Most Familiar

Last year at this time I was getting ready for a trip to Colorado.  The main purpose of the trip was to help my mom clean out my Grandparent’s house in Clifton, but it was about more than that.  My grandmother had recently died and Marla and I wanted to be near family.

We rented a car in Denver early on a Thursday morning and drove to Durango so Marla could check out the college there.  We were tired after flying all night, but coming from a town with only one road out we were fairly giddy at the opportunity for a road trip.  I haven’t spent much time in southern Colorado, so even though the drive was long, the scenery was new and having so much open road in front of us felt liberating.  We made it to Durango, spent one night and then headed over to Pagosa Springs the next day.  There we attended the Four Corners Folk Festival which was great fun.  The sky was that stereotypical Colorado blue all weekend and being beneath the ponderosa pines for a few days with no responsibilities gave me a chance to fill up some of those empty spaces that come from a scheduled life.  We played old time music with new friends, had some high quality sister bonding time and then headed north to see the rest of our family.  On the way to Craig from Pagosa Springs we stopped in Palisade for peaches and tomatoes.  If you’ve never had peaches and tomatoes from Palisade, Colorado you’re missing out, and since those flavors were a part of all of my summers as a child, every single bite seems to unleash a memory.

The trip last summer was especially nice.  I got to spend a lot of time with my Granddad Acree who is no longer with us.  He was frail and still shaken about losing his wife of 75 years.  When he wasn’t sleeping he repeated himself a lot but the words out of his mouth were always full of gratitude and sometimes even wonder.   He appreciated the tree in my mom’s back yard.  He commented often on the beautiful paint job of my step-dad’s pick-up truck.  He enjoyed the banjo and fiddle music Marla and I played for him, even joining in a few times with some singing.  He liked nothing more than sitting in the sun on my mom’s deck and at age 93 he still had an amazing appetite for those peaches and tomatoes we brought from Palisade.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing and it’s sometimes hard to separate out what I miss for real and what I miss in my imagination.  I know that each time I go back to Colorado there are aspects that I love and others that disappoint.  It’s changed a lot since I lived there.  But it’s the most familiar place I know.

Three times this week I’ve dreamt of peaches and tomatoes.  It’s harvest time and I’m missing the flavors of home.

Reveling in the mess

view from home
Moon above the pushki meadow by Dean Sundmark

I rolled into town last night after attending a twelve day creative writing residency. Today I’m wandering around my home taking note of what has changed and what has stayed the same while I’ve been away.

My nemesis plant, locally known as cow parsnip or pushki, the one that left me with burns all over my arms a few days before I left, has grown nearly three feet taller in my absence and is now in its full flowering stage. Looking out my window and seeing how it’s taken over the paths that lead to the chicken coop, the yurt and the garden, overwhelms me. I wish I could take a machete and start hacking away at it, make everything orderly again, but since I have such a strong reaction to the plant’s juices it’s best if I just leave it alone, surrender to its tenacity, maybe even find a way to admire its steadfast ability to reclaim more of the yard each year.

Trying to process all of the conversations, classes, insights and emotions from the residency has me feeling a bit overwhelmed as well. So much happened in such a short amount of time that making sense of it all isn’t an option. Yet I find myself wanting to write something that sums it all up, lines it all out and puts it in tidy, manageable rows.

When I look back on my experience of the residency and the notes that I took over the course of the twelve days, I can see that I was all over the place. I had moments of feeling confident in my writing, followed by languishing self-doubt. The sense of community that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people was palpable at times; so was the stabbing loneliness that I felt at night in my dorm room. At times I was moved to tears. On one occasion I struggled to contain my anger and ultimately ended up leaving part way through a reading.

I’ve always been of the mind that writing is a means for making order out of chaos and I still believe that to be true. But now I’m questioning that tendency within myself to always be looking for a straight way out of a jumbled up world. As a writer I might need to spend more time reveling in the mess. I might need to write all over the place, let the words and ideas take me places that feel overgrown and too big to manage.

