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Traveling to a writing retreat in northeastern Iceland

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October 1st through the 7th I was in northeastern Iceland for a writing retreat on the southern shore of Lake Mývatn, in the tiny hamlet of Skútustaðir. It was organized by Maine Media Workshops. I was excited about the prospect of getting back to Iceland again, a country I’ve had an enthusiastic interest in since I first went there with my wife in the summer of 2015. I had however some anxiety about the travel (which I often do), being concerned about the possibility of something going wrong along the way, possible missed connections etc. The trip itinerary took me from Syracuse NY through Toronto and then to the Iceland international airport in Keflavík. There I had to take a bus to the domestic airport in Reykjavík where I met up with the other retreat participants and the group leader Meg, and we all caught a short domestic flight to Akureyri in the north. Meg rented a car and drove us south and east to our final destination which was the Hotel Sél at Skútustaðir. Despite my travel anxiety everything went well and there were no problems throughout my entire trip. Choice of reading material for a trip is very important for me. I brought the collected prose of Robert Creeley, and Glare by A. R. Ammons, a wild and rambling booklength poem, a freewheeling lyric meditation on time, nature, and mortality that has been an inspiration to me in my own current writing project. I hoped that the spirit of Ammons would be there with me as I worked on my book manuscript at the retreat. Later on in the retreat I came to regret the choice of the Creeley though. His stories seemed suffused with a mood of existential despair, which was not what I really needed on this trip. My plan for the retreat was to work on revising the manuscript of my prose-poem collection which I’ve been working on since February.

Skútustaðir consists of two hotels (with a lot of tourists), a farm with a lot of sheep, a church, and not much else. Everything else is wild and beautiful country all around, the lake and the vast volcanic wilderness surrounding, as far as one can see. To spend any time there is to be in a constant state of awe. There is no place else on earth where I have been so keenly aware not only the profundity of nature, but of the fact that nature has no need for us.

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In transit

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[1974]: I was a new crew member on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, heading across the Atlantic Ocean. Young, naive and ridden with chronic anxiety. So anxiety-ridden in fact that I was unsure if I would even be up to the challenge of living my own life. Cut loose from all that was familiar and dumped into a new and strange life for which I was utterly unprepared and unsuited. Living and working with strange and often callous people, people I did not understand, in difficult, stressful and frustrating conditions.

But some nights when we were at sea I would wait until it was late and there were very few people about, and go up to the flight deck and stand on a catwalk overlooking the ocean, and watch the moon over the water. It seemed to be flying across the darkness, with its glittering reflection that looked like fire racing across the water’s surface underneath it. I heard the hissing, rushing sound of the ship’s wake and knew that I and the ship were racing along with the moon. We were flying. We were all flying through the night into a dark future.

The pleasure of being lost

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During the time I was in the Navy I went on two six-month Mediterranean cruises on the USS Saratoga. Whenever we pulled into a port, no matter where it was, Naples or Malaga or Izmir or wherever, most of my shipmates would immediately head for the nearest bar to get drunk, or seek out the local prostitutes, or both. I wanted to fit in and be just “one of the guys” but I couldn’t bring myself to join them in these banal escapades, which seemed dreary and pointless to me. But I didn’t know what else to do so whenever we were in port, so I went out walking by myself, exploring, mostly at random. I found, strangely enough, that the times when I felt most alive and most at peace were the times when I was keenly aware of being all alone in a strange place, in a foreign culture among people who spoke a language incomprehensible to me. At such times the world was beautiful and strange. As for example walking along a seawall late at night in Majorca, looking out into the dark sea and sky and seeing tiny stitches of distant lightning and feeling an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. Or climbing up a high hill on the outskirts of Barcelona and watching the sun go down. Or wandering the back alleys of Split until late into the night, all alone, unafraid, and feeling content to be simply walking with no destination. I relished the strange feeling of being lost in a world that I didn’t understand, of not belonging anywhere in particular. When you are lost the whole world becomes your home.

