I thought we’d made it through another season. A snowless winter, early greening and the unseasonably warm wind in February and March fooled me. But April came and for a month the progression into summer was put on hold. The lengthening days and the birdsong reminded me that it wasn’t exactly winter, but it sure didn’t feel like spring. April was something all its own this year. Something to endure.
In April I thought a lot about racism. Not racism in the news but racism in my family. I thought about the hateful comments I heard from an uncle at my father’s funeral. I thought about the racial slurs I grew up with. I thought about the story of my dad and his brothers one time running off a Hispanic family enjoying a public park on a Sunday afternoon after church.
That was a long time ago. And the racism is no longer so blatant.
Now it’s a little more hidden. It’s got a new vocabulary—thugs, illegals, Islamists. And it’s got new targets—liberals, gays, atheists. It’s veiled by politics and end-times theology, the purpose of which is to keep humans categorized and separated into those who are worthy and those who are not. The way we look down on others has shifted over time, but I wouldn’t say that the problem is gone.
There is a deep shame for being born into racism. I once used racist terminology. I once told off-color jokes. I wish it weren’t true and that I could undo my past. I will always be trying to wash myself clean of it, but the memory of my ignorance still clings to me. All I can do is admit that I was a part of the problem, ask for forgiveness and try to make amends. Since I see the wrong ways of my past, am I somehow immune from divisive thinking? No, not now and not ever. No one is immune. We are all capable of great and terrible things.
The family I was born into is also a family of Pentecostals.
In April I read about William Seymour, the black, one-eyed son of slaves from Louisiana who led the Azusa Street Revival in Southern California and who was essentially responsible for spreading Pentecostalism around the globe. He believed in love and inclusiveness. He believed that God did not favor one gender over the other. He believed that God’s love revealed itself most powerfully when people from different races came together in worship. He did not exclude other religions from the spiritual movement that he led and he did not take credit for its growth or the way it transformed people. He believed that the Holy Spirit was moving and his job was to make sure that human designed divisions—race relations, gender hierarchies and economic standing—did not get in the way of God’s work.
I’d never heard of William Seymour until this month. I’d certainly never heard that the origins of the Pentecostal movement were so tied to the notion of equality. I think that somewhere in the line of my family’s Pentecostalism, something went terribly wrong.
While I was enduring April, while I was cursing the late-season snow and reading about religion and philosophy and contemplating my family’s history of racism, a friend across town lost her son. He was eighteen years old. The sad and shocking news pulled me right out of the heady place I’d been inhabiting and brought me back to the here and now.
Basically, I was hit with the most basic truth. We all love and we all feel pain. As long as we’re alive, there is no escaping these basic things. We can spend our lives constructing borders, terminology, political parties, religions, philosophies, economic divisions—every manner of barrier we can think of to keep us focused on our differences, but we’ll never be separate. We are bound by our human experience, which, when it comes down to it, is all we really know.
We love our children. We suffer excruciating pain when we lose them. Is there any category of people for whom this is not true? Was there ever a time in human history when this wasn’t the case? Will this ever change in the future? No. I don’t think it will.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to reconcile my religious upbringing with who I am now. I am left with more questions in regards to spirituality than answers. But I find solace in humanity. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Yesterday I mentioned to my friend Erin that the trouble I’m having lately with my blog is that I have too many ideas. There is too much rolling around in my brain and trying to home in on one idea has been difficult.
As soon as I said the words “too much,” my problem solved itself. “Too much” is the topic that won’t go away. Looking around my house it seems I have too much stuff—too many coffee mugs in my kitchen cabinet, too many unworn shirts hanging in my closet. On any given day, if I don’t make a point of intentionally avoiding it, too much information streams through my consciousness—too many interesting articles, too many news headlines, too many links that beg to be opened.