It takes courage to dig into questions for which there may be no answers. I might emerge with nothing more than a bunch of burns and bruises. But I feel like being a part of this MFA program is giving me the freedom to go there for a little while. I might not have anything marketable at the end of my three years, but along the way I’ll learn to push myself further than I thought possible.

Creativity seems impossible without a certain amount of surrender. I’m wanting to use these few years to let my writing grow into something bigger than I’ve allowed it to be thus far. I’m wanting to resist the urge to hack it down into tidy little cubes. I’m wanting to get lost in the dishevel. Hopefully in my digging I’ll find what needs to be found. Hopefully it will be good.

Summer so far

Here it is the end of June already and as is common for this time of year, I’m feeling like summer is going by too fast. I haven’t gone camping. I haven’t been in our skiff and worst of all, I haven’t gone to a music festival. It’s been tricky to fit it all in, and although it sounds like I’m complaining I should mention that I’m in week seven of my first fiction workshop class in UAA’s low-residency MFA program and although it’s a lot of work, I’m having a blast. In less than two weeks I’ll go to Anchorage for a 12 day residency and I’m getting giddy with excitement.

I’m looking forward to meeting my cohorts. I’m looking forward to all the reading, discussing and critiquing. I’m looking forward to taking my librarian hat off for two weeks. I’m even looking forward to living in a dorm again for a little while. The last time I lived in one was at the University of Montana in 1988. I was almost twenty then, a couple of years older than everyone else on my floor, so I was the one that everyone turned to when they wanted beer. It will be nice to have hall-mates that are old enough to buy their own alcohol.

So far I’ve enjoyed most aspects of my class. BlackBoard, UAA’s course management system, has taken a while to figure out, but I’m getting it. Our class communicates mostly through a discussion board. It’s tricky though, for me to respond to readings and other peoples’ comments without feeling a little self-conscious. I think of all of these great ways to reply, (at least I think they’re great) but when I end up typing them down they don’t quite match my intentions, so I cut a bunch and end up posting these very shortened versions that just aren’t quite right. Sometimes I wonder if there is a secret discussion board, one that everyone but me can access, and its sole purpose is to respond to my ridiculous posts. I’m not normally a paranoid person, but this could really be going on. Really.

Even in my sleep-deprived, over-stimulated state that seems to come with summer in Alaska, I’m feeling happy and strangely energized. I know it’s because I’m doing what I love. By being an official student I have the perfect excuse to read and write all the time.  Well not quite all the time, but a lot more often than I had been before I started the program.

And I’m managing to fit in a few summery things here and there between working full time and graduate school. Today I sat on my deck and got a little sun-burned while I read my classmates’ manuscripts. I also spent an hour or so weeding my garden and while doing so discovered a gardening oxymoron: invasive strawberry plants. It turns out that while I’ve been neglecting my onion sets, the strawberries have taken over.

Speaking of taking over… We have a lot of chickens right now. Although I’ve had laying hens for several years now, we decided to try raising meat chickens. Dean built a chicken tractor and we moved the month old chicks in a few days ago. The idea behind the chicken tractor is that it can be moved around so the chickens always have fresh grass to scratch around in. Chicken watching is a great form of simple entertainment. I highly recommend it.

And since Dean only works part time in the summer, he’s been able to keep things in order at home while I’ve been so busy. Last night I came home to a meal that Dean prepared in his new Dutch oven. (Did I mention that with Adella gone to Sitka Fine Arts Camp it’s just the two of us here for two weeks and the last time that happened was nineteen years ago?) He watched a few Youtube videos to figure out how it’s done and voila, roast chicken to die for. He also learned that contrary to the Youtube videos regarding Dutch Oven cooking, it is possible to prepare and cook a delicious meal without wearing cammo or drinking PBR. He found that it’s alright to substitute tie-dye and red wine. Too much red wine though, can result in a burned picnic table. It’s good that he’s cooking outdoors.

