Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Exquisite Isolation

The artist's retreat 
I’m a few weeks into one of the most exquisitely isolated experiences of my life.  I live on an island off the northwest coast of Greenland in a small seaside cabin high above the Arctic Circle.  It feels like the edge of the world.

I am a guest of the Upernavik Museum, and my purpose here is art, research and discovery.  I spend my days exploring the small settlement of Upernavik, painting seascapes, writing, and filming.  I’m thinking about melting glaciers, retreating sea ice, and the warming of our delicate planet.

I have fallen in love with the silent stillness of this place, an understated landscape of bare essentials: rock and ice, sea and sky.   

And while I have forged a deep connection with the wildness of Greenland, I sometimes crave human relationship.  Upernavik is home to a few hundred inhabitants, largely Greenlandic-speaking Inuit. We share no language.  It’s hard to meet people here and even harder to converse.  I long to communicate my experience of the Arctic hinterlands, to ask questions and understand more about where I am by sharing something with the people who live here.   I am mute, silenced.

In isolation, my thoughts turn repeatedly toward home and the people I’ve left behind. There are few options for high tech communication here- my phone doesn’t work in Greenland and I spend too much energy trying to figure out how to access the internet. Occasionally I’m allowed to use the computer at the museum for a short time- for a fee and only if they are open and someone is in the office.

Today I’ve been frustrated.  Tears welled up in my eyes and blurred my vision as I was turned away from the museum for the 6th day in a row.  Can't use the internet today.  Access denied, like typing the wrong password into my online bank login and the screen blinking shut on me- except that I am dealing with real people, not security codes.  I am confused, a fact again attributable to lack of common language.  I went to the only other place in town that might help me, a kiosk that sells chips, Coke, and occasional online access. The Danish owner asked- in the blunt, efficient manner of a true northern European- why I had no phone for internet, ending the conversation abruptly when I asked about paying for wireless.  “It’s not possible,” he shouted at me as I retreated out the door.    

I am ashamed to admit it, but I miss the world wide web.  I can’t decide if it’s a blessing or a blight, this high speed techno-tool that allows me connect across time zones and disparate ideologies with anyone and everyone.  I’m grateful that on most days I’m immersed in my work and the beautiful mystery of this place- and know better than to crave technology while in the rugged isolation of the Arctic.  
Local color- in the background, a fashionable young  mother pushes a baby stroller.

I can tell that family relationships in Greenland settlements are at the heart of life here, far more so than in the US.  Extended families of multiple generations often live together and homes are small and full.  I consider my own family, many of its ties broken and all of us scattered.   (My mother in New Hampshire just turned 75 while I was on the kayak expedition! I tried to call her on her birthday from the guide’s satellite phone, no luck.)  Back in the US I visit both parents maybe once a year, and briefly.  Divorced, they live on opposite ends of the country.  Being in Upernavik- where I am so distinctly an outsider and most often alone- makes me yearn for family engagement and the unconditional support that a family can sometimes provide.

Most exciting in the realm of correspondence are the hand written letters I’ve received from home.  Snail mail- in Greenland no less!- makes me melt. I save and savor the unopened envelopes, my eyes following the script of the address, the postmark, to find clues to its mysterious passage to me from the Rockies, the Pacific, or New England.   I do this for a day or two before devouring the words like much longed for sustenance.   

Letters and the forever-clutter of my desk.

I've left the retreat behind and am en route to the US.  I'm continuing to write offline at the Kangerlussuaq airport and have many hours ahead til I board my night flight to Copenhagen. "Kanger" has the bustling feel of much larger airport because it’s the main connector from Europe to Greenland.  Since I left Upernavik yesterday morning (only yesterday?) I’ve been experiencing culture shock.  I’ve emerged from the deep isolation of a remote northern community, overwhelmed. I hear English being spoken (and Danish, German) and sit now amidst a cacophony of other tourists and travelers.  I visited a supermarket yesterday in Ilulissat that was… well, it was (to my provincial mind) HUGEAnd sold things like cantaloupe, goji berries (?!) and pistachio nuts. Ilulissat was bustling with young Greenlandic hipsters decked out in the latest European fashions, smoking, wearing iPods.  I stayed in a hostel with a flush toilet.   As I’ve journeyed south,  I've reemerged in the postmodern world.  When I rolled into Kanger this afternoon, I headed to the International Science Support building and was invited to binge on free internet time. 

But back to the theme of isolation that defined my life in Upernavik less than 24 hours ago.  Already it seems so far away, already I miss the stillness and quiet that comes with so few distractions.  I know that whatever we have, we seem to crave the converse.  It's our nature.  What I won’t miss is being so utterly disconnected from the people that I love.  Like an umbilical cord that keeps me safely tethered to the known world, these relationships allow me the luxury and freedom to journey in the unknown world to stand at the remotest edge of myself.

Fog rises over the islands of Upernavik Fjord

1 comment:

  1. The way you end this post is as exquisite as the isolation you so eloquently write about. You have poetry in you. I'm so happy I can welcome you home - until your next journey "to the remotest edge" of yourself.