On a societal level, we could almost be defined by having too much: Too many cars on the highways, too many types of cereal to choose from at the grocery store, too many events on our calendars. We have more kitchen gadgets than our grandmothers ever dreamed of and more entertainment available at our fingertips than the younger versions of ourselves could have imagined. We seem to have just about everything that we need.
But apparently we don’t have it all. Yesterday California’s Governor Brown announced the state’s first mandatory water restrictions. When a resource as important as water becomes scarce enough to be dangerous, people make a change. They have to. Scarcity has a way of inspiring immediate action.
Unfortunately, when something seems abundant, there’s not quite the same level of urgency.There are exceptions of course. When the cells in our bodies begin to reproduce at an abnormal rate, we call it cancer and we don’t celebrate the abundance. We act. We do what we can to stop or slow the cell growth.
A couple of years ago a group of forward thinking people here in Homer tried to act on the overabundance of plastic bags in our town. They understood the true cost of the free plastic bags that fill up our landfills and pollute our marine ecosystem. They tried to be proactive but they failed. They failed because banning plastic bags just didn’t seem urgent enough to most people. It turns out that plastic bags—at least to a few vocal opponents of the ban—are a symbol of American freedom. And as long as plastic bags are plentiful, then those opponents believe that it’s their right to get them for free at the grocery store.
When I dropped my trash off at the McNeil Canyon transfer station the other day I watched a bald eagle swoop down and grab a stray plastic bag from the ground. The giant bird flew off carrying its free find. Since it’s nest building season, I imagined it meticulously tucking the bag in between the cottonwood branches that it had painstakingly put together for its home.
The scene disturbed me. It’s not natural for eagles to build nests with plastic trash bags. But then it occurred to me that it’s not really natural for humans to wrap nearly every one of our food items in plastic, then bring those plastic-wrapped food items home in a plastic bag, then throw the grocery bag and the food wrappers into yet another plastic bag in order to discard them. It’s ridiculous when you think about how our reliance on plastic has become normal.
Maybe those who opposed the ban don’t think there is too much plastic in the world. Maybe they don’t care if eagles are building their nests out of plastic. Maybe the idea of plastic finding its way into the ocean and breaking down into tiny molecular bits to be consumed by our food supply doesn’t matter to them. Apparently it doesn’t matter as much as their personal freedom at the checkout stand. But their thoughts on the matter don’t change the fact that our reliance on plastic is a problem, and as long as it’s free and convenient, little will be done to curtail its use.
Imagine if plastic bags were scarce the way that water is scarce in California. Would the opponents of the plastic bag ban be outraged at the thought of being charged a small fee for their bags? Would they scoff at the crazy liberals who want to control every aspect of their life? Probably. But then after their scoffing they’d start to remember to bring their own bags to the store. They’d get used to reusing the plastic bags that had accumulated under their kitchen sink. They’d adjust to a life with just a little bit less plastic. The world would keep spinning and they would be no less American for their trouble.
Water, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to do without.
I know that Veterans Day is about the men and women who have served our country and not about the men and women who have sent them into hostile territory. But those who serve and those who send them are always inextricably connected. And those of us who sit back and enjoy our day-to-day lives without the life-altering interruptions of military service are connected as well.
All of us who are in a position to benefit or lose from our country’s involvement in war—in other words, all of us—should be honoring our soldiers—past, present and future—by asking difficult questions and not accepting the face value answers that are given by those in power. History tells us that the true motives for war are rarely the motives that the American people have been ushered toward believing.
Shouldn’t we demand that our present and future soldiers only be sent into harm’s way for noble purposes? How do we even go about doing this when the ears of those in power seem so out of our reach? How do we define what is noble when the truth is not made available for our weighing? I guess we start by doing what we can, by educating ourselves about our government’s interests in the region at stake. We ask who is calling the shots. Are they sending our people to wars in order to protect America’s freedoms or are they sending them to grow the profits of huge corporations? Are we being led to believe that our freedom is in jeopardy from outside forces when in fact the greatest threats to our freedom are here, inside our borders?
