Half a world away

dubaiI’m still half a world from home – but now it’s the other half. Flew into Dubai last night and my eyes are still adapting to bright light and flat horizons instead of the soft grey mist and green forested hills of south east Alaska.

carol and jesseI’ll back up a bit. Last Wednesday it was time to say my sad goodbye to Sitka – to new friends and old, to an adventurous time, and to my aunt Carol. We became even closer over the month, and although we had the odd bump along the way, our friendship grew and deepened and we delighted in each other. It was a precious time. We shared the story of our month in our final reading and presentation – a bit of a romp of conversation, photos and readings at the library.

And our last night was spent in the company bluecanoeof the Blue Canoe Writing Group – it felt as though we were leaving lifelong friends at the end of the evening.

treasuresI was badly organised and so spent my last day rushing around in a panic rather than making a measured farewell (thanks to Blossom who ferried me around on errands!). Wish I had allowed more space to wander outside and say goodbye to that beautiful land, but I had to let Carol do that on my behalf, and ‘release’ all of our rocks, sticks, pine cones, bones, shells etc back into the wild, in a gorgeous arrangement.

I hopped on a plane and headed to San Francisco. Two reasons – firstly to visit my aunt Margaret (Dad’s sister and my godmother) and Uncle Ben (there’s an auntie theme to this trip, isn’t there?) and rosie and bensecondly to find out more about 826 Valencia, the first in what’s grown into a network of centres across the USA and the world, teaching kids how to write and fostering a love of literature.

That sounds rather high-brow – the reality is anything but. You enter 826 Valencia through a Pirate Supply shop on the street front. Other 826 centres have set up
shopfronts including the Greater Boston 826Bigfoot Research Institute, the Secret Agent Supply Company, the Time Travel Mart and the Robert Supply and Repair shop. The Sydney Story Factory, which sprang from the same idea, fronts Redfern Street as the Martian Embassy.

The idea is that the whole experience, from the moment of walking in the front door, is wacky and fun. Author Dave Eggers who was one of the founders of 826 Valencia, said his main bit of advice for new centres: “Keep it weird”. Don’t let it become like school.
I’ve observed a class at Sydney Story Factory and
IMG_4700marvelled at how the Storyteller-in-Chief made every step of the process fun and relatively easy. Same thing at 826 Valencia. I joined a morning “Field Trip” in which kids from a nearby school came in – wide-eyed and excited through the shop – and spent two hours coming up with a story idea, including setting and characters, and working out their own endings. Helped by a bevy of adult volunteers (a scribe, an illustrator, the teacher and the never-seen Captain Blue who yelled out threats and instructions from his hidden office upstairs), they walked out at the end with their own printed and bound books. In the afternoon, 826 runs a homework support program. Kids get reading and writing time as well as help to complete their homework. And there are other programs too.

According to Dave, the project is neighbourhood-changing and world-changing. Listen to his acclaimed TED talk here if you’re interested.

My purpose in visiting 826 Valencia is a fact-finding mission. Can we start something similar in Byron Shire (under the auspices of the Northern Rivers Writer’s Centre)? We’re not San Francisco, Boston, or Sydney. Can it work in a small town? The Island Institute is early in the process of setting up the Sitka Story Lab – a kind of scaled down version of 826 Valencia – and it was great observing how it worked during my month there under the enthusiastic leadership of intern Sally Helm.

When I get back, it’s time for some serious conversations with the board of the writer’s centre. It needs vision, money and energy. There’s huge enthusiasm and excitement from all of us – the next question is can we make it a reality?

Today’s reality – I’m looking down from the 15th floor over the glassy waters of Dubai Creek. A yellow scull glides past, and behind that a throbbing highway. In the distance, in the pale light, a gaggle of buildings including the tallest one in the world. It’s a bit surreal. I’m here as a guest of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and feeling like a very small Australian fish in a very large pond – I don’t know anyone here yet. It’s exciting and daunting to be a guest of the largest literary festival in the Middle East.

