From my house I can see glaciers, mountains, the amazing Kachemak Bay and occasionally a moose family or a bear (but not Russia.) I write--primarily but not exclusively fiction--and work part time in a library.
The other day at work my computer was out of service. It was the perfect time for me to tackle a few tasks that had been piling up. I did some filing. I made some phone calls. I did a little shelving. And then I listened to the fifty-two messages that were saved in my voicemail.
The messages went back as far as 2008, and listening to them has given me quite a lot to write about, but for this post I’ll stick to the ones that were left in response to two pieces of my writing.
“Hello Teresa, this is Rollie Campbell. I’m a relative of yours. I read your bit in the Telluride Newspaper and I have to say—way. to. go. Some of those things should have been said a long time ago. And here’s my number if you want to talk.”
This message, along with four email messages from strangers, were waiting for me at work on the Monday after Father’s Day, 2008. I had written a piece for the High Country News about my father’s memorial service held on a hillside near Wilson Mesa, just outside of Telluride Colorado. I wrote honestly about how I’d been hurt by the service being turned into a sermon. Instead of memorializing my father, the person holding the service felt compelled to preach about hell, and how those of us in attendance who weren’t saved would most certainly go there.
It was the first piece of my writing that had ever been published. It was personal and it was pointed and it was syndicated in newspapers around the West. Hundreds of people read the column in their Sunday newspapers. It was terrifying.
Now I can look at that essay as a turning point in my writing life. It was the beginning of me digging a little deeper, going closer to the core of what I care about most.
I called Rollie Campbell—this distant relative of mine who was in his 80s at the time. He lived on Wilson Mesa when he was a boy. He knew my dad and my aunts and uncles when they were young. We talked for about an hour. He told me stories and answered questions. After speaking with him, I knew a bit more about life on Wilson Mesa in the 1920s and 1930s. I had a few stories to put with the names of the people who came before me.
I did not erase the message he left in June 2008. I listen to it about once a year—usually when I need some kind of reassurance.
Message #s 28,29 & 31:
–“Teresa, call me. Here’s my number.”
–“Holy crap. Are you at work today? I need to buy you coffee.”
–“Hello. You don’t know me, but I want to tell you thank you. Something similar happened to me. I never told anyone.”
It was October 2012 and I wrote a blog post in response to a sexual assault that happened in Homer. I wrote it in a hurry and posted it in a hurry—before I could change my mind. Then I went into the bathroom and nearly threw up. Then I told my husband about it. I had never told him the story.
Unlike the message from Rollie Campbell, I’d forgotten about these messages. Hearing them again the other day brought me back to those first few days after I posted the essay on my blog. Lots of people were reading it, but worse, lots of people I knew were reading it. I felt more exposed than I’d ever felt in my life.
But an amazing thing happened. People responded. Men and women approached me at work, at coffee shops, in the grocery store. People sent me emails and private messages. While the feeling of being exposed never went away entirely, it was eased by the incredible sense of being supported by people who cared, people who had been through something similar, people who had a story of their own.
What I learned from that post is that courage begets courage. I only had the guts to write what I wrote because I’d read the work of others who had been brave. Then a few people had the courage to tell their stories because they’d read mine.
Listening to those voicemail messages made me revisit those essays from years ago. If I had them to write over again, I would change things. They are imperfect and perhaps a little self-indulgent. Writing them was difficult. I might have been wise to use a bit more caution. But would cautious writing have prompted people to call and leave messages?
For me, writing is always finding the balance between restraint and indulgence. Too much of either one is a bad thing and whether it’s fiction or nonfiction it’s always a struggle to reach that sweet spot. But I know, and the messages on my voicemail reminded me, that people want to read work that originated close to the writer’s heart. They want to read what is real. They respond to stories that reveal some of the author’s uneasiness and dread. Maybe sharing something so intimate makes us all feel less alone.
It’s raining today–a beautiful, windless, cool summer rain. It’s filling our rain barrels, settling the dust, watering our garden. Everything is green. Bright green. Alive green. New green. I open the front door. I inhale. I hold the air in my lungs for as long as I can. I let it out slowly.
I put on a rain jacket and pick greens from our garden. Every plant is growing at a miraculous rate. Each leaf is crisp and succulent. It is food and it is medicine and I want for everyone in the world to feel the satisfying crunch of this fresh bok choy, taste this raw spinach a second after it’s picked. I want for everyone to hear the squirrels chattering in the spruce trees and the golden-crowned sparrows calling to one another in the open meadow. I want for everyone to breathe deeply of this morning’s air.
Right now, my mother in law is having a hard time. A few months ago she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which is a hardening of the lung tissue. She needs supplemental oxygen–each day a little more than the last.
When I think of her, I find myself conscious of breath. I fill my lungs with a little more air than I normally would. I imagine oxygen finding it’s way to every part of my body.
This afternoon I am meeting friends and acquaintances, community members and strangers by the Seafarer’s Memorial on the Homer Spit. We’re going to make our wishes known and we’re hoping our pleas won’t fall on deaf ears.
Later this month, the United States Navy is planning to begin training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska. They have a permit to use live artillery and sonar to practice for war. The training is scheduled to happen for the next five summers during key breeding and migratory periods for marine life. By the Navy’s own estimation, the impact will be detrimental to as many as 182,000 marine mammals.
So we’re going with our homemade signs and our kayaks. We’re going with our bicycles and our skiffs. We’re asking the United States Navy to listen to us. We’re asking them to change their plans to accommodate the migratory animals. We’re hoping they’ll remember that the Gulf of Alaska is not a strategic military or political space but rather a life-giving body of water that is worthy of our protection.
Looking out my window, past the tomato plants on the sill, past the garden in my front yard, I see portions of Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains. I think of my mother in law, fighting for every breath. I think of the ocean life, unaware and undeserving of the battle that’s about to be inflicted upon it. I am heavy with gratitude and sorrow and wishes.
I want a world where war games aren’t necessary. I want everyone to feel the sense of satisfaction I felt when I stepped into the cool rain this morning. I want the world to change. So I make my homemade signs and I pick a lunch salad from my garden. I write words on a page and I take one deep breath, and then another.
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.
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.
Our house originated in Mount Harris and I always wondered if our ghost traveled the distance with the structure when it was moved to its new location. There is no way to know of course, but I like to imagine that maybe she made that journey.
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, a small 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, “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.
It turns out that our house had a bit of a reputation. 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 our 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 explained that the yard was only grass and soft dirt. There was 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 though the road in front of them is paved now. A few of their more colorful neighbors have passed on and the baby that needed tending in the night all those years ago is over forty now.
Nothing out of the ordinary has happened there for a while. Perhaps the resident ghost has moved on, or maybe she no longer needs to make herself known. My rational brain knows I should consider the possibility that she was never really there and that the incidents that happened can all be explained away as coincidences or some kind of magical thinking.
So we’re left with a mystery. Did the stories make the ghost, or did the ghost make the stories? All I know with certainty is that the stories mean something to me and when I visit the house, I find myself wondering if there might be a silent observer–someone or something that hears our conversations, witnesses our family gatherings, pays attention to who comes and who goes. I wonder if she’s just beyond our awareness, in a realm of existence we don’t fully understand, listening to the stories we tell about her.