If we find that we don’t like the reasons our soldiers are being sent to war, then what?
I will not pretend to understand the complicated military systems or the reasons behind every action that is taken in the name of national security, but I do know that behind those gigantic decisions are everyday people—people who are willing to put their lives on the line for a country that they love.
Absolutely and without doubt, I respect and honor the men and women who have signed up to serve our country. But the skeptic in me wonders if America is a better place as a result of our recent wars. Have the injuries, the deaths, the difficulties of returning to civilian life been worth it? What about the terrible memories, the PTSD, the high number of suicides among veterans? In reality, have the American people benefitted from these wars? Have the benefits outweighed the losses? If the American people have not benefitted, then who has? Our military men and women signed up to serve our country. Are the recent wars being fought for our security, for our way of life, for our freedom? Or do these wars go on and on and on because a few are reaping an incredible profit?
I celebrate our nation’s veterans. I respect the commitment they’ve made to this country. But honoring them fully requires asking difficult questions–not of the veterans themselves, but of those who send them into war. And I have to ask myself a few difficult questions as well. When I believe the motives for war are wrong, when I believe the means for carrying out the missions are wrong, what am I to do? It’s easiest to set those thoughts aside, to defer to the experts. It’s easiest to be thankful that the wars are in distant lands. But today, as I’m considering our nations veterans and the true sacrifices they have made, I am thinking of the letters I have not written, the phone calls I have not made. I am struck by how easy it is to pretend that war is other people’s problem.
Photo by John P. O’Grady
* * *
I grew up in a house on the edge of town in Craig, Colorado. It sits next to a sagebrush and scrub grass covered hill. A short ways away to the west, Fortification Creek runs high and muddy in the springtime; as summer progresses, it hardly runs at all. The house is within city limits, but when our family moved in, it was well beyond the paved streets and groomed sidewalks part of town. It had untamed space around it and a few neighbors that were equally as untamed.
Our house also had a ghost. Of course I have no definitive proof of such a claim, but I have stories. The stories have been told enough times that it’s possible they’ve changed a little, or that a little color has been added for effect. But I believe them just the same.
The house we shared with a ghost was patched together from two buildings that had originated in Mount Harris, an old coal company town further up the Yampa River valley.
Cruising by at 55 mph, it’s easy to forget that a hundred years ago the company town of Mount Harris was once the biggest town in Routt County. It boasted a population of over 1200 people and was home to businesses, churches, schools and pool halls. In 1942 it made national headlines when an explosion in one of the coal mines killed 34 men.
Today not much remains of Mount Harris — just a few old foundations and an historical marker commemorating it and the mines that were once there. As far as towns go, it was a short-lived. Its first structures went up in 1914 but by 1958 all the bits and pieces of it were sold off and hauled away. Parts of it live on, though, scattered around northwestern Colorado in the buildings that were sold off and moved to new locations.
My parent’s home is its own home, but contained in it are relics from an earlier time, a different place . Did our ghost originate in Mount Harris? She might have. But maybe her ghost-life started on site. There’s no way to know.
* * *
Aside from noises and bumps around the house, the first strange thing to happen occurred shortly after my family moved in. One day when my mom was baking, her little jar of cloves disappeared. The first time it happened, she didn’t give it much thought, but when a second jar of cloves went missing she began to pay attention. After the third jar of cloves inexplicably vanished, my mom, half serious and half joking, asked out loud for the cloves to be returned. The next morning when she opened the kitchen cabinet door, the three jars of cloves were lined up in front of all the other spices.
I never saw the ghost, but my mom tells me she took part of my Christmas present one year when I was eight or nine years old. I had been given a couple of blue hair combs and I was working on putting them in my hair when one went missing. My mom and sisters and I searched everywhere for the comb, but it could not be found. Eventually we gave up our search, thinking that I had misplaced it and it would eventually turn up. Soon enough we forgot all about it.
