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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Long, Dark and Snowy Road

In mid-February, wind-raged snow blustered outside the window as the Nor'easter picked up force on Saturday and continued through Monday morning. The landscape was an unceasing swirling white of steady flakes through day and night. I'd lost 2 shifts on the retail job for lack of work. When the day brightened on Monday morning, I was restless. The sounds of the news from my father's office and the classical music from my mother's kitchen radio were a discordant duet. For the first time in many years, I was in a live-in relationship where those that loved me cared about every move.

After shoveling the little deck and readying for a night shift, a subtle cloud of worry emerged around the 7-mile drive to work. The fears of my own (going off the road, getting stuck) were manageable, I was troubled by the potential of how the incident would impact the peace of their daily life, creating a small drama to become a part of family lore. The obstacles that I had tackled alone for many years were now faced with people who loved me and were physically present nearly all the time.

As I drove, there were drifts of snow in small stretches of fields in between the forests. I recollected the decision, made in 1995, to drive alone through the Yukon Territory during a deep cold wave. There was a deadline. The warnings of other people weren't strong enough to overcome my imprudent choice to carry on with the trip.

I was working for a small ecotourism trade association in the coastal community of Valdez. That first winter in Alaska was tough. Atypically, there was little snow. Blades of grass crunched, dust blew and I would trudge across an open ball field to a lonely office, and then return to a room in a trailer home that I'd rented from a traveling ice climber. My housemate shoveled snow and mowed lawns for a living. Lee was a lanky, long-haired, dim bulb of sweetness.

One night Lee asked me to go camping.  He didn’t have a car.  "We’ll go 4-wheeling Ellen", he said, as I drove carefully on the rough, rocky road up the mountain on the back side of town. The air was terrifically crisp, deep space clear, cold and unforgiving.   

We hustled into sleeping bags and ground covers, then covered again with blankets and a tarp. Our breath crystallized along the edge of our respective mustaches and hats. The northern lights flew and flowed. We were silent through the night. Amid that resplendent and magical song of the arctic skies, there was really very little to say.

Days later in January, as the job hired a new Director and needed to move the office to Juneau, I left just before first light to make the journey through the Yukon Territory to Haines. As I descended into the valley on the north side of Thompson Pass, I watched the frost creep out across the windshield. An 8-inch circle, directly above the full force heat blower, was the only spot remained clear for the road ahead.

I was dressed in heavy layers top and bottom. A bag at the ready for the small things I would need on the journey:  a hot thermos, extra layers, a book, a headlamp, calories, a collection of cassette tapes. My old Land Cruiser wagon was filled with computers, paper files and my own meager baggage.  

Here is the only photo of Buck the Truck that I could find.
This was taken on the return trip from Juneau to Anchorage
 about 4 years later.
With only a few hours of light for driving, my boss arranged an overnight stay with a member of the association that I worked for. I pulled into his driveway as the late afternoon slipped into darkness. The light of the outdoor freezer was on despite the fact that it was colder outside than inside. The house was a 100-degree difference than the temperature outside, a balmy 80. The large screen TV dominated the room. He mentioned that I'd sleep in a recliner downstairs, where it would be warmer.

"I'll show you around." he said, as we walked over to the nearby cabin where his hunting clients stay during the summer. The wolves were hanging there, swingingly slightly as we entered the space.  Their pelts deep and rich, soft and hairs just a little flexible despite the cold.
 "They are still being processed." he said, "I need to scrape them down again."
I noticed the small bits of flesh and muscle still on the pelts.    
"Can’t do it now.  Have to wait until it warms up."

The car was dead in the morning, not a glimmer of energy in the engine despite the block heater being plugged in. It was then about 30 below zero.  I’d also left it in gear overnight, a rookie mistake. My host fetched a piece of kindling and jammed it between the seat and the clutch pedal.

