Fear and Fascination

When I was a little girl I sat through a lot of church services.  I’m talking two church services every Sunday until I was about fourteen years old.  Most of them have blurred together into one memory that includes the strong scent of ladies perfume, singing hymns and daydreaming the hours away while the pastor delivered his message.  Always at the end of the service the congregation was invited to go to the front of the church for an “altar call;” which meant we had the opportunity to make ourselves right with Jesus by recommitting our lives to Him and confessing our sins.

One service though stands out from all the others.   A missionary family from Calcutta visited when I was about nine years old to share their experiences and to gather support for their work with the poorest people in the city.   They told stories of leprosy, spiritual darkness and poverty the likes of which I could scarcely imagine with my limited Colorado small-town-girl perspective.  After that particular service my own personal altar call involved lots of pleading, praying and crying, not for the little children shown in the slideshows, but for God to please never make me go to India.

Perhaps my childhood fear of having to go to India actually planted the seeds of what has become for me a fascination with all things Indian.  Still though, going there didn’t really cross my mind until recently.  It seemed too far out of reach.

Two weeks ago at the library we received a greeting card from a young man who taught a digital photography class to kids in Homer.  The card featured a photo of his most recent students in a small school in northeastern India, not far from Nepal.  Something happened when I saw the card.  I went back to it several times over the day and looked again at the school children on the cover.   For some reason the card made it all seem possible.

My growing desire to go to India wasn’t something I shared with many people and I didn’t expect my family to jump on board with my crazy idea.  But much to my amazement they’re into it.  We don’t know any of the details yet, only that it will take about two years to save enough money to make it all happen.  A savings account has been opened. The beginning of a plan is in place.  I haven’t felt this excited in a long time.

2009 by the book

Over the past few days I’ve been trying to remember the books that I’ve read from cover to cover in 2009.   Lately it seems like I have a short attention span with reading and my list of unfinished books is much longer than my list of finished books.  By listing the books I’ve completed I’ve managed to make myself feel a little better. The year has come and gone and I still haven’t organized my closet or painted my living room but, by God, I did finish a few books.  Imagine how smug I’d feel if I could tally all the blog posts, opinion pieces and news articles I’ve read on the internet.

2009 books

*The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

—— I read this book, with its intense description of hunger, during the holidays, when I was surrounded by food.

*The Help – Kathryn Stockett

*The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows

*Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

——–I understand why this won the Pulitzer Prize.

*Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout

*Raising Ourselves – Velma Wallis

*The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

———Of all the books on this list I think this one made the biggest impact.

*First Indian on the Moon – Sherman Alexie

*Fancy Dancing – Sherman Alexie

——- I actually sent Sherman Alexie fan mail after reading this one.  I’d never done that.

*Eva Underground – Dandi Daley Mackall

*The Gathering – Anne Enright

*The Well and the Mine – Gin Phillips

*Saddle Up Your Own White Horse – Saundra Pelletier

*Rock, Water, Wild:  An Alaskan Life – Nancy Lord

——– I appreciated most of the essays in this book, but the last one about her aged father is beautiful and had me crying over my breakfast one morning.  (I took a memoir writing class from the author last winter.)

*The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

——– A graphic novel about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution.  Iranians are real people.

*The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards – Robert Boswell

*Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone – Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg

——-I was inspired to read this one after taking a Carter Family Singing class at Alaska Traditional Music Camp last summer.

*The Worst Hard Time – Timothy Egan

And the next two are ones I reread in 2009.

*The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

——–My favorite novel.

*Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

———I had to reread this one after watching the movie; to compare and contrast.

There may be more, but that’s what I can remember.  Happy New Year!

Extremes



Today, the day after the official winter solstice, we have five hours and fifty-eight minutes between sunrise and sunset. We’re on the gaining side of the pendulum now and by March it will be light until 9:00 pm.

Solstice doesn’t go unnoticed in Alaska.  Some people have big parties in celebration of the shift toward summer.  Others acknowledge the day in a more introspective fashion.  Either way, it feels very Pagan, living in a state where no matter how far removed you might be from nature you can’t ignore the extremes in the seasons.

I’ve had a hard time with winter the last few years.  For me, and others I’ve spoken to about the subject, there seems to be a cumulative effect going on.  Coping with winter didn’t seem to be so much of a problem for the first decade of my living here, but now I have to actively work on my sanity throughout the winter months.