Onboard

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[1973-1977] The ship was monumentally huge but inside it everything, with the exception of the hangar deck (where they stored the aircraft), seemed crowded and cramped. Most of the passageways were narrow and in many of them you had to duck your head to avoid bumping into pipes and conduits that passed overhead. So as soon as I reported on board I started to feel claustrophobic.

Life on the ship consisted of long, long hours of tedious work and crushing boredom. When I was not working there was really nothing to do so I just worked a lot, sometimes even more than the usual 12-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week at-sea work shift. As a neophyte technician in the ship’s data processing division I started out as a card-punch operator, basically just a tedious data-entry job, but was soon promoted to computer operator. Since there was really nothing else to do besides work, to amuse myself in my spare time I learned programming by reading Navy manuals, first assembler language and then COBOL.

When we were at sea the incoming work load for the data processing division was often more than our little group of technicians could handle, even with the 12-hour shifts. I worked extra hours trying to keep up, especially if there was a particularly urgent job in the works, which was often. I became used to functioning on not quite enough sleep and being chronically fatigued. When we were at sea I lost the sense of being a human. Most of the time I was like a machine, focused only on doing the work and not caring about anything else. I felt completely cut off from the world. I was probably suffering the psychological symptoms of prolonged sensory deprivation from working so many long hours for many days (sometimes weeks) without respite, in cramped and crowded conditions without seeing the sun or the sky. There was nothing to look forward to. For me it was all about just trying to get by from one day to the next. The guys I worked with were a very mixed lot. Some of them were pretty smart guys and some of them were appalling, at least at first. There were men who had spent time in prison for armed robbery, there were drug dealers, pimps, and some who seemed to have some serious mental problems. But in time I ceased to make distinctions among them, because there was simply no point in doing so, and I just accepted everyone for what they were.

I complained a lot about shipboard life, all of us did. But there was another side of it for me. I think that in a way it was what I secretly wanted, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was 19 years old and still suffering from the long-term effects of my father’s bullying and psychological abuse. I was alienated from my father but more importantly I was also alienated from myself. I felt a profound, instinctive urge to try to escape from my own life. Being on the ship was actually an ideal way to do that. I had indeed escaped from my life into something strange and difficult. I was no longer the person I had been, and I wasn’t sure yet who the new person was that I was turning into.

Iceland again, and awe

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I’ve been to Iceland twice, most recently in mid-April of this year. It is a country that made a strong impression on me when I first visited last summer with my wife. We went on a tour that took us all around the country. We spent a good bit of time being taken around in a tour coach in very rural (and even wilderness) areas. The Icelandic landscape is amazing, like nothing I have ever seen anywhere. I doubt there is any land that is like it anywhere else in the world.

Traveling around thus, seeing this wondrous landscape, I experienced a new and profound sense of the awesome enormity, the unimaginable vastness and power, of nature, and of the smallness and pathetic vulnerability of us, we mere humans, in this incredibly vast natural world that is far beyond our capacity to understand. I had a new intuition for our ultimate existential nature, i.e. that we are all lost in a world that we can’t possibly comprehend. I haven’t experienced such a powerful sense of awe in any other place I have ever been. It changed my way of looking at and thinking about the world and our place in it.

Later, I went back in April of this year for the Iceland Writers Retreat, and I recall spending an afternoon walking around Rejkjavík with two of my newfound writer-friends. We did some shopping, went to a restaurant and a couple of cafes. Sitting in a crowded cafe with my friends, I saw them with a strange kind of double-vision. I saw them in that warm and cozy cafe, sipping coffee, but I also saw them and myself as tiny beings adrift in a vast, dark, and wild world of nature all around us, extending indefinitely beyond the edges of the city. And I felt that that dark, fierce, and wild world out there was (as the tiny and vulnerable mortals that we are), as much as we would like to imagine otherwise, our real life, our truer and more complete destiny.

