Something to Say

You’d rather write about the charming side of your town, and for the most part you do.  But this week your town has shown its not-so-charming side.  Two brothers aged eighteen and twenty were arrested for sexual assault.  A number of other young people are afraid that they might be next because they were at the party where the alleged assault took place—with cameras in hand.  A young person was victimized; his life altered.  And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through because people are shaken up about it.  But where do you start?   Your children are the same age as these children.  They’ve known some of them since preschool.

You want to write about the mother you spoke to today whose fourteen-year-old daughter was groped at her first high school dance, a place you’d expect her to be safe.  You want to write about how strange it is, adolescence.  How that window of time between trading Pokemon cards and being hormonally charged is so small, so small that you barely have time to catch your breath.  You want to talk about this terrible thing that happened in your town like it’s an isolated incident but this is nothing new and your town is not unique.  You write about your town and you write about every town and a culture that has allowed it to go on and on and on.  You write about how it was going on when you were in middle school and the boys chased you at recess and knocked you onto the grass and stuck their hands up your shirt and you write about it now because back then you didn’t tell anyone because you had it in your mind that it was just playful playground fun—even though it didn’t feel like fun to you.

You want to write about all of this and more, but putting it in words is difficult.  The thoughts are coming from so many different places and what you need to do is set the thoughts aside for a while and write from that place in your gut that’s holding it all in.  You want to write and you don’t want to write because it’s going to take you places you’ve been avoiding.  It’s going to take you places that you’ve held in secret for about thirty years and it’s going to make you feel vulnerable because somehow you still have it in your head that it was your fault, that you put yourself in a bad situation and so ultimately you are responsible.  You hate feeling vulnerable.

You’re going to say things about boys that have most likely grown in to decent human beings, stellar community members, charitable donors to their local nonprofits.  But you decide to write it now because it’s the only way you can express what’s going on inside of you when you hear about these two young men who have been arrested for sexual assault.

You knew boys like those boys in your school days.  They were the kids the teachers liked.   They were the kids you liked.  They played basketball and football.  They were witty and popular and you wanted their attention so badly.  And so when they gave it to you it felt like a privilege.  You with the crooked teeth, that lived on the wrong side of town, that had a step-father who wouldn’t talk to you and a father who never called wanted the attention of those boys and when they gave it you certainly didn’t want to tell them no.  And so they asked you to hang out with them after school one day and you said yes and it never occurred to you that you’d be the only girl.  And you went with them anyhow because you didn’t know not to trust them.  You went to one of the boys’ houses a few blocks from school.  His dad was home and so you went instead into their camp trailer that was parked in their front yard.  You don’t remember much about the camp trailer, just being shoved down on a little folding bed, and someone undoing your pants and another someone pulling them off your legs and there was laughing and you didn’t know you were crying until you felt the tears running down the side of your face and one of them put his head to your privates and said things and did things that in your naivety you never knew were things to do and the humiliation was more than you could bear and so when it was over you laughed along with them and pretended it was no big deal and then you walked home, alone and ashamed.  At home you ate dinner and watched Three’s Company with your mom and your little sister and your silent step-dad.  You talked on the phone with your friend for a while and you never said a word about what happened because you thought somehow you should have seen it coming.  You should have known not to go with them.  You should have been smarter.  You should have been prettier because the boys probably didn’t do that to the prettiest girls.  You should have, you should have, you should have and it never even occurred to you until several years later that the should-haves weren’t yours to own.

And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through, because what your town is going through is a terrible thing.  But it’s been going on for ages.  The humiliating, the bullying, the assaulting, the tricking, the teasing, the hurting.  All of is has been going on in varying degrees in every town.  Your town is not unique.  The actions the two boys in your town have been accused of are not so uncommon.  What’s uncommon is their being called on it.  Victims blame themselves.  They try to protect their dignity and even their assailants with silence because the assailants are the good guys; they’re popular, the teachers like them, they make your town look good on the playing field.  But silence is more terrible than truth.   It perpetuates the belief that it’s okay.  It’s okay to rape a girl if she’s wearing a short skirt.  It’s okay to mess with the drunk kid.  It’s okay to tease the kid with a learning disability.  It’s okay to shame a girl for having sex.  It’s okay to shame a boy for not having sex.  It’s okay to beat up the gay kid.  It’s okay to pull the pants off the girl who was stupid enough to follow you into the camp trailer.

