A Mom, First of All

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A few months ago I had a conversation with my kids about careers.  My son is nineteen and trying to figure out what comes next for him.  My daughter is sixteen and has the next decade of her life completely mapped out.  They are about as dissimilar as two kids can be.  I constantly wonder how it’s possible for two people from the same genetic pool to turn out so incredibly different from one another.  It’s something that has baffled parents from the beginning of time, I’m sure.

The great thing about raising kids from such opposite edges of the universe is that I’ve learned so much from them—things I never would have imagined on my own if I had been given two very mediocre children.  Life would have been so predictable and boring had that been the case.

From Dillon I’ve learned that there are different paradigms from which to see the world.  Sure, I knew that already, but I’d never lived with someone who was seemingly born with that knowledge.  He questions everything and always has.  I admit that it’s made for some challenging parenting, but then I think of when I was a kid; I believed the things adults told me without much wonder as to whether they were right or not.  I did not question authority.  I did not imagine another way.   Dillon sees the world with a much broader lens than I do, and for the past nineteen years he’s shown me new ways of thinking.  His approach to life has made me a less judgmental person.  Parenting him has given me the courage to care less about convention.

Adella has shown me the power of discipline.  I know that kids are supposed to learn about determination and hard work from their parents but I can honestly say that that has not been the case in our family.  Adella was born with the inability to procrastinate and as a result she gets more done than anyone I know.  She’s not afraid of tackling any task or assignment.  When she’s struggling with a concept in math or a song for choir, she doubles up her efforts, she puts in her time, she works until she gets it.  She’s driven in a way that I have never been, and watching her set and meet goals is an inspiration.

When I try to imagine where my kids will be a decade from now I have an easier time imagining where Adella might be.  Although I don’t know what career she’ll choose, I imagine that she’ll have one firmly established by then.  When I ask her what she wants to study her answers vary.  She’s interested in psychology and social sciences.  She also wants to travel.  She’s got her path figured out though—she wants to graduate from high school early, go to a small liberal arts college on the East Coast and then possibly medical school.  She’s quick to point out that she might change her mind about the medical school part though.

Dillon lives more in the here and now, so his future is more mysterious.  When I ask him what he wants to do for a career he doesn’t have an answer, but he might pick up his guitar and play something that he’s written—some heart-felt melody that he’s come up with on his own.  He shows me the value of being present in the moment.  He reminds me that for some, the journey is more interesting if the route involves meandering the back roads for a while instead of taking the interstate.

They’re at that age now, where we have a lot of discussions about the future.  In one of our conversations a while back, when I was questioning them about their desires and goals, they turned it back on me.  “What did you always want to be, Mom?  Have you always wanted to be a writer?”  I thought about it for a while.  I thought back to when I was their age.  I didn’t have any career goals.  If anyone were to have asked me what I wanted to be back then I would have told them I wanted to become a teacher, but that wasn’t necessarily true.  The true answer wasn’t something anyone wanted to hear, especially from a teenager.

“I wanted to be a mom,” I told them.  “It’s the one thing—the only thing—I really knew about myself.”

I think they were surprised to hear me say that.   For the last several years I’ve been so busy working and going to school and trying to establish myself as a writer that I may not have given them the impression that they were my first choice, that I wanted them first and foremost.  Sure, I want to be a wildly successful writer now, but it will always be lower on the rung of things I’ve wanted in my life.  I wanted them most of all and I’ve been lucky and blessed enough to have my heart’s desire.  Everything else I might have or achieve just adds to the abundance of what I’ve already been given.

Unchanging Things

I recently read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.  It’s a book that’s been around for a while and although I kept meaning to read it, it somehow kept getting pushed to the bottom of my list.   Now I can say with confidence that it’s among my favorites and I wish everyone would read it.

