Saturday, September 30, 2017

The End of the World As We Know It


The world didn't end on September 23, as a number of biblical literalists had predicted.  The Sign, a documentary that tries to make a case for coming doom. The believers interpreted the unusual celestial alignment event where the planets of Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter will be close to the constellations of Virgo and Leo, with the sun and moon also hanging around, as a symbol that the world would end. NPR covered it. 
Screen shot from The Sign,.

It didn't end but feels like the earth is having a huge temper tantrum. Multiple hurricanes whirled through the American south. Let us not forget the fires that decimated Montana, Oregon, and California. While barely covered in US media, but this year's August monsoon in East Asia was unprecedented in its breadth, affecting 41 million people with floods and landslides.  In September,  earthquakes ravaged Mexico, Vanatau and other islands perched on the edge of the Ring of Fire. Activity is escalating as I write this,  a volcano in Bali rumbling to life and evacuations in progress.

In the relative safety of Maine, I reflected back on several disasters I lived through over the years I lived in Anchorage.  The eruption of Mount Spurr, which dumped ash over Anchorage. A windstorm that blew satellite dishes off the roofs, and sometimes the roof itself.  The now typical combination of snow and warm temperatures that results in a coating of ice across the city. 

Many years ago, I held several small stones of pumice in my hand on the final days of a Savonoski Loop in the wilds of  Southwest Alaska. The floating pebbles bobbed amid the boulders on a rocky shore on an island in Naknek Lake, a result of the Novarupta volcano. In 1912, the eruption was thirty times larger than Mount St Helens. The sound of the explosion reached Juneau, 750 miles away, an hour after it happened. Because of its remote location, it killed only 2 people and changed a landscape forever. 

For so many living in the midst of disaster, it is impossible to consider what will evolve beyond the turmoil of the immediate disaster. Aldeth Lewin, a Vermonter living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, recently wrote on her Facebook page.

"Every day I learn about another family who left and who isn't coming back. At least not for many more months. Ari's class has dropped from about 25 to about 6. So, yeah, "normal" doesn't exist anymore. 
I am more hopeful than I was a week ago, and still less hopeful than I was two weeks ago. Because like my co-worker said, we are all doing the aftermath shuffle - one step forward and three steps back. 
We'll get there. 
Eventually. 
I hope."

From my safe space, perhaps I can dream for all of them. I can meditate on their path back to normalcy, maintain the hope that the new developments will not repeat the mistakes of the old, and believe that their trauma will be resolved and lead to further resiliency. Keep the consciousness of their difficulties. Know that the earth, in all her power, will survive and that humankind may not.


















Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Message from the Universe

Summer is ending and I am feeling wistful for what could have been. Looking back on a few meager Maine adventures and the week at sea, I’m a tad regretful that I worked so much over the past two months. As the sun rushes back to the horizon and the sunflowers stand tall and triumphant, the air has a brisk sense of crispness for the ripening of harvests and the beginning of foliage season.
The Great Pumpkin winner at the Alaska State Fair.
Grown entirely with hydroponics, the pumpkin weighed in at
1,231.5 pounds.  A tradition at the end of August in Alaska.
Instead of feeling rich with summer's bounty, I'm tattered, juggling and plate spinning on work projects. The retail job hired me part-time with benefits and increased my hours. I applied in the midst of the ACA controversy as the memories of the crippling costs of self-insurance in Alaska were painful. I don’t think that was a mistake to move to "permanent", but the tide is rushing with the consulting work as well.

There are three other concurrent projects on deck; good work with great people. Hours have become precious, scheduled, and dedicated to specific things: tasks, cooking, driving, and eating and sleeping. I was happily distracted to have two different houseguests who each came for day days for the third week of August, long-time friends who traveled long hours to get to Maine.