"We gotta warm it up enough to get it back in gear." He grumbled. I had now become something to deal with. He trotted off to the shed and returned with a can of propane and a long tube of metal with what looked like a soup can on the end.  He propped it up under the car, lit the burner and we watched and waited against the backdrop of tiny and resilient black spruce in this small cabin in the woods. The battery turned. The gear released. In hours, I was on my way again.
This day was the longest stretch between Tok and Haines Junction. I felt a small nip of frostbite on a fueling stop and felt the surge of the 18-wheelers as they passed me. They were my only companions on the road. The passage was a determined exercise of trust and faith. I pulled into the roadhouse in the early night, had dinner and resolved to wake up and start the car every 2 hours to prevent yet another freeze up. At 4 am, I sleepily rationalized that I'd let it go just a couple hours. By 6:30, the car was dead and I needed to get a tow to the garage in town. Then, I headed on the final leg. The open flow of the Chilkat River and the above zero balminess of the coast was a palatable relief. The ferry left for Juneau hours later, off to a new home and a new life.

Berner's Bay. One of my clients enjoying the
spectacular sunset. I worked summers in the field
while doing office work in the winter. 

Friday, December 30, 2016


The phone rang late. My parents were off at an ice hockey game and the "this is it" thought crossed my mind when I saw the caller id.  My mom's voice wavered. "John has had an accident and can't drive his car. We are going to take him home."  It would have been a longish drive at night. In that instant I got worried.

"Just come here and I'll drive you over there." I replied.  Their fancy sedan pulled up moments later. John in the front seat. 90 years old, a bit discombobulated, rattling off the list of things that were on his schedule for tomorrow but now had to cancel. His daughter was coming up in the afternoon. He shuffled papers in his hands. He'd lost his glasses. It was so late. The home team lost the game.

My folks spent a few minutes getting John settled into his house. He lived alone in the place he'd bought with his wife and my mom's close friend, who died a couple of years ago. Mom and Dad debriefed me on the way home. The car was totaled. He'd hit the bus of the visiting team while backing out of a parking space. A woman was injured. "What would come of him?Will they let him drive again? He's stuck so far out here." My mom wondered.  For John, the accident was a milestone, a moment of profound change.

Last year at this time, I was flying to Singapore at midnight like Santa on Christmas Eve. I spent 4 nights in the city for under $500, spent days hiking urban trails and exploring an island, saw The Force Awakens. In 2011, I was parading around the Buddhist school playground in a Santa costume leading the children in robust refrains of Jingle Bells. I was reminded, via Facebook, that 7 years ago I was bundled up around a campfire celebrating the Solstice in Alaska.

Now, everything is different. For the first time since 1990, I am not traveling through multiple time zones to celebrate the holidays with the family. This is a very safe and comforting life. I am insulated with extra holiday pounds, overcooked vegetables and someone else doing snow removal. In this stasis week between major holidays and the upcoming end to the seasonal retail gig, I am unsettled and uncertain about what will emerge next. I'm grateful for the space-- in this condo community with my parents--to find the right fit and continue to look for righteous work without too many financial pressures.  I am experiencing a life change that feels like a long simmering of beans cooking in the late winter afternoon, ripening of fruit, the growth of a tree.

In early December I attended a webinar with Glenda Eoyang of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute on life changes. She started with her impression that her life would be a trajectory, a cumulative ascent of marriage, children, salaries, and houses. The change model of tidal charts and moon phases, gentle periods of fullness and emptiness, works for some folk. Glenda looks at change differently-- that the process of builds slowly, like the pressures of shifting tectonic plates and barometric pressures and culminates with a dramatic release of earthquakes and tumultuous storms.