Tim O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War and he wrote The Things They Carried based on his experiences before, during and after his tour of duty.  He plays with fiction in such a way that as I was reading it I kept finding myself confused as to whether I was reading fiction or nonfiction or some weird hybrid of both, which I think was O’Brien’s whole point.  It was the perfect example of fiction being used to tell the truth, and a reminder that truth is powerful, regardless of how it’s expressed.  This is good stuff for a struggling writer to remember.

Today I’m working on my own piece of fiction, but I’m distracted.  I keep thinking about my nephew Dan, who’s spent the last year of his life in Afghanistan.  This, his third (or is it his fourth?) tour of duty, is coming to a close and soon he’ll be back in Colorado.  I keep checking Facebook to see if he’s updated his status to say that he’s on his way, but so far he’s just said, “1 step closer.”  It’s the anticipation of his leaving the country that’s making it hard for me to focus on anything else.

I don’t know the things that Dan will be bringing home with him from the war—the images and people and experiences he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life, but I do know that a person can’t be sent to war and come out of it unchanged.

Some things about Dan are unchanging though.  For as long as I’ve known him (which is his whole life,) he’s had an unfaltering faith in God.   He’s been wise beyond his years.  Kindness is something he’s never had to work at—it comes naturally to him, and his experiences, both good and bad, have given him the ability to truly empathize with others.  He’s also got a great sense of adventure.  These unchanging things that he’s had with him since he was a boy will help him carry anything that might feel too heavy.

So as I’m here at home, on the comfort of my couch, struggling to write fiction, I’m thinking about Dan, who’s had a long, rough year in a hostile land.  He’s seen things that I’ll never see.  He’s lost friends in ways that I never will.  I hope he knows that I’m thankful that he went, thankful that he served, but mostly I’m thankful that he’ll be home soon.  Today, nothing feels more important than that.

Gradual Thaw

As many of you know, it’s been a big snow year in south central Alaska.  A few big storms left us buried early on, and due to the cold temperatures it never melted.  It just kept adding layers until finally, sometime around the spring equinox, we crossed over into the thawing stage.

It hasn’t been as messy a breakup as some years; we haven’t had much rain or a thin layer of volcanic ash on top of the snow like we had a few years ago when Mount Redoubt blew.  That year when the sun came out the snow melted so fast that the streets flooded.   Even the mountains across the bay lost their white cover in what seemed like a matter of days.

But this year the thaw is gradual.  Every few days we’ll discover something new in our yard that has been buried all winter—a missing shovel or the dogs’ Frisbee.  And the melting is uneven.  The snow drifts were highest on the west side of the house, which means that the crocuses are still under nearly three feet of snow.  In the front yard, where the sun blazes against the blue siding of the house, some nice heat is generated. There a few blades of grass are turning green and the chives are poking through, long enough already to add to the scrambled eggs.

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      I think about my dad this time of year.  It was five years ago in April when we realized he was dying.   By the time they’d diagnosed him with Multiple Myeloma it was too late.  That year, in the time it took to go from winter to spring, I had to adjust to the idea of my father being gone forever.

One of the hardest things, one of the things I never admitted to him, was that I don’t believe in heaven.  When I said goodbye to him, it was really goodbye.  I didn’t have any notion of all of us someday feasting together at a common table situated somewhere on streets paved of gold in the sky.  It’s a lovely idea, a hopeful idea, but I can’t make myself believe it—even though I’ve tried.

Since my dad’s been gone I’ve been able to be more honest about my beliefs, or, as the case may be, my non-beliefs.  While he was still around I didn’t want to risk the possibility of  him thinking less of me.  And once he was gone it didn’t take long for me to find the courage to voice my opinions.  The year after he died I published my first piece of writing ever, and it had to do with the offense I felt at all of the hell-fire talk my family had to endure at the ceremony outside of Telluride when we scattered his ashes.  It was a traumatic event for me, but it was the beginning of my own gradual thaw.  Things I’d kept hidden away began to surface.  They’re still surfacing.