On a Sunday afternoon after the last guest had left, when I descended the stairs after stripping the beds, I missed the last step and sprained my ankle. Pain erupted; I heard something click. When the hubbub subsided and I R.I.C.E’d without relief, I headed off to the clinic. Nothing was broken, but the orders were clear. I couldn’t go to work at the retail job on Monday.
Photo from NASA.
https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/uploads/solar_eclipse_nasa.jpg


I felt a cascade of relief wash over me and called in sick.  I made a long list of things that had been bugging me to get done, and the next morning I ensconced myself into a comfy chair with an ice pack, knocked out tasks, made a pinhole box viewer for the Eclipse, and a plan to meet a friend for an afternoon at the beach to watch it. In the afternoon on the rocky shore, the tide drifted out, I shared my shadow in the bottom of the box with my friend and a young mother and son. I bathed in the waning afternoon sun, taking nourishment in the sea air. It was a wonderful moment to be celebrating nature's power with other Americans.

In accidents like this, the message from the Universe is clear. Slow down. Pay attention. Use your support system (the railing). There’s plenty of time if you bring intention to each minute. It was a wake-up call, a reckoning, a realization that I'd like to dedicate more time to walking and nature and exploring new places. That will happen right after I wrap up short project #2...

Sunday, July 30, 2017

At Sea

I woke up just as the sun was emerging from the horizon. The ocean was calm after a rocky 24 hours crossing the Gulf Stream on our way to Bermuda. During the day, My sister and I sloshed around, buffeted by high winds and pelting rain, in the hot-tub on the highest deck. The family “Gala Dinner” was marked by sea sickness. I felt germophobic around the overwhelming sense of too many bodies in a small space. On that fresh new morning of a new day, the air on the small veranda was bright and clear.  We were due to navigate 2 rock passage and arrive in Hamilton Harbor mid-day.
The harbor pilot boarded the Veendam to
navigate through the many rocky hazards
that surround Bermuda. 


That morning reminded me of the early stages of my vagabond life after I left the intense job working on the streets of Boston.  I’d made my way south to Key West and pursued an idea of working as crew on long-haul boats after the taxi-cab and Pedi-cab business became tiresome. Micki, when presented with a willing woman for a job aboard, hired me to work on an overnight sport-fishing charter to the Tortuga Islands about 70 miles offshore with about 75 males. I showed up to the M/V Fishfinder with a small bag. The captain looked me over skeptically. “I can’t believe you brought bananas on a fishing boat.” He said, narrowing his eyes, “It’s bad luck.”




I found the name of the vessel in my journals and discovered
that it was deployed in Sentry Duty during the Gulf Oil Spill.
I worked 8 hours on, 8 hours off for two days. I remember dunking my hands in bleach water between bait sets. The effort was rough, dirty and sharp with hooks, knives and a boat that would pitch back in forth amid the fisherman’s expectations. In a gentle moment at dawn when lines were in the water and all were waiting for action, I looked up and out to the horizon.The surface of the sea glowed in lavender velvet, undulating gently. Then, the boat hit a run. I baited hooks and the men gaffed up brilliant red snapper, huge muttons and a Cobia eel that had nearly tied itself around the bait at the end of the hook. Hauled up on the deck, writhing with indignation, the male crew hit the fish on the head until they lay, pristine and peaceful, cold and iridescent, on the deck. At night, the stars swayed in the rocking of the boat, a single vessel in the midst of a large ocean.


I shared my story to a colleague recently:  the escape from the emotionally draining work on the streets of Boston to exploring wild places alone and the risks I took. “How courageous.” she said, “and all by yourself.”  I replied, in hindsight and recollection of that time in my life and the impact on family, “My poor parents.”

