Hey Homer, Can we talk nice about plastic bags?

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By Peteruetz – Own work, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61192008c

I have spent a great bit of energy in my life trying to avoid conflict. When there is animosity between people my stomach is upset, I stay awake when I should be sleeping, and I second-guess myself and my role in the disagreement. I sincerely want people to get along and when they don’t, I’m uncomfortable.

In spite of myself and my absolute desire for all people to be happy and agreeable all the time, I sometimes feel compelled to bring up a topic that might lead to some heated discussion. I promise, I don’t want a fight. 

Why am I being so careful before I even get to the topic at hand? Why am I telling you all how much of a wimp I am when it comes to conflict? It’s because I see a problem and I’d like to figure out how to solve it, but after last year’s recall effort, I’m timid about bringing up an issue that has divided our community in the past.

But I wonder if it’s possible to talk about doing away with single-use plastic bags in Homer without people in town turning on each other. My hope is that we can put our differences aside and actually take on an attitude of problem-solving. We don’t need to fight about this. We just need to fix the problem, and sometimes that starts with asking some questions:

Are there really too many plastic bags? Are they really a problem? If so, are we as a community responsible for doing something about it?

There are plenty of facts that tell a stark story when it comes to plastic bags. Here are a few of the numbers that are most startling to me:

  1. Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times.
  2. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.
  3. It takes 500 years or more for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately the bags don’t break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
  4. There is now six times more plastic debris in parts of the North Pacific Ocean than zooplankton.

These facts tell us that yes, there are too many plastic bags in the world, and yes, they are a problem. But what about that third question. Who’s responsible for doing something about it?

Most of us who live near Kachemak Bay depend on, or at least are concerned about, the health of our marine environment. And while it’s difficult to make the connection between the bags we carry our groceries in and the halibut we eat for dinner, the fact is that a lot of those plastic bags make their way into the ocean. Once there, humans can’t manage them. Nature breaks them down as best as it can, but it can only do so much. It’s can’t break them down enough to biodegrade.

Some would say that the problem is not with the plastic itself, but with how it’s disposed of, and it’s true that we should think carefully about what we do with the plastic items we use once we’re done with them, but to me it seems the bigger problem is in the production. Our most effective way to address the plastic problem is to use less of it.

As long as the manufacturers of single use plastic bags are making money, they’re not going to stop producing them. They’re going to keep churning them out to the tune of 5 trillion bags per year. And consider for a moment that every bit of plastic that has ever been made is still in existence today. It does not biodegrade. As long as we keep consuming plastic, it will continue to be manufactured, and as long as it’s being manufactured, we’re essentially stockpiling it. We’re seeing the negative effects of too much plastic already, but what will this mean for our descendants in 100 or 200 years?

If we care at all, and I suspect most of us do at some level, we should try to solve this problem. Not because we’re legally obligated, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Individual communities can collectively make a huge dent in the demand for plastic bags, which is a good argument for banning single-use plastic bags. But the banning of plastic bags is a topic that has caused a great deal of angst in Homer in the past. In 2012 the City Council voted to ban single-use plastic bags, but then a few individuals took issue with the decision and brought it to a city-wide vote to overturn the ban. The arguments got heated at times. People on both sides of the issue felt insulted by the other.

All of that happened and yet the problem of too many single-use plastic bags being used in our community was never solved. A few people felt vindicated by the fact that a government entity didn’t get away with telling them what to do, and maybe a few more people started using reusable grocery bags. But it did not solve the problem we set out to solve in the first place. As a community, we’re still contributing to the problem of consuming too many plastic bags that will never biodegrade.

Other communities around Alaska have made the connection between their actions and the problem of too much unnecessary plastic: Wasilla, Kodiak, Cordova, Bethel. They’ve all decided to be a part of the solution.

So where does that leave Homer?

Can we come up with a real solution to the problem of our consumption of plastic bags?

If we’re too timid to talk about a plastic bag ban on a city-wide level, is there a more effective way to get the job done?

I know the over-consumption of single-use plastic bags is just one problem in a world with too many problems to count, but it’s also one that seems solvable. It’s something we can do while we’re figuring out what else needs to be done. We can even do it while we’re doing other things! 

