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.

Nineteen years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling the pain

Overall I’m the sort of person that does my best to keep as many people agreeing with me as possible.  In this blog I’ve written about music festivals, trips to the post office; things that most people, regardless of their personal beliefs, can relate to in some way.  But lately I’ve been having a hard time coming up with fluffy subjects to write about.  This is not surprising given what is in the news these days, with the uprisings in the Middle East, the natural disasters in Japan, and the not-so-natural one that is unfolding at their nuclear power plants.  Then there is our own country’s financial crisis and the fact that the tundra is thawing and the polar ice cap is melting at an alarming rate.  While the things within my own household are going along just fine, I am feeling the weight of the bigger things that feel beyond my control.  Some days I want to ignore the news completely because the knowledge one gains from becoming informed is painful.  And pain is to be avoided at all costs, right?

Well I’m starting to think that feeling a little pain is in order.  A few years ago I injured my back in a car accident.  The doctor cautioned me about numbing the pain too much.  If you can’t feel the pain, it’s easy to reinjure yourself, he told me, and it can make things worse.   And he was right.  On a few occasions I pushed it too far and paid for it the next day.

Maybe as a culture we’re taking too many pain killers; they come in so many different forms these days.  All of our distractions and obsessions can keep us from facing some pretty painful realities about what we’re doing to our planet, and consequently the people who live on it.  Watching the nuclear crisis unfold in Japan is like someone pulling off a Band Aid to expose a festering wound that we’ve numbed and covered up for too long.  Now that it’s exposed we can see that we shouldn’t have built nuclear power plants in one of the most seismically active regions in the world. It seems so obvious in retrospect. And the reality of what it could mean is beyond painful, it’s horrific.

And what other things are we choosing not to notice?  They are too numerous to count, and it’s overwhelming to start tallying them up.  And yet, how are these problems going to go away if we ignore them?  The answer is that they aren’t going to go away at all.  Nobody is going to rescue us from the damage we’re doing, not God, not the aliens, probably not a giant asteroid hitting the earth.  The problems we’ve created are only going to get worse unless we start paying attention, and taking action.  We can start by speaking up, questioning the system that allows corporations to degrade our planet and by demanding that human health and safety take priority over money.  We can start by educating ourselves about some of the things we’d like to ignore.  Even if means going outside of what makes us comfortable.  Even if it hurts.

What’s it all about?

For the past several weeks I’ve been working diligently on my application for graduate school, and just yesterday I delivered it to the post office.  I decided quite a long time ago that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing but I needed to take care of a few things before I could go through with applying.  Most importantly, I needed to wait until the timing was right for my family.  And on the more technical side, I needed to finish my bachelor’s degree, which was unfortunately a little more complicated than it should have been.

Now I have earned the elusive psychology degree (they tell me the actual diploma is in the mail) and I can pursue the MFA.  Although I’ve been writing for quite a while, I believe this next step, assuming I get accepted, will allow me to really immerse myself into a writing community and grow, something I’ve been craving for a long time.  And as far as my family goes, well to them I feel infinitely grateful.  They have supported me in every possible way, from listening to me fret over having to take statistics to not taking it personally when I’ve had to lock myself away for several hours at a time.

One of the requirements for the application was to write an essay with an explanation of why I write.  Since I’m about to invest a tremendous amount of time and my family’s resources into writing over the next few years it’s good to consider just why I’m doing it.  Every time I ponder that difficult question though, I seem to come up with a different answer, and each answer feels a little vague.

Sometimes writing feels like a very selfish act.  After all, it’s time consuming.   And time spent with my notebook or computer is time that’s not spent on tasks that are also important, like working at my job that helps pay the bills, or cleaning the house, or sometimes spending time with my family.  In fact there are times when there are about a million things I feel like I should be doing instead of writing.  And what makes me think I could possibly contribute anything of importance in a world where there is so much information out there, in a time when we already have to filter through so much junk in order to find something meaningful?

Answering the question of why I write could easily make me lose heart.  But last June, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Nancy Lord in her closing talk gave some advice that has helped me when I start feeling guilty for spending so much time on writing.   She said to think of writing not as something selfish but as a gift to give.  She said, “The time you put into writing is not self-indulgence, not navel-gazing; you will write something to share with others, even a small number of others, even one other person, that will present a fresh idea, brighten someone’s day, help create empathy, be simply beautiful.  The time needed to create such a gift needs no defense.”

I’m not using Nancy’s words of wisdom as an excuse to neglect my family or all of my responsibilities, but I am using them to give myself permission to prioritize writing.  I can only hope the things I write, or the gifts I give, reach people in some way.  Each piece of writing has the potential to connect me with someone else, and ultimately, at least for me, that’s what it’s all about.