It has to end somewhere.  At some point you have to say enough.  It’s not okay.  And sure, what your town is going through is a difficult thing, but it’s necessary. It’s breaking the pattern of silence.

You write about it now, not because you want attention or sympathy.  You write about it now because there is this hope that by not brushing a society’s dark secrets aside, by saying something, by doing something, you’ll make a difference. You write about it now because when you were thirteen you couldn’t articulate the truth of the matter:  it’s not okay to hurt someone, grope someone, touch someone without consent even if they’re passed out drunk, even if they’ve flirted with you, even if they’ve wandered off with you.  You write because you hope for a future where open communication reigns and where victims don’t feel responsible for the actions perpetrated against them.  You write because there should be no excuses and no free passes when it comes to harming another human being.  You write, not because you have any answers, but because you have something to say.  You believe that when it comes to teaching respect and dignity we all have something to say.

Speaking of Chicken….

It seems that chicken is all over the news this week, and things are no different here at the Sundmark household.  Monday evening when we came home from work we discovered carnage in our yard.  The security of our chicken tractor—the one that got us through last summer with 25 healthy birds—had been breached.  Some kind of critter, most likely a dog, had broken the fiberglass greenhouse siding off of one side and proceeded to slaughter seven of our chicks.  The others went in to a state of shock and huddled together in a corner.  The ones on the bottom of the pile suffocated.  All together we lost fifteen of our chickens.

I know that eating local food isn’t going to save the world, but it’s a cause our family has decided to put some effort toward.  For us it means growing a garden or buying from local growers.  It means harvesting salmon, buying beef from our local cowboy, and raising our own chickens for both eggs and meat.  After the slaughter we found in our yard on Monday it looks like next winter we’ll have fewer chicken dinners.

There are plenty of foods I’m not willing to give up in order to eat a strictly local diet and so we spend a great deal of money on food that comes from places much warmer than Alaska.  I’m a big fan of apples, for example, and I have a weakness for the Rugged English Cheddar cheese that Save-U-More carries.  In fact Save-U-More is full of surprises, including an aisle of Trader Joe’s foods and an extensive organic produce section.  It’s a goofy grocery store with its bizarre layout and its incessant rearranging, but for the most part it keeps the foodies in Homer happy.

For the size of our town we have a good selection of restaurants and cafes as well.  Back in the day when we ran a bed and breakfast we had a guest one time that expressed surprise that a few of our nicer restaurants stayed open through the winter.  I tried to explain that in Homer people have priorities that might not be the same as in other parts of the country.  We may only buy a new pair of jeans every two or three years, and we may drive a Subaru that can only be entered through the passenger side door (true story) but we’ll spend good money on good food.  A few of our higher end restaurants have survived when Arby’s and Burger King couldn’t make a go of it.

And so it’s safe to say that after living in Homer for eighteen years I’m no expert on fast food.  I eat at the local Subway once every couple of years, and I haven’t stepped inside the local McDonalds since my niece worked there several years ago.  When I go to Anchorage there are so many great places to choose from that fast food doesn’t even cross my mind.  What all of this is getting at is that I’ve never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, and I never will.  I wouldn’t have even if Dan Cathy had never made his statement in opposition to gay marriage, or if the company had never donated millions of dollars to organizations like the Family Research Council.

When I came home on Monday to find a bunch of dead chickens in my yard I had the realization that something I thought was secure was in fact very vulnerable.  I feel the same way today after seeing photos from around the country of crowds of people lining up to eat at Chick-Fil-A’s.  I thought we were moving beyond homophobia, but I see that we have a long way to go.  I believe that for some people eating at Chick-Fil-A this afternoon was a matter of showing support for our first amendment rights, but I don’t think that was the true motivation of most.

I’m in the fortunate position of having a diverse group of Facebook friends.  They cover most sides of any political issue and this whole Chick-Fil-A thing is no exception.  One of my friends stated in a thread that people were just taking a stand for Godly values by showing their support for Chick-Fil-A.   A couple of people on this thread even evoked the old saying, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  It shows me that to them today’s turnout for chicken sandwiches wasn’t about first amendment rights.  It was about speaking out against homosexuality.  What I want to point out is that hating the “sin” in this case is synonymous with hating “the sinner,” because it’s not a matter of deciding to be gay; it’s a matter of being gay.  And that hatefulness, no matter how it’s framed, is disheartening.