Instead of fighting for our right to contribute to the problem, let’s be a part of the solution. Let’s talk about it. All of us. Let’s take an honest look at the problem we have. Let’s educate ourselves and look for effective ways to solve it individually and as a community. The issue of too many plastic bags in the world needn’t be controversial. It’s not about personal freedom or individual rights. It’s about making a correction.

We humans sometimes make mistakes, and then we have to figure out how to fix them. That’s all we’re talking about here.
How do you think the problem should be addressed?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

**Sources:

https://www.plantingpeace.org/2015/05/plastic-footprint/

http://www.worldwatch.org/system/files/Plastic%20Bags.pdf

http://www.sprep.org/attachments/Publications/FactSheet/plasticbags.pdf

https://insteading.com/blog/plastic-bag-stats/

 

This Side of the Fault Line

 

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Sometimes an earthquake wakes you up. It shakes you out of your slumber and reminds you that there are things over which you have no control. It might end as fast as it started or, like the earthquake that hit in the early hours of January 23rd, it might last long enough for you to consider the beams of your house buckling or your windows cracking. It might go on long enough for you to think of the emergency preparedness measures you haven’t gotten around to yet. Do we have extra drinking water? Batteries? Fuel for the chainsaw?

After a shaker like that, most everyone is awake and experiencing a similar adrenaline rush. In the case of the earthquake the other night, phones were going off in bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens around town, transmitting alerts from the tsunami warning center. Sirens were sounding, and no one knew how it was going to end.

There was a sense that the odds were in our favor, that the wave wouldn’t amount to much. But nobody really knew for a while. How much water was displaced when the earth shifted? Was it a deep earthquake? Was it shallow? Those answers came in time, but when the voice on the loudspeakers said to evacuate to higher ground,  images from recent tsunamis came to mind, like the one in 2004 that hit the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day and the one that took so many lives in Japan in 2011.

The odds might have been in our favor, but sometimes terrible things happen. Most Alaskans know what happened to Valdez and Seward in 1964. We’ve read stories about the destruction of the village of Chenega when a landslide from the Good Friday earthquake generated a 27 foot tsunami and killed nearly half of its inhabitants.

Regardless of the damage, or lack thereof, experiencing an earthquake is a humbling thing. Some would say when the earth trembles it’s an Act of God.

I pay attention to terminology that involves God, partly because I was raised in such a way that God and Jesus and all things biblical were a part of my everyday life.

My ideas of God have shifted over time. And like the earth underneath my feet, they continue to shift. Sometimes the changes in my spiritual life are so slow they’re hardly noticeable. Other times they’re more abrupt.

When the term Act of God is used, it implies that humans are off the hook. When the earth shifted the other night, it wasn’t our fault. No person or group of people could be blamed for the 7.9 magnitude earthquake, nor could it have been prevented. It’s a rare situation when humans are absolved without having to confess anything first, which is refreshing when most of the terrible things we hear about on the news are caused by humans.

In the case of an earthquake, the left can’t blame the right. The baby boomers can’t blame the millennials. Cat lovers can’t blame dog lovers. That temporary absence of blame presents us with an opportunity to just be human for a while, all on the same page for just a few moments.

The term Act of God summons the image of a Leonardo Da Vinci-type god pointing his finger at that spot in the ocean 175 miles from Kodiak City and sending some kind of supernatural shockwave to the epicenter 15.5 miles below the earth’s surface. It’s the stuff of mythology, and it makes for great stories. But we’ve learned a few things in the last few centuries. Now we know a new story. We have an explanation for a natural, geological phenomenon that once baffled us.

Even those of us lacking advanced geological knowledge know that sometimes the earth moves. We’ve seen the high school textbook drawings of fault lines and the earth’s layers. We get that earthquakes are a matter of physics even if we don’t have a scientific vocabulary to explain it.

And I find that there is room for God in physics. There is room for God in natural, scientific explanations. That God isn’t anything like a guy in the sky, though.

Giving god or gods credit for things we don’t understand is old news. We’ve been doing it for centuries.   

Recently Franklin Graham, the son of famous televangelist Billy Graham said in reference to Donald Trump, “I believe that he’s the president of this nation because God allowed it. And I think on election night God intervened. He wasn’t supposed to win–he was supposed to lose. And I think it was God who worked in a mysterious way on election night to turn the tables.”