Several years later, my parents remodeled the upstairs restroom. Upon its completion my mom said something to the effect of, “I wonder if our ghost will approve of our new bathroom?” The next morning the hair comb that had been missing for years was sitting on the counter next to the new sink.
* * *
My mom, when she was still relatively new to the neighborhood, had tea one afternoon with some of the women who’d lived in the area for a while. After a bit of chitchat, she asked them if they had ever heard stories about unusual happenings at the house. They had.
One year around Halloween, my sister and one of her coworkers were decorating the thrift store where she works. They talked about ghosts and haunted houses. During the conversation my sister’s coworker said she only knew of one haunted house in Craig, and she went on to describe my mom and step-dad’s house.
* * *
It’s nearly impossible to grow up in a house that is reputedly haunted and not feel afraid at times. I remember being home alone as a young teenager and hearing what sounded like someone rummaging around in the basement, and getting ready for school one morning and hearing something akin to an old metal box spring mattress being dropped from the ceiling of our basement to the floor. I was too terrified to go down the stairs to investigate.
My mom always reassured me though, that the ghost was friendly — it meant no harm. To back up her claims, my mom would retell the stories of the ghost looking out for my younger sister, Marla, when she was a baby.
Marla was about six months old when my mom and step-dad bought the house. One night, in the middle of the night that first winter, my mom was startled awake by the timer on the kitchen stove going off. It was the kind of timer that could only be set for an hour at a time. She got out of bed to turn the buzzer off, and while she was up she checked on the baby. In her crib, my little sister was soaked and cold. My mom changed her, put dry pajamas on her and brought her into bed to warm her up. It happened once more a few months later. The buzzer in the middle of the night woke her up again. This time, Marla had a raging fever.
* * *
Being brought up as a Pentecostal, I was not particularly skeptical of supernatural notions. I believed in angels and demons. I believed that the laying on of hands could heal people. I’d witnessed, on numerous occasions, people speaking in tongues. But a ghost in the house was different than anything I’d learned about in church. I had been schooled on the idea of the Holy Ghost, but I had no framework for understanding a simple ghost.
That’s really what was most terrifying about the ghost. Not that I thought it would harm me, but that it represented unknown territory. And in my religion, the spirit world consisted of only things from God or things from Satan. There wasn’t talk of an in-between spirituality. The ghost in our house, however, seemed to be more grounded in earthly things. She was a mystery, but not a particularly divine mystery. As far as I could tell, she was not concerned with our spiritual lives. She had an affinity for spices and pretty things. Sometimes she was noisy. She looked after the baby in the night.
* * *
There was a time when my aunt visited from the west coast and she was awakened by footsteps on gravel just outside the guest bedroom window. Then she heard a door open and close on the back of the garage. My aunt was convinced that a prowler had entered. When she woke my mom and told her what she’d heard, my mom reassured her, explaining that the yard was only grass and soft dirt—no gravel at all. And more importantly, nobody could enter a door on the backside of the garage because no such door existed. My aunt was baffled and embarrassed by the experience and doubted herself, even though she was certain of what she had heard.
A few years later, when my parents removed the old siding from the back wall of the garage, they found a doorway that had been sealed in. It was in the same location my aunt claimed to have heard an intruder open and close a door.
* * *
Of all the stories, the hidden doorway story is the one I find most intriguing. There is no explanation for the footsteps on gravel that my aunt heard and the fact that a hidden doorway was discovered where my aunt claimed to have heard one doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that perhaps there was something — something that knew more about the house than we did, something that carried on as if the house had never been changed, something that moved through the world unhindered by the laws of physics.
* * *
My mom and step-dad still live in the house on the edge of town that they bought in 1975. The hillside to the north of them is still covered with sagebrush and scrub grass. Now the road in front of them is paved, though, and a few of their more colorful neighbors have been replaced with more conventional ones. The baby that needed attending in the night all those years ago turned forty this year.
