Far and Near

Tomorrow I’m driving to Anchorage to retrieve my sister, Marla, who has been traveling around South America for the past four months. She went by herself, which to me is incredibly courageous. It helps that she makes friends easily and I’m willing to bet she didn’t spend much time feeling lonely. I’ve never done anything like that, and I suspect I never will. I admire her fearlessness, or maybe it’s not fearlessness as much as it is a willingness to conquer her fears. Either way she amazes me.

Before Marla left, my family tried to think of something practical to give her for a Christmas gift. We decided on a couple pairs of Smartwool socks. They were something she could use, something she could carry and hopefully as she was trekking about South America they would sometimes make her think of us.

Over the course of her journey she’d send me emails telling me of her adventures. I sometimes struggled to write her back, not because I didn’t want to keep in touch, but because my life seemed pretty darn boring in comparison to hers. One email in particular stood out.

She wrote:

I want to write you a story of how I lost one Smartwool sock that you gave me for Christmas.

I rode a bike down a big mountain, through recent land slides and rivers knee deep, got soaked, but did not lose my Smartwool sock.

I rode in the back of a huge dump truck on a precariously narrow mountain road, and feared for my life as I peered down the steep cliffs to the river below. The wine in my backpack spilled and soaked all of my clothes and still I did not lose my Smartwool sock.

I went on a rafting trip and the raft flipped. I was trapped in a hole for a moment, panicked, swallowed too much water, the guide had to punch me in the chest to get me to breathe again, but not even then did I lose my sock!

I hiked for 10 hours in the sweltering jungle heat, with mangos and avocados falling from the trees and rotting on the trail. I had the stinkiest feet of everyone in the group, and blisters the size of quarters, but not even then did I lose my Smartwool sock.

I hiked for 6 hours in the rain, walked across hanging bridges and was ferried across the most raging river in a hand pulleyed tram, was delayed for 30 minutes by the President of Peru, and not even then did I lose my Smartwool sock.

I climbed 10,000 stairs to the top of Waynupicchu, to overlook Machu Picchu, the most incredible sight of my life in the most incredible place I have ever witnessed on this planet. On my way back, I got sick (food poisoning) and puked 4 times on the mountain. A very kind Chilean boy with large eyes and a big heart kept me company, taught me Spanish and talked to me of his catholic faith, of love and joy as I threw up. He was an angel or a saint. Even then, I did not lose my smartwool sock.

I threw up one last time, violently on the railroad tracks, just before boarding a train for a 3 hour trip back to Cusco, and not even then did I lose my Smartwool sock.

But, when I boarded the bus, doing everything I could to focus on not puking on the bus, I stashed my bag in the overhead compartment, and we hit a bump, my shoe went flying, hit a poor man in the head, and I could not get up to retrieve it for fear of puking on the poor man who was hit in the head by my very stinky shoe. Later that night, when we go to Cusco, I managed to retrieve my shoe, but it was then that I lost my Smartwool sock. I am a bit sad. But had a great adventure!

Really now, how does one write anything of interest in comparison to that? Over the next few days I kept thinking of my own seemingly mundane life. What could possibly be interesting about going about my routine; making lunches, going to work, reading, writing, going for an occasional walk on the beach? I started doubting my legitimacy as a writer. Could I ever write anything that people cared about if I never had my own adventures? I wanted to write back to Marla, tell her of something fabulous that had happened, but I kept coming up empty.

Instead I wrote to her about my ordinary life; changes at work, my applying and subsequent acceptance to graduate school. I shared with her some of my poems and a short story I’d written. I kept her updated on the happenings of my teen-aged children, which is rarely boring. At times I wrote to her about my petty, day-to-day frustrations, but also the small, joyful things like sitting outside on a windless, sunny afternoon and listening to the trickle of snowmelt down our driveway.

Sometime, over the course our exchanges, I realized that I was happy for Marla to be off having the adventure of a lifetime, and at the same time I was feeling content to be at home. I loved hearing of the people she met, the mountains she climbed and cities she explored, but I wasn’t pining to be there with her. Sure I missed her, but I was enjoying my life here in Homer, Alaska, in the middle of winter, which is really saying something.