 I don't know where I sit on these models, but I suspect I am wallowing in a steep valley in the dark time.  As easy as this life should be, it feels a little uncomfortable. I still haven't hit the right gear for the upward climb. In just a couple of weeks, I may be unemployed in an American society with a bombastic, reactive, likely corrupt and wholly unattractive and unhappy leader with his band of gleeful billionaires ready to disrupt the tenets of civil society. Time to buckle up, shift into a lower gear and keep the foot on the gas.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Tuning In
On a 2-lane highway somewhere in the deep hinterland of the American West, I heard about the meaning of April 19th.  The details spewed out the car radio in my Toyota wagon as I made my way from my friend’s house in Montana to my sister’s house in Colorado, a pit stop in what was one long road trip in the early 90's as I vagabonded my way through America. I was cruising the waves, seeking something different than the cassette tapes that had become so predictable that they played over and over again in my mind long after I left the car.  Listening was an easy connection to the local community in those hours of solo, road-trip travel through small towns.

Along those lonely roads, the talk radio host went onto explain the significance of a citizen rebellion of government on that day, the anniversary of the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord. The man went on to talk about Waco, a 51 day month siege that ended on April 19th and the Oklahoma bombing that purposely occurred on the same day.  It is still unclear if America’s first mass school shooting in Columbine Colorado was orchestrated for that day or Hitler’s birthday on the 16th. When I tuned in, I learned these things.

An AM-band radio station kept me awake and focused during the early morning hours, after an epic two-day hike in the pouring rain with 10 elementary school children, a flooded stream and a burly co-guide who rigged a line across the torrent and carried each kid across, as they clung to his back. After more hours of hiking, the group slowing down into darkness, we loaded up, stopped for pizza and headed back to camp. The van was quiet with deep, exhausted breathing, the only sound was music and commentary from a station in New York City, miles away, but reaching me as I focused on the empty highway to home.

On another road trip to a job at a ski resort in Colorado, I hit a patch of black ice and felt helpless as the car tumbled over into a ravine. In that second, I gave up to the forces around me.  There was no control.  There was no ability to change the trajectory.  I was on a path and there was no turning back. The small rocks on the dashboard, the go-to items in the passenger seat and cargo in the back were scattered throughout the car; the seatbelt held me safe. I landed on all four wheels and with the engine still running, got hauled out of the ditch to review my options. In the end and after my sister , the car was safe enough to drive. In the late morning the next day, I began the journey back to Boulder.   The car was clean and empty, rising up the highway over Steamboat Pass.  the radio played the song, “And when I die… there will be another child born to carry on”   I cried to the music in the car.  

The car radio punctuated a passionate moment when I was in High School as I kissed a boy in the front seat. The night was cool, it was steamy and passionate, the brush of whiskers and explorations of lips and skin, hands and hair. My knee hit the knob and the radio station blared, "Jesus died for your sins." We paused, giggled, and tried to carry on. The moment was changed then. He was Catholic. He dropped me at home shortly after.

In all the commentary of the campaign and the results of the election, I feel similarly to that moment in 1979 when the abrupt message came in over the radio waves. I am alternating among a desire to leave the country (one acquaintance has already),retreat into meditation and dedicate time to finding righteous employment, or find the right activism. In the meantime, I try to muster kindness for all. What other control do we have? The questions linger. How to do we have a constructive and meaningful dialog with those who hold different views? What is the way forward in achieving unity and agreement to advance our collective commitment to liberty and justice for all? How will this incredibly turbulent time change us, as people and as a nation? I am not sure the radio will have the answers, but it worth trying to tune in to learn more.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Objects of Desire

The people, clutching their items, approach my section of the long checkout counter in a rapid and dizzying succession. A knobbly cabled cotton cardigan is followed by a 7-pound pea coat. A cashmere hoody slinks in, soft and seductive, and jumps on the counter like a black cat. Shoe boxes shout their presence and succumb unwillingly to the paper bag at my feet. Rubber boot keychains, cookies shaped like totebags and lobster lollipops bob to the eddy of my shore as the river of customers flows by. On rainy days, the river runs strong.