Nothing out of the ordinary has happened there for a while. Perhaps the resident ghost has moved on, or maybe she just doesn’t have reason to intervene anymore.
It’s possible, I suppose, that she was never there.
I know that stories on their own don’t amount to proof. But stories are all I’ve got. And doesn’t everything we choose to believe in originate with a story?
The view from my garden on a rainy September evening.
Somewhere, hidden deep within me, perhaps in my genetic code, there is a farmer that would like to emerge. I know she’s in there. I imagine her as an Alaskan/female version of Wendell Berry.
The Wendell Berry version of myself would get up with the sun, feed the animals and work in the garden. In the evenings she would sit contented at her desk, with a bellyful of homegrown food, and write meaningful prose and honest poetry.
I’m not quite there yet, but it’s a dream.
Recently I was inspired by this article http://www.offgridworld.com/6000-lbs-of-food-on-110th-acre/. It’s impressive that so much food can come from such a small space. We live on five acres here, and it’s got the richest soil you can imagine. Someday I’d like to produce 6000 lbs. of food from our property, and every spring it seems like a possibility.
The optimism this past spring was especially bad. My hopefulness came at me from a few different angles. First, I didn’t grow a garden at all in 2013, and I was eager to get my hands dirty. And then we had three weeks of sunshine and hot weather in May. IN MAY! Surely it would be the year to grow all of those things that don’t normally grow in my garden, like zucchini and pumpkins. I also had a thesis to write and a presentation to put together, so spending hours reclaiming the garden space from the weeds that took over last summer seemed like a good idea.
Well now it’s harvest time. Lots of my friends are posting photos of their summertime bounty. They’re making salsa and jam. They’re cellaring their potatoes and carrots and cabbage. They’re freezing things. They’re canning and pickling and generally working like mad to preserve all of their food. I’m harvesting as well, and taking an inventory of this summer’s garden. I’m not in danger of running out of freezer space or canning jars though.
Here’s a rundown of this year’s garden, but before I get to the numbers, here are a few notes on some of the local flora and fauna:
- Cow Parsnip, locally known as Pushki, is a plant that grows to be about ten feet tall. Many people have a reaction to this plant and I am one of those people. If I touch the stuff, especially on a sunny day, I get what is called a Pushki burn. It may not show up for a day or two, but a blister will form. I can wear long pants, rubber boots and leather gloves and still somehow manage to get the stuff on my skin. Our property is covered with this plant.
- Golden-crowned sparrows. These are lovely little migratory birds that return to the area every spring. They have a distinctive three-syllable song and a pretty yellow stripe down the tops of their heads. While I was working to prepare the garden beds, a handful of these birds perched on the surrounding fence posts and sang their little song over and over again. I’m pretty sure they were calling to all the others of their species within a mile radius to let them know I was planting a garden.
- Slugs. These slimy creatures emerge from the soil and eat cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, chard, beet greens, carrots, potato plants and zucchini. I think zucchini is their favorite.
- Dogs. I’m talking about my own dogs here. Ripple and Gypsy of the Sundmark clan. I can’t blame anyone else’s dogs.
Okay, so we had a warm spring, I was hungry for fresh vegetables and I had just read some Wendell Berry poetry. I bought some seeds and some starts from the local gardening supply store. Here’s how it turned out:
- 50 out of the 50 snap peas planted (newly sprouted/not yet covered with bird net) were consumed in their entirety by golden crowned sparrows.
- 9 out of 9 baby zucchini plants were destroyed by slugs before they were big enough to harvest.
- 75 slugs were plucked from three zucchini plants in one evening–(that is when I essentially gave up on this year’s garden)
- 30 out of 30 potato plants survived and are producing beautiful fingerling potatoes!! (Potatoes are magic, by the way.)
- 3 out of 4 broccoli plants were destroyed by slugs
- 5 out of 5 cauliflower plants were destroyed by slugs
- On 4 separate occasions, the Sundmark dogs were spotted grazing on strawberries.
