Made in Banff

Banff Centre for the Arts is a multidisciplinary arts, cultural and educational institution in Alberta, Canada. Artists from around the world journey to the mountain retreat to do what they do: make art.

What I made in Banff started a year ago.

I was awarded a self-directed Literary Arts residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, in September 2012. At the time, I didn’t know where Banff was exactly.

DSCN0412Banff National Park is about 2,600 sq. miles of dense forest, mountains and glacier-fed lakes in the Canadian Rockies. Once you’re inside the park gates, there’s the tiny town of Banff; Banff Centre for the Arts, which sits about ½ a kilometer from the town; and a couple of historic hotels. Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park.

I left home with about 100 pages of a rough draft of a novel manuscript, plenty of Steno pads, an ambition to write the rest of my novel by hand, and a desire to breathe fresh mountain air.

Unfortunately, I arrived late at night with my fear of wildlife, several types of allergy and asthma meds and a concern that I had made a bad choice.

On my first night, I laid in bed and felt very lonely. Banff was quiet and still. I was very far from the continuous wail of fire truck sirens and the President’s motorcade below my street-facing windows in Washington, D.C. I was very far from the sounds of home.

In the morning I went to breakfast. From the expansive windows of the dining hall I got my first peak of the endless rows of trees dotting the mountains. This is it, I thought. This is it. This beauty, this peacefulness, this vibrant color was what I had come to witness. DSCN0179

As I came to find out in those 14 days, I had never seen colors such as these: green-blue lakes, yellow leaves that shimmered like flecks of gold, rich brown mountain peaks, and clear blue skies like the beginning of a new thought—blank and beautiful and streaked with light.

I took the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. I could see the enormous park stretching endlessly in each direction. I stood on the observatory deck and began to cry. I cried for a long time. I cried because I felt reassured of the presence of God. I cried because I could see with my own eyes the magical harmony of the sky, the earth and the water. I cried because so many people will never see natural beauty in their lives; because I hadn’t seen anything so amazing; because I felt grateful.

I worked very hard during my residency and I met several fascinating people who took me in, made sure I was OK, and kept me company when the writing felt too tough. I needed the solitude but I also needed the communal meals, the walks, and to hear other artists’ stories.

The residency was a physically and emotionally draining, exhausting and rewarding experience. I made art.

I made plans: to finish my book, to teach a series of creative writing workshops in D.C. and to make my art my top priority.

Months went by. I searched for a different artist residency, but I needed to go back.

When I found out I had been accepted to another residency at the Banff Centre I dreamed I saw stars filling a purple-haze sky. The thing is, since last year I had been looking up, hoping to see the stars but the sky was always empty.

I returned to the Banff Centre at the beginning of September with a freshly completed beast of a rough draft of my novel.

On my first night I felt tired but also giddy from meeting other self-directed artists at dinner. I was sleepy but I couldn’t sleep. I needed to see the stars.

I went out on my balcony, sat in the dark and waited. When the first stars appeared I tried to take a picture but when I couldn’t I vowed to remember their clear, bright sparkle.

glacier water3I went to the ice fields and walked on a glacier. A year ago, I wouldn’t have considered making that journey. Two years ago I wouldn’t have known that journey was possible. Standing on ancient white/blue ice, dipping my water bottle into a rushing stream of fresh glacier water, dancing on a glacier…. That was one of the most special adventures of my life.

It took me a couple of days but I eventually settled into my work and developed a rhythm. I started to make my way through my manuscript.

I laughed loudly; I worked hard; I drank lots and lots of coffee. I danced with my friends from Mexico and Canada and Ireland and Australia as we shared jigs from our countries, admired each other’s work and read our fragile new writing aloud.

This time, what I made in Banff was a pass through a tangled first draft of a manuscript. I made a revision plan.

I made a new artistic community.

I made discoveries about myself and where I am in my life.

I made a new goal: to live each day in gratitude.

I made a beautiful memory that can barely be described.

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