1. LISTENING: "You Should Be Here" by Cole Swindell
Given the kinds of songs I'm writing these days, it's no surprise this song found me. Last week, a dear friend asked if I'd heard it. When I said I hadn't, she dialed it up on Spotify, cranked it, and the two of us stood staring out the window thinking of her brother, my Mom, my friend's husband, and countless others that should be here.
2. MAKING WORK & WRITING: The Arctic Circle, June 2016 -- Artist Residency
I just got back from the June 2016 expedition of The Arctic Circle, an artist residency aboard the tall ship Antigua that sails from the port of Longyearbyen, in the international territory of Svalbard, above Norway. We were twenty-seven artists of all disciplines (painters, mixed media, photographers, writers), four polar bear guards/guides and eight crew. We spent two weeks making work in this Arctic archipelago, sailing, hiking, walking, standing, looking, listening, being.
I did many things on the trip -- played guitar and sang to a glacier and to the pack ice at 81° North parallel, performed at an art-opening in an abandoned Russian coal-mining cantina, recited poems on mountaintops, set square sails with a team of friends in the midnight sun, flew a kite to the end of its string. I also wrote on deck, on beaches, mountaintops, moraines, on snow and ice.
I have been writing letters to my Mom ever since she died. I figure why stop? Here's the letter I wrote to her the day after I returned to New York City from the Arctic.
And where is speech for the block of ice we pack in the sawdust of our hearts?
-- from "The Small Country" by Ellen Bass
July 5, 2016
It's been so long since I've written to you. I've been thinking about you so much. So much.
I went on the trip to the Arctic Circle. The residency that I applied to way back when. I got accepted, remember? You grimaced when you heard the news. You were very worried about me going there and doing that -- the tall ship, the Arctic. How could you not have been worried? You often grimaced at my plans to go get lost in the wild, but you always let me go.
And here I am back -- safe and sound. See? I'm okay. I'll be okay.
It was life-changing. How?
Because it was an edge, the edge of the world for me. Being out there in such wildness (bigger and more extreme than Alaska, in many ways) was like facing the blank page of your illness. That's what it was like there: a big blank, a void, the empty part of a map.
And in your absence, the cold comfort -- literally -- of ice and snow and mountains. These things felt hard and good. Some days I did not feel much like being out on land, it being rainy, foggy, and freezing. And yet there was a strange satisfaction to standing there, to my cold fingers, cold feet, and my constantly running nose.
You were with me everywhere. A looming presence/absence. A view too beautiful to look at.
A shared silent walk with a new friend, the kind your soul recognizes right off so you don't even have to say anything ever. The kind where your tongue and the back of your mouth hurts saying goodbye.
You were there in my exhaustion. Still there. You were there in my fear of coming back here, coming back to "normal" life, life without you, without me.
My life without me. Where did I go these last four years? How do I find my way back? Is there a back to find my way to? Somehow, the answer is no.
I found myself in the bookstore yesterday looking for any book about ice and snow, about a landscape like where I had just been. I wanted "The Solace of Open Spaces" for Svalbard or the Arctic. Does it exist? Is "A Woman in the Polar Night" the closest thing to it? Why don't I have a copy of that book anymore? I gave them all away. Did you read it before you died? I can't remember. It's what started this adventure for me, remember?
I give myself away. What is left? I gave so much to you. You know that. So did I. It was my choice.
During my walks and moments in the Arctic, I tried to recall our time together. I find my memories freezing, hardening into the pictures I have on my phone. I hate this. It feels like work to keep my memories fluid, moving, wave-like.
No one speaks of this to me. Does it happen to other people? To their memories? It's like the morphine I had to give you at the end. No one told me about that either. The hospice nurses told me I'd be giving it to you at some point, but they didn't say more than that.
I snowed you over and over again.
I went to the land of snow. I've just come back.
Was all this whiteness what it felt like? What you saw as you slipped, slid into your ending? As I brought you there, dose after dose of that turquoise blue liquid. Turquoise glaciers, icebergs, and salt water surrounded me in the Arctic. Everything blue, reflective.
Maybe I took myself to that snowy, turquoise place to see what it was like. Is that why I am so stunned, struck dumb?
I can barely speak about it. I can barely sing.
Who am I now? Again?
I am the one who loves you. More than before.
3. SEEING / HEARING / FEELING: Pack Ice