I agree with Franklin that Trump wasn’t supposed to win, that he was supposed to lose, but I don’t believe that god pointed his finger and performed magic to sway the vote on that fateful election night in November 2016. In this case, I believe there are people to blame, that there are circumstances that made it happen, and if we had all been more vigilant, Trump’s presidency might have been prevented. But to suggest that Trump’s presidency is the result of divine intervention feels like an insult to the divine.

If you believe in a Christian God, what do you believe He requires of you? Does He ask you to do bad things like lie, bag out on your financial obligations, incite violence, or vilify certain groups of people? Does He ask you to endorse candidates who do?

Can you offer an instance where Jesus asks an individual to lie or cheat or steal in order to help further His cause?

Yet many believe that God chose Donald Trump even though all the evidence points to him being driven by greed, fame, self-importance and power. If God is good, then isn’t goodness something worth upholding?

Much of my understanding of goodness comes from my upbringing, which taught me to follow the example of Christ. To be good, to be Christ-like, requires compassion, empathy, generosity, honesty, and humility.

Our president is not a virtuous man. He’s built his empire by slighting others. He is dishonest. He would not know humility if it smacked him in the head. If we’re using Jesus Christ’s teachings as the standard for what is right, and that’s what Christians claim to do, how does their support for Donald Trump make any sense? So many followers of  Christ don’t seem to recognize the disconnection, or if they do see it, they’re not addressing it. It’s a loud silence.

The disconnection between reality and faith is something I think about, almost like an obsession. I’m standing on one side of the fault line, looking across at where I started. The space between the two sides is growing. It’s full of a lifetime’s worth of questions.

 

Prayer Flags

 

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Last weekend while my husband and I were preparing dinner, the subject of writing came up. He said, “I miss your Lofty Minded posts.”  Then I told him that in the past year I’ve started lots of posts but have decided against publishing them. A look through my saved files shows 32 blog posts I’ve started and abandoned since the last time I posted. I’m not sure what to make of this, only that I’ve had a hard time processing all that’s going on in the world, and it’s affected my writing.

Each time I’ve almost posted, I’ve changed my mind. Sometimes because what I was trying to say came across as too angry, or hasty, or cynical. Other times the posts felt pointless, either because the subject matter was already being covered better by a hundred other writers, or because while putting my thoughts out there might get a few amens and yeses, in the end it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.

I think my dilemma is that I’m expecting too much of my writing. I’m expecting it to give answers. I’m expecting it to come to obvious conclusions. I’m expecting it to make some kind of difference.

While it should have been obvious ages ago, I’m just now figuring out that my writing isn’t supposed to do any of those things. My writing is just meant to be me, here in my world, talking to you in yours.

***

In my world it’s cold today.

It’s cold but it’s calm and bright. When you stand at just the right angle and turn your face directly toward the sun on days like this, you can feel a little heat.

And so I found myself out there this afternoon, chasing the sun. I wandered around our five acres without a destination or a purpose other than to just be here, now. It’s become something of a medicine for me, this kind of wandering around familiar ground. I revisit the same places and each time I’m an explorer. Each time I come across something I hadn’t expected to see. Maybe a squirrel squirreling away her winter stash, or a lanky birch tree hidden among the spruce. It’s small scale exploration, but exploration just the same.  

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When I was out there restoring myself, I visited the chicken coop. Not to offer food or to check for eggs, but to watch them go about their chicken lives. I watched them cluck and peck at each other while I put the pieces of this essay together in my head, then I walked down the hill through the wild roses to the island of tall trees in the meadow. This fall I found a corvid’s nest in one of the spruces there, and a secret hideaway in the alders that looked like it might have been a bear’s home.

Then I cut through the tall grass to the area below our fire pit where the nettles are thick. In early summer, when they were just inches high, we collected buckets of them to save for winter.

***

Now it’s winter and in the evenings we light candles and we sip mint tea infused with those springtime nettles. I have it in my mind that whatever goodness is hidden in their dried leaves will work on us throughout the winter, give us some edge to help us through.

