Baptism By Fire and Ice: My Journey to Iceland

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View from City Hall

I stepped off the plane feeling sore and sick. My deep rattling cough had started a couple of days before, and now my dream vacation would be filled with phlegm. My body felt like it had been pricked with a thousand tiny needles, and I had spent the night twisting and turning, coughing and shivering under my new parka.

The airport seemed sterile in its precise cleanliness. Few people lurked about. Outside, I scanned the row of shuttle buses, searching for my assigned bus number. I looked up at the dark, sad, grey/black sky.

It was 6:00 AM and it was going to rain.

Here I was. Alone in Iceland.

As we rambled along the lonely stretch of road from Keflavik to Reykjavik I wondered if maybe I should have done more prior research. Bluelagoon39.jpg

Along the highway, piles of jagged, moss-covered lava rock stretched out into the horizon. I saw no buildings, homes, animals or trees. The bus driver mentioned trolls and I understood. If there were ever a place where trolls would live it would be in the crevices of these rocks.

Why was I here? Was it divine intervention or just a good piece of marketing? Was I summoned by elves or pulled by a magnetic force to middle earth? Why was I called to this remote, chilly island?

Why Iceland?

Really, the only things I knew about Iceland weren’t positive. I had heard rumors that at one time (whether officially or unofficially) the Icelandic government requested African-American soldiers not be stationed at the U.S. base there. I had heard that everything was expensive, the food was unimaginative, and there was nothing to do.

It was around the mid-‘90s when I began perking up at any mention of the island; but at the time I couldn’t understand why. Of course, in retrospect, I’m sure it’s because of my Sugarcubes fandom.

Around two years ago, Iceland started to weave its way into my dreams. I typically don’t remember my dreams but I often woke up remembering the vague image of this mythical place, Iceland.

I needed to go. I applied for an artist grant and I decided I would use the funds to write and explore Iceland. I checked my mailbox day after day, and then it finally came. The rejection letter. I didn’t get the grant.

Stupid dream, I told myself. I didn’t even know anything about Iceland.

In February, I was hosting one of my happy writing hours, where writers come together to share drinks and create new work. One of my faithful attendees reached into her bag and said she had brought me something. She pulled out 50 flyers for the first annual Iceland Writers Retreat to be held in April.

The IWR would feature a serious super crew: Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks, Susan Orlean (who was recently named as a Guggenheim Fellow), Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden, as well travel writer Sara Wheeler and Andrew Evans of National Geographic, fiction writer James Scudamore, memoirist Iain Reid, and fiction and nonfiction writer Randy Boyagoda.

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The A-Team

I had just begun my third revision of my novel manuscript. This retreat could take me to the next level; but, could I afford to spend so much on a four-day retreat? I was saving up to fund my own artistic journey next year. No more trips until then, I had vowed. I passed the flyers around the table and felt a little sad.

Later that evening I was talking to my mother about the retreat. She hadn’t understood my recent obsession with all things Iceland, but she listened to me read the exciting features of the program––writing workshops, literary walking tours, receptions and sightseeing––and when I was done, she said, “Mmmm. That sounds like that might be God talking. You should think about it.”

I did think about it. I registered to secure the early bird pricing and I thought about it some more. Before the week was out, I bought my plane ticket. I was going. All I needed to do was buy a lightweight parka as the organizers suggested. What, I asked my dad, exactly is a parka?

A Dream Come True

When I arrived, I didn’t find the mountain view in Reykjavik scenic. The brown mountains had streaky lines of snow running down them like melting icing. The heavy clouds lingered over my head, and the hotel I had been so excited about faced the docks where rusty boats were being restored. Reykjavik_5.jpg

Maybe I was just cranky. I was mad that I had worked myself into the ground in the days before my trip as I struggled to finish tasks at the office, pay my taxes, craft the synopsis of my novel, and finish my new draft. I had done too much, and now my dream vacation was in danger of being ruined by my lethargy.

But, maybe, this wasn’t such a great dream after all. I might have made a mistake in insisting to family and friends that Iceland was part of my destiny.

