an important route for the Abenaki people who lived in this area.  We walked along the West River Trail, trying not to step on the red efts crossing from the river to the woods and helping them safely across.  The leaves had been fully out for about a week, so the pollen that had been irritating my senses was finally dissipating.  The woods smelled new and fresh, from last year's decaying leaf litter to the new needles on the hemlock trees.  I searched the forest for familiar plants, wondering if the leaves sprouting from the forest floor were those of the pink lady slipper and flipping over the branches of hemlock trees hoping to not find the wooly adelgid living there.  I felt a comfortable elation at wandering through a northeastern forest during the vibrancy of spring.

After walking beside the river for about two miles, we veered right on the Hamilton Falls trail.  It was an uphill trail for about a mile until we reached the falls, which drop 125 feet down beautiful slopes of rock.  At the bottom of the falls, water has eroded the stone into soft and welcoming curves.  The crystal clear water collected in pools, lapping affectionately against the rock.

We sat at the base of the falls and basked in the sunlight, resting from the climb and enjoying the soothing sound of rushing water.  It was hard to pull ourselves away when we headed back down the trail to the West River.  Instead of taking the soft, flat trail (formerly a rail bed) the whole way, we took the Overlook Trail to the peak of Little Ball Mountain, which gave us a beautiful view, proving that Vermont is truly the Green Mountain State.  The trees in their new plumage showed a variety of greens mottled against a cloudy sky, and again, our legs found comfort resting against the sun-warmed rock as we sat and absorbed the view before taking the trail back to the park entrance.