Overall, month one of summer has been pretty great. If I can just add a little bit of old-time music, then I’ll be all set.

Onward

Last week on Wednesday my son announced that he was moving to Vermont. And today, nine days later, he called us from Boston. “I made it. My luggage made it. It’s warm here, and after flying first class I never want to fly coach again.” Then he said, “I miss you guys and I love you.” His decision to go came about quickly, but hastiness aside, I’m confident it was a good choice. He was ready to get out of Homer and see a bit of the world. He’s going to be with friends; people I trust. I’m excited for him. It’s all good. But dang, it was hard to say goodbye.

Skype and email and cellphones and Facebook; they make it so easy to stay in touch. Being across the country from your child is nothing compared to what it used to be. People used to venture out, move West, blaze new trails not knowing if they’d ever see their family members again. Their goodbyes really meant goodbye, not just see you later. Dillon moving to Vermont is not final or tragic in any way, but it’s going to take me a while to adjust to his absence.

You see, I’ve gotten used to seeing that boy nearly every day for the past eighteen and a half years. The energy he brings into the world has been a part of what makes our home our home. His stepping out into the unknown changes things for all of us.

I know it’s all a part of the plan with having children. You bring them into the world. You give them what they need. You love them and raise them the best you know how. There is nothing unique about a kid growing up and leaving home.

I know all of this, but still it was hard to say goodbye.

Post rapture day reflections

Thanks to Harold Camping, an eighty-nine year old Christian radio talk show host, the rapture was on everyone’s radar this past week. I noticed it mentioned in casual conversations. It was written about in blogs and newspapers around the country. On Facebook I was invited to both the post-rapture party and the post-rapture looting.

When I first heard of Camping’s prediction that the rapture would happen on Saturday I just laughed it off. What a wacko, I thought, thinking he can predict something that clearly is supposed to “come like a thief in the night” and take everyone off guard. Then I thought, wait a minute, I don’t even believe in the rapture anymore. I think it’s a bunch of bunk. I think it’s a ridiculous idea that goes against the laws of nature. I don’t think it’s going to happen at all, regardless of whether the rapture, in all of its hypothetical glory, is predicted or a total surprise.

If I say I don’t believe in it, and I don’t, then why does the mention of the rapture still fill me with a sense of dread like nothing else? Why do I have a hard time joining in the mocking and ridicule of the notion that all the true believers will be carried off to heaven while the rest of us, the non-believers, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Pagans and anyone else who doesn’t make the cut, get left behind?

There are a few reasons why all of this rapture talk disturbs me more than it amuses me. First of all, it draws a clear line of distinction between groups of people. There are those who believe in the rapture and those who do not. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not a rapture believer, but lots of people that I love are, and they believe, seemingly without a doubt, that there will be a moment when the great separation will occur. And according to their standards I won’t make the cut. Nothing feels good about that.

Another reason all of this rapture mania makes me uncomfortable is that I spent a lot of years of my life thinking that at any moment my family could be whisked away. If I had been good; no lying, no swearing, no doubting the Word of God, then I could be included. But if I lied, say, about eating all of the leftover chocolate cake, or if I wondered secretly whether Jesus really did come back to life after three days of being dead, then I might get left behind in which case I’d be left alone to fend for myself in a hostile world. That’s enough to make a young girl feel a little jumpy, a little worried, a little confused. And afraid, nearly all the time.

So all of this rapture talk hits me on a personal level. It reminds me of the uncertainty of my childhood. I mean, it’s hard to really grow as a person when you’re scared all the time. It also reminds me that there are a lot of people looking forward to being swept away from all of this hardship here on earth. In that regard, belief in the rapture is the perfect antidote to the hopelessness that is sometimes felt when big things are beyond our control. –We don’t have to worry ourselves with these wars, they’re all a part of the plan.– or – This world is just our temporary home, any damage we might cause won’t matter in the long run.–

So I guess I would be able to laugh about all of the rapture talk if not so many people (people who vote, people who get elected) believed in it. To them it’s more real and of bigger concern than climate change, or crippling inequality, or social justice. And in that regard, the idea of the rapture scares me as much now as it did when I was a little girl.