In the mornings we pull on wool socks and sweaters and stoke the fire in the wood stove. We drink creamy coffee with afghans draped over our laps while we read the morning news and wait for the house to warm up. We lean into the comforts of winter because to fight it would be pointless and because at the height of summer it never gets truly dark and for months at a time there are no stars or planets to be seen and the milky way is something we nearly forget until one night it’s back and we remember that it was never really gone.

***

I remember my first winter in Alaska.

We lived further north than we live now, deep inside a shaded valley where the sun didn’t rise above the mountains for two months. My husband worked the swing shift and sometimes, when the snow wasn’t too deep, I’d walk with my baby on my back from our house to the trails that led to the Eagle River. I was never comfortable walking through the woods like that, alone and in the near-dark, but I’d go anyhow. Along the way I’d remind myself that the bears were asleep, that it was unlikely I’d run into a person who’d want to do me harm, that if we started to get too cold I could turn back toward home.

I’d walk in spite of the fear because I knew I’d go nuts if I stayed cooped up all the time. I’d go out in the cold and dark so that I could come home again, back to the heat and the light.

***

Now it’s late and the house is quiet except for its usual hums and the crackling of the fire. My husband has gone to bed and I’m at my keyboard again.  

I hesitate to tell you that I’m sad, but it’s true. It’s easier to say that I’m worried.

I worry about the big picture things. I worry about our planet being controlled by power hungry billionaires. I worry about our government being run by an administration that lacks a moral compass. I worry about justice. I worry that we’re becoming a country that accepts mass shootings as a byproduct of freedom. I worry about the decline of honey bees and about giant copper mines in salmon country. I worry about the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels, and the acidity of the ocean.

This year I’ve wondered how to write about these things. I’ve wondered if I should even bother.

Now I’m setting myself and my writing free from the responsibility of holding back the impending avalanche. Instead I’m sending it out there to flap in the wind like a prayer flag.  No expectations, no answers, no obvious conclusions. Just words in the air, free from the burden of having to change anything. 

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Worthy of Protection

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The idea of taking a break from social media first came to me a couple of weeks ago in Zion National Park. Actually I’ve thought about it on several occasions, but it hit me with some urgency on that one particular day.

My sister knew of a place away from the crowds where we could see petroglyphs, and as I stood in front of the panel she’d led us to, trying to decipher the meaning behind the images so painstakingly carved into the sandstone, I tried to summon the real-life person who once stood exactly where I was standing. What was their motive for carving images into the wall? Were they making art or were they telling a story? (Or both?) Were they leaving news for others who might be passing by, or did they just feel like creating something?

Most of the images were straight forward, your standard deer or snake or human. Others were more fantastical. One image looked like a human lightning bolt. Several seemed purposefully out of proportion. A few even looked a little otherworldly with their cone shaped heads. In addition to the human and animal figures, there were lots of spirals and squiggly lines. I’m no expert at deciphering the meaning behind the images left on rocks hundreds of years ago, but still I tried. What were they saying?

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I am not a Luddite. I do not intend to eschew technology. But being there, in front of that panel of images, I had an intense desire to experience an uncluttered mind, one that I imagined the original petroglyph artists to have had. No electricity, no diesel engines, no radio, no television, no internet, no social media. This is not to say that the people of that age didn’t have in-depth or complicated thoughts, but they did not have the constant barrage of information coming at them the way we do now. What was it like to not have that kind of input, that kind of noise? I’d like to know.

Then on Ash Wednesday, a poet friend posted on her blog that she was giving up Facebook for Lent. I’ve always respected the tradition of Lent and I’ve participated on occasion. In the food department I’ve gone through times of not eating meat or sugar or dairy. I usually came away from the experience having a better understanding of my body and my cravings.

My friend’s blog post inspired me, and I saw it as an opportunity to de-clutter my mind. After a couple of hours of stewing it over, I decided to give it a go. I cut myself off, without a post or statement of any kind making my intentions known. I just walked away.

This year Lent lasts for 46 days. I’m on day 17 as I write this. Do I miss social media? Yes, I miss certain aspects of it. My town is experiencing a bit of a political shakeup and I’m sure I’m missing some interesting dialogue about it. I’m sure there have been wonderful poems/articles/photos/opinions/memes/stories/jokes/videos/rants that I’ve missed. I’m sure there have been opportunities for personal connection that have passed me by, like congratulating a friend on some success or offering a bit of moral support. I also miss the glimpses into the day-to-day lives of my friends and family.