A line from a John Gorka song comes to mind sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by the way humans build up walls and divisions between one another… We are here to love each other, that is all…

I know it’s only a line to a song and that it’s not realistic to think that this world will ever be a place where all people show love to one another all the time.  But the truth is that we all have the capacity for love on an individual level.  Every day lives are changed and attitudes are changed; every day individual worldviews are changed because one person somewhere decides to imagine the world from another person’s point of view.

We’re a diverse bunch, us humans.  Some of us will raise our chickens ourselves, some of us want ours served with a side of waffle fries.  Others of us would never think of eating a chicken.  The reality though is that we all get hungry.  Our differences are lower on the scale of importance than the things we have in common.  Let’s focus less on the ways we fill ourselves up, and more on the fact that we all need food.

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.

*  *  *

      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.

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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Thoughtful reading

One of the things I love most about the MFA program that I’m in is that it requires of me a tremendous amount of reading.  Every month I have to read and write a response to three books.  This requirement forces me to focus closely on how a book is written, how its essence impacts its readers and how I might learn to do the same sort of thing in my own writing.

When I applied to UAA’s low-residency MFA program I had to choose between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  I ended up choosing fiction; for me personally it is the most challenging.  But I want to study all three.  So in order to appease myself I have not excluded poetry or non-fiction from my reading lists.

Right now I’m working on writing a story that is about a place as much as it is about the people in it and I’ve tried to choose books to read that will aid me in this process.  This month I was lucky to have stumbled upon a new book written by an Alaskan author who does this so eloquently that I feel I could read it over and over again and each time glean a new angle in my approach to writing about the way a place can influence and shape the people who reside there.

I was initially drawn to the memoir, Faith of Cranes:  Finding Hope and Family in Alaska by Hank Lentfer, because of its title.  Sandhill cranes return to my neighborhood outside of Homer every summer and I’ve always felt honored to share space with them.  Their return every spring is one of the most hopeful things I know of.  My own teenaged children, who don’t always seem terribly observant of the natural world, take notice of the cranes and are always thrilled when they first see them flying overhead at the end of every long winter.  When the cranes leave each September, almost always on the 16th day of the month, it’s with mixed emotions; we’re in awe of the magic of migration and already nostalgic for the summer days that went by so quickly.

I was also drawn to the book because of the author’s name.  It turns out that the author’s parents live here in Homer and are huge supporters and users of the library where I work.  The nosey side of me that is always trying to make connections was eager to read the writing of Jack and Mary Lentfer’s son.

Hank Lentfer’s story is a story of coming of age, a story of finding himself trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense but most importantly it’s a story of love.  Hank heartbreakingly loves the place where he lives and the wild places where he hunts deer and picks berries and harvests salmon.  His story is of coming to terms with his fear of losing the land where he finds spiritual and physical sustenance.  It’s also a story of love for the people who share in his connection to a place and the realization that the loss that ultimately goes hand in hand with love is beautiful and hopeful in its own right.

So many of the books that I read, even some of the great ones, are enjoyable and thought provoking in the moment of the reading.  But not all of them stay with me.  Faith of Cranes stands out because since I’ve read it I find myself mulling it over, considering the choices I’ve made, thinking about the ways I’d like for my own life to be more thoughtful and more closely tied to nature.  And it leaves me asking important questions, a few of which are below:

  • How different would the world be if all parents, before conception, considered the responsibility, the joy, the loss and the beauty of bringing a child into existence?  The chapter in Lentfer’s book entitled, “Letter to an Unborn Child” was striking in its honesty and its raw expression of his fears about becoming a father in a world that is filled with war, environmental degradation and disconnection.
  • How much living are we, as a culture, missing out on by buying into a consumer-driven mentality?  By choosing to slow down and live with less we would be giving ourselves more opportunities to develop friendships, deepen the bonds we share with our families and have more time for self-reliance and art.  We know this, and yet it is difficult to extricate our lives from the cycle of filling our days with jobs and tasks we don’t find meaningful.  Why is it so hard?
  • As a person who is concerned about things like climate change, wilderness preservation, clean air, clean water and the protection of habitat how do I not lose hope when the news is overwhelmingly bad on all those fronts?  And along those same lines how can creativity, love and hopefulness make a difference?

If you are interested in an intimate portrayal of a life in coastal Alaska, if you love a place on this earth, if you feel a connection to cranes or any other kind of wildlife, if you appreciate a well-crafted story or if you simply would like to escape for a while into a sensual, thoughtful world, I highly recommend Faith of Cranes.  And if you end up reading it, I’d love to know the questions it summoned for you.  I’d also love to know what books you’ve read recently that have stuck with you, caused you to consider changes you’d maybe like to make in your own life.  