- 6 out of 6 raspberry transplants survived!
- One seed packet’s worth of carrots are still growing. The biggest one pulled so far was the size of my pinky finger.
- Approximately 1 cup of golden raspberries were harvested from plants that were decimated by wild hares a couple of years ago. (So resilient!)
- An unknown number of golden raspberries were consumed by the Sundmark dogs before we realized they were eating them.
- 3 bags of chopped up rhubarb are in the freezer and several rhubarb crisps were eaten throughout the summer. Yay rhubarb!
- 8-12 lettuce and kale plants were rescued from the slugs and transplanted into pots on the deck.
- 4 kale plants were eaten by birds within the first week that they were transplanted into the pots that were placed on the deck.
- 1 fully mature kale plant was eaten from the pot on the deck, in its entirety, by Gypsy. She felt no remorse. (see empty pot on the ground in the photo)
Three slug-free pots of greens.
- 3 beets have been harvested so far. (Our first ones ever!)
- I endured 9 pushki burns. Six on my arms and wrists, three on my face. (These were no big deal. I’m used to them by now.)
- 3 fist-sized cabbages were salvaged before the slugs completely destroyed them.
- 3 cabbages were completely destroyed. (see photo)
Let me disgust you with this slug infested cabbage photo.
Clearly it wasn’t my best gardening year.
I planted a garden and proceeded to neglect it. The yield was low. But what I gained from my time spent within those garden fences last spring can’t be quantified. Putting a figure on fresh air and earthworms and cranes circling overhead is damn near impossible. My baby carrots and fingerling potatoes are like an end of the season bonus. The few deep green kale leaves that survived the sparrows, slugs and Sundmark dogs are more than I had a right to hope for.
Oh yes, my harvest, in all of its insignificance, will be savored.
This photo was taken in the spring, when the world was a hopeful place and slugs were far, far from my mind. I am adding it here, as a way to make up for the slug infested cabbage photo.
So a few days ago, I was minding my own business, scrolling through Facebook to see what’s up. As usual, it was a mix of everything. There were lots of political ads telling me why this or that candidate is sure to ruin this great state of Alaska. There were friends’ status updates of their children heading off to college or various other adventures. There were a ton of beloved pets behaving cutely, and sadly there were a few notices of those beloved pets passing on. As always, there were beautiful photographs of sunsets, sunrises, mountain summits, garden harvests; plenty of inspirational quotes and stunning graphic designs. There were some hilarious, irreverent memes making fun of the ways humans behave, and some more thoughtful memes created for the purpose of urging people to question the system—the man. Twice I watched the clip of a swearing two year old who’d just had water dumped on her head. I admired the smiling face of a woman celebrating her 99th birthday. Of course there were selfies and rants, photos of new tattoos, a few poses with Disney Princesses and in my feed, lots of links to articles about writing—and not writing—and the difficulties of writing—and the things we do to motivate ourselves to keep writing. (Seems as though writers write a lot about writing…).
As it stands, I haven’t written anything for about a month. August was an incredible blur of family, fishing, fish processing, boating, cookouts, working, berry picking—all typical Alaskan summer stuff, and this stretch of (good) madness came just after returning from Anchorage where I presented my thesis colloquium, read a short story of mine aloud to the faculty and my peers in the UAA MFA program and brought to a conclusion my stint as a graduate student.
And so now that it’s Labor Day, and the company has left, and my daughter has returned to school, and the salmon runs are over and my degree is finished, I’m feeling a little unmoored. Borderline lost. At times dispirited. I need to anchor myself again. I need to get back to writing. The busyness of my life was a great excuse to keep me away from my keyboard and notebooks, but now I have no excuses, and yet there is still something inside of me that wants to resist, even though I know, without a doubt, that writing is what I need to do.
