Montana, music and the New Year

It’s the beginning of a new year—one that will be different for sure in our family.  Dillon will be heading up to UAA in a couple of weeks and in the fall Adella will be going to high school in Montana for her junior year.  The house will be emptying out a little sooner than I had expected, at least temporarily, and anticipating that change gives me a different perspective on the present.  Suddenly spending quality time with my family feels kind of urgent, and yet I’m finding that teenagers don’t necessarily feel the same way.  I’m trying to guard against being too sentimental.

It was challenging to stay caught up with my writing in December, so one of my biggest goals for the new year is to start acting like a serious graduate student again.  I’m not so far behind that I can’t get caught up, but I have to find the time to write and then use that time wisely.  I’m not sorry that I took a break though.  I had a great visit with my mom and two older sisters earlier in the month when they came to see Homer’s version of The Nutcracker and the holidays, with everyone at home, have been great.

A little break from writing has been nice, but I’m ready to face the new year now.  I find that I’m a bit of a New Year’s geek, always getting introspective and thinking about what I want to change about my life with the change of the calendar.   I can’t decide if it’s optimism that makes me this way or if it’s chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Either way, I always seem to want to try harder, tweak a few of my habits and generally work on self-improvement.

Last year was great in many regards.  I started an MFA program that I’m excited about.  I cut my sugar consumption way down.  Things are good with my family.  But I can see that I unintentionally cut back on a couple of things that bring me a lot of joy.

I went a whole summer without going camping or stepping foot in our skiff—and  summers in Alaska are way too short to not get out and enjoy the nature that’s all around.  I live in a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the mountains and the bay, but sometimes I need to leave my five acres and get out there.  That has to be a priority this year.

The other thing that I didn’t make enough time for in 2011 was music.  For the past decade I’ve made playing music a huge part of my life, and it’s one of the things that fills me up.  It gives me what I need to go about my less than exciting life of driving around, going to work, doing dishes, cooking dinner.  And as much as I love writing, it doesn’t do the same thing for me.  Music takes me out of my head.  When I get together with friends to play tunes I lighten up.  I drink a little.  I crack jokes.  When I’m alone and I work on learning new tunes it’s a lot like meditation.  My mind is clear for a while of all my responsibilities.

I love writing, and it gives me fulfillment in a different way, but it’s heady stuff.  When I’m concentrating on writing I tend to take myself a little too seriously.  I need to find a better balance.

So my hope for 2012 is to make time for music.  With it being an election year, I’m also hoping to spend less time reading the Huffington Post.  To me it seems like my time will be better-spent reading poetry, playing music and having fun with my family.  Of course I want to stay informed, but I don’t want to get worked up this time around.

I’m also anticipating a trip or two (who knows, maybe more?) to Missoula when Adella is down there.  I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Montana when I attended the U of M and although I’ll miss her terribly, I’m happy to have a reason to go back.  The mixed feelings I have about her going are eased by knowing I’ll get to visit, and by trusting that she’ll be in good hands while she’s there.

Best Wishes for the New Year to you all, and in keeping with my New Year’s wish for more music, here’s a clip of our afternoon old-time session from yesterday.  I’m playing one of the two fiddles.  (I’m the one trying to keep up.)

Smith River, Montana

I didn’t spend much time with my dad.  At age thirteen I moved away from his house to live with my mom in another town.  And although my dad was a great guy, one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, he wasn’t great at keeping in touch.  And as I became an adult I wasn’t the best with that sort of thing either.  Sometimes we saw each other only once every year, and as my kids got older and traveling became more cost prohibitive, our visits were even less frequent.  I did always call him on his birthday though, and now that he’s gone I miss picking up the phone and having a nice, long conversation with him every year on November 21st.   We’d talk about his garden, his plans for the future (he always had a plan), and often times we’d reminisce about the time we floated the Smith River in Montana.

Dean and I had been married for one year when my dad drove from Grand Junction to Missoula for a visit.  When we asked him if he’d like to go rafting with us he sounded a little reluctant but then said he was game to try anything once.  I interpreted that to mean that he wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he didn’t want to say no.  Dean and I latched on to that “try anything once” statement and planned a four day rafting trip.

My dad was an outdoorsy guy, but he went about battling the elements very differently than Dean and I did.  Let’s just say that his savvy came from more of a cowboy/huntsman place, whereas Dean’s and mine came from more of a backpacking, rock-climbing, REI catalog kind of place.  It made for some educational moments on both our parts.  My dad learned that while oiled cotton canvas might keep you dry should you get caught in a brief rain storm, it’s not really meant for rafting.  Dean and I learned the nuances of fly-fishing for brown trout, and discovered that expensive gear really isn’t the key to catching more fish. While Dean could read the river and keep us out of harm’s way (for the most part), my dad could identify all the plants along the banks.

When our yellow rubber raft began to fill up with water on day two of our trip, my Dad didn’t panic or get stressed out.  If he was worried at all he covered it well by cracking jokes and telling stories of his own youthful misadventures.  At one point when we were trying to identify where the leak was coming from my dad held up his two pointer fingers about six inches apart and said, “I can’t see the tear in the bottom of the raft, but I think it must be about this long.”  I asked him how he knew and he said, “Well there’s a fish about that size swimming around my boots.”

It became clear after a very short time that no amount of bailing was going to get us anywhere, so we looked for a good spot to pull over and repair the raft.  Dean had planned ahead for this sort of thing and had purchased a repair kit before the trip, but the patches that came with the kit were way too small for the gash that we found once we emptied out the raft and turned it upside down on the gravel bar.  To make matters worse, we realized we had forgotten to pack a roll of duct tape, something we had learned on an earlier trip to never leave home without.  When Dean resorted to patching up the raft with year-old, used duct tape that had been wrapped around the handle of one of the oars, my dad expressed a little concern, by saying, “You go ahead and work on that.  I’ll start praying.”

Other highlights of the Smith River raft trip include coming around a bend in the river and seeing a black bear cub standing on a boulder that jutted out over the water.  We were silent and still as it watched us float past.  I also remember my dad’s excitement at seeing a huge bush of ripe red currants.  He insisted that we pull the raft over and pick them for a few minutes so he could make currant syrup for our pancakes the next morning.

We also spent a lot of time building huge campfires in an attempt to dry out my dad’s gear because even though our dry bags were superior for keeping the sleeping bags dry, he insisted on wrapping up his belongings in his Australian oilskin duster.  He did have a bit of a stubborn streak.

When my dad came to visit Dean and I in Montana all those years ago we could have easily hung around the house the whole time or just taken a few sight-seeing drives, but instead we shared an adventure. Those four days of eating around a campfire, sleeping under the stars and floating down the Smith River have given me a lot of comfort over the past few years.