I have had an electrical current of anticipation running through my whole body for the past few months, since I applied for the Alderworks Alaska residency and even more so when I was accepted. This past Wednesday, as the seaplane rounded the corner in the fjord and Skagway came into view, the electricity flowed into tears, the tight knot around my heart of a prolonged separation resolved in a reunion that was first visual and then physical and social. There have been many changes in the town since I flew away from it for college in August of 1982—its core economy has shifted to tourism from a Teamsters-led ore transport and shipping; it has grown in size by about 50%, with the demographics skewing older; many of what were once vacant lots are now building sites; me and all those I knew have age-progressed by decades. What hasn’t changed: The mountains and the river—and I’ve realized more clearly on this return that the dramatic omnipresence of the valley’s guardians and perimeter, as well as the character and persistence of the flora, are now and always were the main definers for me of my presence within the place. The peaks, the running water, the greens and blooms are hardly disturbed from when I last stood among them in witness and wonder.
My six-week artists and writers residency has begun with attending the North Words Writers Symposium, and I realized today during an exercise led by the keynote speaker Karen Russell (of Orange World and Other Stories, most recently, and Swamplandia, perhaps most famously; also a MacArthur fellow and a generous, encouraging, and hilarious center of this gathering)—an exercise which further broke me open in accessing who I once was in this place and who I am now here, with those 41 years in between the points of comparison and contrast—that I am a slow writer, someone who needs to process before I can write, and certainly someone who needs to reconsider before sharing. Others in our group had long paragraphs within minutes, worthy of reading aloud. Instead, I wept quietly into a handkerchief, jotted a few sentences of completely raw reminders into my notebook, and will let the words marinate, perhaps to ripen into further form, capable of conveying. In the meantime, I will mourn missing my granddaughter’s 5th-grade and niece’s high school graduations in Austin this week; soak up as much as I can from the other astonishing faculty in the one day remaining of this year’s North Words; and settle into a momentum of creativity that solitude in nature can sometimes inspire.