I'm temporarily working in the capitalist machine of consumer goods, albeit a family business with a great reputation for quality and valuing their employees. The human personalities in the stream of customers are at times strong, I become more attached to the items that float by.  “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that?” a small voice whispers as athletic pants appear on the counter before getting slipped into a paper bag. The want tugs gently at my shirtsleeve like a 3-year-old, pleading, "Buy this, accumulate that, build a fortress of clothing around you as the temperature dips to the frost point."  Driving home close to midnight after my shift ended, the headlights illuminate the red and yellow leaves. The full moon is high over the fallow fields as I venture through the fog wisps. Like the chipmunk with full cheeks, I am thinking ahead to winter.

Thus far, I am able to resist the purchase to buy brand new but still wrestle with the reality that I need to be outfitted with clothing for winter. There are finds at thrift stores and the employee store, I seek in waiting to accumulate objects that are sturdy, utilitarian, funky, and have some soul.

But in fact, I miss the objects that have disappeared in years of moving around. The handmade knitting needle case that may have been misplaced in the roof of my vehicle and disappeared as a drove to the next destination.  A custom crocheted knitting bag with stunning intricacy and care, traded for a handknit set of socks, hat, and mitts, that lost in the mail with a simple decision not to insure the box,  My grandmother’s stainless steel bracelet, perhaps fallen from a pocket in the aftermath of an MRI on a still troublesome upper back and shoulder, was missed immediately yet not found anywhere at the hospital. The sea kayaking jacket that accompanied me on multiple expeditions, the ultimate defense against pouring rain, high winds, and cold temperatures, was given away in the frenetic days of the house sale. To where and whom it was given, I cannot remember.

If I knew these special items were destroyed in a fire, it would be easier to let them go. When I am settled and long to nest, these objects haunt me. The hungry ghosts arise in thoughts with regret, longing, and disappointment, I am remorseful over the past mistakes and carelessness that tossed them into an abyss of misplacement. One can only hope that there were adopted by another instead of lying in layers of garbage in a horrific landfill.

When the need strikes, I unpack the boxes looking for the things that were moved from the house. They are there, in all the joyful understatedness of packed away presence. As I find the places for them in my new home, I find that these things enrich my soul and give me joy. I am able to hear their stories.

On a way home from a late season
trip many years ago and with tips
burning in my pocket, I went through Denali
National Park's gateway village and saw
a sale sign.  I pulled over, saw this piece and
fell in love. It arrived in Maine a little
broken and bent, but a local artist was
able to fix it. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Alaskan Bachelor Party

It was a "last-chance before the snow falls" pilgrimage back to a beloved land, culture, and people. The primary mission to see old friends and bring back my belongings. In the final hour of the 9 hours of flights from Maine. I lifted the window, high-fived my forethought and appreciated the clear skies as the sun stretched its legs in the waning autumn evening.

The Lost Coast of Alaska,  the northern coastline of the longest contiguous stretch of wilderness in the world,was studded by glaciers and mountains below.  I'd guided many trips in two glacier-filled bays along this coast in the mid-90s. It was a sheer, raw,dynamic  and powerful place where I felt such a deep hue of humility and awe that I felt some of my ashes should be spread there after my final days. The plane flew farther north to Valdez, then over the mountains and following the highway into Anchorage.

Over the next ten days, I awoke during a mild earthquake at 3am, saw moose and calves in Anchorage's parks, watched for belugas amid the glittery outgoing tide of Turnagain Arm, walked long and hard, reunited with some objects some of which were reassuring and others pointless, went to a pop-up street art festival, drove a manual transmission, and listened to my favorite radio station.  My host and Southeast Asia travel companion fulfilled my hope and offered to drive on a road trip out to the edge of the biggest National Park in the US, which is only accessible by air or a 60-mile gravel road.
On the road east. Frost heaves not shown. 

The highway stretched through expanses of golden birch and aspen punctuated by distant views of some of the highest mountains in North America. I reunited with a friend and homesteader, who I hosted for a few winters at my house in Spenard, and moved into a sweet little cabin for the weekend.  We drove into town with Mark on Friday night for some local culture and aurora's magic glowing green waves rippled in the sky.
Aurora at Fireweed Mountain.
Photo by Mark Vail. 