Time to put my big girl plants on and meet the other writers. Wish me luck.

goodbye crikey

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Days Like This

IMG_4331How did it happen? The month has disappeared! Someone stole a week out of it somewhere. I have but two days left and many more things I’d like to do. Carol, who flies out a day later than me, is combing Sitka for a husband of convenience, and failing that, planning to go AWOL come Thursday. She has discovered her inner Alaskan and will never be the same.

Spring seems to be well and truly arriving in Sitka. Bushes IMG2_4609are budding, chickadees are chirping and yes, the bears are awake. We heard FIRST HAND from someone who saw a bear at the beach we visited by boat the other week. Yesterday our new best friend Blossom took us for a hike in the rain up to Heart Lake. Once we arrived at the lake she picked up a branch and started pulling the twigs off it. Yes, it was a bear weapon, she explained. You can wave it in the air to make yourself look bigger, or poke a charging bear in the eye with it when it gets close enough. Bears stink, she elaborated, and both she and Carol had noticed a strong smell at one point on the trail. We sang everything we could remember from The Sound of Music on the way IMG_4607back down, while I tried to get into the right frame of mind for poking a stick into the eye of a charging bear once it got close enough.

We’ve packed plenty of adventures into our final week (and a bit of writing too). At short notice we had the chance to go out on a marine debris clean up boat trip with Sitka Sound Science Centre. After a pretty hilarious time navigating the long, steep, IMG_4364frosty gangway to the dock (I went down by sitting on my arse and sliding and still could have ended up in the water), we motored out into glassy reflective seas and watched the volcano slowly turn pink as the sun rose. Cue the sea otters, sea lions, and humpback whales. We spent the day in a little cluster of wild islands dropping onto small beaches and blitzing them for litter.

IMG_4366It was beautiful and tragic at the same time. Snaring big pieces of debris is great, but many plastics in the ocean just break down and down until they turn into a soup of tiny tiny pieces. So when we started on those beaches, scrambling around the rocks and sea logs, we were confronted with ever smaller scraps of plastic and Styrofoam. You have to decide how small you want to go – you can’t get it all. I thought I was IMG_4368reasonably aware about not using too much plastic, but I realised there is so much more I can do – and having scraped up all those plastic fragments off the stunning wild beaches of Sitka Sound, I’m pretty damned inspired to try harder. Andi, I’ll never complain about you washing and reusing plastic bags ever again.

I tell you though, it felt great to clean up those beaches. Five of us managed to do about eight or IMG_4569nine beaches during the day, interspersed with laughter, great conversation, food and moments of utter awe of the landscape around us. In winter the water is so clear you can look down and see clams and kelp forests below the boat. It was sunny, and warm. When we finally headed for home in the afternoon, the boat stuffed with collection bags and bits of debris too big to bag (an inflatable boat, remnants of buoys and fishing nets, pipes, the base of a shower), Davey the skipper put on Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” and it truly was a day like this.

IMG_2441What else? Another visit to the kids of Sitka Tribes culture classes – they made us thank you cards and wrote stories about Stay, Dexter and Paruku – once I was able to explain that Stay was a fibreglass seeing eye collection dog who lived in Antarctica. A visit to the Science Centre to learn about marine debris and check out the ‘touch tanks’ where you can (gently) poke and prod local sea life – the robust ones that live in the intertidal zone and used to being tossed around. Improvised folk music at the Larkspur Café. Giggling in the back row of “50 Shades of Grey”. Throwing a dinner party with an Aussie roast (a few bad IMG_2467moments when the chook turned out to still be frozen just before it went into the oven). A night at Mount Edgecumbe High School watching the kids from different tribes perform their traditional dances on the basketball court. Last catchups with old friends and new.

Tonight we’re giving a reading – but we plan to make it more than that. With words and
images, it will be a reflection on our time here and what it’s been about for each of us. What we’ll take away and how it will touch our lives. I hope we can do it justice.

We’re planning to come back. It may even become an annual pilgrimage.