For most of my life I haven’t felt content, so this is new way of being for me. We had a lot of sun this past winter, which certainly helped, but I’m trying to identify the other things that are making me feel this way. I’ve come up with a number of contributing factors: My kids have moved out of their stage of near constant bickering with each other. I’ve done a lot of “letting-go” in regards to parenting my son over the past couple of years and in the process have realized that he is more than capable of making good choices for himself. My job is relatively interesting. I have the things that I need; my health, good friends, a warm home, plenty of food, a close family and lots of nature around me to help keep things in perspective. I have music at my fingertips, which can always lift my spirits and keep me challenged. And I’ve got my writing.

Life can be a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s about traveling the world. Other times the adventure of it all unfolds gradually in a life of going to work, raising a family and paying the bills. It’s all meaningful. It’s all valid. All of it is a crazy, dangerous, exciting journey.

Nineteen years

Yesterday, a young twenty-something couple came to the counter at the library where I work and wanted me to tell them about Homer.   They didn’t want statistics as much as they wanted to know what it’s like to live here.  They told me they are moving to Alaska, touring around the state, trying to find the community that best fits them.

I talked with them for twenty minutes about why we chose to move to Homer from Eagle River seventeen years ago, reaffirming to myself the reasons I love this place.  I talked about how so many people who live here have chosen this place because of what it is, not because it’s easy to get by here.  That is why you’ll meet men and women who have three different jobs in order to make ends meet for their young families.  It’s why you’ll meet people who have chosen to live unconventionally, away from the mindset of career advancement and consumerism.   But today, looking back on the conversation, I’m thinking less about the place I live now, and more about the person I was when Dean and I moved to Alaska nineteen years ago.

In 1992 we bought our first house in the Eagle River valley.  I was twenty-four years old and six months pregnant.  Dean and I were two months shy of our second wedding anniversary. We were both in the process of a gradual, but natural departure from the religious world we had been a part of when we met and got married.   I was beginning to consider the world in a different way; a way that included more possibilities than I had ever imagined.  It was exciting but it felt a little dangerous stepping into new territory like that.  Moving to an extreme place like Alaska seemed fitting.

We shared the valley where our cozy log home was nestled with black bears and grizzlies.   We didn’t see them often, but I’d find their footprints in the glacial mud down by the river.  Even though I knew they were there I didn’t have a healthy fear of them like I should have.  While Dean worked the swing shift of his job, I’d hike my pregnant self and our brown dog Jessie down to the state park trails and go exploring.  I didn’t make enough noise, and aside from my dog, I was alone out there late in the evening when the light was beginning to dim.

The Eagle River valley is stunning.  It narrows as you drive toward the east and steep mountains tower on either side.  A visitor center at the end of the road, right next to where our house was located, is the beginning of a trail system that can take you either up into the mountains or to the river itself; fast running and cloudy with glacial silt.  Living near the trail system was a gift.  Over the year and a half that we lived there we found our way to it almost daily; became familiar with individual cottonwood trees along the way, enjoyed its bounty of lignonberries.    But as beautiful as it was, the time I lived there was one of the loneliest times in my life.

For those first few months in Alaska, before Dillon was born, I spent a lot of time alone.  And I wasn’t yet comfortable in my own company.   To pass the time I read, went for walks, and called my mom and sisters.  I made friends with some of the neighbors. One of them, Gretchen, was expecting a baby right around the same time as me.  Although I was thankful for the new people I had met, I missed the informal, easy company of the family I’d just left in Colorado.  Another factor that contributed to my feeling of isolation was that every morning almost all of our neighbors would make the twenty mile trek into Anchorage for their jobs.  Sometimes after Dean would leave for work later in the afternoon, I felt like it was just me out there, with the moose and the bears.