This winter I’m taking 3000 IU of Vitamin D every day.  I haven’t read any scientific studies about its effectiveness in fending off the winter blues, but I figure it can’t hurt.

A few years ago I bought a light box.  The idea is that if you start using it daily in the fall when each day loses a few minutes of light, then you will feel the benefits of it in late winter when the days are getting longer.  And that brings up another interesting and strange dilemma.  Most people who have a hard time with winter feel it the most around the spring equinox, when the days are long again, and the hope of summer is just around the corner.

For me I’ve found that my ability to make it through the winter without feeling despair hinges on the previous summer.  In 2008 Alaska had a very cool summer.  In Homer the temperature only got to 70 degrees twice.  Most days the thermometer hovered around 55 degrees.  In July we went camping in McCarthy and had to cancel our hiking plans due to snow.  Winter rolled around and I never felt like I had had a summer.  It was tough.

I can endure pretty long winters, but if I don’t feel like I have a summer I get cranky, and desperate.  Last year we planned a trip to New Mexico in June, the hottest time of the year there, because I was determined to get some sun.   I didn’t want to rely on Alaska for a summer.  After 2008 I didn’t have much faith.

As it turned out we had an unseasonably warm and sunny summer last year.  So between that stroke of luck, or El Nino, and the New Mexico trip, I should be in good shape for this winter.  But certain things about myself, in relation to the long, Alaskan winters are still predictable.  By late February, even on a good year,  I’ll start dreaming about that feeling of the sun’s rays on my skin and I’ll wake up under my down comforter and feel like crying.  By that point in the winter I know I’ll have to rely on some inner strength to get me through those last few weeks of winter.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.

It helps if I remind myself of the opposite extreme that Alaska brings out in me.  Every summer I experience moments of euphoria, usually while I’m out on our skiff on Kachemak Bay, or when I’m looking down on the meadow in front of our house and a black bear lumbers by.  At those moments, when Alaska’s bounty is all around me and the days linger into the early hours of the morning, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Naming a road

Bear with me please, because I know I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to steer clear of politics for this blog.  But there is a local issue that I feel warrants the breaking of my self-imposed rule.  It has to do with a neighborhood squabble over the name of our street.

When we decided to venture out of town and live a more rural lifestyle, we started looking for a house nestled on a few acres.  At the time there weren’t many options.  We found either a house with no acreage, or acreage with a rustic shack.  One day though, we noticed a new ad in the newspaper that sounded appealing.  “For sale by owner:  Two bedroom house, good view, five acres.”  Immediately we made the call.

The man selling the house was about to turn ninety.  He wanted to move to Oregon to be closer to his family and in his words, “start a new life.”  He was eager to go, and we were eager to buy.  The house was less than perfect, although it was sound.  And the view, well to say it has a good view is the understatement of the century.  The five acres were carved out of the middle of a large homestead, so a lot of wild space surrounded the house.  We drove away that day knowing that we had to move fast.  We called the seller back that same night, and asked him if we could come take another look. That’s when he said, “I should probably tell you about the neighbors.”

Most people who live in or around Homer, Alaska can claim that they have interesting neighbors, but I’m going to go ahead and make the bold claim that ours may be more interesting than most.  An entire book could be written about them, and should be for that matter.  Now they are in their mid 80’s, but as a young couple they homesteaded in this area with a baby on the way and a toddler; before there was a road.  They are tough.  They still haul their drinking water from town, use an outhouse, and keep their home warm with a wood stove.

The old man has quite a reputation.  He’s known around town for growing potatoes and toting a gun.  We’ve heard stories about him shooting at low-flying airplanes, and real-estate agents.  Sharing a driveway with him has been a challenge at times, but overall it’s worked out well.  Soon after we moved in I discovered that he and I come from the same town in Colorado, and I credit that little bit of serendipity with making all the difference.

The woman is someone I consider a friend.  She works harder than most people I know and still drives into town before church every Saturday morning to play piano for “the seniors” at the long-term care center.  She grows, without a doubt, the best strawberries on the Kenai Peninsula. Her stories about homesteading this neighborhood are filled with bears, months of isolation, fires and a whole host of other amazing things.

