I left home on the last train on the Long Island Railroad. It was 11:45pm Wednesday night, and at 2 am the following morning, I rode the commuter bus from New York City to Newark Airport to catch the first leg of a morning flight to Seattle. I knew I still had hours to go, with yet another plane to catch, a bus, and even a ferry for good measure. I knew this whirlwind weekend trip planned at the last minute may have sounded crazy to some of my friends.
An emerging writer, I had just returned from AWP, the mother of all writers’ conferences in Los Angeles, and while it was informative and helpful from a networking, grad school perspective, it was exhausting. As a first timer, I was attending panel after panel, and for a brief moment I cringed when I realized this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be attending this week-long circus. I was home for all of a month when poetess and VONA co-founder Elmaz Abinader, posted the Hedgebrook/VORTEXT Scholarship notice on Facebook. Thanks to Rebecca Cleary, a very generous donor, I could attend VORTEXT as a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) scholar.
I had days to apply, had never been to Whidbey Island, let alone the Pacific Northwest. I soon learned what the VORTEXT Literary Salon was about, and did not hesitate once I was accepted, to find a way to get to Seattle. Because of my late application, I had no housing accommodation, and so I prepped myself mentally for dusting off and possibly hauling some rarely utilized camping gear in the back of my closet. I packed a tiny nylon duffle bag with few clothes and my precious possessions for the upcoming weekend: a thin Moleskin paper journal, and a manuscript of a 13-page story that was in its final stages of edits. I called Julie O’Brien, and in a raspy voice I told her I would be willing to camp at Madrone Meadow, but being in unfamiliar territory, I needed to know what the weather was like. Days before I was to leave, she’d found room at Granny’s, an onsite cabin on the Whidbey Institute premises. I guess she could hear the anxiety in my voice. As I thanked her before hanging up she giggled and said, “Don’t worry Agatha. We’ve got you covered.”
I found refuge among the talented women who taught, shared and laughed at VORTEXT, and the notion of “radical hospitality” described on the Hedgebrook website was truly an understatement. From the moment I met up with fellow VONA scholars on the Clinton Ferry we were welcomed by Julie and Harolynn, and it wasn’t long before I gave Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook’s Executive Director, a tired, but huge hug for selecting me. I will never forget how excited she was to have our voices there, to be part of an exciting, growing community of women writers, some seasoned and published, some starting out and discovering their voices for the first time.
I started my first morning very early. The minute I opened the blinds in my room at Granny’s I wanted to be outside. An hour before breakfast, I took a walk through the Chinook, the pristine Legacy Forest where one can take a meditative stroll along the trails that surround Thomas Berry Hall, the Sanctuary and the Meadow. I took in long, slow, breaths, and delighted in the canopy of Douglas Firs and other trees that I passed. I listened to wildlife, bird calls that replaced the ever present buzz of honking cars in the city, and instead of the skunk cabbage that grow profusely in the moist forests along the Eastern seaboard, there were ferns. Gigantic specimens of ferns spilled their tendrils with abandon along mossy trails and atop fallen tree trunks. I put my cellphone on mute and walked as far as I could, and I watched the forest floor alight in front of me, the sun helping me keep track of time. During those moments in the woods I forgot I was hungry and didn’t want to leave. I told myself, walk as much as you can, and pause to admire all of this magic.
I echo many of the sentiments many other posters have of the fantastic meals and conversations over breakfast and lunch. In New York City I am accustomed to not wanting to talk with strangers, especially in the mornings on a crowded, hot subway. The energy of VORTEXT began at breakfast, and instead of needing coffee to jumpstart my day I decided to take a different route, to contemplate and appreciate the meal I had on my plate: how the eggs, the whole-grain bread, the fruit and juices, were delicious. This was true nourishment that would fuel my creativity. I was jazzed and awake, eager to be part of the VORTEXT experience.
Over the next 3 days, I made meaningful connections with other writers as I attended my workshops. At meals I sat teary-eyed or laughed with Kate Gray and Dani Shapiro, meditated with Ruth Ozeki over the keynote speeches, and I realized the whole VORTEXT experience fostered a deeper awareness of my place in this world as a writer. I scribbled the meanings behind Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Tarot reading, taking everything in. I sat in Hannah Tinti’s Nature Writing workshop with 4 other women, sitting in a beautiful green meadow, the sun warming our backs as the morning flew by. I learned about the Creative Process Journal from Laurie Frankel, sitting in a meditation sanctuary built of timbers fragrant with pine and cedar.
When I sat in Natalie Baszile’s workshop in the Farmhouse, it was to hear her describe location in our work as something dynamic, always moving and important. In her keynote speech I thought, what an amazing experience it is to hear her again, in the warmth of Thomas Berry Hall, as opposed to the Downtown Los Angeles Convention Center, where I last heard her speak. It was at that moment that I really understood her lesson: how a dynamic location truly enriches a story. And in the beautiful setting of the Whidbey Institute, the VORTEXT was swirling and alive indeed.
When I left Sunday night, I thanked Rebecca, who made it possible for me to attend VORTEXT. She sat in the front row, watching all of us read during open mic. The last person I said goodbye to was Nancy Nordhoff. Standing amid the Vortext crowd on her Hedgebrook estate, I hugged her, then grabbed my lone duffel bag, and she said, “I really do hope you’ll come back again.” I know I will, I said, and laughed. “There’s only enough time to attend 3 out of the 7 workshops.”
From the walks in the woods, the late nights and dinners, reuniting with my VONA sisters and welcoming new friends, I leave an experience that, like a true vortex, can never be repeated again. I come back home to face my work, wanting to spend more writing time outdoors. I have memories and lessons to share with other women writers, and I can’t wait until they experience VORTEXT for themselves. I thank everyone affiliated with Hedgebrook and the Whidbey Institute for their generosity, and a memorable weekend.