It took me a while to adjust to living in Alaska.   As most things go, it was different than I’d imagined.   Before moving here I had never lived in a coastal environment, had never lived in a place where it stayed light into the early morning hours or lived in a place that was so vast and undeveloped.  That first summer here I read stories in the news that haunted me; about a family that froze to death on the Denali Highway the previous winter when their car broke down, about Chris McCandless, a young man my same age, that wandered off into the wilderness and died of starvation, about a family in Craig, Alaska, murdered one night when their houseboat was untied from the dock and set on fire.  I had never lived in a place with such extreme stories.

I’m sure that regardless of where I would have chosen to live these last nineteen years I would be looking back at myself and marveling at how much I’ve changed.  But I think living in Alaska has sent me on a path of self discovery that would not have been possible anywhere else.  This is due in part to the landscape itself, its depth and its magnitude.  It’s due in part to its climate and latitude, making me embrace the extreme light and darkness both within myself and in nature. And it’s due in part to the people I’ve befriended here.  Alaska attracts remarkable people; passionate people who believe in the power of art and self-sufficiency, courageous people who take chances and learn from their failures.  More than anything else, the people here have challenged me to see the world and conventional society with a critical and creative eye.   Knowing them and being around them has helped me figure out what it means to be myself.

As I think about the young couple I met at the library I wonder if they know what they’re getting themselves into.  I wonder what they will learn about themselves along the way.  Maps and travel guides and information gleaned from the library can’t possibly prepare them.

Smith River, Montana

I didn’t spend much time with my dad.  At age thirteen I moved away from his house to live with my mom in another town.  And although my dad was a great guy, one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, he wasn’t great at keeping in touch.  And as I became an adult I wasn’t the best with that sort of thing either.  Sometimes we saw each other only once every year, and as my kids got older and traveling became more cost prohibitive, our visits were even less frequent.  I did always call him on his birthday though, and now that he’s gone I miss picking up the phone and having a nice, long conversation with him every year on November 21st.   We’d talk about his garden, his plans for the future (he always had a plan), and often times we’d reminisce about the time we floated the Smith River in Montana.

Dean and I had been married for one year when my dad drove from Grand Junction to Missoula for a visit.  When we asked him if he’d like to go rafting with us he sounded a little reluctant but then said he was game to try anything once.  I interpreted that to mean that he wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he didn’t want to say no.  Dean and I latched on to that “try anything once” statement and planned a four day rafting trip.

My dad was an outdoorsy guy, but he went about battling the elements very differently than Dean and I did.  Let’s just say that his savvy came from more of a cowboy/huntsman place, whereas Dean’s and mine came from more of a backpacking, rock-climbing, REI catalog kind of place.  It made for some educational moments on both our parts.  My dad learned that while oiled cotton canvas might keep you dry should you get caught in a brief rain storm, it’s not really meant for rafting.  Dean and I learned the nuances of fly-fishing for brown trout, and discovered that expensive gear really isn’t the key to catching more fish. While Dean could read the river and keep us out of harm’s way (for the most part), my dad could identify all the plants along the banks.

When our yellow rubber raft began to fill up with water on day two of our trip, my Dad didn’t panic or get stressed out.  If he was worried at all he covered it well by cracking jokes and telling stories of his own youthful misadventures.  At one point when we were trying to identify where the leak was coming from my dad held up his two pointer fingers about six inches apart and said, “I can’t see the tear in the bottom of the raft, but I think it must be about this long.”  I asked him how he knew and he said, “Well there’s a fish about that size swimming around my boots.”

It became clear after a very short time that no amount of bailing was going to get us anywhere, so we looked for a good spot to pull over and repair the raft.  Dean had planned ahead for this sort of thing and had purchased a repair kit before the trip, but the patches that came with the kit were way too small for the gash that we found once we emptied out the raft and turned it upside down on the gravel bar.  To make matters worse, we realized we had forgotten to pack a roll of duct tape, something we had learned on an earlier trip to never leave home without.  When Dean resorted to patching up the raft with year-old, used duct tape that had been wrapped around the handle of one of the oars, my dad expressed a little concern, by saying, “You go ahead and work on that.  I’ll start praying.”