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More weekend whales

IMG_2607Sunday morning – I woke up early to a very pink pre-dawn sky – got out of my cosy bed and scampered out into the chill to try and take some photos, as anything to do with sun is quite rare here. Good weather was forecast and we heard from Island Institute Board Member Brooke Schafer that the boat trip she’d been hoping to take us on was a goer. Brooke and husband Paul have shares in a great little runabout boat, and by 11.30am we were kitted up in our warmest IMG_2620clothes, stuffed into lifejackets, and motoring out of Crescent Harbor into the waters of Sitka Sound, with Brooke’s Mum Elizabeth joining us too.

Sitka is on Alaska’s Inside Passage, a route for oceangoing vessels that weaves through the many islands of north America’s Pacific coast, from southeastern Alaska down to northwestern Washington state. Sitka is the only town that actually fronts the PacificIMG_2624 Ocean, so once you head out of the harbour you can see open ocean, dotted with the little rocky islands that scatter the Sound. At your back: snow capped mountains and hills forested with tall hemlock and spruce.

We sped across the water towards Kruzof Island, the large, uninhabited home of Mount Edgecumbe. This snow-capped volcano is one of the dominant features on the skyline – you look across to it almost IMG_2682anytime you face the water and I love picking it out from different viewpoints. We began to see whale spouts – we’ve been told several times that not all of Alaska’s humpbacks go to Hawaii for the northern winter – many stay around here, and there they were. They do feel like old friends with their familiar arching shape.

Paul took the boat close in to shore and we jumped barefoot into the shin-deep water. IMG_2732Feeling that chill on my ankles gave me a flashback to my polar plunge down in Antarctica. How was I ever brave enough to do that? But as I squawked and splashed for shore, I remembered we were with Alaskans – Brooke and Paul had been snorkeling the day before – and tried to be a little more stoic.

brents beach cabinApplied socks and boots to chilled white feet, ate two slices of cake to warm them (the Alaskans kept exclaiming about what a warm day it was and taking off too many clothes), and inspected the beautiful camping cabin on the edge of the beach. Of course there was a good bear story to go with it – apparently a bear once decided to rip the cabin to pieces, while people were inside.IMG_2694

With that story ringing in our ears we set out on the forest trail skirting the shore and emerged on a long black sand beach, fringed with forest. Carol and I have both been fascinated by stories of tsunami debris washing up from Japan in recent years. I read a novel before leaving home (A tale for the time being – Ruth Ozeki) about a north American author living on this coastline who IMG_4254finds a diary in a washed up lunch box, written by a Japanese teenager, and that really got me interested – and Carol did quite a bit of research before we left home. It was a weird feeling when one of the first pieces of plastic I found was a dispenser bottle for cream of some sort – battered, but with the Japanese characters still visible.

We would both like to work with local kids on art and stories around this debris – I’m not sure it will happen on this trip, but sounds like a good reason to come back, doesn’t it? The Sitka Sound Science Centre is taking local kids out for rubbish collection and science related to the debris – we hope to talk to them this IMG_2693week about incorporating art and creativity into that work.

Of course the beach was also full of exquisite driftwood, huge logs, stones, shells, seaweed – I could have beachcombed for days. Stuffed my pockets with treasures (which will all have to go back to the sea when we leave here) and found a pitted metal ball that looked like a buoy of some sort. Or an unexploded land mine. Don’t tell me I have IMG_4248an overactive imagination. Two hours was a teasing taste and Cas and I had to almost be yanked bodily away from it to go back to the boat – watched over by a noisy bald-headed eagle. Maybe he didn’t want us to leave either.

On the way back – a whale was close enough that Brooke cut the engine and let the boat drift so we could hear its explosive breath as it surfaced, and watch its smooth back
IMG_2730rolling under the water again. A sea otter let us come just a few feet away before it waved its flippers and dived. I tried to pick the island where I stayed in a shack for two nights on my last visit seven years ago – couldn’t quite spot it (though that experience is carved on my memory forever).

As we pootled into Crescent Harbour a sea lion dived a few times in front of us – just another Alaskan moment, of the sort this place is so good at putting on. Yes it has been a whale of a weekend.