I’ll never know exactly how things would be if my dad were still here.  Would I have figured out a way to be honest with him about my beliefs?  Would I be as outspoken about my tendency toward agnosticism?  Sometimes it’s easier to hide the truth than it is to hurt the people we love.  I like to think that if we’d had more time we could have navigated our way through our differences.  My dad may not have understood me, or my way of thinking, but he loved me and I loved him.  And love has a way of superseding belief, if we let it.

Vexation of Spirit

Human beings are complicated creatures.  Each of us can define ourselves a hundred different ways—in relation to our families, our jobs, our interests, our gender, our appearance.   Some of the traits that define us stick for a lifetime, but part of what makes us complicated is that we’re ever-changing.

Last year in May I was feeling content.  I even wrote about how I was happy to be here, in my home, with my family, my job and my dogs.  I’m pretty sure that some Prozac popping person wrote that blog post with its proclamation of unabashed contentedness.  It certainly doesn’t fit how I’m feeling nowadays.

I don’t like to complain about the weather.  I know it accomplishes nothing.  But this winter is getting me down.  It’s made me use up my reserves of optimism and hopefulness.  It’s gotten me to that place of not wanting to get out of bed in the mornings.  In short, it’s kicking my butt.

This winter has been an intense one, but I think it’s the cumulative effect of twenty Alaskan winters that’s getting to me.  Sure it helps that the days are getting longer—we’re gaining nearly six minutes of daylight every day now—but the truth is we still have at least five feet of packed snow in the yard.  The temperatures are staying put in the teens and twenties.  We still have to get through a lot of slush and muck before we get down to the ground.  The part that’s depressing me the most though, the part that’s sucking away the joy of the returning light and making me wonder how much more Alaska is in my future, is that I’m holding out for a summer that Coastal Alaska cannot deliver.

The Rocky Mountain summers set the standard for me at an early age.  Those Colorado clear sky days imprinted themselves into my psyche and forevermore my mood will be determined by the ratio of clouds to blue.  I’m not proud of this.  I’ve tried talking myself into having a more positive attitude.  I’ve considered the benefits of living in a land not wanting for water, but it comes down to the things about summer that I miss—the heat of the sun on my skin, wearing short sleeved shirts without having goose bumps, wading into rivers in a pair of shorts and sandals.

I tried to express to a friend the other day how I’m feeling. “Malaise” she said, offering me as close as I’d come to a perfect word to describe my current state of being.  I looked it up:  Malaise is a highly non-specific symptom and causes can range from the slightest ailment such as an emotion or hunger, to the most serious. Generally speaking, malaise expresses a patient’s feeling that “something is not right”, like a general warning light, but only a medical examination can determine the cause.

I don’t think I need a medical professional to determine the cause of what ails me and I certainly don’t need to pay money for someone to tell me to take Vitamin D, get exercise every day, or find meaningful activities to fill my time.  I’ve got those things covered.  But still the malaise continues.

Typically when my emotions are out of whack I turn to writing, but even that has been a struggle for the past couple of months.  Perhaps my imagination is snow blind.  I’m coming up with tremendously boring characters.  Their lives are less exciting than my own.  I’ve tried to make up for my writing deficits by turning to literature.  But lately whenever I sit down to read I fall asleep.  The only thing that keeps me going is a chocolate chip reward system that I’ve developed.  It’s okay for short stories but it isn’t great for novels.

Right now I’m working my way through the book Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich.  (I’m taking lots of notes so I don’t need chocolate chips for this one.) In one of the sections he discusses word choice.  He suggests that we should never settle for a word that is not exactly right.  The idea has me turning to my Roget’s Thesaurus of Words and Phrases frequently.  I looked up malaise because although it comes close to describing my mental state lately, it’s not quite the perfect word.  Malaise led me to Pain.  Pain led to mental suffering, displeasure, dissatisfaction, inquietude, and then this phrase:  vexation of spirit.