Other highlights of the Smith River raft trip include coming around a bend in the river and seeing a black bear cub standing on a boulder that jutted out over the water.  We were silent and still as it watched us float past.  I also remember my dad’s excitement at seeing a huge bush of ripe red currants.  He insisted that we pull the raft over and pick them for a few minutes so he could make currant syrup for our pancakes the next morning.

We also spent a lot of time building huge campfires in an attempt to dry out my dad’s gear because even though our dry bags were superior for keeping the sleeping bags dry, he insisted on wrapping up his belongings in his Australian oilskin duster.  He did have a bit of a stubborn streak.

When my dad came to visit Dean and I in Montana all those years ago we could have easily hung around the house the whole time or just taken a few sight-seeing drives, but instead we shared an adventure. Those four days of eating around a campfire, sleeping under the stars and floating down the Smith River have given me a lot of comfort over the past few years.

September

It’s blindingly beautiful outside right now.  The birch and cottonwood trees are turning yellow; the fireweed stalks are dark pink.  The sky is a brilliant blue.  Grasses are the deep green of late summer and the water on the bay is calm, punctuated only by the trail of a skiff or a raft of sea birds.

It’s almost too nice out there, which sounds strange, but it’s making me feel melancholy.  It’s sort of taunting me, reminding me that these nice days are numbered and soon enough it will be winter.  And winter is long, and cold, and dark.  Soon I’ll have only reminders of summer, like the food the season has provided preserved in the freezer and pantry to be parceled out over the next several months, and the memory of the smell of dirt in the garden and the feel of sun on my skin.

I’m not ready to let go of summer.  It was too short and I didn’t do nearly as much as I’d hoped to.  Yet I know that once winter gets here I’ll be fine.  It’s just the transition that seems to be difficult.  We’re losing close to five minutes of daylight each day right now, and so this change of seasons doesn’t feel as though it’s sneaking up on me, it feels more like it’s jumping out from behind a wall and hitting me over the head.

Recently I’ve been reminded that really life is all about the transitions, and how you get through them seems to say more about the kind of person you are than just about anything else.

My grandparents had been married for seventy-three years and still lived together in their own house when my grandmother died unexpectedly early one morning last month.   That August day would mark the beginning of a different life for my granddad.  Not only had he lost his wife, but he could no longer stay in his own home.

Already his short-term memory was failing him and the shock of all the rapid changes seemed to amplify his disorientation.   Sometimes he seemed very lucid and could remember that his wife had died, other times people had to remind him of what was happening.   A few days after my grandmother’s memorial service he admitted to my mom, “For all of my life I’ve always known what to do next, and now I don’t know what to do.”  My mom reassured him that she would be there for him and said, “We’ll just take it one day at a time.”

He thought about it for a moment and then started to sing,

“One day at a time sweet Jesus

That’s all I’m asking from you.

Just give me the strength

To do everyday what I have to do.

Yesterday’s gone sweet Jesus

And tomorrow may never be mine.

Lord help me today, show me the way

One day at a time. “

Then he sang it through a second time in Spanish.

Seasons change, grandparents die and relationships you thought would last sometimes don’t.   Children grow independent, parents grow dependent and our best-made plans sometimes get derailed. The transitions can break our hearts or fill us with more joy than we ever thought imaginable.  All any of us can really do is try to embrace the changes with a touch of grace and carry around a song or two that will help us get through the hard times.

Halfway through summer

Somewhere in the early days of this blog I think I wrote something about trying to post something at least twice a week.  In retrospect it may have been a little too lofty a goal.  I seem to be doing well to get something out twice a month at this point.

There is always the hope that somewhere in my future I will find more time for writing and reading.  Realistically the six to seven months of winter we get here could work to my advantage.   During the long season I go to bed early and therefore find it relatively easy to get up at 5:30am and take advantage of a quiet house.   Summer in Alaska is a different story.  There is this climate-imposed pressure to fit as much into three months as others in a more southern locale could spread out over as many as six to eight months.   The garden needs tending, firewood needs stacking.  There are fish to catch, berries to pick and recreation to be had, all in addition to the regular household chores and my job.    I’ve heard people talk about “lazy summer days” but honestly I haven’t experienced many of them in the 18 years I’ve lived here.   Perhaps we’re programmed to keep moving until darkness settles in, which this time of year is around midnight. It’s a rather manic existence and I can sustain it for a while, but just lately I’ve reached the part of the summer where my concentration is low and my attention span is short.

