In 2013, I come undone. Medias res. I escape to the farthest reach of North America. I fly through Ontario to St. John’s, and then I’m picked up at the airport and driven to Grates Cove, a silent, bite-sized hamlet, known for being the most northerly community on Canada’s Avalon Peninsula. I am here for a writing residency created by an artist-activist couple. The owners are young and progressive. They grow their own everything and are raising their daughter off-the-grid.
I wake each day in my own two-floor cottage perched on towering cliffs that jut out into the Atlantic. I slip on my rain boots for a morning walk past the patchwork cemetery. I drift in and out of an abandoned 18th century church, following the trail through the high grass meadow, making my way to the small café that the owners are about to launch. People come from miles away for their coffee and their pie, their soups, and their pizzas. It’s the only game in town.
I think about my kids who are home with my husband. I think my husband and I will probably get divorced when I get back to L.A, and how much that sucks. And we all know it’s going to happen: we’re all about to crash.
But I’m not back in L.A. yet. I’m here, at the other end of the North American continent, in a land with no trees, a land of odd, quail-like birds and a cast of friendly people who slide into focus and seem to be watching me, because they are. One older man and his wife invite me to Sunday night bingo. After a weekend of silence, I decide to go.
The neighbor’s house is built like a steel container, but not one of those modern trendy ones. I find a table of drinks, some punch that burns with vodka, a well-intentioned boiled egg thing, and a bowl of sticky popcorn. I’m happy to be with the summer locals. Most have come from Ontario. They are funny and real and they like the idea that I’m a Californian. I seem exotic, but I’m part Irish, as are many of their ancestors, which seems to please them.
I don’t tell them my story. I do say I’m working on a revision of my book. I don’t say I’m escaping from the bills, and the job, and the kids and the ex, and the mom, whose dementia has been advancing for more than seven years, and who can barely hold the phone up to her ear. I don’t want to make someone cry.
We play bingo for what seems like hours, getting lost in the tension as the numbers are called out by a television announcer from the station in St. John’s. We smile and frown at the tiny checkered board. My activity partner is an avid cyclist who bikes around the world with his boyfriend, and we’re delighted when his last number—30—is the winning number. “You’re lucky, you are – luck of the Irish,” he insists.
On my way out, I thank my new bingo friends, an older supportive crew, and walk back in the dark, a single beam from my flashlight leading the way. I’ve gained three dollars and I’m feeling buzzed from the vodka punch and the sticky sweet popcorn. I walk past the cemetery, where I’ll bet some brave-hearted fisherman have cycled from flesh to bone to ash. The stars are fantastically bright and impossibly close. I stop to gaze, to succumb, to live in this frighteningly beautiful moment.
The next day, in my cottage, I talk to myself, I read the words on the screen aloud, I have big thoughts. (This is nothing new). Some of what I’m writing is good; some is shit. (This is nothing new). I have a soundtrack that includes Conor Oberst, Sly and the Family Stone, and Radiohead that I play on my laptop. Mostly, my soundtrack becomes the interrupted silence of the natural world.
Sometimes we–the artist residents (of which I am the only one this July)– can connect to the Internet; sometimes, we cannot. Nonetheless, I’m here with the humpbacks who breach like tight tornadoes arising from seams torn in the sea.
At sunset, I droop a little because sunset is traditionally made for romance. So I make my solitary rituals count. I walk as close to the cliff’s edge as I want to go and I watch the whales cavorting from my runway made of prehistoric rock. I learn to carry my binoculars because then I can see the veiny lines on the flukes as the whales run synchronously in athletic packs. The trick is to keep watching them until they disappear; they get absorbed in the black line of the horizon.
During the last Ice Age, Newfoundland was a glacial landscape, swept clean of all life. My cozy cottage overlooks the ocean, which is the former home of a cod-fishing industry that ended after multiple decades of overfishing. This led to a the creation of ghost islands in coastal Newfoundland and the relocation of more than 35,000 fisherman and their families. Today the population of Grates Cove is 127.
After two weeks at the residency, some friends in San Francisco connect me to Marco, an artist-surfer, who lives half the year in a nearby town in Newfoundland and half the year in Maui. He picks me up in his truck and I’m excited to meet him. I reconnect with my own speaking voice, and I listen to his voice, a masculine tone, a new character in my adventure. In one recollection, he has a dog with him, a thick-necked, adorable mutt, but maybe I made that up.
Marco takes me on a tour of his town, which really is called, “Heart’s Content.” We eat at a fish place and we visit with a guy who makes leather goods. I buy a few gifts, including a key holder with an image of Newfoundland embossed on it, to bring back to my people.
The weather is cool and sunny and we decide to hike down a long steep path out to a lighthouse, a point where you can see the whales. And there they are, as if on cue, the humpbacks cruising at full speed, pulsing with grace and urgency through the frigid water. We watch, and then we take out our phones and we record.
Marco’s an artist, like my ex, and I’m enjoying the conversation about painting and writing, and I like the videos we make of whales ruling the ocean. No doubt there’s freedom and charm in this serendipitous encounter at one end of the world.
We meet because we have some good friends in common, or maybe we meet because of forces beyond our control. It becomes apparent that we both understand how undiscovered and beautifully strange it is to be in this remote part of Canada.
He takes me to the house he bought in Heart’s Content for five grand a few years ago. He shows me how he’s transformed the place, allowing him to surf at undiscovered breaks — and to make a resort-style living, more or less. In the movie version, he and I fall in love, find each other’s chaos intriguing or at least palatable, and regain the trust we lost in past relationships. We live through some torrential storms and softer days in a coastal hut off the grid. When the weather changes, we jet to his place in Maui for a different look at paradise.
He takes me to see his friends, a cool high school teacher and her partner, an Israeli chef, who are transforming an early 20th century beach cottage to a tiny bohemian palace. Their view is of the forever expanse of the unswimmable ocean. They spend days and nights tearing layers of wallpaper off the walls and rebuilding infrastructure. We drink wine and tell stories about our respective travels to wonderful places. Travelers love travel stories. I think of how I’d like to build something, resurrect something with a partner. I dream of Southern Spain and Portugal. Maybe I romanticize transformation. Maybe I do.
Years later, I will build a no-budget tiny house on my property in Los Angeles. I’ll do it with the help of a hard-working contractor, not a lover. I’ll rent it out to a lovely Australian songwriter, and I’ll take all the glory.
Later that evening, at the couples’ beach house, we meet a former photography professor at NYU. He gives me a copy of the book of photo essays he’s written about the lost towns of Newfoundland. He tells captivating stories of sleeping in tents on abandoned islands where wild horses roamed and feral dogs circled in the night.
While photographing these once flourishing islands, he had to be dropped off and trust that his friend would return in the same speedboat at the agreed time. He hoped that he wouldn’t be abandoned like the horses and the dogs and the statues and the remnants of houses, markets, schools, churches, and once-thriving lives. He says he heard the presence of something inexplicable on one of the islands. He says he heard words in the wind that howled through the island, the same wind that spoke to me in my Grates Cove cottage, as I was trying to tell my stories, the stories that, for now, are mine.