By BRYNN SAITO, program coordinator for the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
An island is a place of constant change, contained.
Key West is a two-by-four mile landmass about 160 miles southwest of Miami and 90 miles north of Cuba. It sits atop America's only living and very treacherous coral reef, a sharp juxtaposition to the more idyllic aspects of the place: the baby blue seawater, the jolly locals, the summery weather. Ostensibly, I've come here for a 10-day writer's conference, The Key West Literary Seminar, held annually on the island. More to the point, I've come to escape my stateside life (as many have come here to do)—filled with the usual run of stress, questions, and complex attachments.
By day four on the island, the city I've fled begins falling away. I've established a routine: waking in the mornings to rooster calls and shaking tamarinds; bike rides through Old Town; Cuban sandwiches and strong coffee on the beach; and returning every night to the garden patio of the hotel, for writing, smoking, talking with other visiting writers.
I once read about a therapist who advised her patient to “take a geographic” and travel elsewhere for a short period of time. In doing so, the patient would realize that there was no escaping his problems—that he carried them everywhere—and he'd promptly return home to begin the work of addressing them. Although I agree that there's no breezy escape from oneself, I also believe in the deep connection between self and place, and the transformative power of a new landscape. The places I've lived—from the fishing village in Ecuador, to the cramped garden apartment on the Lower East Side—have mapped themselves on my body. They've broken me open with their strangeness, and challenged me, and in doing so, I've changed.
But Key West is not a place I'm living—I'm a guest. A tourist. I'm somewhere between Hemingway (who lived here in the 1920s) and the spring breaker from UVA walking Duval Street with a cup of beer and T-shirt that reads I'm Going to My Happy Place. "We move on through history with our man-made efforts to forget, but the land remains," writes Deborah Jack. A visual artist who exhibited with The Arts @ CIIS, Jack is deeply interested in memory and place. Many have passed through the island since the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in the early 16th century—the Spaniards, the British, the Americans; pirates, shipwrecks, hurricanes, and rainbows. But in pre-Columbian times, the Calusa people, an indigenous population living along Florida's southwest coastline, inhabited this land. Cayo Hueso is the original Spanish name for the island of Key West, which translates to "the island of bones," thus called because it was once covered with the bones of the Calusa. The land sings many stories for those who will listen.
On my last day on the island, two fellow writers and I wake up at 6 am to ride our bikes to the White Street Piers to catch the sunrise. The island is dark. Strong cool winds have descended overnight, harbingers of a storm. It’s 6:32 am and the herringbone sky above the sea begins to lighten. All of us are startled by how bright the sky gets before you can actually see the sun; the sky livens with dawn's promise before the sun even shows her face.
Here, at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys—an archipelago of 1,700 tiny islands—we can chase the sundown every night, then greet it again every startling morning. That’s the thing about an island: it’s a whole world, in waiting, vulnerable to both the wind’s will and the fiery beauty of setting sky. Locals are keenly aware that the next great Gulf-bound hurricane could mercilessly sink this whole place. What then of the island of bones? Perhaps any—or every— place is bound for erasure and change, outlasted only by our own memories, and the maps we’ve made with our bodies and imaginations, and the stories we tell with our words and art.