I think that’s it.  This winter has my spirit vexed.  The core of my being is irritated, annoyed, troubled, tormented, distressed.  Our firewood supply is dwindling and we’re supposed to get more snow today.  Besides that I’m cold most of the time.  Maybe the ever-changing part of me is realigning my internal compass, pointing me back toward the place where I started, to the part of the country where the sun shines most days.  Or maybe it’s just the intensity of this winter that has me so disjointed.  Either way, I’ll try not to complain too much.  I’ll try not to define myself by my current state of mind.  Vexation of the spirit runs rampant in Alaska this time of year and I know it will pass.  Sometimes though, I just need to vent.

Back in Time

To say that I’m baffled would be an understatement.  I’m used to abortion being a hot issue in every presidential campaign—it has been since I’ve been old enough to vote, but this whole discussion about legislating birth control is throwing me off.  It’s making my head spin.  Really, there are serious contenders in the presidential race that think that birth control is morally reprehensible?  How is this not a joke?  How is this happening?  Or more importantly, where is this coming from?

Earlier this week an Indiana state representative refused to sign a resolution honoring the 100-year anniversary of the Girl Scouts because he says they are a “tactical arm of Planned Parenthood.”  Sure, nobody puts too much weight on the opinions of one state representative from Indiana, but his willingness to so blatantly slam the Girl Scouts, an organization known for providing girls with self-esteem building opportunities, indicates a problem.  The problem is that many people are still threatened by the idea of smart, independent women who are in control of their own reproductive health and in the GOP’s effort to out-conservative each other, they’ve started saying offensive things—out loud—things that would have been unacceptable in a different climate.

So who are “they” and why are they feeling so threatened?  Well, they’re the minority for one thing.  Most Americans believe that affordable birth control is just fine.  So why is this issue even coming up?  Why is President Obama’s plan for across the board access to birth control being made out to be evil?  It defies logic.  Present day economics dictate that for most families both parents have to work.  Would having more children help lessen the financial burden for families?  No, it would not.  Would keeping women out of the work force help families be less dependent on the government for their basic needs?  No, it would not.  Without birth control would there be fewer abortions?  I don’t think so.  Is President Obama going to make everyone use birth control?  No, he is not.

Why is birth control even an issue then?  All I can come up with is that the GOP presidential candidates are so clueless as to how to tackle the issues our country faces today that they’re focusing instead on an issue that will take the spotlight off of the fact that they have no ingenuity.  They don’t know how to address our economic woes or how to begin a discussion on how we’re going to power a country that can’t continue to rely solely on coal and oil for its every need.  Instead they’re going back in time.  They want to return to 1950, to a time when America seemed on top of its game, women knew their place, most homosexuals were in the closet and there weren’t so many pesky laws in place to keep environmental degradation in check.  Those were the good old days—unless of course you were a person of color, a member of the LGBT community or a woman who wanted to limit the size of her own family.

As a woman born in 1968 it’s been relatively easy for me.  But some of the things I’ve been hearing lately from the Republicans running for office have served to remind me that my freedoms haven’t been in place for such a long time.  My own grandmother was twenty-one years old when women were granted the right to vote.  Until 1936 birth control information was considered obscene and was prohibited from being distributed through the mail. The equal pay act was passed only five years before I was born.  When I look at the timeline of women’s rights I see that I’ve been lucky.  I was able to have a say in the size of my family.  I haven’t been paid less than my male co-workers simply because I’m female.  I’ve been allowed to vote!

So I guess I take it personally when a group of white, wealthy men start dissing the Girl Scouts or suggesting that women shouldn’t necessarily have access to affordable birth control.  I look at the girls from my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and I’m proud of the young women they are becoming.  They’ve canoed through the Alaskan wilderness.  They’ve volunteered in our community to make it a better place.  They’ve been positive role models to younger troops.  They’ve learned to be true friends to each other.  In a couple years these girls will be launching out of our small town and into the bigger world.  They’ll be well prepared.  I know they’ll do a good job of reminding the world that smart, independent, empowered women need not be feared, in fact they make the world a better place.