Today is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Elizabeth was a Tlingit civil rights activist whose advocacy, and speech to the territorial Senate in 1945, were instrumental in the passage of the 1945 Anti Discrimination Act – the first law of its kind in the entire United States. Many of Sitka’s school kids will be marching in her honour today and we’re looking forward to joining the celebrations.

"Elizabeth Peratrovich" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Peratrovich.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Elizabeth_Peratrovich.jpg

“Elizabeth Peratrovich” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Peratrovich.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Elizabeth_Peratrovich.jpg

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A whale of a weekend – Saturday

IMG_3475Saturday’s ingredients: three hours of time, 17 kids aged 7-11 years, 96 crayons, six little pallets of paint, brushes, water, textas (markers), coloured pencils, lead pencils art paper, newspaper, rocks, clam shells, driftwood, two optimistic Australians (us), three nervous Californians (Story Lab coordinator Sally Helm and her visiting parents Cathy and Mark), a chapel with nice clean carpet and a life-sized blow up kangaroo.IMG_3421

Yes, it was “Whale Dreams”, our creativity workshop open to Sitka kids, run with Sitka Story Lab. Our plan was to get kids sharing whale stories through art and writing (with some dancing, singing and a bit of yelling thrown in). Crikey the Kangaroo helped establish some ground rules and we taught the kids a few Australian greetings and the bush call “Coo-ee”, (which became a handy IMG_3426form of crowd control).

We began sharing tales and dreams of Migaloo, the famed white humpback, the spirit whale, of Australia. I’d forgotten that the first known human sighting (and photographing) of Migaloo was actually at Byron Bay, back in the early 1990s. And in 2011, a white humpback calf was also spotted – possibly Migaloo’s offspring. The kids were fascinated by Migaloo and happy to get into drawing and painting what would happen in their own dream of Migaloo.

We created an underwater soundscape using IMG_3468rocks, shells, wood and voices (plus a recording of Migaloo himself) and then kids started writing their own Migaloo adventures – when Australia’s white whale travels to Sitka, who does he meet and what do they do? Interspersed with some running games out on the wet spongy lawn (a few went home with muddy pants), some songs, some snacks, and several Crikey rescues when it looked like our inflatable friend might not survive attempts to box with him.IMG_3430

The outcome: great pictures and stories of whales (and some other interesting creatures), two exhausted teachers, three relieved Californians, 14 kids with fluffy kangaroo key rings (only remembered to distribute once they’d started leaving – sorry to those who missed out!), a chapel with nicely cleaned carpet and an intact inflatable kangaroo.

In true Australian form (funny how you turn into an Australian when you leave the shores), Carol and I headed straight to the pub for beer (me), wine (Carol), burgers and fries (both of us) and friendly greetings (Crikey).

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IMG_2571with crikey

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Remarkable meetings

Photo by Sitka Sentinel

Photo by Sitka Sentinel

In the past week the weather has bounced from winter to spring – the ‘winterless winter’
as a member of Blue Canoe Writer’s Group phrased it last night. Swan Lake, in a little valley below our house, froze over enough for ice skating on the weekend (it went down to -6 celsius). On Saturday afternoon it was packed with parents and kids (some wobbling on their skates, some graceful), slithering excited dogs, the end of an ice hockey game. Light snow dusted the surface, the skaters carved patterns in it. Saturday night, in the dark, it was teenagers gracefully skimming the ice, some out on the lake with headlamps glimmering, some close to the shore where the street lights bounced down. Sunday morning it was deserted. The snow dust had melted off, the ice was dark and slick and forbidding, too thin to support human weight. This morning I woke to grey, drizzly warmth and the lake looking decidedly watery. It’s six degrees. That was probably the one day of the season that Sitkans could ice skate.

IMG_2343I’m having a completely different experience to my usual writing retreat. I’ve had quite a few of them in the past and they’ve involved writing marathons – mostly solitary times where I’ve gone deeply into the writing and produced many pages of work. Last time I was in Sitka – seven years ago – I wrote thousands of words and in fact finished the first draft of The Raven’s Heart. Yes, I met people and participated in community life, but there were many long days at the desk and some loneliness through being so deeply in the work (and having many nights alone).

