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.

The Low Down on the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (so far)…

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is underway, and I’m feeling lucky that such an event happens right here in my home town.  World class authors come here, to me, making it just so easy (and affordable) to learn from them.  I get in my car, drive about fifteen miles, make myself comfortable in the conference room at Land’s End Resort, and people like Michael Cunningham, Dinty Moore, Bill Roorbach, Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord and Rich Chiappone (to name just a few) offer workshops, answers to writing questions and expert advice.   It’s pretty cool.

Although I’ve been dabbling in writing for several years, I’m a newbie to the writing world.   The KBWC is a good way to get a sampling of what it’s all about.  Jennifer Pooley, a senior editor from HarperCollins imprint William Morrow is here, as is agent April Eberhardt.  It’s been nice to meet both of these very approachable women because they remind me that agents and editors are real people; something I’m guessing that most of you already knew.

Here are a few morsels I’ve gleaned from the offerings so far:

  • I use the word “I” way to much in my writing and I think I’m going to have to start looking for alternative ways to talk about myself so as to not bore the poor readers or sound like a narcissist.
  • Bill Roorbach says to call writing “work” and not “writing,” because the guilt-ridden side of us won’t let us skip out on work and it’s easy to decline social engagements when you say, “Sorry, I have to work.”
  • Dinty Moore’s workshop on miniature nonfiction validated my love for keeping things short and gave me some great ideas for future projects.
  • Michael Cunningham says it’s important to stay engaged with a piece of writing by visiting it every day, even if you don’t have much time.  He also says to “write smarter than you are.”
  • Listening to Peggy Shumaker read from her new book, “Gnawed Bones” reminded me that I love poetry, especially when it’s as accessible and beautiful as hers.
  • And Bill Roorbach says that gardening is writing.  I love that.

Lunch Break Pilgrimage

To outsiders 39 degrees doesn’t sound very warm, but in Homer, in the middle of March, when there is no wind and the sun is shining, it feels downright toasty, especially if you’re wearing your favorite wool sweater.  Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Day, was one of those days.  Unfortunately I had to work, but I did manage to get outside over my lunch break.

First, I left the library and waded through several inches of slush in the parking lot to find my way to the walking trail that leads through the woods.  The trail hasn’t been cleared since last week’s storm, but a narrow path of packed down snow made it passable.  I could have followed the road, but I would have been sprayed and subsequently soaked if a car had driven past.  On the trail I met a young guy whose mother is a friend of mine.  When he stepped aside to let me pass he sunk about two feet into the soft, melting snow.  It was very chivalrous of him considering the fact that he was wearing sneakers and I had my snow boots.

At the end of the trail I turned south on Poopdeck Street.  At this point I had to shade my eyes with my hands.  The sun, the snow, the water; well it was all a little overwhelming for my pupils.  The sidewalk was also icy which made for some interesting maneuvering.  I walked and slid my way downhill to the highway, without crashing I might add, with one hand above my eyes and the other out in front of me for balance.

I crossed the highway at the crosswalk and cut through the Islands and Ocean Visitors Center parking lot to meet the next trail.  It cuts down through the spruce and alder forest and leads to one of my favorite destinations in Homer; Two Sisters Bakery.  But yesterday it was too nice outside, and I needed the sun more than I needed a chocolate bread roll, so I walked past the bakery and headed toward Bishop’s Beach.

The parking area was crowded.  Dogs and children were milling about.  A black lab and a German shepherd, free from their owners, ran up to greet me.  It turns out that I knew both of the dogs and when I called out their names, Osa and Caspian, they were beside themselves. They proceeded to swarm around me in a flurry of leaping and hopping and wagging tails.  When the boys who belonged to the dogs caught up they seemed equally as excited as the dogs at having found someone they know at the beach. Sometimes there’s nothing like a good greeting.

After a short chat in the parking lot I walked through the soft sand at the top of the beach and over the rocky stretch about half way down before I reached the final stretch of my journey.  Still wet from the receding tide and littered with clumps of seaweed, driftwood and clam shells, the expanse of dark sand just before the water is one of my favorite places.  Sometimes I walk long distances along the water’s edge, taking advantage of the firm surface, but yesterday my time was limited so instead of walking parallel to the water I went straight toward it.

I  knew I didn’t have long, that I’d have to turn back in order to get back to work on time, but I stood for a while with the water inching in and out around the soles of my boots.  I listened to the waves. I turned my head toward the sun and soaked in its heat for a few moments.  Then I did something that I hadn’t planned on doing; I took off my gloves and plunged my hands in the ocean.   For some reason it just seemed like the right thing to do.

More snow days

The library where I work moved into a new building three years ago, and since then it has become a bit of a town living room.  In the winter locals stop in between errands to warm up by the fireplace, or to check their email or browse through the new books.  Friends meet there to play chess or to knit.  It’s also a great place for small talk.  I’m one of the chattier librarians, which I guess might be bad since libraries are supposed to be quiet places, but one of the things I like about living in a small town is being on a friendly basis with most everyone I see.

Some days everybody is talking about the most recent antics of our ex-governor, or about the high school hockey team.  Last week there were lots of comments about the six puppies that were left near a dumpster in a kennel with the word “HELP” spray painted on the sides.  Something always has folks talking, and if no local politician has done anything gossip-worthy, or there haven’t been any house fires, then we always have Mother Nature to fall back on.  Last March Mt. Redoubt, the volcano across Cook Inlet, gave us all something to speculate about and yesterday the library was abuzz with talk of the impending storm that the weather service predicted would start at 4:00pm.

Blizzards aren’t terribly unusual here in Homer, so you wouldn’t think we’d get all excited about them, but we do.  For a little while, before every dramatic storm, the town feels like Christmas Eve.  The grocery stores get busy with people wanting to “stock up.”  Folks rush to the library so they won’t run out of reading material.  Trying to find a parking place at the video store becomes impossible.

We say that all of the bustling about is for the sake of preparedness, but in reality you won’t find a population more prepared for disaster than Alaskans.  We have full propane tanks, multiple cords of firewood, plenty of food and, I’d guess, more entertainment options at home than we’d ever consume while waiting out one measly storm.  I think the pre-blizzard giddiness that happens is just our excitement over the possibility of having a snow day or two.  We all just want an excuse to stay home for a while, and in case that happens we want to make sure we have half and half for our coffee and couple of good movies.

As individuals we’ve adapted to the extreme conditions here, and so have the road crews and city maintenance workers.  We should know better than to hope for a snow day.  But we can’t seem to help ourselves.  Whenever the national weather service issues a winter storm warning the fantasies start to play out in our minds.  We imagine a day of tending the fire, drinking hot cocoa, cooking a slow, savory stew.

Yesterday, just like the weather service predicted, the wind started to pick up around 4:00 pm.  The library was a flurry of activity until we closed at six.  It was cool to see people in town preparing not for the storm, but for the off chance, the hope, of this being that one big blizzard that happens every few years that allows us to stay home for a few days.  Even in Homer, Alaska we manage to fill up our time with work, school, sports, meetings and a hundred other things.  A harsh storm gives us all reason to pause and remember that slowing down wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  We know that we’re able to get where we need to go when the snow is three feet deep and blowing sideways; but just because we can doesn’t always mean that we should.  I think we need more snow days.