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by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

I was to begin my residency at Hedgebrook on Sept 26, 2017. I came here, fully laden with a year’s worth of my very active and stressful life in NYC. I flew into Seattle a week early. I came to recuperate and restore. On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, my homeland and the setting for much of my work.

On the Internet, I saw the pictures of flooded streets, shattered houses, and weeping people who looked just like me and mine. The president sneered at our plight and went golfing, obliviously unconcerned about the suffering of the American citizens who live on the island. In addition to exhaustion, I was now filled with anxiety, helplessness, despair, and unimaginable rage. I had never expected much from our ‘leader’ but abandoning citizens to thirst, starvation, illness, and homelessness seemed a little much, even for him.

My first few days were filled with alternating weeping and nightmare-filled sleep. My third novel, the reason I came here, was left untouched. Meditation, my conduit to my creative voice, was impossible. Every time I was served a great meal or even poured a glass of cold water, I wondered how many people needed it more than me. Days passed and I found out my family had survived the hurricane but had lost a home and everything in it. I thought about leaving my residency and going straight to a devastated island. But communication was almost impossible and transportation even more so.

My ancestors have always been my guides and the source of my stories. But my conduit to them, meditation, was out of the question. So I took them with me as I walked the paths at Hedgebrook Farm. I didn’t walk far but I walked slowly and listened to the breeze in the trees and noted the inclines in the terrain and the colors of the foliage. The birds in the birdbath rejoiced in the sun and the lone owl outside my cottage kept me company. I opened myself to the healing power of the woods. I embraced quiet and solitude and I knew that I didn’t walk alone.

Slowly, the nightmares went away and the anger reduced from a raging flame to a simmering flicker. The darkness began to lift and I could sit and write and write and write. Writing has always been my refuge and my best weapon against injustice. Once I could sit in my journal and on my computer and connect with the story, I knew the healing had begun.

After the first week of my residency, a tiny bud of a plan began to unfold. What could I give my people to help in their healing? As the grassroots aid began to trickle in and other nations took up the monumental job of clean up, I searched for my contribution. And a tiny bud of a plan began to blossom.

When I leave Whidbey I will go home to New York City and join the grassroots relief effort there. As soon as there are reliable communications, I will contact my Puerto Rican counterparts on the island with my idea. After the monumental job of clean up, healthcare and infrastructure repair has begun. After the hospital, schools, community centers, and libraries begin to reopen, after the basic necessities of life are somewhat in place, I’d like to go down and work with my fellow writers to conduct writing workshops in community spaces. People will need some place to put their fears, their anguish, their nightmares, and hopefully, their dreams for the future. It is too early now. The healing of the bodies must come before we can begin the healing of the soul. And I hope I can be just a little part of that.

I am so grateful for my time on Whidbey Island and to the loving people, I found there. I’m glad I didn’t leave ahead of time. I’m glad I found a way of healing myself so that then I can try to heal others who will need to do so for many years to come. Thank you to the people of Hedgebrook, both staff, and fellow writers, who gave me a place to heal and restore in more ways than they could have ever imagined.

 

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
About Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
Dahlma. Llanos-Figueroa, a product of the public schools of the Bronx, is a novelist, memoirist and short story writer whose work is grounded in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her longer narratives, though universal in nature, are heavily influenced by traditional West African mystical symbolism and 20th Century Latin American magical realism. Her first novel, Daughters of the Stone, was shortlisted for the 2010 PEN Robert Bingham Award. Her second novel, A Woman of Endurance is in search of a publisher. Ms. Llanos-Figueroa is a 2017 Hedgebrook alumnus.

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Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa