Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Never. How could I? I keep them in my heart where they stay warm and toasty on a night that’s 22 degrees below zero..
and never brought to mind,
Every day I thank them for being in my life. They are a part of me as surely as my hands and feet and head are a part of me. I leave a part of myself with every person I meet, and take a part of them with me.
should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Without them, and one in particular, I would not be here writing this. I would not be writing at all.
for the sake of auld lang syne.
On these cold, cold nights in Alaska, when I stuff the woodstove with spruce and birch, and drink mugs of Mint Chocolate Truffle hot chocolate, I think back on a year filled with adventure and the company of good friends.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syng,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
Let me help you with that. It’s the least I can do.
and give us a hand o’ thine!
I will never forget the hands extended to me as my husband fought Alzheimer’s for seven years, nor the hands that helped me stand up in the aftermath.
and we’ll take a right good-will draught,
We’re all in this together, aren’t we?
for auld lang syne.
Remember. Always, remember: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.”--Anonymous
Love and hugs from Gullible and Pablo the parrot, who currently is locked in his cage because our temporary house guest Koa, a large dog of perhaps husky and German shepherd lineage, with some giraffe mixed in to account those those stupendously long legs, wants to have Pablo for a snack.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The ice-glazed highway was worth not even a blip on my muse's radar, until the rear end of my truck attempted to pass the front end, that is. I switched into four-wheel drive and ended that excitement. The highway guys had etched deep grooves into the ice with a serrated blade mounted on some type of equipment—either the grader or the belly-mounted blade beneath the sand truck. The road was sprinkled with a sodium-treated sand, though at these temperatures neither the sand nor the sodium chemical do much good and are quickly kicked off to the sides of the pavement. Nonetheless, in four-wheel drive, and studded tires all around, I was able to drive at relatively normal speeds without too much concern.
And, speaking of temperatures, not even the thermometer in my kitchen with its remote sensor could stir up any interest. This reading doesn’t look too bad—just a normal winter’s day—until you notice the thick black horizontal band to the left of the gauge, That means minus, as in below zero. Yes, eighteen below zero.
I dressed normally in jeans and a fleece jacket. The only concession I made for the cold was the long-sleeved shirt I wore. So you don't think me incredibly foolish, I threw the Carhart black-lined coat, my winter boots, fleece hat and ski gloves in the truck also. In the back, in a plastic crate, were the things I normally carry year-round: emergency road flares, jumper cables, tow strap, etc. And blankets. I always carry a couple wool blankets for emergencies.
Besides, why whine about eighteen below. It’s forty below in Fairbanks right now, and up in the Matanuska Valley where Gov. Sarah Palin and her family live, the wind is blowing off the glaciers, making temperatures similar to those at my house seem a lot, lot worse. No, it wasn’t the cold that got my attention as I drove to Seward.
Nor was it the noon-day sun, which at this time is so low on the horizon it shines beneath the sun visor in my truth. Well, if you’re my height it does. So with the sun shining in my eyes and reflecting off the icy highway, I drove into Seward barely able to see approaching traffic or any moose that might be on the road. So far, so good. Just a normal day.
Twelve miles down the road, however, a new speed zone woke me up and seized my imagination. First, it slowed traffic from 55 mph to 45 mph. Then, crossing Trail River bridge the speed limit was 20 mph. Ditto with Falls Creek bridge just a hundred yards or so away. It picked back up to 45 mph for a mile or so, then again dropped to 20 mph over Ptarmigan Creek bridge. After that, it was back to 55 mph all the way into Seward.
This photo is Trail River bridge, taken as I was driving north on my return and the sun was no longer a problem. On the right is Lower Trail Lake and the railroad trestle across Trail River. Straight ahead is Trail River bridge with its 20 mph speed limit. The reason for these reduced speed limits is quite simple—the wooden pilings under the bridges are rotting away and making the bridges very unsafe. In a move designed to lessen the pounding stress on the bridges until they can be repaired, the state has restricted speeds on these three bridges. Further, heavy trucks are restricted to night-time travel only, though I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help save the bridges.
I did notice, however, that a temporary weigh station was open at Mile 13 in a pull-off beside the highway. With no equipment set up to weigh vehicles, it was apparent that the lone State Trooper on duty was there only to enforce the nighttime truck travel. It also appeared he’d already “busted” a truck carrying a line of well-known tools, as it was parked in the pull-off. For those of you who don't understand the paucity of roads in Alaska, it's quite simple: this is the ONLY road into and out of Seward.