One our way into town the next day, heading up to the Kennecott mine for our hike, the memories of my first autumn in Alaska drifted in.  I'd gone out alone in my 1984 Landcruiser wagon for an end of season trip to visit my friend Tim. I'd just started a new job coordinating an eco-tourism trade association in Valdez. On the long gravel road that was the old railroad bed, I'd gotten a flat tire and changed it myself. My friend was guiding trips and the operations were based out of a shipping container in the gravel beds on the riverside. The airstrip was on the other side of the river in the old miner's community.  Ar the time, the only way across the rushing and icy glacial river was to pull yourself over on a hand-tram that swayed above a rocky, rushing, glacier-fueled river. Tim and his fellow guides shuttled their gear across each day  I watched the owner heat his bathing water with a small, twiggy fire in a tiny, cylindrical stove.

Years later, on this crisp fall morning, we set out and hiked up-- 1,000 feet of elevation per mile--saw bears grazing on the hillside, more mountains stretching on forever,  and returned home to make a simple dinner and sleep well.

There were other nights in cabins in this beautiful valley. In the late days of 2008, I was the beginning of a new stage of work and feeling frayed by the previous job. I rode in with a couple of with a couple of gal friends who also had cabins in the area. The truck was loaded with tire chains and a chainsaw, There was a cold snap of well below zero degrees.  My homesteader friend met me at the trailhead at the road and I was happy to ski with my backpack. I was staying in the cabin couple that rented a room in my house during a winter they lived in this special foothills area of Fireweed mountain a few years earlier.

Bonanza Mine on the horizon. 
The outgoing breath billowed to leave frost on my eyelashes and breathing in froze nose hairs.  Over the next few days, I explored the area with Mark, read and wrote, and split wood in the noon light. The big spruce logs cracked apart in the deep still cold. I hauled in and restocked and melted snow for water. That night, drifting down to 30 below, the night percolated along nicely. It was time to buff up the stove before bed.

The gnarled piece was problematic to split even in the deep cold of the Alaskan interior. A knot entangled at the base. It barely fit in the barrel of the stove. Hot and fierce action erupted as the heady flow of oxygen was sucked in. The accelerator was floored in this race to complete destruction.  The stovepipe glowed red.  If this went bad it would be a disparaged legacy, a reputation gone awry, a horrible act of negligence and a grievance that one lifetime couldn't heal. Perhaps only a minute passed in frantic poking and prodding, but then the load shifted. The stove door shut and I exhaled and tempered the damper. Everything was settled into a slow burn.  I was happy to see the morning.

Now back in Maine, the fatigue of the redeye flight has subsided. The fiery passion of getting set up in Maine has now settled into a merry warmth on a bed of settled coals. The fire embers I spoke of back in 2011 are igniting. The 9 boxes of books, journals, antique kitchen tools, and small arty objects of importance and joy will arrive before September's end.
The 250 pounds of stuff sent back in the mail.
25% of it was the boxes of journals.

While I will likely never work as a guide again,  I now have the outdoor gear I need to explore Maine's vast wild places. On the departure evening at the airport,  I hefted the utilitarian duffle bag from my guiding days onto the scale. I'd carefully packed with my outdoor gear: tent, life jacket, sleeping bag, hiking boots, small tarp anI stove. It weighed in at 49.5 pounds, 8 ounces shy of the overweight limit. "Nicely done.", the Alaska Airlines agent commented as it moved away on the conveyer belt. "Yes!", my brain high-fived itself, "Haven't lost the mojo."

The small joys of seeing old refrigerator magnets from the house. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Work Ethics

I thought it would be over by now.  I thought that within 100 days I would have had a job offer and have started the process of building my income again. The deadline has come and gone: a relay baton not passed or a left-hand turn in the car passed too quickly. My life passed by with both a blink of an eye with time both inexorably slow at the same time. 