I had arrived two days before my retreat; however, the only way to get better before it started was to waste my first day on bed rest. I popped a couple of Sinex cold tablets and fell into the luxurious goose down bed despite my feather allergy. I woke up in the late afternoon to see the sun streaming across my white-walled room. I pushed back the curtain to peek out at the clear blue sky. I was weak, too weak. I felt so alone, sleeping in a tiny room in a tiny country. I fell back into bed and slept.

I woke up as the sun was starting to dip down. I needed to salvage the day and see something. I pulled on my pants and my parka.

I followed the trail along the oceanReykjavik9.jpg. Earlier, I had noticed a boat sculpture arching gracefully into the sky. It didn’t seem far; I was sure I had enough energy to make it there. Though it was softly drizzling, I found the rain oddly comforting. I put up my hood.

When I reached the statue I stood on the rocks looking out at the snow-capped mountains across the water. The pink sun was reflecting off the windows of buildings, creating a warm glow, illuminating the mountains I had previously scorned.

Although this wasn’t what I was expecting I really hadn’t known what to expect. I could make this work. I was called to this place. I believed it. I just needed to sink into it and find out why.

Healing

Prior to my arrival, I had booked a trip to the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal pool near the airport in Keflavik. Now, I figured that since it was 45 degrees outside and the water was about 100 degrees, with my rattling cough, soaking would either cause me to get bronchitis which would develop into pneumonia or I would get better. Either way, I had to go. When in Iceland….

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Surreal. Blue Lagoon

Soaking in the lagoon was unlike anything I had ever experienced. My chest opened up; my sinuses opened up. Maybe, I wondered, I came to Iceland to heal. Not to have a vacation but to allow the Earth to heal me. I lowered my shoulders into the warm water and closed my eyes. The tension in my body eased. I breathed deeply, inhaling the sulfurous smell.

For the past two or three years, I have shed layers and layers and layers. I’ve grown and stretched and come into my own and the process has been rewarding and exhausting. My body was tired; my heart was tired; my mind, too.

It wasn’t that I was sick; it’s that I was in need of healing. This was my healing. I closed my eyes. Heal me water. Heal me. I surrender to your healing powers.

I was finally here. I just had to sit back and take it all in. I relaxed.

And then, I saw a rainbow.

Iceland Writers Retreat

I applaud Erica Jacobs Green and Eliza Reid, the co-founders of the Iceland Writers Retreat, on a stellar literary and travel experience. They provided us with communal meals; opportunities to talk and network; delicious coffee; and incredibly generous, wise, funny and personable workshop leaders.

I took classes with Joseph Boyden, who addressed narrative voice and style; Geraldine Brooks, who discussed how to uncover untold historical stories; Andrew Evans, whose class “Smell of Elephant Poo” had us eating fermented shark, describing colors, and creating vivid descriptions of place; Susan Orlean addressed our individual writing challenges and offered advice; and James Scudamore taught on the themes of nostalgia, childhood and autobiography.

When I workshopped my first novel manuscript (unpublished) in 2010, I learned that my narration was the weakest part of my novel. I’ve worked hard over the past few years to improve that area of my writing and Boyden’s advice will help me to push further, experiment and take more risks.

Joseph Boyden’s workshop

Scudamore had us write 100-word autobiographies using only one-syllable words. I had to wrestle with who I am, what matters to me about who I am and what language best expresses how I see myself. Turns out I am something of a Beat poem.

I enjoyed hearing the behind-the-scenes anecdotes of Brooks’ literary research process. I have been digging into dusty books at the Library of Congress looking for the untold stories of female revolutionaries; therefore, I was fascinated to learn about how she discovers the characters she brings to life.

Orlean tackled our diverse range of issues and questions in a fun and lively and engaging discussion.

I received the encouragement I needed to tackle the fourth revision of my novel. And I vowed to cut mercilessly, revise with gusto and send it out to literary agents. I can’t say enough about each of the wonderful writers I worked with— Andrew, Geraldine, James, Joseph, and Susan––I smile just thinking about those brilliant people.

Feels Like Home

Our delegation of 60+ writers from Iceland, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Singapore and more were welcomed all over Reykjavik, from City Hall to the Canadian Embassy. The President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, invited us to his house.

Meeting the President with three other delegates.

Meeting the President with two other delegates, Cindy Moy (L) and Laurie Moy (R).

Ólafur (as we were told to call him but did not) explained that writers hold a special place in the Icelandic consciousness. As it turns out, Iceland publishes and sells more books per capita than any other country in the world, and UNESCO designated Reykjavik a City of Literature. To qualify, a city must demonstrate a commitment to publishing and integrating literature into cultural life. Icelandic people value literature; and they buy it.

Being welcomed into the presidential palace was an example of the warmth and friendliness I encountered during my trip. I got to speak with President Grímsson and tell him how honored and excited I was to be in his country. I babbled a bit!

He invited us to explore the house. Go upstairs, check out the basement, look at the books in the library, he told us. Make yourselves at home.

Road Trippin’

Our final full day was a whirlwind of activities and adventure. First we drove out into the countryside, where the landscape and weather changed dramatically every few miles. Along the hour long drive we saw geysers erupting in the distance, sending plumes of steam skyward. It snowed; a few miles later it was a vision of spring.

In the distance we saw the colossal ice-covered peak of a volcano, which during the Middle Ages was referred to as the “Gateway to Hell.” There were hardly any trees, but lots of lava rock. We passed few houses, buildings or towns. Mostly, what we saw was empty land where nature was doing its thing.roadtrip_southIceland2

We visited the historical site of Skálholt, and poet and author Einar Kárason discussed the origins of the Icelandic literary tradition, which began with the Vikings’ Sagas written in the 10th and 11th centuries.

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Beautiful Photo: Wei Wei Yeo

From there we hit the highlights of the Golden Circle, including stops at the geyser and hot spring area called Geysir, as well as Gullfoss Waterfall and Thingvellir National Park. The waterfall was my favorite. This sublime, beautiful and terrifying force of nature captivated me.

We went to the former home of Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness. There, author Sjón (Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale) who also has been known to write songs for Björk, read selections of his work. Sjón’s writing is gorgeous, poetic and layered with meaning. He also seemed quite friendly.

We piled on the bus and went back to the hotel for a quick cat nap, snack or writing time. We had a big night ahead of us.

At Kex, a cool, hip hostel and music venue, we were treated to another private reading, this time featuring fiction author Ragna Sigurðardóttir  and poet Gerður Kristný.

And delight of all delights, I was blown away by local singer/songwriter Lay Low, whose lush vocals and sing along songs put everyone in a festive mood.

It was Saturday night in Reykjavik and that is a thing. I appreciate a city that takes partying seriously. We headed to Dillon Whiskey Bar. As we approached, I heard the delightful sounds of hardcore punk coming from upstairs. I excused myself from the group and discovered a raging show in the attic.

Turns out my friend from Singapore had heard it and had preceded me in heading upstairs. We climbed onto chairs to catch a better view. Although the bands were singing in Icelandic, I identified with their energy. I loved watching the singer of Icarus pass the mic to fans to sing along. He climbed into the rafters, swung down and fell into waiting arms. It reminded me of home.

End of the Road

A couple of times I have heard people referring to Iceland as being on the edge of the world. That’s kind of a funny thing to say, but in some ways I did feel like I was straddling the world I knew and the world I was visiting—a world where elves had families and lived their little lives. In my world my brother and I were the only “little elves” as my mother called us when she needed help preparing Christmas dinner. And, trolls and hidden folk? I don’t know. Maybe?

Iceland is a quirky place with unique and individualistic people. I like that. I am quirky and strange and individualistic myself.

There was a lot I didn’t get to see: the Northern Lights, a glacier, the fjords, a volcano. That’s OK, though. I experienced the hum of the city and tapped into its energy. I soaked in healing waters; I encountered beauty. I discovered a new community of writers. And, I’ll always remember what it feels like to experience a dream come true.

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I will be eternally grateful to the Iceland Writers Retreat for showing up when it did. Join them for the 2015 retreat. Here’s a taste of  the experience!  

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