 

 

Not as scary as A Thief in the Night

Earlier this week I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.  Normally I don’t feel compelled to own a book—I’m usually content with borrowing a copy from a friend or the library, but this is one I want to buy.  As Sugar at The Rumpus would say, Lidia writes with humility and surrender, with resilience and faith, in other words she “writes like a motherfucker.”  Lidia’s story is interesting, heartbreaking at times and filled with drama, but it’s her writing that pulls me in—her ability to cut right to the point, her ability to turn the story of a life into a piece of artwork.  I want to own her book so I can refer to it when I need some inspiration—which is often.

I was telling my daughter about this book.  She’s sixteen and her love of books kicked in later than many of her friends, but to my immense satisfaction she’s now an avid reader.  Two summer’s ago she was hooked by The Hunger Games series.  Now she’s reading The Virgin Suicides. When I was telling her about The Chronology of Water (don’t worry—I left out the sexy parts) I made a comment that my life has been too boring to ever write a memoir as interesting as Lidia Yuknovich’s.  She told me that from what she’s heard of my childhood, I have plenty of material.

It’s true I suppose.  My parents divorced when I was very young, which meant that I had to deal with stepparents and the dichotomy of being raised in two separate households.  And there’s the whole religion business.  My daughter has been to church only a few times in her life but I spent a good portion of my childhood in Sunday school, sitting through sermons and crying at the altar—pleading for forgiveness for the sins I’d committed.  (And aren’t all elementary-aged children terrible sinners?)  It’s true that living in a non-stop Pentecostal fear-fest certainly makes for some interesting stories.

Most of the hours spent at church—the First Assemblies of God Church on 4th and Grand Avenue in Grand Junction, Colorado, to be specific—blur together.  I couldn’t tell you the specifics of any one sermon.  The church itself though, with its long white-tiled hallway, its labyrinth of classrooms, its red carpeted sanctuary and its dimly lit balcony will forever be associated with a whole host of mixed up emotions in my memory.

One of the things I do remember—with horrifying distinction—from the church of my childhood, is a movie that was made in the early 1970s called A Thief in the Night.  It was the story of a woman who had been left behind after the rapture.  She realized early on that although she was a good person she’d made a terrible mistake by not taking Jesus Christ as her personal savior.   Without taking the time to tell you the entire plot line, (I’d need to refresh my own memory,) I can say in all honesty that nothing in my life has scared me as much as that movie.   I’m talking nightmare, wet the bed kind of fear.  I’m talking crying and screaming upon coming home to an empty house kind of fear.  One scene depicted a child being sent away to a guillotine. (Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have an actual video of the scene that traumatized me for years to come.  To understand my terror please see the attached YouTube video.) Other scenes involved torture and executioners.

     Ironically, at the time they showed those films during the evening services, I wasn’t allowed to go to movies because they were “against our religion.” Somehow though, the church officials thought it was okay to show A Thief in the Night to children.  The graphic, disturbing images were justified because they would hopefully lead to conversions.  And let me tell you, the altars were busy on those nights.   Jesus became the personal savior of many a kid after those showings.  It was a strange combination of Jesus loves you unconditionally and if you do not accept him as your personal savior you will burn in hell. 

This is how I was raised.  It was the backdrop to all of the other mixed up stuff that was going on with my two-part family and my adolescent body.   I guess my daughter is right. I do have a few stories to tell.  So does everyone.

As much as I wish I could remember more specific details of my childhood, most of my memories come in the form of emotions.  The last time I visited the 4th and Grand church was for my father’s funeral.  My emotions were already out of whack before I walked through the doors, but being back inside that building, seeing so many of my relatives that I hadn’t seen in years, being around the Jesus lingo again, using the same bathroom I used to retreat into as a kid when the pressure of the place became too much—it all reminded me of how I felt throughout the majority of my childhood.  Inadequate.  Small.  Fearful.