Just like when I’ve given up sugar in the past, the first few days were the hardest. I had to resist my compulsion to go to Twitter when I had a few minutes to spare. I had to put aside thoughts of posting things. (Oh wow, what a beautiful sunset. I should take a photo and post it!) (I am outraged/enlightened/delighted by the article I just read. I should repost it on Facebook!) I hadn’t realized just how much of my thought space had been consumed by thinking about checking and posting my social media accounts. After a few days the compulsions began to diminish.

Without spending my time scrolling or falling prey to the endless reading of articles and online conversations, I began to have more time. Instead of spending twenty minutes here and there throughout my day on Twitter or Facebook, I’m filling that time with more focused reading and writing. I’m cooking more and listening to music and stretching. I’ve even picked up my long-neglected instruments a couple of times.

I’m still reading the news every day, and trying to stay politically informed and engaged, but I’m not so consumed. Reading and responding to everyone else’s outrage on social media is fun and a bit cathartic from time to time, but it might have been giving me the false sense that I was doing something meaningful. Now I’m acting more and talking about it less.

The biggest benefit I’m experiencing is the overall reduction of noise. Not the literal noise, but the thought-noise that had crept into my mind, the chatter I was hearing in response to all the conversations I scrolled past and read every day. I’ve made some space in my brain and I’ve been better able to focus on writing and reading. I’ve been sleeping soundly. I don’t feel quite as hurried.

It seems like humans, at least most of us, are wired for connection. We’re not meant to feel alone. Social media is a way for us to reach out to others and a way to be heard. I’m not giving it up forever. But this break has opened my eyes to the ways I’d taken it too far.

It’s been nearly three weeks since I stood in front of the petroglyphs in Zion National Park and I’m still thinking about the minds of the people who created them. What would it feel like to be alive without any exposure to media, to not know what is going on in countries halfway around the world? More specifically, I wonder if their uncluttered minds had room for spiritual connections that our modern, media-focused culture has managed to squeeze out. There really is no knowing, but by removing myself from social media for a while I’ve created the tiniest bit of space in which to ponder these questions. It’s a small space, but it seems important, the way wilderness is important, and worthy of protection.

 

 

What I Can Do

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I cannot change the world alone, but I can vote. I can call. I can write. I can use my voice, even when it feels like nobody is listening.

When it feels like nobody is listening, I can give something of myself. I can give money to causes I care about. I can be attentive to the needs of those in my community. I can offer rides to those without a vehicle. I can offer food and time. I can care for animals and people who aren’t capable or responsible for caring for me in return. I can appreciate the hard work of others and lift them up for their efforts. I can be a person who offers. I can be a person who sometimes accepts what is offered.

I can make an effort to become fearless. I can stick up for people and speak against injustice. When all the chatter around me is pushing fear, I can choose not to succumb to it. I can set aside my insecurities and push myself to try new things. I can acknowledge the power I have over my own life and I can look for ways to help those who do not have that same kind of power. I can look to courageous people for inspiration, and I can follow their example.

When I feel disgusted by the influence that money has over our politicians and our government, I can consume less. I can practice contentment. I can feel grateful for all that I have. I can go for long walks. I can grow food. I can buy less cheap stuff. I can reign in my wanting. I can drive less. I can take care of the things I own. I can spend my money carefully, deliberately and at establishments that will be thoughtful with their earnings. I can decide not to live a harried life. I can get rid of clutter. I can cultivate an attitude of abundance—there is enough for me and my own, and there is enough for you and yours. I can call out the greed in myself when I feel it creeping in.

I can be careful about the kind of information I allow into my life. I can follow reliable news sources. I can read nonfiction for information, fiction for enlightenment, poetry for transcendence. I can watch fewer shows on Netflix. I can close my browser. I can surround myself with thoughtful and wise people. When I don’t understand something, I can ask questions. I can try to distinguish between news that is important and news that is meant to distract.

For perspective, I can look at the stars, the mountains, the ocean, the vast expanses of land, and remember that I am part of a system that is larger than myself, larger than humankind, larger than what I am capable of imagining. I can remember that the cycle of time in which I am now living is barely a blip. When I begin to feel overwhelmed I can breathe. Really breathe.