The existential pleasures of being lost

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I was in the U.S. Navy from 1973 to 1977. During this time I went on two Mediterranean cruises on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Whenever we pulled into a port, no matter where it was, Naples or Malaga or Izmir or wherever, most of my shipmates would immediately head for the nearest bar to get drunk, or seek out the local prostitutes, or both. I wanted to fit in and be just “one of the guys” but I just couldn’t bring myself to join them in these banal escapades. It was boring. But I didn’t know what to do so I went out walking by myself, exploring. I found, strangely enough, that the times when I felt most alive and most at peace were the times when I was keenly aware of being all alone in a strange place, in a foreign culture among people who spoke a language incomprehensible to me. At such times the world was beautiful and strange to me. As for example walking along a seawall late at night in Majorca, looking out into the dark sea and sky and seeing tiny stitches of distant lightning and feeling an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. Or climbing up a high hill on the outskirts of Barcelona and watching the sun go down. Or wandering the back alleys of Split until late into the night, all alone, unafraid, and feeling content to be simply walking. I loved the feeling of being lost in a world that I didn’t understand. I think sometimes it must be a good thing for us to be lost. Therein may be unforseen opportunities to see the world anew, to renew our spirits.

To the north

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February 1995: I was living in Panama City, Florida and working in the defense contracting industry, which I despised. But after many months of seeking I finally got a job offer that was NOT in the defense biz, in another city. The city was Ithaca, New York. When I told my father, a lifelong devotee of warm places and a hater of cold weather, that I planned to move up north to Ithaca he was at first incredulous, assuming that this was yet another of my crazy impulsive ideas and that I would eventually come to my senses and drop the idea of moving north. But I didn’t drop the idea, and I started making moving plans. When my father eventually saw that I was really serious about it he reluctantly agreed to help me move.

On a cold (well, cold for northern Florida anyway) and sunny day we headed out onto the highway heading north, driving a rented moving van full of my meager belongings and towing my car. My father and I took turns driving. We drove ten hours the first day. We talked little during the long drive, but then we never did have a lot to talk about. He just stared ahead of him at the road with an air of quiet resignation. I supposed that he must have been wondering how he had managed to raise such a crazy son, a son so demonstrably devoid of “common sense.” Why can’t you be like me? He never said it in such words but it was clear from all of my experience with him throughout my life that this was the gist of his relationship with me, his eldest son.  Why can’t you be like me, exactly like me? 

We stopped at a motel in Charlotte, North Carolina the first night.  We bought a six pack of beer and split it between the two of us in the motel room.  The next morning we were up and out on the road early, driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The world rushing past the truck windows started to seem fluid and intangible to me.  Just colors and shapes in motion.  Images of sad small towns, poor and lost-looking places for the most part.  This is America, I thought, a country of poor and lost places.  Maybe it doesn’t matter much where one chooses to live.

I started to become aware of the cold.  I felt that it was a new and different world that I was entering, a world of cold and snow, a world where people were in thrall to the changing of the seasons.  Crossing into Pennsylvania we started to see patches of snow on the ground.  We drove on I-81 through an ice fog, passing several cars that had slid off the road into the ditches.  I got off the highway with a great sense of relief (my nerves being somewhat shaky after my first experience of driving on icy roads) in a small town and found a motel, and we drank another six pack in the room.  We still didn’t have much to talk about.

The next day we crossed into New York state and went on up to Ithaca.  We returned the van and drove in my car to a hotel.  The next morning I drove my father to the bus station so he could take the bus back to his home in Seagrove Beach, Florida.  It started snowing as we were on our way to the bus station.  He muttered and griped abut the snow as we walked into the station.  I saw him off on the bus.

Several months later, in the summer, he drove back to Ithaca and I got a chance to take him around and show him how beautiful the countryside is in the summer.  I recall taking him on hiking trails and showing him spectacular waterfalls, gorges, forests, lakes, rivers, and valleys.  I think he was impressed, in spite of himself.  I think he realized that this really was a good place to live after all.  He stayed a few days and drove back to Florida.  That was the last time I ever saw him.  The times I tried to call him he would usually be drunk and so I became reluctant to call him.  A year later, in the middle of summer, he died of a heart attack.  He would be eternally in summer from then on.

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