the magic word

North Carolina is The South. North Carolina is shrimp an' grits, biscuit an' grits, scramble an' grits. This place is foreign to me in that way that America always is, in ways that I can't wrap words around. I love how it's wholly un-Canadian: in the trees, the undertow, the drawl. In the constant scuttling of translucent ghost crabs and the way sport fishermen launch themselves into the waves like discus-throwers. There is no beach burr like an Outer Banks beach burr. Neither the ocean nor the wind ever seem to inhale. Both roar unendingly.

Women come to the Serendipity retreat from all over, from Californian ranches to the Texan panhandle. They bring everything with them. They bring duffel bags full of failed businesses and startup ideas and grieved husbands and sons and daughters and love affairs and crippling doubts and Vargas girls. They bring journals and paint and everybody eats too much.

I go there to work, though nobody back at home thinks it's work. They tease and put the word in air-quotes. They see this beach and they figure it's all bikinis and grits. Which it is, and it sure beats a cubicle, but when you're a teacher, you can never switch off. You give and give and give. You are a steward, along with the other beautiful teachers and staff, of something bigger than you.

When I first arrived, I went under the pier for some tests, prepping for a prompt in my self-portraiture class. I was already so tired, so beat. I had landed there feeling not capable of giving and giving and giving. I couldn't cast the kind of light that I was supposed to teach. I glared at my own camera and sighed a lot. I gave up and went for grits. I figured I'd pretend my way through those next few days. Sometimes that's just how it is.

That night I fumbled my way to the waterline in the pitch black, wondering if I'd find a coyote to sit with again. They stayed away but I kept wishing, looking one way and another in the hopes that a silhouette might creep up beside me in the dark.

When everyone arrives you have to switch on, and I did. One day-long photography class, one day-long writing class. Scrambling the night before to go through everything again, to check and re-check my gear, the prompts, the lecture. To consider who was assigned to be in my care and speculate as to what they might need from me.

Among all that, I did a 22-session portraiture shoot on the beach in a matter of three or four hours. It was dizzying, and with no time to warm up or mess around. Plus there's a peanut gallery, because everyone else is lolling and writing and looking for shells, and they like watching what's going on. It was a speed-dating blitz, and it was my job to advance from a handshake to genuine flirting in a matter of minutes. It's not easy to coax one subject—let alone 22 of them, one after the other—past the nerves and the shock of big glass trained on her face, and to draw out what makes her *her*.

I know how hard this is, I'd say, looking right at her. This is really soul-exposing. And listen, you're not the first person to say that you aren't photogenic. Everybody says that. Here's what I want you to do. Just listen to me now and do this with your shoulder, that with your expression, stay fluid back and forth on your feet, breathe. Always breathe.

(I lift the camera to my eye.)

The most important thing you can know right at this moment is that this kind of vulnerability is profoundly life-changing. Here is why, and it's the best thing ever:


Pushing to work—not being still, not at all—is my meditation.

Every night I walked back across the street to our little cottage and collapsed in every possible way. Arabella and Hannah and I would pour wine and sit on the couch all tucked in with bourbon-soaked cherries and we'd talk and talk, spanning everything. I love these girls.

When I'm in North Carolina with these women, these artists, I see everyone else in the most perfect light—a light that I don't always feel on my own back.

Which is why there's such a thing as bourbon-soaked cherries.