When the world feels like an ugly place, when all the news seems bad, I can console myself with music. I can reread the same poem a dozen times in one sitting. I can appreciate the baker, the cashier, the man who plows and sands my driveway, the patron at the library who opens the door for the mother whose hands are full. I can watch the sun rise over the mountains. I can examine a piece of art and imagine how the artist got lost in its creation. I can step outside and feel the cool air on my skin. I can warm myself by the woodstove.

When people don’t see things the way I do, I can honor their lives and their experiences. I can practice empathy and compassion. I can choose to be kind even when their politics are not in line with my own. I can listen. I can work on being patient. If I begin to think I’m smarter or better or superior in any way, I can stop myself and assess my insecurities.

When reconciliation seems impossible, when it feels like the destiny of humanity is division, I can take responsibility for my own missteps. I can learn to challenge my own thinking. I can ask myself why I believe what I believe. When I’m wrong, I can admit that I’m wrong. When I’ve offended someone or perpetuated division, I can apologize for my actions. I can stop surrounding myself with only like-minded people.

When the checks and balances I once thought would protect our rights seem to be slipping away, when the values of our elected officials seem skewed toward profits over people, when the principles of democracy are undermined by the powerful, I can add my small, individual efforts to those of the millions of citizens who are summoning their strength and creativity and commitment. I can be a part of the incredible reshuffling of priorities that’s going on right now. I can know that I’m not alone. My actions are not disappearing into a void. They’re culminating and taking shape and they will make a difference.

 

Capturing a Place

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Vermillion Cliffs and the Moon

I’m in Page, Arizona for a few days visiting my sister. Yesterday I borrowed her car while she was at work so I could visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. As usual I took my camera to document the day.

When I stopped for fuel and snacks before heading out of town I didn’t take a photo of the wiry, over-tanned, tattooed, man in the convenience store who cut in line and was yelling at his wife from the check-out counter while she was trying to choose a cold drink. I didn’t take a picture of the way he berated her, another customer and the store employee who was trying so very hard to maintain a standard of good customer service. I didn’t take a photo of him climbing into his enormous, expensive white pickup truck while wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, though the image of him will probably stay with me for a while.

As I drove south on highway 89, I didn’t stop to take a photo of the dead cow on the side of the road even though there was a part of me that wanted to. It was black and white and bloated. Its legs faced the sky. I considered stopping on my way back, but by then the dead animal had been removed.

I didn’t take a photo of the numerous roadside stands made of corrugated metal and wood where Navajo men and women sell handmade jewelry, pottery and tapestries. I wanted to stop and look at their wares but I’m not much of a shopper. So I just drove past, enjoyed what I could see from 70mph, and hoped some folks were stopping to make it worth the vendors’ time and effort to be there on the side of the highway in the heat and the wind. One of these stands had a stunning mural of a Navajo girl with a sheep painted on one side. I wish I’d stopped to take a photo of that. Maybe I’ll get another chance.

I didn’t take a photo of the white crosses decorated with flowers that I passed from time to time. Some were in clumps of three or four. Some were alone. I didn’t stop, but I imagined families stopping to remember their loved ones near the place where they’d passed from one realm to another. Each time I passed one of the crosses I checked the speedometer, and usually I slowed down a little.

I didn’t take photos of the Lutheran church with its giant, well-tended playground, or the Bible Church right next door with its measly, outdated swing set and metal slide. I know that parents don’t decide which church to attend based on the quality of the playground equipment, but surely if the children of that community were given a choice, they’d choose to be Lutheran.

There was no way to take a photograph of the disappointment I felt in myself when I realized I’d missed the turnoff to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and was nearing the entrance to the South Rim. The disappointment was so great that I didn’t even bother to snap a photo of the view of the Canyon from the first stop inside the national park. Instead, I took a quick look, got back in the car, and backtracked three hours in order to get to the North Rim with enough daylight to enjoy it.

Once I found the turnoff that I’d missed earlier in the day, I didn’t take a photo of a house that was carved out of and built next to a giant boulder near the roadside establishment called Cliff Dwellers. Further along I didn’t stop to document each sign that marked another 1000’ rise in elevation as I drove up into the Kaibab National Forest. There I passed the evidence of old forest fires and the stark remains of blackened ponderosa with young, yellowing aspen trees growing beneath them.