So, as usual, (forgive me) all of this comes back to writing.  When I applied to the MFA program over a year ago I chose fiction as my genre to study.  But I’m questioning that choice lately.   When I sit down at my computer it’s the true stories I want to tell—they seem easier to come by because my memory and my experience limit where I can go.   But I believe in fiction.  I believe that some truths are best expressed when we’re forced to step outside of our own lives.  It’s just that when I sit down to write fiction I feel inadequate, small, fearful all over again.  It’s not as fear-inducing as A Thief in the Night—nothing is as terrifying as that, but it’s scary just the same.  The good news is that if I got over my fear of the rapture I can get over my fear of writing fiction.  It takes practice though—a lot of it—and faith in the process.  I may not know where I’m going with a story, but worst-case scenario is that I have to scrap an idea or start over.  That’s not nearly as bad as thinking you’ll be sent to hell if you screw up.

49 degrees

It’s Thursday morning and I’m moving slowly.  If I’m lucky I won’t have to leave the house today.   It’s -3 degrees outside and our 1970s-built house is struggling to hold the heat.  Yesterday when I got home from work I discovered that I’d shut the woodstove down just a little too tightly and the fire had gone out.  The house was cold—a mere 49 degrees—and I had to devote my evening to warming the place up.  Today I have the luxury of staying home.  I’ll tend to the fire; cook something slow and savory.   I’ll have time to work on my story and go for a walk and read.

Funny how staying home feels luxurious these days.  When my children were small and I didn’t work away from home I was always looking for reasons to leave the house.  I needed to get out.  I rarely had time to read or write so I had to go searching for ways to stimulate my brain.  I needed to converse with other adults, go to performances and seek out activities that gave us a break from the routine of being home all the time.  I had to go away to find the space I needed in my life.

The other night I met with a group of writers at the library to discuss our projects and ambitions for the year.  My friend Bill, an elementary school teacher and poet, talked about how last year he had more time for creativity in his life with his middle child on foreign exchange and his older child at college.  He described it as having more “bandwidth.” I could relate.  I’m starting to feel the effects of more bandwidth in my own life.  Less than two weeks ago my son left for college and my sixteen-year-old daughter has taken a huge leap in self-sufficiency now that she has her driver’s license.

It’s a slow, gradual process, this gaining extra bandwidth.  It’s an hour of not driving to town and back.  It’s a night at home with my husband while Adella is gone on a DDF (drama, debate and forensics) tournament.  It’s more frequent evenings with no Netflix or television.  It’s a little less cooking, a little less cleaning.  It’s a lot less time spent waiting.

The extra bits of time are small, but they’re adding up.  There’s a part of me that feels I should be using this extra time to write more prolifically or get to work on our never-ending list of home projects that have been put on hold for the last several years, but so far that’s not what I’m doing.  So far with my extra time I’m doing a lot of wandering around, staring out the window, reading, thinking.

I have a suspicion that most people my age, especially parents, have a hard time allowing themselves much unqualified time.  I think about my friends around town.  Some of them homeschool their own children (which is a full time job with very few breaks and no pay) and yet they still manage to keep their families well fed and their houses in order.  One of them directs a nonprofit agency and spends her weekends shuffling her daughter around the state for hockey tournaments.  One wrote a book and earned an advanced degree while teaching school.  A co-worker of mine volunteers in her children’s classrooms on her days off and then at night, when the rest of her family is in bed she studies for a couple of hours.   It’s probably best if I don’t compare myself to these friends of mine who seem to use their time so efficiently. At least not right now.

In a society that measures productivity by the number of dollars earned or tasks completed, I’m falling terribly short.  I could be looking for ways to earn more money.  I could go back to yoga class or involve myself with one of the many nonprofit organizations that are doing great things for our community.  But for now, I just want to stay home.  I want the company of my dogs.  I want to walk around my property and notice all the things that go unnoticed in a hectic life.  I want to take naps and drink tea and sometimes play the same fiddle tune a hundred times until I get a certain part just right.