All of this seems a bit extreme to me, but I suspect it’s really meant to limit the state’s liability in the event of bridge disaster. Two of the bridges cross what are essentially shallow creeks. But the one over Trail River is another situation entirely. Better slow than sorry, I reckon, and my imagination led me to thoughts of liability risk management. And, those thoughts led me to the Nina, one of the ships that sailed to the New World with Christoper Columbus and the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
More on that tomorrow. My muse works in mysterious ways.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
The Littlest Snowflake didn’t know whose front yard it had landed in, and really didn’t have much time to think about it, because a whole bunch of his siblings and cousins were falling around and on top of him. Soon, enough of them had joined the Littlest Snowflake that the entire neighborhood was two feet deep in new-fallen snow. They spent the rest of the dark night visiting with each other, catching up on gossip and news, drifting into the open arch of a dog house, taking turns covering up and sliding off the slippery orange plastic wrapper of a newspaper, and in general having all kinds of fun that you would never guess snowflakes had at night. Some of the snowflakes that had landed on the branches of a birch tree jumped onto a trampoline that had been left outside. They bounced and bounced and had a wonderful time.
Just as light began to draw an outline along the Chugach mountain peaks to the east, the Littlest Snowflake heard a loud noise at the end of the street. Around the corner came a huge, noisy truck with yellow flashing lights and a curved blade on its front. The wicked-looking blade was snatching all the snowflakes that were still playing in the street. At first the Littlest Snowflake was afraid, but then he heard all the snowflakes in the street giggling and laughing as the truck scooped them up and swirled them around in the big shiny gray blade.
Hundreds and hundreds of snowflakes laughed until their sides hurt as they came spilling out the small end of the snowplow blade. When they rolled out onto the sidewalk, they all stuck together in big, round balls, as snowflakes will do. One of the round balls rolled past the Littlest Snowflake, and he jumped on, hanging on tightly as the ball rolled several feet and came to a stop.
After the big truck left, the snowflakes began to settle down to sleep for the day. Just after the snowflakes fell asleep, a loud bang woke them up as five children rushed from the door of a nearby house. Immediately the children gathered up buckets and shovels and even an old wheelbarrow and began to gather up the snowflakes. They loaded bucket after bucket with snow, carried the buckets to the front of the yard, and dumped the snowflakes in a pile that grew higher and higher.
All day long the children worked piling the snow. Finally, the light began to fade and the tired, hungry children went inside their house for the night.
The Littlest Snowflake watched all this activity from the far corner of the yard. He hoped the children would come and get the ball of snow he was riding on, and add it to the big pile on the other side of the yard. That looked like fun, he thought, and he began to imagine all that he could see from the top of that mound of snow.
Early the next morning, again right after the Littlest Snowflake had fallen asleep, another bang jolted him awake. The children ran out the door and headed for their buckets and shovels. This time, though, they were joined by their father, because the mound of snow was getting too high for the smallest children to empty their buckets. They all filled their buckets and ran to the mound.
“What’s that, dad?” asked the first child. There, stuck to the big ball of snow was a piece of paper. The father grabbed the paper and read it.
“Well, kids,” he said, “It’s from the city. It says the snowman is a public nuisance and a safety hazard. This is an order to cease building our snowman.” The children all dropped their buckets and hung their head in sadness, because they had been building giant snowmen for several years. It made them happy, and folks came from all over town to take pictures of the snowmen. It made everybody happy. They all trudged back into their house, to spend the day sitting on the couch watching television.
The hours passed and the light left the yard where the big pile of snow sat forlornly incomplete. All the snowflakes were sad and felt very sorry for the disappointed children.
Several days passed, and then sometime during the night, when it was very, very dark, the Littlest Snowflake felt his ball of snow rising from its resting place and moving. It was too dark to see, but from all the whispers, the Littlest Snowflake soon understood what was happening. He felt gentle pressure patting and packing the snowflakes closer together. The snowflakes right beneath him were moved aside and a long, dark shape appeared in their place. From somewhere not too far away, he recognized some of his cousins’ voices saying, “Aaaaaaahhh. That feels nice…” He felt something soft and fuzzy brush against him, then fall away.
The sky in the east began to turn from black to purple, and the Littlest Snowflake settled down to sleep for the day. Suddenly, one of the snowflakes cried, “They did it! They did it!” The Littlest Snowflake opened his eyes and looked. He was far, far above the ground and could see all around the neighborhood.
He looked down and saw that he was resting on a bright orange thing sticking out of the snowball. Right beneath that was a corncob pipe. Farther down was a multi-colored scarf tied below his snowball, and two huge snowballs beneath that. A big thick tree branch stuck out from either side of the middle snowball, and bright red gloves were on the end of each branch.
The Littlest Snowflake looked up and saw two black buckets stuck in his ball of snow, and a big black stovepipe hat on the very top. "Wow," he cried. "I'm King of the World!"
Soon people began to gather and take pictures of the giant snowman. The father came out of the house to see what all the fuss was about.
“Did you stay up all night to build Snowzilla?” asked one man.
“I don’t know how it got here,” answered the father with wonder on his face. All the children in the neighborhood came to marvel at the giant snowman.
“It’s bigger this year, isn’t it, Mr. Powers?” said one.
“Yes, it is. It looks to be about twenty-five feet high,” said Mr. Powers.
“Did you hear about the protest at City Hall?” Mr. Powers said he hadn’t and the man told him that a dozen three-foot-high snowmen were picketing the front of entrance of City Hall. He said they were carrying signs that read “Snowmen have rights” and “Heck no, we won’t go” and “Snowzilla needs a bailout.”
Snowzilla’s picture was on the front page of the newspaper above the banner headline: "Revenge of Snowzilla.” On the editorial page were dozens of letters chastising the city for trying to stop the building of Snowzilla. From his perch atop the carrot nose (he’d finally learned what it was he was resting on), the Littlest Snowflake looked down and felt happy. He was proud to be a small part of this snowman that brought smiles to the faces of children and adults.
All day long people asked Mr. Powers how he had managed to build Snowzilla in one night, because the preceding Snowzillas had taken weeks. Mr. Powers said he didn’t know how Snowzilla had been built so quickly. Again and again he answered their questions, denying any knowledge of how it happened.
Finally, weary of the questions from visitors and reporters, Mr. Powers smiled and told them the truth: “Well, as near as I can tell," said Mr. Powers, "There must have been some magic in that old top hat of his…”
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
It pounds in my head, that obnoxious refrain,
It tells me to hurry, try not to waste time.
I’m beginning to hate it, to dread its return,
“It’s time to bake cookies,” the incessant chime.
I hear it so plainly, and can’t tell its source,
It’s always there, won't give me a rest,
Incessantly nagging and at me again,
“It’s time to bake cookies, this isn’t a test.”
Soften the butter, add sugar to cream,
Stir in the eggs, and turn on the oven,
I measure, and sift, the voice louder again,
“It’s time to bake cookies, pan after pan.”
The doorbell it rings, I can’t answer now.
Tomorrow is Christmas, I’m too far behind
To visit with neighbors or answer a call,
“It’s time to bake cookies!” I’m losing my mind.
“This is nine-one-one, what is your name?”
“It isn’t for me, it’s my friend don’t you see?”
“I need your name, your address and your age.
Stay on the line and remain at the scene.”
“I brought her some cookies, for Christmas, you know,
But as soon as she saw then, she fell to the floor,
And started to twitch and to shake and to moan,
That’s why I called you-- oh, I live next door.”
“The squad car is rolling, it should be there soon,
Are you alone, and is there a gun?”
“A gun? Let me look, her kitchen’s a mess,
Oh, yes, there’s a gun, and no cookies done.”
“Car twenty-one, there’s a gun at the scene,
Be careful, and I will send back-up for you.”
“Oh, no, nine-one-one, it’s not that kind.
The gun’s to make cookies and hors d’oeuvres, too.”
“Your friend is okay,” the officer said,
“I’ve seen lots of these, and so I’ll just leave.
It’s only a virus that comes every year,
When cookies aren’t baked until Christmas Eve.”
Then came a voice, demanding and clear,
The officer spun and pulled out his gun,
“Aren’t you alone? Is somebody here?”
“It’s time to bake cookies, I’ve hadn’t a one!”
“There’s only Pablo, her parrot, you know,
He doesn’t talk much, and I seldom hear.”
But then came the voice ten times louder, I swear,
“It’s time to bake cookies, cuz Christmas is here!”
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Spruce, birch, and hemlock, it devours them all.
Whole, halved, or quartered, no matter the form,
I'm stuffin' them in, trying to stay warm.
The tree is upright, decorated and bright,
As snow falls outside, in fading blue light.
The window's adorned in pine cones and bright red,
"It's almost Christmas" sounds in my head.
"Oh, no, oh my gosh," I sputter in fright,
"I have to bake cookies, stay up all night!"
Sunday, December 21, 2008
The Fates of Falls were kind to me this day. Or, maybe they couldn’t believe anyone my age could be so foolish as to tempt them so brazenly. Maybe I was too fast for them, caught them with their mouths open. Maybe I stepped down to the safe footing of the floor before they could act, before they could topple me from my precarious perch atop a piece of furniture designed to roll easily across the floor.
But step down safely I did, my prize in hand—a card holder in the shape of a deer. The deer was cross-stitched many Christmases ago on a plastic mesh pattern, red bow around its neck, by my mother. The attached pouch is for holding Christmas cards. Before I could add the cards I am receiving daily, I have to empty it of last year’s cards, sort through the photos to save, address corrections, special notes and letters. That takes a while, and I linger over some.
Finally, the pouch is empty. I add the newer cards, making sure to keep envelopes with addresses I want to update. One card in particular gives me pause, or rather, the letter included in it.
The one page letter is from my aunt, my father’s sister. As far as I know, she is my only living relative of my parents’ generation or older. There may be others, but living in Alaska since 1948 meant we didn’t keep close contact with many aunts and uncles. My mother did, writing numerous letters and slipping them into flimsy blue envelopes with red and blue edges that signaled the letter was to go by air mail. I don’t think my father ever wrote a letter. Long distance telephone calls outside of Alaska were complicated and expensive, and reserved for emergencies. As a result, I never met many of my aunts and uncles, and, as I said, I think only Aunt Tacklee remains. She is in her early nineties, living in Montana. Both of my parents are gone.
Aunt Tacks wrote her letter to me on Dec. 7th. “Today is Pearl Harbor day and my thoughts have gone to you. I remember the day in ’41 when our family gathered at your parents’ home. We had brought a crib to welcome you home from the hospital. That’s when we heard the announcement of Pearl Harbor. Sad day.”
I am, of course, well aware that I was two weeks old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but her note adds another dimension to my perception of my birth. My parents had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary. Now their country was at war, and they had an infant to tend. How worried they must have been, how concerned for the future. My father would serve in the Army-Air Corps, as it was called then, and be stationed in the Philippines. My mother and I would move in with her sister and her five children, while her husband also was gone.
I read and reread that letter from my aunt, the only person who can bridge my generation and hers. Did she mean I’d just come home from the hospital that day, two weeks after I was born? Why was I in the hospital that long? Or, did she mean they had brought the crib only that day? What did she mean by “our family?” Who was there? I know there were other relatives living there in Detroit. Were some of them present, some of my mother’s sisters? How did they feel? Were they frightened? Surely the men were already registered with the draft. Did they want to go, to defend their country from the attackers?
I remember that crib. I remember where in the small bedroom it was placed.
My aunt is of the old school of Christmas cards, that which required the inclusion of a hand-written letter, individually oriented to the recipient. No computer-printed, generic, one-size-fits-all letter for her. Her handwriting is small and neat, and much more legible than mine. Curiously, her cursive resembles my father’s, though I suppose it isn’t that surprising, assuming they both attended the same grade school in Thomas, West Virginia, and assuming Palmer penmanship was taught there. My father was left handed; I wonder if she is also. Oddly, my handwriting has evolved to appear eerily similar to my mother’s, though it tends to be small like my father's.
Aunt Tacks has given me much to think about, and I shall have to write her a letter to ask all the questions I have. I have questions that never occurred to me before. Now the link to my past, to the knowledge of me before I became aware of me, lies with my father's sister, the one who hand-writes letters just to me and slips them into a folded Christmas card.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I smiled when I read the obituary, and smiled even more when I read he had lived to the age of eighty-two. Good on ya, I thought. Good on ya. Then the memories crashed in with all the force of a tsunami, and I was swept back to 1961.
He wasn’t a friend, or even an acquaintance, and we’ve never spoken with each other. The first and only time I ever saw him he was pointing in my direction because the prosecuting attorney had just asked him to identify who had tried to kill him. Fortunately for me, his accusing finger was aimed the two young men sitting at the defense table just in front of me. I was there as a reporter covering the preliminary hearing of the two accused men. Out of respect for his grieving family, I will refer to him as Mr. C.
In the way of small towns and sparsely populated states, lives sometimes intertwine in peculiar ways, and so it is in this case. I knew one of the defendants. We had attended the same grade school together, though he was a couple years older than me. I knew him only well enough to recognize him on sight, and to know his reputation.
I was in third grade, sitting on the school bus after school, when the kids in front began whispering a warning. Then, he climbed on, all toughness and swagger, bullying the other kids as he made his way down the narrow aisle of the bus. I looked out the window, afraid to make eye contact, when he came close to me. I was surprised to see him on the bus as he wasn’t known to attend school much, and I’d never seen him on the bus before. But years later, as I sat in that courtroom, I wasn't surprised to find him there, accused of multiple felonies, including first degree murder.
The two defendants, whom I shall call Defendant A—the one I knew—and Defendant B, had robbed Mr. C’s cocktail lounge in the early morning hours just before closing time. After complaining about the small amount of cash in the register, they pushed Mr. C into a back room and shot him in the back of the neck. Mr. C testified that he must have lost consciousness and came to after one of the men hit him over the head with a full bottle of whiskey. Next to him lay the body of a young woman singer who had been in the lounge talking with Mr. C.
One of the men had a cord and was attempting to strangle him, he said, but the cord was in his mouth and he was biting it. He struggled to his feet, and glared at his attackers. He was knocked down and shot in the back of the head. The two robbers left with about $250. Mr. C. again stood and called the police. Thirty days later, in an Anchorage courtroom, he pointed at the two defendants and identified them as his attackers.
Another month passed. In a plea deal, the two men pleaded guilty to second degree murder, assault with intent to kill, and armed robbery. They received life sentences.
Thirty years later, I met Defendant A’s brother. We live in different towns and seldom see each other, but I still count him as a friend. From him I learned that his brother was out of prison and staying out of trouble. I was glad to hear that he'd paid his debt to society and staying out of trouble, but I can’t forget the fear that permeated a yellow and black school bus one day when I was nine years old. Nor can I forget a young woman who died, and Mr. C’s horrendous ordeal.
The story I wrote of the court hearing that day was printed under a banner headline on the front page with my byline. The next year I was awarded honorable mention for best news story by the Alaska Press Club. In another curious twist, the paper I worked for was boycotting the press club for reasons unknown to me, and had submitted no entries on behalf of its staff. My story was submitted, again unknown to me, by a freelance writer whom I knew slightly. Because of that, I was the only one from my paper who received an award that year.
As for Mr. C, he continued in the bar business, eventually owning one himself. In another of those odd small-town twists, I learned from his obituary that he first came to Alaska in 1952, about the same time a young delinquent was terrorizing a school bus I was sitting on.
According to family members, Mr. C was a kind and thoughtful man. I’ve been wondering all day if he’d lived his life with that extra joy, that special appreciation that sometimes comes to those who have been spared, because, really, he should have died forty-seven years ago.
The answer was in his obituary: his favorite sayings were, “Everything is beautiful,” and “Pay attention.” No doubt about that answer.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
About four o’clock this morning, while I was lying in bed unable to sleep, my muse jumped up, grabbed my imagination, and the two of them ran amok. With all my defenses down, it was some time before I realized what they were doing as they scampered free and unfettered through my cranial catacombs. Even after I became aware of their shenanigans, I let them go, because I realized what a terrific idea they had.
By way of explanation, I need to tell you that death has been much on my mind lately. Death had insinuated itself into my small community and made off with people I cared about. A few days ago we gathered to say goodbye to them—to celebrate their lives, as is the preferred custom these days. Along with many others, I suspect, I’ve been considering my own mortality.
After our gathering and our goodbyes, a neighbor e-mailed me with thoughts about her own celebration of life. Lots of beer and sunshine, she asked, and the music of her preference. And, she demanded, it has to last well into the wee hours. I responded with my own preferences, which involved concertinas and zithers.
Coincidentally, another friend from across the continent e-mailed about some events in her life. After losing her much loved spouse, she followed up his funeral with two radical mastectomies. Then came a diagnosis of two tumors. She began to plan her own memorial celebration while she waited for her surgery. As with most well laid plans, reality didn’t exactly conform to her grand idea of a proper send-off.
The gifted vocalists she asked begged off, claiming their grief would prevent them from singing. Instead, the musically-challenged volunteered. Gourmet food was replaced with quirky appetizers. She planned a video to express her love and appreciation. Everything was done, and she was ready to “go softly into that good night.” Just one problem. The surgeon couldn’t find any tumors, and my friend is alive and well today.
I recalled an article in the newspaper a few years ago about a fellow with AIDS, who had been given a few short months to live. Being of a certain turn of mind, he and his friends planned his celebration of life. They held it in a gravel pit near his home, so the noise of the party wouldn’t wake the living. It was complete with ghostly and ghastly humor, a symbolic coffin with a symbolic headstone. A good time was had by all, including the guest of honor, who was alive and not-so-well. Five years later, thanks to the new AIDS drug cocktail, the fellow was still alive and enjoying life even more.
While all this was going through my mind, those two scalawags—muse and imagination—were trying their darndest to lure me out from under the warm covers and into the chill air on the loft, where I was to take dictation from them. I resisted, knowing full well there was no way I would ever forget what the two of them had dreamed up this time.
Their idea was this: we should have our very own celebrations of life—before we die. Just think of the possibilities. We can tell our friends and relatives how much we love them and what they have meant to us, though it probably is best not to tell Aunt Elsie that you’ve always hated her Swiss steak. We can choose the venue, and it doesn’t always have to be the usually accepted places for such. We can hug everyone, and I mean everyone. We can have Elvis sing, if we want.
We can even supervise our own obituaries, and have them with or without the wings of angels. A writer named Heather Lende from Haines has promised to write mine. That promise came about because of chickens. She’d written a column in the newspaper about operating a retirement home for laying hens past their prime, and her inability to make chicken and dumplings of them. That’s the one, I thought. I wrote, expressing my complete understanding and empathy, having been there myself.
Then I asked if she’d write my obituary, because that’s what she does for her local newspaper. Except, Heather goes beyond the usual guidelines for obituaries, and finds the essence of the person. Having written many obits myself, I envied her the freedom of that search. How’s she’s going to do this for me, I have no idea. We’ve never met, have never corresponded beyond that simple exchange of e-mails when she wrote that she would be honored to write my obit, and diplomatically hoped it wouldn’t be required soon.
We almost met this past spring. I’d mailed my registration for a weekend seminar of women in the wilderness classes, or “wild women” classes, as a friend put it. Alas, I was a day late and the enrollment was closed. I was doubly disappointed when she wrote about attending it. So close and yet so far. We would have bonded, I’m sure. Any two women who name their chickens and allow them to live out their lives free from the shadow stew pots, would bond with Super Glue.
But, back to the celebration of life before you die. I will admit there might be a couple drawbacks. I mean, after you say goodbye to everyone, maybe they will expect you to go, like company that has overstayed its welcome. Plus, you might not like the answer to the question we all ask, “Will anybody come to my funeral?”
In spite of those things, I still think the idea has great possibilities and hope it catches on. In the meantime, I reckon we should all just celebrate our own lives, each and every day.
Oh, I forgot to tell you why I was awake at four o’clock this morning. I had been up taking photos of the mountains, swaddled in new snow and bathed in moonlight. Yep, there was a full moon.
Dec. 12, 2008
Friday, December 12, 2008
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
As is the custom in our small town, we gathered tonight at the community hall to say goodbye to two of our own. One of the volunteer firefighters pulled the fire engine from its bay to make room for six long tables to bear the pot latch food—the pasta casseroles, meatballs, chicken, vegetables, roast salmon, sliced pork and beef, spinach salads, and crudités trays.
In the adjoining hall more than a hundred of us gathered, seeing folks we seldom see because our town is spread out over thirty miles of highway. Outside, the storm that had battered us for two days with sloppy and then freezing snow had diminished to a peaceful snowfall. Most of us had spent the day digging ourselves out, shoveling the decks, and plowing the driveways.
Still more people arrived bearing still more casseroles, blueberry muffins, breads, and gelatin salads. Children eyed the dessert end of the tables with the brownies, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and sugar cookies.
First, though, first we wanted to tell a few stories of Whip and Judy who had passed away last week, leaving grief in our hearts and holes in our small community. We wanted to share with the surviving relatives how much they had mattered to us, and how much we will miss them. They had moved here twelve years ago from Fairbanks. Whip, according to one of the stories, had bought a house and shop here. In a great leap of faith, he did so before Judy saw the property. On the long drive from Fairbanks, Whip was beside himself with anxiety, hoping that Judy would like their new home.