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.

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.

48 minutes

I timed myself.  From the moment I entered until the moment my transaction ended it took 48 minutes, which seems like an awfully big chunk of time when you’re not used to waiting in line for much of anything.  But it’s Christmastime and the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without at least one very long wait at the Homer Post Office.

There is something noble about saying that you waited in line at the Post Office for a long time.  It insinuates that you are getting your gifts sent off to distant relatives in a timely fashion, but I have to confess, I haven’t purchased a single gift yet.  Shopping is my least favorite aspect of Christmas.  I prefer the baking, which is why I was willing to stand in line for the better part of my lunch break on Monday.  I had no choice.  If I wanted the organic Saigon Cinnamon and the organic cocoa powder that I’d ordered online then I had to take the plunge.

I do quite a few things around town to keep me feeling connected; I go to the contra dances, I volunteer for the Homer Nutcracker, and I work in the library, but I don’t think anything makes me feel more a part of the community than a nice, long wait at the Homer Post Office.

When I first walked in the door I was greeted by cheering and clapping.  Well it wasn’t for me, but for the lady walking out.  The crowd was congratulating her for making it through the line.  After it was clear that I was not one of the people who bailed upon seeing the length of the line, a man three people in front of me informed me of the expected wait time. “It’s taking about thirty minutes,” he said.

Way up ahead of me in the line I could see one of my close friends who appeared to be conducting business from her cell phone. First someone came in to have her sign paperwork then a few minutes later she was delivered a batch of cupcakes.  I weighed the option of running my pink slip up to her so she could pick up my package for me, but I didn’t want to be the one responsible for turning the mostly cheerful crowd hostile by cutting, besides, her hands were full.

A well known local conspiracy theorist happened to be there that day, and he decided to talk rather loudly and incessantly about how the postal service was going south because of the government’s war on drugs.  According to him, all packages were being opened and inspected in the back and that’s why it was taking so long.

Another woman, someone I didn’t recognize, talked on her cell phone about some fairly private matters concerning the health of her friends and family.  After hearing the words “colonoscopy” and “questionable pap results” I was thankful, for her family’s sake and my own, that I didn’t know her.

About twenty minutes in, my business conducting friend who had been near the beginning of the line finished sending her packages and came to chat with me.  We made a date to sit in her new hot tub, exchanged stories about our teen-aged daughters and compared notes on how we were holding up during the coldest, darkest part of winter.  Then as she was walking out she looked back at me and said, just so most everyone could hear, “I don’t wear a bathing suit in the hot tub, so don’t worry about bringing one.” – So glad she left me there with the townsfolk after giving them that image.

Then there was the lady that kept trying to get the group to sing Christmas carols, and the young woman who never looked up from her texting the entire time, and the guy who was reading his mail and swearing.  It made for some good people-watching and I never got bored.

Overall it wasn’t a bad 48 minutes.  It was better than shopping and it reminded me of why I love this quirky little town.  And I had something to think about when I finally got my box of spices and it had been opened.  Maybe the conspiracy theorist guy was right after all.

An Ode to Fiddle Camp

Jam (photo courtesy of Nicole Christianson)

All through September I kept having the feeling that summer couldn’t possibly be over yet.  There were a few things that didn’t happen; things that make summer feel complete.  This was the first time in the fourteen years that we’ve owned our skiff that we never launched it, which if you live in Homer just seems crazy.  We also never hosted a salmon/halibut barbeque with a campfire.  Incomplete as it may seem without those aspects of summer, the even bigger hole in the season comes from the fact that this year there was no Fiddle Camp.    And I really, really missed it.

In 2005 when I first attended Fiddle Camp I had taken a few Suzuki lessons and had picked out a few Irish tunes on my violin.  I knew I loved playing, but didn’t really have much direction, so on my first day of camp I signed up for an Irish fiddle class, a very basic bluegrass workshop and a “how to play in a band” workshop.  At the end of the day I was happy enough, I had been challenged and had plenty to work on, but then something happened that night.  I witnessed an old-time fiddle jam that changed everything.

It was music different than anything I’d ever witnessed.  Someone would call a tune and the whole group started to play.  Nobody soloed, nobody tried to outdo the next person; everyone just played the same tune together, for a long time. I noticed that after the first five or so times through a tune there was a shift in energy, it became almost meditative for the players, and the music seemed to take on a life of its own.  The melody of each tune stayed true throughout, but the driving force was the rhythm.  It’s difficult to for me to describe an old time jam, but the word “tribal” comes to mind whenever I try.