The Bermuda trip was a milestone, a reconnection with my mother’s family, a revitalization of my parent’s love of traveling and a marker for moving into a new housing situation that is cheap and close to my folks. Life has settled in and I’ve put down some roots. I now better understand the patterns of perennials and landscapes. I have plenty of work. Local connections are building and solidifying. I have everyday relationships with family.  I am no longer alone.


video
P.S. The video above was taken by Hartley Helmet Diving, a long-time Bermuda family that pioneered the old school technology that gets you really close to the action. www.hartleybermuda.com

Friday, June 30, 2017

Crossing a Border

The scenery changed as I drove north. As I left the well-tended places on the coast, I noticed how the paint on the houses peeled and cracked as the shrubbery, vines and surrounding grasslands crept up around. The human developments: housing, barns, and silos, were wearisome and abandoned. I suspected there were folks hanging on, trapped by poverty and circumstance into a life with a predictable outcome or perhaps they'd left entirely. Then, I crossed the border to Canada into their Eastern Townships of southern Quebec.
Hemmingford in Quebec
Bucolic farms and vineyards dotted the well-maintained, curvy roads of the touristic region. Hand-carved signs stated the enterprises along the road: Bed and Breakfasts, Inns, farms advertising meats and cheeses for sale. As I drove west to my friend's house, the region expanded into working farms.

My friend R lives with her 85-year-old mother just north of the northern edge of New York State, a bit west of Vermont. R and I first met in the Pacific Northwest in 2000, where we'd both participated in a multi-week program for trainers and consultants sponsored by an environmental foundation. We'd reconnected six years ago (thanks Facebook!). Recently, in an unfortunate twist of events, she was preparing to depart for a gig as a vegetarian chef for a meditation center in France when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent surgery. After a few radiotherapy treatments, she'll be under follow-up; it wasn't aggressive cancer.

Here she was, in Quebec for the summer for the first time since she was a child, recovering. Their small house was the original border crossing station, with an impressive, ancient barn in the back. The next day, on a rainy morning, we took a walk down Roxham Road. "It's famous.", R said.  In the first months after Trump's inauguration, hundreds of people crossed the ditch into Canada less than a kilometer from her house.
Where the border is a ditch. Photo: CBC.ca

It was WorldRefugee Day on the day that I drove the long road back to Maine. The radio stated facts and statistics of transitions. The U.N. Refugee Commission states that there were 65 million people forcibly displaced in 2016, setting a world record. Most of them were from Syria.  This fantastic and colorful interactive map shows the flow of asylum seekers but does not include illegal migrants.

As I again traveled through the back roads of northern New England's beleaguered rural communities, I considered the forces of war, famine, and fear that would propel a migration. War, famine, and poverty that would propel,, a family of four to abandon their homes and stay in a refugee camp. The largest cluster of which, in Dadaab, Kenya, supports over 500,000 people largely from Somalia. Another camp in Uganda, Bidi Bidi, now has 274,000 residents from South Sudan. Approximately 2,800 people a day arrived in the month of March alone.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal
On the television, a presence that figures prominently in my parent's house, the sounds of verbal conflicts, clashes of violence, the blather of a blundering fiqurehead and the occasional NRA advertisement drift up into my second-floor living space.  By no means comparative to the forces that propel refugees, there are moments when I have visions of fleeing. I think of others trapped by their far more difficult circumstances and wonder how they manage. How they live until they reach their own border, and make the decision to cross to another side.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Stability in Mud

I was standing ankle deep in soupy mud on the Appalachian Trail feeling right at home in the woods, but a bit different in the group.  I'd joined a group of employees from the long-standing New England retail brand for which I have been working for the past 8 months.  It was rare for a seasonal, on-call employee to join these bi-annual work parties; the average tenure of the small group was over 15 years of consecutive service.  

 I'd joined the trip to shake down the camping equipment that had been in storage for the past 6 years, get re-acquainted with New England forests, and meet new people. It was a cheap, life-affirming foray into my old self, but it also awakened the tension between my love for the flexibility of a consulting practice, and a tinge of envy for steady work and benefits.

Earlier this month, I read Joseph Williams's essay recounting of his stint as a retail worker. The article hit a couple of threads for me: the feeling of desperation in applying for retail work, his practice of dumbing down his resume to get a job, and the moment when a classy, recently retired bureaucrat female comes into to the store. 


"As I fitted her for shoes and checked her stride, we struck up a conversation about politics, finance, and the fact that not a single Wall Street banker had ended up in jail. Then, Jan hit me with a question I hadn’t considered in the months since I hustled my way into a job I didn’t want, had to have, and had come to accept.  

“So, Joe,” she asked, “What is it that you really do?”
I paused, slightly taken aback. I sell shoes, I told her. That’s my job.
“Yes, I understand,” she persisted. “But what do you really do?”
By that point, it was clear what she meant: Why are you here?

I am feeling loyal and grateful to be involved with the business even if the hourly wage is meager.  It's another decent gig in the ball-juggling of my work life right now, and that's ok. My colleagues on the floor are good, solid, happy, and intelligent people to work with. Some have been in long enough to be able to secure the benefits package with flexible, part-time employment, a boon for the real estate agents, financial advisers, house cleaners, artists, and gig workers behind the counter. I wonder if I'll make it into that category, or if those are days gone by. 
A temp job for May: collect and maintain
inventory for a plant sale. 

In the carpool to the trailhead, I heard the stories of wellness programs, new computer systems, learning opportunities, and supportive office dynamics.  I didn't mention that my employment juggling has reached a new frenzy this month with securing a short-term event management contract. I was running so hard in the days before the trip that I forgot to pack socks (I remembered the liners, so that worked), made a rash decision to forgo my cookpot (used the big pots provided instead) and realized, on my way to to rondevous point, that I we were taking my car and I'd neglected to it properly tidied up for the 4-hour drive to the trailhead (it didn't matter). 

While hiking through the forest to start the first day's work on the Appalacian Trail, I reflected on a trip of days gone by from Alaska. For a few years, I went on trips with Wilderness Volunteers in the spring time, largely seeking cheap and meaningful ways to escape break-up.  

I flew from Alaska to Phoenix and hiked up a mountain in the Tonto National Forest the next day. My breath was labored, the backpack loaded with too much water, and I was plodding along at the end of the pack. The trip leader was concerned. "I'm having Beluga Factor.", I gasped. The concerned group of slower hikers looked at me quizzically until I explained that I was suffering from the transition from cool ocean to hot desert, and everyone laughed. 
Much of the work involved clearing drainage
areas to help reduce the amount of mud
on the trail. 


Indeed, this work party was also a milestone: one year back in the U.S., a chance to bond with corporate, and form a connection to rich, dark forest duff, the delicate painted Trillium, the grunt and heave of a shovel and the beauty of a gently upwelling spring.  I was touched on the final night, when I recieved a "first-year" pin and a hug for participating. 

Now, I need to stay focused on living this life in full, not in envy of benefits or in fear of work uncertainty, but in the rich unfolding of this life stage and the honor of checking the box that says, "55-64."



Sunday, April 30, 2017

War Stories from Work

In April, I turned 55, officially launched a consulting practice and experienced yet another shifting of my workaday Universe. There was a week of waiting, after 3 interviews and reference checks, on a part-time job that I was excited about. In the same timeframe, there were two unexpected and "leaving in 2 weeks" resignations at another organization where I have been involved.

The people left with tattered spirits. There was a myriad of circumstances in their transition. Both were burned out and frustrated by organizational dysfunction and mismatched expectations. They tired beyond words. I found myself skirting their presence, recognizing the tell-tale signs of mission-driven work gone wrong. I'd seen it before-- both in myself and in others.

https://www.pinterest.com/arttxalliance/art-the-brain

I willingly admit that I have baggage. The litany of experiences that I've gained in the seven jobs I've worked and many other clients since I started professional work in 1998 have honed my skills, but also generated some scars. Last year, after I regrouped from my experiment in Boston employment, I created a list of all of the transitions I've endured while working full-time in organizations:

2 times welcoming a new Executive Director 
4 office moves 
1 death of a colleague
2 near-misses that could have resulted in a public relations crisis
1 loss of a major donor's funding that (I came in weeks after it happened) 
1 layoff 
2 cases of severely absent leadership
the year I submitted eight w-2 forms with my taxes

When I returned to the US in May,  the main goal of this next step was to work with happy people in a perfect job- a position that was dynamic, flexible, growth-oriented and fun. I found opportunities and organizations that sounded good on paper but that never called me in to discuss. More than once, I was interviewed because the committee was interested in my background but already had other final candidates. I applied for jobs even though I was overqualified. I keep hustling because one never knows in a small town like Maine what connections will come.  But there are times when I find it wearisome.

This process of continued searching tests your mettle. I've lost and regained confidence and made a bit dent in my savings despite Obamacare subsidies and frugality. I continue to reach out. Launching the website and the business made me connect with the person that I am. The one who shows up just at the right time to move organizations through whatever transitions they are experiencing at the time.




Thursday, March 30, 2017

Timelines

The sentence glared at me from the screen. “Before you can submit your taxes electronically, you must first verify your identity with the Federal Government. In the box below, write the amount of your income from line 22 of your previous year’s tax return.”  A flush of doubt overcame me, a plumb line dropped to uncertainty, and checked my files. I emailed the accountant. Somehow, in my frenetic and emotional departure from Cambodia in the first three months of 2016, I completely forgot to file my taxes for 2015.

It has now been a year since I left the Kingdom. In some moments, the weeks and months feel eternal. Then again, I think that the New Year could not have been 3 months ago. I measure time in journals, short bits of chronicles around daily life, lists of worries and resolutions, reassurances and debriefs, snapshot paragraphs of daily life.
2016 in a couple of books

In 2010, when I was cleaning out the big box of journals, I finally sat down and chronicled the space between 1989 and 1996. Those years I spent time in seasons, moving along as a migrant worker following the fruitful fields of the seasonal tourism business. I did not measure my days through birthdays or anniversaries, but instead in activities, landscapes and ecosystems. Jobs. Friends.

The time now also marks nearly a year since seeing my good friend from Cambodia at her parent’s home in British Columbia. I’d helped her access the hospital's radiologist when she felt another lump and panicked. It was not good news. She packed her bags and left. Months later, as I was on my way home from Sydney and I could use my Alaska Air miles, I lofted an idea for a visit and she was happy to see me. She picked me up, we had a couple of drinks that night and went to bed early.
https://thypolarlife.files.wordpress.com

The night's sleep progressed into mid-morning. We took a short walk to the rocky sea shore and she rested on a bench in the bright sun,looking out on a familiar landscape of dark green spruce, blue sea, and gray rocks. I was jet-lagged to the nth degree. She was fatigued from the endless battle with cancer, her local Doctor’s dickheadedness and the daily travails of hair loss and treatments. We had 2 good days: some shopping, a lunch, treatments, cannabis purchase. I drove her around. We didn’t talk about it then. I hoped it was not inevitable, but the odds seemed impossible. I mustered hope for her. We messaged and talked a few times over the winter, the last time regaling a sketchy Vitamin C infusion treatment during her holiday in Mexico with her sweetheart. She left us this week.

Who’s to know how fast the time will go when we will have so few moments left?  These current months are going by so quickly and yet so slowly. I’m torn between embracing each precious moment when outside moving in Nature, and then wishing moments would be over when vacuuming, or witnessing an argument, or bothered by the circular anxiety of insomnia.

Each one has its own timeline, the journey of our life in all its creative manifestations, twists and turns, times to speed up and other times to go slow.  Stephen Hawking, in an article about Time Travel, wrote, To see what that means, let's imagine we're doing a bit of normal, everyday car travel. Drive in a straight line and you're travelling in one dimension. Turn right or left and you add the second dimension. Drive up or down a twisty mountain road and that adds height, so that's travelling in all three dimensions. But how on Earth do we travel in time? How do we find a path through the fourth dimension?"  He concludes talking about wormholes, ripples and wrinkles in time that exist all around us in microcosmic ways.  About the wonder of the Universe.  Safe travels beyond my friend.







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.