A Sense of Place

The following posting appeared as a column in our community’s local daily. It’s a reflection on a fantastic annual local literary festival( Newburyport Literary Festival )which had to move online because of the pandemic




One of my favorite times of the year is the Newburyport Literary Festival, and the most recent one that concluded a few weeks ago had a session that struck me as a metaphor for life in Newburyport, the challenges of work, school and the community brought on by the pandemic for over a year; and how the pandemic will continue to shape our world moving forward.  First, a bit of background.  The Literary Festival put Newburyport on the map for me 10 years ago.  Prior to that, I had been Portsmouth, NH centric, with occasional drop-ins to Newburyport.  The energy of the festival, the venues used for author presentations, and the nooks and crannies of the community for discussion, coffee and reflection created a sense of place that I hadn’t experienced in other communities.  After several years of attending the Literary and Documentary Film Festivals, my wife and I found that spirit of community too strong to resist and we moved to Newburyport.

That bond of community hasn’t disappointed, but the pandemic has thrown in a heavy dose of disruption that has seen businesses and schools needing to make huge adjustments to create hybrid worlds for continuing on safely with our lives. That has been viewed as a disadvantage by many as the suddenness of having to shift to hybrid, remote, Zoom based relationships has created an exhaustion and feeling of isolation for many.  One teacher recently shared with me her exhaustion on a Saturday morning.  She said that hers wasn’t an end of the week exhaustion; rather, it was an exhaustion of the soul. It was a powerful admission and conveyed how many were feeling; whether an educator or trying to keep a business afloat that depends on direct public contact.  As our community efforts to keep each other safe continue and availability of the vaccine precede the spring and summer season, the hope for a return to normal provides a renewed sense of energy for what was.  However, the recent Literary Festival provided a taste of perhaps what will be, and its organizers deserve kudos for demonstrating the wide scope of advantages of a Zoom-based world.

Out of the many outstanding sessions offered, one that resonated for me was a discussion on the book, The Bohemians by Jasmin Darsnik, which was a historical fiction novel set in San Francisco during the Jazz Age. Darznik was speaking about her writing from her home in the bay area. Joining her were David Humphreys and Melissa Joulwan, who were in Prague of the Czech Republic and host the podcast A Sense of Place. The host of the session was in Newburyport, and while I am not sure of the number of attendees, it was reported that they came from around the globe.

 While I missed the camaraderie, the joy of getting together with others between sessions, I also enjoyed being able to sit at my kitchen table enjoying a Sunday brunch with my bottomless cup of coffee. This choice was at odds with the lost business from the coffee and pastry to go from the local shop in previous years of the festival before I scurried off to an author venue for the live author presentation and audience questions. Via Zoom though there was live chat interaction between participants and opportunities for questions as well. The experience was certainly different, but I found the online format provided a wider option of authors, and because sessions were taped, I didn’t need to make the hard choice of which author I wanted to hear if the times conflicted… and this partially provides a glimpse of a new normal.

As we were forced into a hybrid version of our personal, work and learning lives. The choice between an online or face-to-face option became dichotomized.  There was plenty of either/or thinking with having to choose one or the other as a preferred option. But a hybrid option really is a both/and version of thinking and delivery. Going forward and assuming pre pandemic abilities of interaction, the Literary Festival can bring in a much wider audience and range of authors. It will be able to both return to live venue offerings that support local businesses while being Zoomed out to the rest of the world; and Zoom in authors and audiences that can’t travel to Newburyport.  Like the festival, businesses and schools can also provide flexible options to combine both face-to-face and online possibilities to expand the scope of choices and opportunities.  This can be the new normal. That sense of place offered in Newburyport as seen through the lens of the Literary Festival can remain rooted in our community, but also shared with the world.