In recent weeks, the void of paid work in my life has been a lingering dissonance, like the empty patch in the garden from a large plant that I relocated a few weeks ago or the annoyance of a typographical error on the sign near the cashier.  Characteristically, I am keeping busy attending to life details, getting out and about in wild places, conversing with a network about who I am and what I want to do, and undertaking  projects with a couple of groups that were close to my heart and were happy to have a seasoned consultant offer free services for a limited period of time.  My New England work ethic has always defined my character by what I do, but here in America your professional job typically provides you with other benefits- health insurance and sometimes an ability to invest tax-free. Weber 

At this 100 day milestone, I am facing the need to refill those critical medicines I need to survive. I'm not clear of those costs and with a $5,000 deductible looming ahead for the next three months, all expenses are mine to bear. Fortunately,  I am receiving a low-income subsidy for the monthly premiums and I have virtually no living expenses while staying with my parents. I am grateful for that.  While I have grown to accept many of the facts about managing my diabetes, it pales to the reality of my grandfather. 

I had an opportunity recently to read my uncle's family history about my father's father, George.  My grandfather was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young adult just after insulin was discovered in 1922.  He lost his job during the Great Depression and went to the library to hide the fact that he was unemployed. George found a job working with a steamship company in Boston, but he could never reveal that he lived with diabetes. He could never buy life insurance for his family. He never went out to dinner with friends or colleagues, in fact eating the exact same food each day: oatmeal for breakfast, ratatouille for lunch and meat and vegetables for dinner.  He was so scarred by the Great Depression that they never bought a house and he saved all of his money in Swiss bank accounts-- a secret kept from his wife until he passed. 

Today, I often cycle past the 2 apartments where my grandparents lived in Brunswick (they were displaced twice by Bowdoin College's student housing expansions.)  My father's great-grandfather was born in Nova Scotia and started logging in Brewer Maine at 16. At 22, founded one of Maines's larger lumber companies, which harvested vast tracts of timber and floated them down the Penobscot River to the waiting ships that clustered in the bay to transport to market.  The family has always worked hard. 
At the Oak Hill Cemetary in Brewer Maine.
Photo credit Bill Maling. 
I finally buckled down and applied for a seasonal, temporary job at a major outdoor retailer a few weeks ago.  

 "Have you ever worked on a factory line or around heavy machinery?", the interviewer asked.  This question came just a day  after a search committee for a senior level position asked about my project management skills, to which I replied, "Plate Spinning" and the interview team erupted in laughter.   But here I was in a cubicle with the interviewer typing into an online form while listening to my responses. 

"Yes.I have", I replied.  The factory was my first job after my freshman year of college. It was the first time that I met someone who had lost most of her teeth. Her think hair was pinned on a small bun atop of her head. She told me about her love flower over the clatter and dusty of the machines that spit out sheets with tiny glue squares, upon which we glued a petit four of small fabric squares. The country radio station played, "I'd rather be lonely without you than a fool by your side."  I realized the power of being born into the middle class and the power of health insurance.

Weaver Bird and Nest
These days,  I am spending some of my days a the library. The full-time job search has thus far been  unsuccessful.  10 closely-targeted senior management level CV submissions and three interviews later, my internal dialog is beginning again about my uneasy relationship with office work. How to be a creative freelancer with the Ball and Chain of healthcare costs? This is a recurrent refrain from the opening number in my performance art piece in 2010.

I am so grateful to have this unique position.  As long as I can manage to wrestle the internal doubts and idiosyncrasies of living with my parents, this is a great place to stay. There are minimal financial obligations. I have savings after years of living on the very cheap.  Last week when I refilled the prescriptions, it was a huge relief- Obamacare is working for me.  I think I can pursue a creative path.

This process of forming relationships, establishing structure and creating a new life will take longer.  I can feel the webs forming, the tensile threads of connections, a glistening and resilient network that forms community and work connections.  I am building a nest, gathering threads, knitting together small balls of yarn to create the blanket of this new life.