It’s quiet on campus. Everyone has gone home. It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves. He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath. I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room. Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet. I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.
I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry. We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had. We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.
And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done. I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class. But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it. My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it. Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.
Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed. I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations. I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina. I could be anywhere. I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported. I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness. There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier. Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.
My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed. Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.