Carol and JesseThis time I’m here with Carol, my beloved aunt, and everything is different. Firstly – no loneliness. Having a buddy means I’ll go out to the pub or out to eat dinner – things I’d hesitate to do by myself. Secondly, there’s camaraderie in the work. In the mornings we’re often both tapping away at the keyboards in the wide-windowed room of 402 Hemlock St, looking down at the lake and across to the mountains known as ‘The Sisters’. We scamper out together, walking through the forested cemetery to the Back Door Café or Larkspur Cafe for coffee and bread pudding or berry pie. We walk together through the forest down at the sea, or along the Sitka Cross Trail in the woods. We talk about what we’re working on, and we’ve started reading it to each other.

But thirdly – and this is largely to do with Carol – the days are full of remarkable meetings. She arrived here deeply committed to paying respect to the local indigenous people and, if possible, sharing culture with them – having spoken about this at length to her indigenous teacher and long time friend in Australia, Uncle Max (Dulamunmun) Harrison, an elder of the Yuin Nation. Carol made the at times difficult effort to find and connect with people from the Tlingit culture of Sitka to pay her respects. Her willingness to do this – and to ask permission from traditional owners for us to be here – was inspiring to me and encouraged me to not always settle for the easy path. And as a result we have found ourselves warmly and generously welcomed.

The Blue Canoe Writers Group has become important for both of us – joining the weekly meeting of this incredibly talented group of writers is creatively inspiring (I’m in awe of some of the poems that have been shared) and we are making some great friendships. Plus many of them supported us by fronting up to our creativity workshop last Saturday.

IMG_4086 IMG_4084Carolyn Servid, who until last year was director of the Island Institute (she and husband Dorik founded and ran it for 30 years) had us on her program on the lively local Raven Radio station. She’s been running the Sitka Anthologies program for many years and over the course of an hour, with her warm, gentle and intelligent questioning, drew out all sorts of interesting conversations.

IMG_4187On Monday night we joined two members of Blue Canoe – Cultural Educator Blossom Twitchell and poet extraordinaire Vivian Faith Prescott – at Mount Edgecumbe High School, a selective boarding school that takes native kids from all over Alaska. The plan was for us to join the Teen Writer’s Group, but we ended up with 15 kids interested in hearing about Australia from the two crazy Aussies with the life sized blow up kangaroo, now christened Crikey. (Crikey

Photo by Vivian Faith Prescott

Photo by Vivian Faith Prescott

has become an integral part of our public appearances– another “Stay” in the making). The students told us where they came from and a bit about their lives. Some came from tiny villages, some from big cities. Some hunt, some fish, some gather. At school they’re learning about making regalia, traditional languages, and traditional food.

After yarning for an hour and a half we feasted on traditional Alaskan foods: sea lion roast, muktuk (raw whale skin and blubber), seal oil, herring eggs, akutaq

(berries mixed with fat – I think it was cream in this instance), smoked hooligan, shrimp, rice, mixed berries, spruce tip/blueberry lemonade, smoked salmon strips, salmon spread, pilot bread (like a big biscuit), thimbleberry jam, blueberry jam, and more. There were a few things on that list I wasn’t quite brave enough to try – Blossom told me later they were watching to see if I’d have a go at muktuk, ready for a good laugh if I didn’t like it. I stuffed myself with berries instead and hoped I didn’t cause offence by avoiding it.

Photo by Vivian Faith Prescott

Photo by Vivian Faith Prescott

IMG_4179 3

On Monday, following our meetings with educators Nancy Douglas and Heather Powell from Sitka Tribe of Alaska (a tribal government organisation), we joined the after IMG_4193school program to talk to grade two kids about Australia and share stories with them. Crikey once again proved his worth, as after training kids to say ‘Gidday mate’ in broad tones, we taught them the important cultural skill of yelling ‘CRIKEY’ in unison when anything surprising happened. And yes, I hope you’re seeing the yawning chasm of cultural richness between mainstream Australia and strong indigenous culture. This was brought home to us when the kids, IMG_4215having happily hop-hop-hopped around the room and sung a made up song about kangaroos, performed a traditional Tlingit dance for us at the end. The boys had feathered handpieces and the girls held painted wooden paddles. They knew every word and move. All the adults in the place came out to participate. The drum beat, the song and the way those kids carried themselves, so strong and proud – it brought tears to my eyes. I watched with an awed smile pasted from one ear to the other.