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.

I’m gonna sit right down…

It started a couple of weeks ago when my mom posted on Facebook a letter she’d found while she was going through her mother’s belongings.  The letter was written on June 30, 1918 to Cora Edwards, my great grandmother.  Her brother Lonnie wrote it to her while he was stationed in France during World War I.

The letter was poignant on many levels with its description of the French countryside and the mention of how almost all the women he’d seen in France and England wore mourning clothing.  And Lonnie was so eager to hear news from home.  He wrote, “It is very little news I have from home- the States, so wish you would write me as often as you have time even tho you may not hear from me very often.  Send all the news paper clippings of interest you can.”  At the end of the letter he went on to say, “I have received only three letters since I’ve been here.  It was 41 days before I received any mail.  Lots of it must have been lost.”

After reading the letter I commented to my mom (via Facebook) that it must have been so exciting to get letters from overseas back then, and that although facebook and email are great for staying in touch these days, there is something nice about a handwritten letter of depth.  I made this comment realizing that it had been ages since I’d actually taken the time to hand-write a long, newsy, rambling letter to anyone.

The idea of writing someone a “real” letter stuck with me.  I thought of my friend Ellen from my college days in Missoula and decided I would put her on the top of my list of people to write.  We haven’t stayed current with each other’s lives and she is an obvious choice because she doesn’t use facebook and I don’t have her email address.

Then I got a great surprise last Friday.  Dean’s Aunt Kathy (well my aunt too, for the past twenty years) had seen the comment I left on my mom’s Facebook page, and so she wrote me a letter.  A beautiful letter telling me about Dean’s father, a man I was never able to meet.  I knew he had been a businessman and a pilot, but I never would have known that he wrote poetry if not for Kathy’s letter.

So last Sunday morning, while the house was still quiet, and with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, I sat down to write two letters, the first to Kathy, the second to Ellen.

Something about hand-writing the letters felt very different than pressing buttons on a keyboard.  It felt more personal and less business-like.  I wrote without the benefits of spell-check (which made me have to stop and think on more than one occasion) and I had to use the old-fashioned method of crossing out mistakes rather than just hitting backspace.  My handwriting changed too, sometimes tidy and small if I was being particularly thoughtful, sometimes bigger and more sloppy if I was writing quickly or getting caught up in an idea.  I couldn’t make it all uniform by choosing a font style or size.

By far the best part of writing those two letters though was the feelings and memories I conjured up during the process.  While writing Kathy’s letter it felt like she was there with me.  I remembered how it felt to sit across from her in her kitchen when our family spent Christmas at her house several years ago.  I could almost hear her voice.  While writing to Ellen I remembered the long walks we used to take around the streets of Missoula.  For those few moments it felt like we were making our way through the University district, talking non-stop the entire time.

All of this thinking about reading and writing letters also reminded me of the letters I used to get from my mom when I was a little girl.  For most of the year I only got to be with her every other weekend, but between visits she would always write a letter.  I would read them repeatedly throughout the week, and each time they made me feel close to her, even though we were three towns apart.  Those letters mattered; they gave me something tangible to hold on to when I missed her.

I don’t see myself giving up Facebook or email, but I realize that hand-written, personal letters convey a sentiment that’s often missing in technology.  So thanks Aunt Kathy for the hand-written letter.  Thanks also to my grandmother, Marie Acree, for holding on to Great-Uncle Lonnie’s letter for all those years.  And thanks Mom, for posting the historical letter on Facebook.   It made me appreciate that I can check my friends’ and family’s  status, even “chat” with them from time to time.  But it also made me remember how nice it is to find a real ink-on-paper-stuffed-in-an-envelope-sealed-with-a-stamp-letter in the mailbox.  I intend to write more of them.