Lately I’ve been craving some serious couch time.  The other day I found myself fantasizing about catching a summer cold that would force (allow?) me to sit still for a while with my books and my laptop.  When my reading and writing habits become mucked up in the long daylight portion of summer, I feel a little out of balance.  A sort of literary mania comes over me.  The problem is compounded by the fact that I work in a library.

It starts with me checking out more books and magazines than I could ever possibly find the time to read.  Then, when I start feeling bad about taking so many items out of circulation for the public use I begin digging through the book donation boxes in the back room.   My stack keeps getting higher and in my attempt to make up for all the years I spent reading Glamour magazine and listening to 80’s pop music when I should have been reading the classics I start having thoughts like, “How can I possibly be a good writer if I’ve never read Moby Dick, or anything by Steinbeck?  I must remedy this situation right now.”   The guilt I inflict upon myself is emotionally exhausting and by the time I actually have time to sit down on my couch with my oversized stack, (usually around 11:30 pm) I’m overwhelmed by the choices.   I do a lot of page flipping and a little reading (remember the short attention span I mentioned earlier) before I find myself too tired to think straight.  Then I fall into a hard sleep for about six hours.

Coherence returns, for a while at least, after a good sleep, so that’s when I try to write, even if it only amounts to a page or two in my notebook.   Some would say that journaling is a waste of time but I find that it’s a valuable tool for helping me keep my wits intact.   A while back it led me to a most obvious solution to my reading and writing problem of late:  short stories.  I’m working on a short story of my own, and what better way to learn the workings of the genre than to read a bunch of them?    And beautifully, I can manage complete works of fiction that are only 5-12 pages long, even during this crazy time of year when daylight lasts much longer than my brain’s ability to stay fully engaged.

And as for this blog, I still aspire to post more often, and maybe even liven it up with pictures once in a while.    In the meantime I’ll do what I can, and continue to enjoy the process.  I think I’ll also try to slow down a little and savor some of what summer has to offer.

Thanks everyone for reading.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support!

The chicken before the egg


One of my chickens is dying.  On Monday morning when I went to give my small flock of seven some food and water she had that look that I’ve come to recognize as the dying chicken look.  She was huddled on the ground instead of perched up high on the branches I’ve arranged inside the henhouse and she didn’t show any interest in what I was bringing.  I thought she’d be dead by the end of the day, but she’s been hanging in there all week.

This isn’t anything new.  I’ve been keeping chickens for quite a few years now and we’ve watched many of them grow old and die.  Some people are very systematic about culling their chickens in order to keep their egg yield high, but I don’t have it in me to kill something just because its productivity isn’t optimal.  I did banish one from the coop once when she wouldn’t stop eating eggs and I found a pile of feathers a few days later.

I first started raising chickens when my children were little and I didn’t work away from home.  It was always exciting to get the baby chicks in the spring.  We’d go to the feed store and each kid would choose one that they could call their own.  Adella usually chose a Buff Orpington.  Dillon was partial to the black and white spotted Barred Rocks.  We raised them in cardboard boxes in the house for a few weeks before we introduced them to the older hens in the coop.   My kids were proud of their chickens and loved showing them off to their neighbor friends.

Times have changed though.  Now that my kids are teenagers they show no interest whatsoever in anything farm or garden related and I spend big chunks of my time away from home.  I’m pretty sure it no longer makes sense to keep chickens.  I should probably make my life easier by buying eggs at the store like most reasonable people, but I guess my chickens aren’t just about the eggs.

I love to watch them in the spring after the soil thaws; manic in their search for worms after a long winter.  I love that to them, nothing is more luxurious than a dust bath.  They remind me that a good life isn’t always about high productivity.  It’s more about enjoying the life we’ve been given.

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.