Last night Vivian sent us home from Blue Canoe with deer meat, berries, smoked salmon and the promise of a tour of her art studio. Today we’re going back to work with the next age group of Sitka Tribe kids after school. Tonight there’s a rumour of vodka with Blue Canoe member Eugene Solovyov, a local Russian who runs Sitka Rose Art Gallery and writes like a stand up comic, and Blossom, whose softly spoken words always make me want to lean in and hear more. More remarkable meetings are on the horizon – with a high school memoir writing group, with the kids who come to our “Whale Dreams” workshop this Saturday, with Island Institute Board member Brooke Schafer who is hoping to take us out on a boating adventure to look for tsunami debris, with the scientists from Sitka Sound Science Centre, and more.

Writing is going slowly but well. I’m hoping it will be quality rather than quantity that tells. All the other experiences and meetings and friendships blooming in this residency are the things I will carry home, as well as the words.

Thank you (Quyanna Taiku) for listening. One day I hope WordPress will come into this century and make it easy to insert photos without making the whole post look like a huskie’s breakfast.

jesseand crikey

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Climb Every Mountain

Sitka is known for its Weather. Capital W weather – the sort that sends weeks on end of IMG_2460cold, driving rain. Which apparently were the conditions prior to our arrival. But we continued our good luck streak with weather (bringing huge surf to Hawaii and breaking the snow drought in Alaska’s north) and our arrival brought a week of fine, sunny weather. So brilliantly fine that it’s been impossible to stay inside. Yesterday, seeing that it was the last sunny day forecast for a while, I decided to strike out for the mountaintop, and climb Gavan Hill, a steep forested slope that I’ve been looking at each day while I work.IMG_4021

The town of Sitka sits on a strip of flat land between the foot of Baranoff Island’s mountain ranges and the shoreline of the north east Pacific Ocean. These forests are known as the Tongass – thick, temperate rainforest of tall spruce and hemlock trees, full of moss. For us southerners it’s like stepping into the Lord of the Rings – the kind of deep, dark forests we imagined when hearing fairy tales. It’s kind of gloomy and damp inside them, and you have to watch your footing as parts of the trail have frozen to black ice.

Off I set, with my bear spray (just in case) and a set of crampon-like boot chains that I could put on if I reached ice. And no, bear spray is not like hair spray. It’s a very strong pepper/capsicum spray that you unleash if being charged by aIMG_2498 bear, once it gets about a metre away. A kind of final defense that presumably takes some presence of mind to operate correctly. Most bear charges are mock charges anyway, so I hear. Plus all the bears around here should be asleep. But I felt happier carrying it. (Though today our neighbour shook her head and told me to forget the spray and carry a gun.)

IMG_4059Into the gloomy forest (with bars of sunlight filtering through) and up and up and up… Until I well and truly realised I’m not very fit. Never mind bears, I was more worried that I’d have heart failure. It was a goodly climb of about 3km up – it felt like much more – and I wondered if I had the gumption to complete it. (Yes I did start at sea level – hope the pic shows something of the climb)

Heart pounding, I reached an opening in the trees and stepped up into another world. The forest thinned out around me, opening to undulating rocky grasslands lightly layered IMG_4045in snow, bonsai-style trees beaten to miniature by the temperature and wind, bathing in sunshine under a brilliant blue sky. I was on the top – and in every direction was an incredible vista – the snow covered mountains stretching back as far as I could see, the sweep of the Pacific Ocean and the hundreds of tiny, forested islands scattered through Sitka Sound, the nearby white-topped volcano, and far below the little township of Sitka nestled by the water’s IMG_2495IMG_4050edge.