They pulled in late at night after a long day. Judy said nothing. They went to bed. Judy said nothing. Whip stayed awake most of the night, then finally fell into an exhausted sleep. When he awoke the next day, he found his wife sitting in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee in her hands and crying. Heart in throat, he asked why she was crying.
“Whip,” she said, “this is the most beautiful place in the world.”
It wasn’t the house so much as the place. The house is unique, as old houses tend to be in Alaska. It would never fit in a modern subdivision, would never pass covenants in an urban area. What it did have was charm, and history, and peace. Over the years, several additions had been made to the original cabin, adding to its quaintness. There was a shop area for Whip to set up his welding and blacksmith shop, and a gift shop to sell his creations.
But the place—the stupendous Kenai Peninsula, turquoise Kenai Lake, the nearby salt water port of Seward, the Kenai and Chugach mountains, the rural areas of Alaska where people live because they love the country and the community.
The two of them became a large part of our community. They leave an even larger void with their passing. As for me, I will forever remember, and forever miss, Whip’s traditional greeting to me when we chanced to meet. First, a big hug, and then “…if you ever need anything….”
Saturday, December 6, 2008
of death, and loss, and healing….
Death has been too much with us these days. It haunts my small town, its appetite more than we can bear.
Forty-three years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about death. I don’t recall the impetus for the conversation now, only that we spoke of various means of dying. We talked of which were awful, which were truly awful, which we abhorred and feared most of all, and which we preferred, given that there was no alternative.
The latter mostly involved a lack of both pain and awareness—in our sleep after a long and adventurous life being the number-one rated. In a letter written shortly afterwards to a friend, I quoted myself, “I'm not afraid of death at all. I just want to get all these words out of me, and then I'll be ready."
My friend saved that letter, along with many, many more, then returned them to me after more than thirty years. I saved them, hidden from sight, and then two years ago finally read them. Idiot, I laughed to myself when I first read that letter and computed my age then as newly twenty-four. In five short years, since leaving my parents’ home, I felt I had managed to make a mess of everything. Instead of spreading my wings and soaring, my flight of freedom into the adult world involved much more flapping than soaring, and a vast number of crash landings.
I went easy on myself after reading those long ago words, because I vividly recalled my various failures and the sadness they caused me. Perhaps it is fortuitous that we are not always and immediately granted our hopes and wishes, because I quit writing shortly after that conversation, and I certainly wasn’t ready to leave this earth. Except for a couple brief forays into the world of words, I abstained from writing until after I read those old letters.
I still think I was an idiot for what I said at that age, but now I can see a truth in part of it, so I have—as I said earlier—been easy on myself. Am I afraid of death? You darn betcha! Am I ready? Not one bit! I am crammed full of words that need release. I will, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “…not go gentle into that good night (but will) rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Those of us who attempt and presume to be writers deal with sorrowful matters differently than those who are not. We are blessed with the gift of reaching within ourselves to pull out the grief and hurt, and to capture it on paper. It is a method of cleansing our souls, of cutting things down to a size we can deal with, thereby gaining power over those things that cause us hurt. In the simple act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, we begin to make sense of what haunts us, or to realize there is no sense to be made of it. And that begins the healing.
Recent events in my small community have stunned me into silence for the past week. Last night, while still awash in grief, I put pen to paper. I apologize in advance if some would deem the following inappropriate. Such is not my intent; it is my way of coping.
When Death first came to claim its due,
it took the one who’d spurned its grasp,
had cheated Death time and again
until Death said, “Your time has passed.”
We paused in sorrow on the news,
shared our tales, whispered, “Godspeed,”
hoped that Death would shun us now,
sated and content to leave.
Unbeknownst it lingered still,
with icy finger touched one’s heart,
felled a man yet in his prime,
gathered him in cold dispart.
Despondent widow summoned Death
offered out her hand to it,
looked beyond the dread divide,
and crossed the cold, dark river Styx.
“No,” we cried. “That cannot be,
you’ve taken more than we can bear.
Leave us now to mourn and grieve,
and ponder yet why Death’s unfair.
But Death was greedy and not sated,
at bottom of a staircase waited
for the one whose chance misstep
tumbled him to Death’s cold grip.
Now we lament in disbelief,
searching for the sense in it,
asking what awaits for us,
and knowing Death is infinite.
Dec. 6, 2008