There are only two instructions for the outgoing writer-in-residence of Berton House. One: leave the dregs of a bottle of Writers Tears whiskey for the incoming writer. Two: write her or him a welcome letter.
When I arrived at the start of October, I pored over every single letter sheathed in plastic inside the two black volumes titled “Writer to Writer.” Spanning a twenty-three year period, in between bits of advice on house quirks (apparently the old washing machine made laundry even dirtier) and the best hiking trails, they collectively form an illuminating novel. Some parts are bittersweet, some tantalizing or frustratingly vague. One letter was the most boring I’ve ever read in my life. One was so drenched in sorrow it gave me the willies. A few had surprising twists.
Over the course of my residency, I thought often about the exit letter I would write to poet and fiction writer Carleigh Baker, but my last few weeks were so crammed with events and epiphanies, I almost forgot to write her entirely. Half an hour before a honking horn heralded the arrival of my ride to the airport, I dashed off these paragraphs. At the time, they felt futile in conveying what was in my heart. Reading them back now, I wouldn’t change a word.
I post the letter here for everyone: for my people at home, for all the folks who sent me thoughtful, handwritten notes while I was in the Yukon, but especially for the friends I made in Dawson City. Comrades, you kindled a dark northern winter into a roaring fire. You toasted me, roasted me, and mentally jousted with me. You transformed two dozen straight dirt roads into a labrythine wonderland. You let me pick your brains with all the instruments in my arsenal. You opened my eyes to things I cannot unsee, and would never want to. I am better for knowing you.
10:15 a.m. Dec. 20th, 2018
Welcome! Like most of the writers who have stayed here at Berton House, I am writing to my successor in a mad dash at the last hour. It’s a difficult letter to compose because it signals the changing of the guard. It’s not my house anymore. It’s yours.
I’ve spent a quarter of a year here, arriving when the river was rushing and the streets were made of mud. My cheeks would get sunburnt on an afternoon hike. Now the city is encased in ice, objects are hidden under the snow, flights are unreliable, and all roads out of dodge are treacherous. The sun never makes it over the hills. But Carleigh, it is a most special kind of light: the faintest, softest, most soul-caressing strain. It changes moods all day and reshapes the hillsides. Sometimes the clouds are giant puffs of blue and pink cotton candy, other times a dark ceiling. The window of daylight has been narrowing and narrowing, but tomorrow is the solstice and the window will start to open wider and wider. You will get to see the gears in reverse: the first drips of snow sliding off the metal rooftops, the river creaking back to life. The sun will rise over the mountain again, gradually gaining intensity from wheat to goldenrod.
As for the people…you will see for yourself. In the dead of winter, this place is bursting with life. I don’t want to make recommendations. You will find who you are supposed to find or they will find you. It might take a while. Be patient. Take the first month to be on the outside looking in, wanting desperately to be part of it all. It will make it so much sweeter when you find yourself, suddenly and miraculously, smack in the nucleus. The women especially will teach you a lot about yourself just by being themselves.
I wish I could stay forever. Part of me will.
Two more things:
Pierre Berton has given us a gift. Pass it on. Someone in this town will need something that only you can provide.
It’s okay if you don’t write as much as you thought you would. Go outside. Harvest as many stories as possible. Write them later.
I’ve brought a guitar to leave behind as my offering to the writers who stay here. Once upon a time, I found myself in a new city with no one to talk to, just a rickety old guitar leaning up against the wall. I gradually taught myself to play and now I have music wherever I go. Like my writing, it has saved me many times. (For those writers who already play the guitar–voila! It’s not top of the line, but it works. You won’t have to beg, steal or borrow one.) Sing it out, my friends.
Well, Carleigh. Be safe, be warm, be curious. Call me any time you want. I’ll tell you all the mundane stuff about living in the house that I’m leaving out of this letter. Nova Scotia is four hours ahead of Dawson City.
But oh so behind.