I have two big projects in mind—so big that if I spend too much time thinking about them I start to panic. I also have a bunch of stories to revise and expand and send out. And I have the day-to-day writing—the writing I do here and now. It’s what keeps me grounded. It gives me courage. It keeps me noticing the things going on around me. It makes me look at the life I’m living right now without getting bogged down by the past or overwhelmed by the future. It’s always where I need to start.
And this leads me back to where I started this little bit of writing—scrolling through my Facebook feed, minding my own business. Scrolling through Facebook, as unimportant as it may seem sometimes, can be a reminder of what real life looks like. Real life is a mix of funny and sad, irreverent and serious. Real life is beautiful and frustrating. Sometimes Facebook is used to perpetuate narcissism, but sometimes it gets me out of my own head and into the lives of others. Two things brought me out of my anonymous comfort zone of scrolling the other day.
As most all of you who have spent any amount of time on Facebook recently know, everyone seems to be posting videos of themselves getting ice water dumped over their heads. And honestly, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Up until a couple of days ago, the only clip I’d watched was the aforementioned video of the two year old girl swearing when the cold water was poured on her. But then I got a notification that I’d been tagged. My nephew Dan (who lives in Phoenix, where a bucket of ice water might be thought of as a less of a challenge and more of a delight) challenged me, and his challenge was creative and funny and as much as I wished to ignore it, I knew it would be lame to pretend that I hadn’t been tagged. That was the first thing that demanded my attention.
And so I was considering this challenge—giving it a lot of thought. But then I saw a second thing come through my newsfeed that hit me on a more personal level. It was a Go Fund Me site that has been set up to help out a cousin of mine who has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Although I am not personally close to her, her life and the difficulties she and her family are facing have been in the forefront of my mind. Knowing of her situation has reminded me that all of life is a gift—spouses, siblings, sons and daughters. Sunrises, sunsets, poetry, paintings. Incessant rain, fog, windstorms, mud. Bugs, flowers, pets, music. Woodstoves, windows, clean water, friends. All of it. The good and the not-so-good.
And so I’m accepting Dan’s challenge, sort of. I’m not going to dump ice water on myself and I’m not going to film myself plunging into the cold waters of Kachemak Bay (although I think that would have been awesome.) Instead I’m going to give thanks for my health, my family, my life that is full to the brim. I’m going to get back to the business of writing, because being able to do so is a gift I shouldn’t squander. I’m going to remind myself that like life, writing doesn’t always have to be perfect. And I’m giving a donation to my cousin and her family instead of to ALS research.
I encourage everyone to donate to a cause or a person or a family that could use your help and I challenge all of you to find love for the life that you’re living. Take a step toward doing that thing you know you’re supposed to be doing. Filter through the myriad of things life throws your direction and find what matters.
And to see the site set up for my cousin and her family, click here: http://www.gofundme.com/dodrz4
Stories in the news this week: A young man kills a group of people, but before doing so he leaves a misogyny-laden Youtube video explaining why he’s going to do what he does. A forest fire burns 183,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula. And Maya Angelou dies, leaving me to ponder her fearlessly lived life.
These things are unrelated, but I’m a writer and what that means is that these things are winding through my brain, and I’m trying to order them up, make some sort of sense and connection out of them. And ultimately they’re all converging into a story I’ve been meaning to tell, and waiting for the right time to tell it.
A regular hangout space that students of the UAA MFA creative writing program frequent during our summer residency in Anchorage is the Blue Fox Lounge. It’s within walking distance from the dorms and it’s a great place to unwind after long days of literary talks, workshops and readings. On this particular night, a band was playing—a band we’ve made a point of going out for over the last few years. I sat with my friends right in the front, just feet from the trumpet and trombone. The music was fantastic and I was fully enjoying the break from my day-to-day life of working in the library, household responsibilities and going to bed by 10:30pm. For a couple of hours I laughed with my friends, enjoyed a couple of beers and lost myself in the music. A rare, memorable night.