Just last week I gave her a ride to town when her car was in the shop.  I noticed that her breathing was more labored than usual, and she had a hard time getting in and out of the car.  “I’ve really gone downhill these past couple of months,” she said after I helped her with her seatbelt.  She then proceeded to tell me about how her family moved to a village near Dillingham when she was six years old, and how her father and older brother died in a boating accident during their first year in Alaska.  One of the jobs she had to take on in order to help her family survive was feeding the dog team.  At first I didn’t think much of that, but then she mentioned that she had to trap animals for them in the winter and harvest and dry fish for them in the summer.  No wonder she’s slowing down now, at age 85.

And this brings me back to the name of our road.  When we first moved out here the name of our road was Olday Road.  The borough felt the need to change it at some point, so they asked for suggestions.  Since our neighbors homesteaded the area, someone suggested that the road be named after them.  So it became James Road for a few years.  Someone was unhappy with that name, perhaps it was someone who had suffered the wrath of the old man when he was feistier than he is now, and they made an issue out of it.  I wasn’t a part of the discussion, but had I been asked I would have said, “Absolutely. The Jameses deserve to have the road named after them.”  But sadly, the sign at the top of the street now says Maria Road.

I have plenty of stories I could tell about living next to the old homesteaders.  A few of them are bad, like the time our dogs got caught in the traps the old guy set to keep the coyotes out of his pile of moose hide.  Some of them are funny, like the time they added an entire trailer’s worth of old household items we were getting rid of to their already huge collection of stuff. But most of the stories just have to do with being neighborly; sharing gardening experience, giving rides to town, figuring out where to park our cars when there is too much snow.

I don’t know who Maria is, or was, and maybe her story warrants the naming of a road after her.  But this one should be named after the James.  They deserve a tribute to their lives as Alaskan homesteaders.  It wouldn’t be much but I think it would mean something to them, to see their name on the street sign each time they drive past.

More snow days

The library where I work moved into a new building three years ago, and since then it has become a bit of a town living room.  In the winter locals stop in between errands to warm up by the fireplace, or to check their email or browse through the new books.  Friends meet there to play chess or to knit.  It’s also a great place for small talk.  I’m one of the chattier librarians, which I guess might be bad since libraries are supposed to be quiet places, but one of the things I like about living in a small town is being on a friendly basis with most everyone I see.

Some days everybody is talking about the most recent antics of our ex-governor, or about the high school hockey team.  Last week there were lots of comments about the six puppies that were left near a dumpster in a kennel with the word “HELP” spray painted on the sides.  Something always has folks talking, and if no local politician has done anything gossip-worthy, or there haven’t been any house fires, then we always have Mother Nature to fall back on.  Last March Mt. Redoubt, the volcano across Cook Inlet, gave us all something to speculate about and yesterday the library was abuzz with talk of the impending storm that the weather service predicted would start at 4:00pm.

Blizzards aren’t terribly unusual here in Homer, so you wouldn’t think we’d get all excited about them, but we do.  For a little while, before every dramatic storm, the town feels like Christmas Eve.  The grocery stores get busy with people wanting to “stock up.”  Folks rush to the library so they won’t run out of reading material.  Trying to find a parking place at the video store becomes impossible.

We say that all of the bustling about is for the sake of preparedness, but in reality you won’t find a population more prepared for disaster than Alaskans.  We have full propane tanks, multiple cords of firewood, plenty of food and, I’d guess, more entertainment options at home than we’d ever consume while waiting out one measly storm.  I think the pre-blizzard giddiness that happens is just our excitement over the possibility of having a snow day or two.  We all just want an excuse to stay home for a while, and in case that happens we want to make sure we have half and half for our coffee and couple of good movies.

As individuals we’ve adapted to the extreme conditions here, and so have the road crews and city maintenance workers.  We should know better than to hope for a snow day.  But we can’t seem to help ourselves.  Whenever the national weather service issues a winter storm warning the fantasies start to play out in our minds.  We imagine a day of tending the fire, drinking hot cocoa, cooking a slow, savory stew.

Yesterday, just like the weather service predicted, the wind started to pick up around 4:00 pm.  The library was a flurry of activity until we closed at six.  It was cool to see people in town preparing not for the storm, but for the off chance, the hope, of this being that one big blizzard that happens every few years that allows us to stay home for a few days.  Even in Homer, Alaska we manage to fill up our time with work, school, sports, meetings and a hundred other things.  A harsh storm gives us all reason to pause and remember that slowing down wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  We know that we’re able to get where we need to go when the snow is three feet deep and blowing sideways; but just because we can doesn’t always mean that we should.  I think we need more snow days.