Cue the Julie Andrews moment. Luckily I remembered in time that I inherited Von Blackadder Family genes in the singing department, so I sang a kind of silent ‘Hills are alive…” instead, crunching over the frozen snow and feeling an expansive exhilaration. OK, I get why people climb mountains. This is why. That place at the top is superb. Not that I would ever do hard climbing – walking up a mountain with a fairly flat top is my style – but I reckon the feeling might be similar to clambering up a steep summit and standing with one crampon resting on the top. Wow.

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It was still early in the day, so after eating my body weight in trail mix to restore my IMG_4049energy, I set out for the next 3km stint, across the ridges of the high country to a little alpine hut that I guess is an emergency shelter up there. Not sure what I expected to find there – but it is what it says – a hut. Nothing else. A little dustpan and broom is all that’s inside. For a bit of emergency housework I guess.

A little more silent interpretive dancing for joy and then it was time to head back, scrunch scrunch across the crusted snow of the ridgelines, back to the forest edge and thenIMG_4057 down down down into the gloom of the trees and a 3km descent as the sun dropped into the sea and my knees became more and more like jelly. I was wobbling like one of those marathon runners by the time I reached the flat gravel track home, and have never been so glad to fall into a bath in my life.

I might never get up there again, but that mountaintop will stay with me. Like glimpsing the divine. And I had it all to myself.

The weather is forecast to change tonight, with rain and snow in the coming days. Time to knuckle down to the desk, stop gallivanting in the hills, and get some words on the page. Today was nearly a negative word count as I deleted what I’d written in the previous session, but hey, these things happen.

Off to follow those hills and byways…

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Settling in to Sitka

Tuesday night, and Carol and I are just home from an evening with Blue Canoe Writer’s Group, a weekly gathering of writers to share work and tell stories. Eugene, one of the members, collected us at 6.15pm and I quickly realised we were in the presence of a grIMG_2395eat raconteur. His poem about being stopped by the border police while admiring the desert in Arizona and threatened with deportation back to Mexico (or Russia, once they discovered that was his ancestry) was hysterical. Members gave other beautiful readings that made me want to be a poet… I’m looking forward to going back next week with some writing to share.

So – it’s now the creative time of the trip away – the four weeks of our residency, in which Carol and I settle in to the serious business of making new things – words, stories, images, artworks. At least that was my approach to it when we landed late last week. Let’s hurry up and get organised and get the nose to the grindstone.Carol and Jesse

But this time – unlike virtually all the other residencies I’ve been on – things are different because I’m here with someone else. For the first 24 hours that reality left me quite edgy. How were we going to work around each other? How would I stop myself being distracted by another person nearby? What if we skived off and had too much fun and didn’t get any work done? How could I make sure I really WORKED?

On the first or second evening I had a stern conversation with Carol in which I reiterated my commitment to the perspiration aspect of writing and the serious hard work, and then took myself off to bed. And then lay awake, remorseful and soul searching. When hIMG_3974ad I turned into such a totalitarian disciplinarian? What would happen if I allowed myself to remember the joy and pleasure of creativity as well as the work required? What if I took this chance of sharing a retreat with someone else as an opportunity to open up and learn something new about ways of creating?

Reader, I decided to do just that. I rose from my bed the next morning with a commitment to embracing joy and chaos as well as hard work – and to really really enjoying the sharing part of this residency.

What a relief. I’m finding I’m actually loving being here with someone elseIMG_3982 – not just anyone, but Carol with her quirky and unique approach to the world. I’m giving myself the freedom to play with other creative approaches over the month – and to enjoy the natural beauty Sitka has to offer. This, I believe, is all going to feed my writing rather than take away from it.

It’s a big change. I’ve done my share of hard working and rather lonely retreats. This one is different – it’s fun, it’s joyful, it’s unpredictable, it’s more expansive. And there’s someone at the end of the day to share a glass of wine or three and laugh about what we’ve been up to.

Yay. Thanks Cas.

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