For now, the little bit of extra time and space in my life feels good—nourishing even, after many intense years of raising children.  Of course there are still bills to pay and debt and chores and work, but there is more space around each of those things as my children move on with their own lives.  So today my tasks are to play my fiddle, make dinner, keep a hot fire in the woodstove and finish this blog post.  Tonight I’ll spend the evening with my daughter before she heads off to Anchorage for another tournament this weekend.  I probably won’t set any productivity records or add anything of great value to this world, but for today it’s enough.  Sometimes in the middle of winter, in a poorly insulated house, it’s enough just to keep the temperature above 49 degrees.

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Montana, music and the New Year

It’s the beginning of a new year—one that will be different for sure in our family.  Dillon will be heading up to UAA in a couple of weeks and in the fall Adella will be going to high school in Montana for her junior year.  The house will be emptying out a little sooner than I had expected, at least temporarily, and anticipating that change gives me a different perspective on the present.  Suddenly spending quality time with my family feels kind of urgent, and yet I’m finding that teenagers don’t necessarily feel the same way.  I’m trying to guard against being too sentimental.

It was challenging to stay caught up with my writing in December, so one of my biggest goals for the new year is to start acting like a serious graduate student again.  I’m not so far behind that I can’t get caught up, but I have to find the time to write and then use that time wisely.  I’m not sorry that I took a break though.  I had a great visit with my mom and two older sisters earlier in the month when they came to see Homer’s version of The Nutcracker and the holidays, with everyone at home, have been great.

A little break from writing has been nice, but I’m ready to face the new year now.  I find that I’m a bit of a New Year’s geek, always getting introspective and thinking about what I want to change about my life with the change of the calendar.   I can’t decide if it’s optimism that makes me this way or if it’s chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Either way, I always seem to want to try harder, tweak a few of my habits and generally work on self-improvement.

Last year was great in many regards.  I started an MFA program that I’m excited about.  I cut my sugar consumption way down.  Things are good with my family.  But I can see that I unintentionally cut back on a couple of things that bring me a lot of joy.

I went a whole summer without going camping or stepping foot in our skiff—and  summers in Alaska are way too short to not get out and enjoy the nature that’s all around.  I live in a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the mountains and the bay, but sometimes I need to leave my five acres and get out there.  That has to be a priority this year.

The other thing that I didn’t make enough time for in 2011 was music.  For the past decade I’ve made playing music a huge part of my life, and it’s one of the things that fills me up.  It gives me what I need to go about my less than exciting life of driving around, going to work, doing dishes, cooking dinner.  And as much as I love writing, it doesn’t do the same thing for me.  Music takes me out of my head.  When I get together with friends to play tunes I lighten up.  I drink a little.  I crack jokes.  When I’m alone and I work on learning new tunes it’s a lot like meditation.  My mind is clear for a while of all my responsibilities.

I love writing, and it gives me fulfillment in a different way, but it’s heady stuff.  When I’m concentrating on writing I tend to take myself a little too seriously.  I need to find a better balance.

So my hope for 2012 is to make time for music.  With it being an election year, I’m also hoping to spend less time reading the Huffington Post.  To me it seems like my time will be better-spent reading poetry, playing music and having fun with my family.  Of course I want to stay informed, but I don’t want to get worked up this time around.

I’m also anticipating a trip or two (who knows, maybe more?) to Missoula when Adella is down there.  I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Montana when I attended the U of M and although I’ll miss her terribly, I’m happy to have a reason to go back.  The mixed feelings I have about her going are eased by knowing I’ll get to visit, and by trusting that she’ll be in good hands while she’s there.

Best Wishes for the New Year to you all, and in keeping with my New Year’s wish for more music, here’s a clip of our afternoon old-time session from yesterday.  I’m playing one of the two fiddles.  (I’m the one trying to keep up.)