Food and Stories

I started working at the local public library just over four years ago.  Besides getting first dibs on the new releases and getting to help choose which books to buy, another benefit of my job is the amount of money I save.  I know you don’t have to be an employee of a library in order to reap the benefits of them, but I didn’t really use it to its full potential until I worked there.  I am continually reminded of the fact that I can get my hands on almost any book I’d ever want to read for free. Sometimes though, I come across a book that I feel compelled to own.  Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is one such book.

Barbara Kingsolver has been one of my favorite authors since I first read “The Bean Trees” back in 1990.  And I’ve referred to her personal essays in “High Tide in Tucson” many times when I’ve been trying to transform my own thoughts into writing.  When I read the premise of “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” I knew it would be a good investment so a couple years ago, on the day it was released, I made a special trip to The Homer Bookstore and forked over $26.95 plus 6% sales tax for a brand new hardcover.

In case you aren’t familiar with the book it’s about a year in the author’s life when she makes a concerted effort to feed herself and her family only food that is locally produced.  She describes raising turkeys and chickens, growing a garden and seeking out goods produced by other farmers and ranchers near her community.

The concept wasn’t entirely new to me.  I grew up eating lots of food that my parents had either grown or killed themselves. In my adult life I eat salmon and berries that my family harvests each summer and I keep chickens for the fresh eggs they provide.  We try every year, with varying degrees of success, to grow a vegetable garden.  But Barbara Kingsolver’s book inspired me to take it all a step further.

This year we bought half of a cow that spent the summer grazing at the head of Kachemak Bay, just a few miles east of our house.  Every time I drive to and from town I pass the place where it was born, and the butcher shop where it was processed.  It doesn’t get much more local than that.  I spent the better part of Friday afternoon sledding three huge boxes of  meat to our house, and rearranging the salmon and halibut in our freezer to make room for it.  Somehow I managed to make it all fit.  The arrangement is precarious however and I feel like I should post avalanche warning signs on the upright freezer in the garage.

There’s something deeply satisfying about having a full freezer, and knowing the stories of how all of the food came to be there.  For me it’s the stories that make life more interesting and everything has a story; every item I buy, every tune I play on my fiddle, every person I meet, and every meal I prepare for my family.  I guess that explains why I feel compelled to write, and why I’ll never be able to read all the books on my list.  It’s a good thing I don’t have to pay for all of them.

Oh Christmas Tree

If it were up to me my family would only celebrate Christmas about every third year.  My husband however, loves Christmas.  He’s the happy Christmas elf.  If my children carry fond Christmas memories with them into their adult lives, it will be due to him alone.  He loves Christmas music. He loves Christmas cookies.  He would probably wear goofy Christmas sweaters if I didn’t make an effort to keep him from getting his hands on them.   Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised yesterday when I came home from running errands and found that he’d tramped through 2.5 feet of snow, cut a tree from our yard, set it up in our living room and decked it out with lights.

I tried to look excited.  After all I was pleased to have missed out on the process of choosing a tree and the dragging it in the house.  But the lights he had decorated the tree with were horrible.  They were about as cozy as the flashing Coors Light sign at the local liquor store.   I found myself not wanting to look in the direction of the Christmas tree, which sort of defeats the purpose of a Christmas tree in the first place.  I tried to stay silent and come to terms with the new LED lights, but the bluish, fluorescent look just didn’t put me in the mood to roast chestnuts, or sing Christmas carols.  And when it comes to Christmas cheer I need all the help I can get.

I brought it up gently.  First I said, “those lights have kind of a blue tint don’t you think?”  Then a while later; “I don’t know about those LED lights.  I mean they’re good for the environment and all, but they might not be as cozy as regular Christmas lights.” And finally I just said it.  “I cannot be in the same room as those lights.  They make me want to hurl.”

At that point I thought I should offer to take down the bad lights, so I dug out my leather gloves and started unwinding them them from the tree.  Without me having to ask, my husband turned off the Christmas music and found Son Volt on the MP3 player.  It may not be the background music that most people would choose for getting into the Christmas spirit, but it worked for me.  I’m lucky he knows me so well.

Now the tree, bedecked with the old lights, is brightening up the house during the time of year when the hours between sunrise and sunset can be counted on one hand.  I could do without the presents, the Christmas music and the office parties, but there’s something cool about having a lit-up tree in the house.