Then, after the band finished playing, we decided to go out for breakfast. In front of the bar while we waited for a cab, we made small talk with the band members as they smoked and packed up their gear. We made a point of thanking them for the music, and for maintaining such a high energy level for so many hours. At that point, the keyboard player, the one who kept the witty banter going throughout the night, asked me my name. Teresa, I told him.
“You know what you are, Teresa?” He said. “You’re a cougar.”
The smoke from the Funny River Horse Trail Fire was dark brown and snaking its way from somewhere up the peninsula down to the head of Kachemak Bay where it hovered over the water and moved toward town last week. As is the case with every fire, it started small. But an unconventionally long stretch of dry weather, a beetle-killed spruce forest, dry grasses and wind conspired to allow one spark to grow and consume a total of 183,000 acres over the next several days. Over the Memorial Day weekend, a fire ban was put in place, which meant no outdoor fires were allowed. No campfires, no cooking fires, no burn barrels. Not even on the beach, not even with a bucket of water and a shovel nearby. Families closer to the fire spent their weekend cutting down trees, making defensible space around their homes.
As a writer, words are my job. I realize they have power. I try to choose them carefully. I want to understand their connotations.
I wasn’t sure how to take that at first. Mostly I was stunned. I mean, who was this guy, and what was he saying about me? As is often the case in uncomfortable situations, I laughed it off. But it didn’t take long for me to start adding up the number of things he was saying about me with that one word.
Before the word was directed toward me that evening last summer, I was hardly aware of the ages of my friends. They were my MFA buddies, people who had read my writing, critiqued it and understood it in a way that few other people had. And I’d read their work. One great thing that happens when you share your work with people is that you connect with them on a deeper lever. Suddenly with this word, I was aware of my age, and of theirs. This one word, at least for a moment, lessened the real relationship I have with my MFA friends, a few of whom are men younger than me.
Before the word was directed toward me, I didn’t feel self-conscious. But in an instant these thoughts went through my head: Should I color my gray hair? Do I look like I’m out to hook up with someone? Should I have gone home early? Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out at all. Eventually, I rationalized my way through these thoughts, but that one word made me doubt myself for a moment.
And then there were the inconsistencies. A few members of the group were women who are younger than me, and men who are older than me. But the keyboard player didn’t feel inclined to shame the older men for hanging out with younger women. And while calling me a cougar was hardly a crime, it was an insult, an insult that was gender specific. What are the insults directed toward women that don’t have a male equivalent? Old maid, hag, slut, whore, tease… cougar. I could make the list longer, I’m sure.
Most baffling of all to me was this: what gave that man the sense that he had to right to define me with that term? He’s a total stranger. All he saw of me that night was that I was out late, I was laughing, I was enjoying a beer or two with my friends, I was tapping my foot to the music. That’s it. And yet he felt entitled—compelled somehow—to belittle my existence in that space in time. I’m sure had he been in line in front of me at the grocery store or had I met him in a more formal setting, he would have made polite conversation. But being out, late at night, with people not my age, gave him license to call me a derogatory name.
And people think that women are too sensitive—that we are uptight about language and names and subtle jokes about our sexuality. But those words are like sparks. They have potential to grow into full-blown misogyny. They have to be extinguished and called out and we have to make people understand their power. It’s not just about being politically correct, it’s about taking preventative action. When we point out an inconsistency or a sexist remark, we’re making defensible space. We’re making sure you understand that we’re not going to allow you to burn us. When we don’t tolerate names or insults at all—even in the context of a joke—we’re banning those campfires, those cooking fires, those burn barrels. It may seem like an extreme measure, but all it takes is reading the news to see that extreme measures are in order. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could move beyond making defensible space? Wouldn’t it be nice to somehow send everyone the message that power and oppression are not mutually exclusive? The band that night had power over its audience in a good way. Everyone in the Blue Fox was smitten with their sound. Too bad the keyboard player didn’t feel that that was enough.