The 48th Parallel

by Liz Engelman

in National Conference

Post image for The 48th Parallel

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

For the past three years, up until this last December when I moved to Austin, TX to begin teaching at UT, when people asked me where I lived, I’d answer “the 48th parallel.”  I’d been splitting my time between Whidbey Island, WA and the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, both locations as close to the Canadian border as one can get.  I’d been working at two retreat centers: Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers, founded twenty-five years ago by Seattle philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff (now helmed by playwright Amy Wheeler and theatre veteran Vito Zingarelli) and Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, a creative retreat center I founded seven years ago now, inspired in large part by Nancy Nordhoff’s notion of “radical hospitality.”

As I write this, looking out at Tofte Lake, the sun waning but strong late into the day, the slight breeze letting me know it’s got my back, the loons signaling their calming companionship and presence, I’m reflecting on TCG’s topic “Crossing Borders” and how fitting it is to be writing this now, here in the Boundary Waters.  Five miles beyond me, the road ends. Should one want to continue traveling, one would paddle into Lake One. Then Lake Two, Lake Three… Eventually, there’s Canada. It takes effort to reach a border, determination to cross a boundary. As idyllic as this moment with my friends the loons may seem, my journey to what’s here called “The End of the Road” was a rigorous portage.

What brings me here, now, to this lake, was my first encounter with Hedgebrook sixteen years ago. At the time, in 1998, several of the artistic leaders at ACT Theatre in Seattle and Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, Leslie Swackhamer and Janice Kennedy respectively, were discouraged by the small percentage of plays by women that were being produced around the country. Instead of merely complaining, they decided to do something about it. Out of their frustration was born the ACT/Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival, which is still running strong to this day. (Sadly, the percentage of produced plays by women has risen only slightly, but that is a topic for another article.) I had recently joined ACT’s artistic staff as the Dramaturg/Literary Manager, and became one of the Festival’s dramaturgs and co-producers. My first night at the Hedgebrook retreat found me sitting with six women playwrights and my partner-in-crime Mame Hunt around the intimate and beautiful farmhouse table, where so many amazing women writers had sat before, partaking of a wonderful organic meal which featured food hand-picked from Hegebrook’s own garden.  It was then that I had my first brush with Hedgebrook’s radical hospitality: the nurturing of those traditionally seen as the nurturer.

What I remember – and it is ingrained in my mind forever – is this: after the delicious meal, one of the playwrights rose to take her finished plate to the sink. The chef motioned for her to sit, commanding, “Sit down. You are here to write. Nothing else. Let us take care of this for you.” What I remember next: the shock and awe. The playwright stood, frozen, speechless. Then, a tear slowly traced the length of her cheek. In that moment, I thought, more places like Hedgebrook need to exist in this world. Places where artists can be seen and supported for what and who they are. Places that give them time and space to be. Spaciousness.

When Nancy Nordhoff talks about the founding of Hegebrook, she doesn’t talk about her “vision” or her “dream.” She talks about being in a moment of change in her life, and how in that land she found a place she could envision being a part of.  Partnered with. Initially, she thought that farmland on Whidbey Island would be a place for her to write. As the story goes (and grows), Nancy realized that it wasn’t for her alone; the land spoke to her, saying, “I am bigger than just you.” Twenty-five years later, the land has held over 1,500 women writers of all ages and stages from all across the globe.

As a dramaturg, and as a woman, often the nurturing of another’s story, soul and spirit came first in my career. As a dramaturg, I was most often in relationship to something or someone else. Or between something and someone else. A playwright and her play. A director and his interpretation. A playwright and a director. A theatre and its mission. A production and its audience. After spending over a decade working in regional theatres and then spending many years freelancing, I finally decided I no longer wanted to primarily be in relationship to; instead, I wanted to create something of my own. I, too, was at a moment of change.

Sitting here, looking out at Tofte Lake and listening to the loons, I’m seven years into Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, and wanted to share the seven lessons about crossing a border that I’ve learned thus far:

  1. Go in blindly, or you may never do it. I was wearing rose-colored glasses at the time I saw the property at Tofte Lake. If I hadn’t been wearing those glasses, I would have thought transforming the place from a run-down family fishing resort into a retreat center was too much work and I would have turned around and driven home.
  2. Know you could lose your relationship over it, and be ready to do so. People caution couples to not design and build a house together; definitely don’t assume you can renovate a Fish Camp and come out with your relationship intact. Be passionate enough and believe deeply enough in your venture to make it the actual relationship that was meant to be the one to nurture and grow.
  3. Keep finding the joy in it. When the work/crossing gets overwhelming, which it does, remember why you wanted to have the adventure in the first place.
  4. Find friends to help. Every Dorothy needs a Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion – and Toto too (never underestimate the help of your canine companion). You don’t have to cross alone. Be able to ask for help when you need it.
  5. Have patience. It doesn’t all happen at once. It’s an evolution, a process. The terrain can be rocky. Each step gets you closer, is a becoming.
  6. Embrace your successes. This can often be the hardest. Claiming it. Being proud.  We often downplay our triumphs, brushing them off as no big accomplishment. I didn’t acknowledge that I was a founder and a leader until last summer, and then only intellectually. It wasn’t until a few days ago did I feel that I had arrived, feet planted, terra firma.
  7. When you see the border, cross it. Before starting Tofte Lake Center, I didn’t know my hands were attached to my body. Now I’ve built a deck, made window frames, crafted mosaics. Before Tofte Lake Center, and Hedgebrook, the only “storytelling” I thought I’d be involved with was through plays; now I’ve worked with novelists, poets, filmmakers, composers, choreographers, dancers, and visual artists. Before TLC, most bar conversations were about plays, others’ auditions, and “the biz.”  Up here at the End of the Road, we talk about bears, beavers, mining, and mosquitoes.

Twenty-five years ago Nancy Nordoff crossed a border when she was ready to experience change. What evolved was a vision of time and space for women writers who are authoring change. What Nancy planted in Hedgebrook’s garden sowed a seed in me as well. Sixteen years later, here by the lake, her gesture reverberates, a stone rippling in the water, as I cross personal, professional, physical, and geographic borders to sit here in the Boundary Waters, finally claiming what I’ve crossed, and the journey it took to get here along the 48th parallel.

Liz Engelman currently splits her year between Austin, TX, where she recently joined the faculty at UT Austin, and the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, where she is the director of Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, a creative retreat for artists of all disciplines. Liz has worked at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, and has served as the Resident Dramaturg at Mixed Blood Theatre, as the Literary Director of the McCarter Theatre, the Director of New Play Development at ACT Theatre in Seattle, Literary Manager/Dramaturg at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, and as Assistant Literary Manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville. She has worked on the development of new plays across the country and abroad. Liz has served as President, Board Chair and is a current Board Member of LMDA. She serves on the Advisory Board of the NNPN and is a member of the New Project Group of ITI.