This place, these people.

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          The temperature was dropping and a strong wind was blowing when I walked down the driveway after work on Thursday night. I am used to windstorms and cold, so I didn’t think much of it. But the gusts got louder and stronger through the night. Around 2:00am we heard one of the fiberglass panels from our greenhouse dislodge and it began to smack against the side of the house over and over again. An empty rain barrel crashed into the wall of our garage and then found its way from one side of our property to the other. It wasn’t a night for sleeping.

The next morning, the house was cold and outside the wind still blew–30mph sustained with gusts up to 60. We built a fire in the woodstove and when we opened the curtains we could see substantial sparks from the stovepipe flying through the air. The record breaking warm spell from January that had melted all of our snow was over, but the ground remained bare and vulnerable with dry grasses and brittle fireweed husks. Red flag fire warnings, standard fare for May or June, were issued in early February. Thankfully, the sparks fizzled out before they landed.

On my way to work Friday morning, gusts shook the car and blowing grit from early winter road sanding made for moments of no visibility. The pavement was littered with branches and debris. In three places I saw evidence of trees that had fallen and already been removed from the roadway. Halfway to town, a house with its roof torn and folded up on itself made my own sleepless night seem insignificant.

The wind didn’t let up all day.  In town, the library and the college lost power. Trees and power lines snapped. Roof shingles sailed through the air. Those of us who ventured out covered our heads to keep from getting dirt in our eyes and mouths. Everywhere it seemed people were on edge after having spent the night mentally holding down their homes and property.

Around noon, although it couldn’t be seen falling from the sky, cold, wispy, dry snow started to appear in the mix of blowing debris. After a few hours it began to accumulate unevenly—still bare ground in exposed places, but a few inches against buildings and in protected places. Finally, before we went to bed on Friday night, the wind stopped as abruptly as it had started the night before. I slept in the comfort of silence and a fresh blanket of snow.

***

             Everything that Friday was—violent, dusty, dark, edgy, uncertain—Saturday was not. The storm had passed, the skies were clear. The voice on the radio reminded me that we’re gaining five minutes of daylight a day.

I drank my coffee and had two productive hours of schoolwork in a sunlit room. Then I dug out my Mardi Gras beads and drove into town to watch the winter carnival parade. The parade doesn’t change much from year to year, but still I go. I love its silliness and its familiarity. It’s the town’s way of not taking itself too seriously. And yesterday, the day after the town felt like it was going to blow to pieces, everyone was relieved and festive and ready to have a good time.

Seeing friends at the parade led to an impromptu get-together of playing old-time fiddle tunes for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Later in the evening, we went to see the Irish band, Lunasa, at the high school. The place was packed and musicians played tirelessly and flawlessly for two solid hours.  After the show, we stopped at the Down East Saloon to enjoy Cajun music and one more showing of the Bossy Pants Brass Band that had marched in the parade. People were costumed and sparkly. The dance floor was sweaty and packed.

When we got home at midnight, I sat for a while and looked out the window at the stars. I thought about my day and how many friends I’d seen and caught up with. I thought about the way this town is molded by its crazy weather and its silly traditions. I thought about how I get weary of living here sometimes with the coastal climate, the distance from the rest of the world, the sameness, year after year. But then one sunny, musical day with a parade comes along and any bad thought that’s ever entered my mind about living here is gone as abruptly as the windstorm.

I went to bed with my mind still in motion. I could still see my friends’ children dancing to Lunasa’s hop jigs and reels. I could still hear the old time fiddle tunes I’d played in the cozy living room of my friend’s house. I could still see familiar faces parading through the middle of town—some on bikes, some on floats, some walking alongside their decorated farm animals.  I could still feel the rhythm of the Cajun two-step I’d danced with my husband and a hundred other friends.  When I finally fell asleep, I was thinking of all of us in this one place, all of us weathering every storm.

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.

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.

Saturated (part 1)

Sometimes a person reaches a saturation point.  The dampness of this coastal Alaskan summer was beginning to take its toll on my mood.  My imagination was stuck on replaying a scene that involved waking up in the morning and seeing blue sky and a yard that could be navigated without getting soaked.  I needed some sun and I wasn’t going to get it in Homer.  A field trip was in order, so my sister Marla and my friend Kate and I headed north, to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival.

There were no guarantees that the weather would be nice in Anderson, but whenever people gather to play music there is different kind of warmth that is created, a kind of heat that is a close second to that which comes from the sun, and I needed some of that as well.  Lucky for me the weekend did not disappoint on either front.

We left on Thursday afternoon and headed toward Anchorage to stay one night with our friends Jay and Sigrid, host and hostess extraordinaire.  They have an enviable way of making people feel right at home the moment you enter their presence (not just their home.)  Sigrid attended the play of one of her nieces that evening so we didn’t get to see much of her, but Jay whisked us away to a birthday party of a fellow musician and fiddle player, Peter.

Several friends that I’ve made over the past five years of attending Alaska Fiddle Camp were there, and it was great to get to see them, especially since there will be no camp this year.  After visiting for a while we found our way to the dining room that had been cleared out to make room for the purpose of playing music.  My brain was dull after the drive, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache (I should have known better than to substitute dinner with a mocha,) but thankfully my friend Sherry, another fiddle player, was there with her plethora of tunes, and between her and Peter and George, I enjoyed the luxury of just playing along without having to think too hard.  We played until just after midnight (in order to usher Peter into his 40’s) and ended the evening by passing around a gallon of raspberries that George had picked from his yard and given to Peter as a birthday gift.

It was raining again as we left the party but it didn’t really matter.  I felt content, and warm, and glad to be in Alaska among my friends.