I would have liked very much to take a picture of the buffalo I saw at about 8000’ in a meadow that reminded me of Rabbit Ears Pass outside of Steamboat Colorado, but a woman was walking dangerously close to the animal with her own camera. I had dreamed of a buffalo the night before, but in my dream it was standing alone in a meadow. It wasn’t being stalked by a tourist.

After six hours of driving, when I finally reached the North Rim and got out of my car, I wandered around for a bit. Before I ever went to a viewing deck or got a look at the Grand Canyon, I enjoyed watching the people. They were all ages, from all over, and all of them seemed pleased to be there. At one point a Japanese family piled out of the car beside me and while most of them didn’t look directly at me, the grandmother flashed me a tremendous smile. It was a photo-worthy smile that restored a bit of the hope for humanity that I’d lost earlier in the day at the convenience store.

It was strange to be in such a remarkable place without a travel companion. I found myself wanting to share my experience with someone. I wasn’t sad, but somehow the experience felt incomplete. I did take some pictures, but the light was all wrong, and photos—at least the ones I take—are often inadequate at capturing depth and height and scale. So I took a few less-than-stellar shots of the canyon and lots of photos of trees. Now I have lots of images of trees to help me remember my trip to the Grand Canyon.

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A tree at the Grand Canyon
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Another interesting tree with the Grand Canyon behind it.

On my way back to Page from the North Rim, the low-angle sun reflected off of the Vermillion Cliffs in the distance. A near-full moon rose above them. I stopped several times and tried to get the perfect shot. Some photos turned out all right considering I don’t have the equipment, the drive, or the patience of a professional. But some things are beyond one-dimensional capture. Photographic images are no substitute for the way a warm desert breeze carries the scent of juniper and sage and sand. The way it carries the song of crickets and the rustling of rabbit brush and tumble weed.

At one point when I was facing east, trying so hard to capture the evening, I stopped and looked at the shadow of myself, long and lean on the dry ground before me. It seemed silly to be so determined to remember a moment in time so completely, but it’s what I wanted to do. I wanted it all—the sounds, the smell, the temperature, the feel of the wind on my skin, the taste of dirt on my tongue. I wanted to hold on to the image of me there in the expanse of desert with the setting sun at my back and the lit-up cliffs ahead. I wanted to capture the space around me and the moon and the brightest stars that were just beginning to show themselves. I was greedy in my desire to keep hold of this place because it is the kind of place I am from. This high Western desert is my baseline and whether I mean for it to or not, it holds the standards by which I judge everywhere else.

Turns out I was trying to capture a place that I’ve been carrying with me all along.

Freak Out

 

When I was an adolescent, I attended church camp most summers. Each year it was a week of being in close proximity to a couple hundred other hormonally charged Christian kids where we had daily bible studies, morning and evening church services and ample opportunities to get our lives back on track with God. Away from all of our worldly influences, we were shown just how terrible the world was, and how important it was for us, as Christians, to stay as separate from it as possible.

One summer, after returning home from church camp, I took a hammer to my record collection. No good Christian should listen to, much less own, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” so I set up my record-destruction operation on a cement slab in my mom’s driveway and pounded away on my small stack of vinyl. I don’t remember everything I destroyed that day, but in addition to AC/DC it included albums by Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

I didn’t feel good about destroying my records, at least not for long, but something I’d heard at camp made me think that listening to certain things was wrong, that the wrong kind of music would taint me, and that something about me was bad if I liked certain kinds of music. Better to remove it from my life altogether than be temped to listen to it. That’s the message I got.

I didn’t wreck all of my records. I kept Chic’s “C’est Chic” because even though going to dances was not acceptable in one of my two homes, I spent hours making up dance routines in the basement of my mom’s house to the song “Le Freak” because it was, quite simply, the best dance song in the universe. I was pretty sure God wouldn’t mind my dancing as long as I didn’t do it in public and as long as I didn’t make my moves too sexy.