The Closeness of the Moon

photo by Dean Sundmark

Yesterday morning, in the early hours, I made myself go out to take a look at the lunar eclipse.  I couldn’t see it from any of the windows in my house so I bundled up and stepped outside to my front yard for a good view.  The air was still and the stars were made more brilliant by the darkened moon.  It was only a few minutes before I wanted to be back under my down comforter, but I’m glad I went through the trouble to go out there.  In that moment I felt a hundred different ways, but mostly I was in awe of how it’s possible to feel so close to something so far away.   Maybe the moon feels close because there is nothing impeding my view of it, not the curve of the earth or a mountain range.   Visually it’s just a straight shot from my front yard, which makes the moon seem closer sometimes than the grocery store in town or my hometown in Colorado where most of my family resides.

Two days ago I drove back home from Anchorage after taking my mom and sisters to the airport.  They were here for a week and they got to see Adella perform in the Nutcracker.  This was her tenth year dancing in the production.  The roads were not in great shape with all of the freezing and thawing that’s been going on, so I took my time.  I drove slowly and stopped often.  All along the way I listened to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by the French author Muriel Barbery.  I was so enthralled with the book that when I got home after the five-hour drive I didn’t want to stop.  When I reached the turnoff to my road I opted to keep going for just a while longer.  I finally stopped with only a few chapters to go.

Yesterday morning after dropping Adella off at the high school for the Nutcracker and before it was my turn to take a volunteer shift in the greenroom, I parked at the beach and resumed listening to the final chapters of the book.  As I watched the sea birds floating on the water I listened to one of the most beautiful and touching pieces of writing I’ve come across in a long time.

So yesterday my day started with a lunar eclipse and it ended with a windstorm.  In the middle of it all I helped out with the last Nutcracker performance of the season.  But because of the prose I’d listened to earlier in the day I experienced it all differently.  While I stitched torn costumes, fluffed tulle and pinned hairpieces into place I was thinking of the closeness of the moon, about the small moments of beauty and friendship in an ordinary life.  And today the wind is still raging.  If any of the big beetle-killed trees on our property were still standing, this is the kind of storm that could blow them over.  If our greenhouse were still intact, this is the kind of storm that would send the fiberglass panels flying across our five acres.  And it occurs to me that art has that kind of power.  It can rearrange the landscape of our perceptions.  It can change an ordinary day into something entirely meaningful.  If we let it, it can break down barriers and send the unsecured debris sailing.  It can take us to the places we didn’t know we had a right to visit.

Biggest regret

I hate bandwagons.  I really do.  But sometimes something comes up in the news that I have a hard time shaking off.  The Penn State scandal is one of these things.  There is no reason for me to repeat how awful it all is.  No reason to speculate about what should be done in the football world, of which I care so little about, but there is reason for me to talk about childhood sexual abuse and whistleblowing.

Accusing someone of sexually abusing a minor is a big deal.  What are we supposed to do when we suspect—when we have a gut feeling—that someone we care about is being abused?

That was my situation.

I never witnessed any actual abuse, but I began to suspect that something bad was happening.  My suspicions were based on the behaviors of the victims, the children, and the fact that the abuser gave me the creeps.  I didn’t have any hard evidence to go on, but as I was getting more mature and learning more about the psychological fallout of sexual abuse, things began to add up.

Still, I didn’t say anything.

I was afraid of being wrong.  I was afraid of not being believed.  Even though the clues were all there, I doubted myself.  I even tried to convince myself that I was wrong because to be right about such a thing meant that a family I loved would be torn apart.

Eventually, the truth came out and the abuser was exposed.  But his downfall had nothing to do with any courage on my part.  The victims, the children he hurt, were the ones who were brave, and they had so much more at stake than me.

Every day I wish I had said something.  I wish I had confronted the abuser.  I wish I had talked with the children, established myself as a safe person to talk to.  Instead I let my fears and my insecurities keep me quiet.   I let denial and Christian goodwill cloud my better judgment.

The very ugly truth of the matter is that had I voiced my concerns in some way the abuse might have stopped sooner than it did.  I suspected that something was very wrong and yet I was so worried about being wrong or causing a scene, that I said nothing.

Many years have passed since all of this happened and I still ask myself the question every day.  “What could I have done?”  I never draw a blank. I can always think of something I should have or could have done.

I am ashamed and I am sorry.