The next morning I rearranged my schedule to old-time fiddle 1, old-time fiddle 2, clawhammer banjo (even though I’d never held a banjo in my life) and Appalachian singing.  My teachers were Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, so it’s safe to say I had a pretty amazing introduction to the genre.

I’ve been hooked on old-time music ever since. I play whenever I can; at home, with friends in town, and at festivals. But it’s not quite the same as being at camp.  Where else can I immerse myself in music for an entire week, share meals and stay up until all hours of the night with friends who share my passion?

And really it’s as much about the friends as it is about the music.  I’ve gotten used to seeing certain people every August and I missed them this year.  I missed singing hits from the eighties with Travis.  I missed hearing Eamon sing Irish ballads (and the Bee Gees) at two in the morning.  I missed Jay and Brian’s witty banter.   I missed everyone and the whole scene, especially the poignancy of Saturday night when nobody wants to go to bed because we all know it will be a whole year before we’re all together again.

Here’s hoping that Alaska Traditional Music Camp (Fiddle camp for short) will come together again someday.  My summer just wasn’t quite the same without it.  But even if it’s over, even if I have to get my music fix some other way in summers to come, I’m thankful to have been a part of it for the past five years.

Saturated (part 2 of the Anderson Bluegrass Festival experience)

(See previous post for Part 1)

On Friday morning Jay sent us on our way armed with some amazing smoked salmon and a warning to watch out for the “knuckle draggers.”  It turns out he had taken his family to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival several years before and had almost been run over in his tent by someone who went for a middle-of-the night motorized excursion, after consuming much alcohol no doubt.  Jay and his family ended up leaving the festival early.  Sherry had also warned us about the festival, saying it was a wild one.  Maybe it was the alluring weather forecast that called for clear skies and temperatures in the 80’s, but after taking heed of the warnings of our friends we decided to give Anderson a shot anyhow.   We could handle knuckle draggers, or duck out early if we felt so inclined.

We stocked up on more groceries than three women could possibly consume over the span of three days and in order to have optimal awareness before the long drive north we stopped at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge for some drinking chocolate, (like we needed an excuse.)  I was looking forward to the drive with two of my favorite ladies, to listening to all the old-time music I liked (something my family doesn’t really appreciate) and getting north of the Alaska Range to where the summertime temperatures get well above what us coastal folks are accustomed to.

Honestly, our first impressions of the festival had us a little worried.  We didn’t feel like we fit in very well.  Not a one of us sports a tattoo or has piercings in unusual places.  We didn’t bring a keg or a hula hoop or a dog.  We drove around the grounds looking for a place to camp, feeling discouraged by our options until we spotted a group of people who looked a little like us.  They were about our age, clothed, and most importantly they were playing stringed instruments rather than a boom box.  We found out they were a bluegrass band from Anchorage called Bootleg Brown and they turned out to be great neighbors.  I think they appreciated us as well.  The group that camped beside them on the other side brought a pig, not the little pet pot-bellied sort, but more of a hog; the kind that would be in a 4-H display at a county fair.  We were the neighbors without the pig, which automatically made us more favorable I think.

After getting our camp put together we headed over to the main stage.  Peter, the birthday boy from the night before, was playing with the old-time string band Lost Dog from Fairbanks.  It was a stroke of luck to get there when we did because out of the hundreds of people at the festival they were the only other old-time musicians we ran across all weekend.  We took a close look to see who they were so we would know who to track down when we wanted to play tunes later in the evening.  Kate is a great friend and a ton of fun to travel with, but I also discovered an added bonus of going to music events with Kate; she knows and remembers the names of musicians from all around the state.  It turns out she recognized the band members of Lost Dog; fiddler Thomas Hart, banjo player Pete Bowers, Kim Blair on the mandolin and Ryan Bowers on the bass.

While watching Lost Dog on the main stage it hit me that I was as warm as I’d been all summer.   It was already late in the day, around 8:00 pm, and the sun was still high in the sky and beating down on my skin.  I haven’t spent much time in the interior of Alaska but at that moment I was a convinced there was no place on earth I’d rather be.  There were a few people in the crowd I could imagine slipping into “knuckle-dragger” mode later in the evening, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  For a while we were just a bunch of people reveling in the sunshine, happy to be away from the real world for a little while.