I also kept Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” album. “The Logical Song” spoke to me and I listened to it over and over again. For this middle school girl who lived two different lives in two different households, who couldn’t yet articulate all the questions stewing inside my brain, it was nice to know that other people felt lost sometimes. I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…

            Whoever preached the sermon that inspired me to clean up my record collection did understand one thing about music. It’s powerful. Even though it can be logical, mathematical and scientific, it has the ability to go beyond those things. It has the ability to work its way into you on a much deeper level. At least that’s true for me.

In high school, after my boyfriend of two years left me broken-hearted, I wore out my cassette of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” by rewinding it too much. Alone in my room, I wallowed in my pain listening to “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” about a million times.

My musical obsessions have changed over the years. In fact, they change from week to week or month to month. One thing stays the same though: I find a piece of music that speaks to me, that touches me at some deep level, and I listen to it so many times that I suspect other people would think that I’m insane if they knew the extent of it.

In June of 2014 I discovered Jason Isbell’s album “Southeastern.” In my car to and from work each day, I played the song “Elephant” again and again and I swore that I’d learn to write songs, that I’d be happy never writing anything ever again if I could just write one song that was as good as that song.

After my dad died in 2007, I heard Martha Scanlan’s version of the old hymn “Ten Thousand Charms” and listening to it helped me mourn not just the loss of my dad but also the loss and isolation I felt over no longer believing the same religious teachings of my youth. Listening to the song helped me articulate that I was mourning more than just my dad.

Currently I can’t seem to get enough of Kurt Vile’s two most recent albums “Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze” and “b’lieve I’m goin’ down.” For whatever reason, they are meeting me where I’m at at this point in my life.

I won’t even get into my obsession with old-time fiddle and banjo music for this blog post. But one life-changing, serendipitous musical encounter started one day when my children were small and I was listening to NPR while driving them to town for a swimming lesson. The show on the radio featured a segment about a music festival being held in North Carolina. I heard clawhammer banjo being played and I immediately started crying. Not just crying, but had-to-pull-the-car-over-and-collect-myself crying. I have no explanation for it, but before that moment I’d never experienced a sound searing itself right into my soul. Remarkably, I met one of my dearest friends that week at those swimming lessons. Her name is Kate and she is one of the finest old-time banjo players that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and I’ve met a few. Soon after that I picked up a fiddle for the first time.

The thing with music is that what speaks to me isn’t necessarily what speaks to another person. Some people might hear a fiddle tune in a minor key and to them it sounds like nothing more than old-fashioned screeching. I, on the other hand, might hear a tune and feel compelled to listen to it hundreds of times and then play it hundreds of times. I don’t have a great explanation as to why music is so personal. Maybe it has to do with genetics. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe there is something that goes way back to the core of our being, something that on some level still defies explanation.

It’s this unknown, hard-to-understand aspect of music that gives me the ability to respect genres that don’t necessarily resonate with me. In this life we’re always on the lookout for something that connects us to our people, our spirit, ourselves. We’re longing for something that makes us feel alive and engaged. What does that for one person will not necessarily be the thing that does it for someone else.

The rock and roll albums I busted to smithereens in my youth might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have had questionable lyrics, but they weren’t doing me any harm. I can think of plenty of things that did hurt me when I was a kid, and music isn’t one of them. The same is true of the rap music at the Tenana Valley State Fair last weekend that was so rudely interrupted. The performers might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have been rapping about serious issues, but they weren’t hurting anyone.

Those responsible for freaking out at the Tanana Valley State Fair last weekend did not get away with their decision to interrupt the music and kick the performers out of the venue. They’ve been sufficiently shamed through newspaper op-eds and comments and have ironically given the rap duo more attention than they ever expected. But I wonder what kind of message the censors sent to those few people in the audience who perhaps related more to the music of Starbuks and Bishop Slice than the other more “acceptable” acts. Censorship is tricky that way. Besides the blatant messages it sends, there are many more that are subtle: You don’t fit our ideal of what it means to be Alaskan. You are different and therefore unwelcome. Something must be wrong with you if this is the kind of music you enjoy.

            All of those messages are similar to the ones I heard when I was a kid at church camp in the early 1980s. Thankfully, the music spoke to me louder than those messages. And for all those Alaskan kids who love rap, or punk or electronica or any kind of genre that might scare the socks off of those who manage the Tanana Valley State Fair, I say turn up the volume. You’re as Alaskan as any of the rest of us.