The More You Give, the More You Get Back

Cross-posted from Today Parenting Team

In this season, I often remind my children of the important lessons we learned about giving and sharing when we lived in Alaska. In this photo, Kyra (5) and Ethan (2) are presenting their first harvest of petrushki (beach lovage) to Rita Blumenstein, a renowned traditional healer and member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Auntie Rita had spent Mother’s Day with us on the coast of Turnagain Arm, Alaska, where she taught my children not to take too much, so other people and animals can harvest too.

At Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, Elders and youth are interviewed among the Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik..

In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”

Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”

Yup’ik Elders explain that “those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.

“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations with their environment.”

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Living in Alaska, it seemed easier to teach my children about sharing. While dip-netting, we always collected fresh fish heads discarded on the beaches and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. They helped me clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48. Now as they get older and we move further away from Alaska, I hear them yelling “mine” at each other and slipping into that urban self-centered way of thinking.

As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”

She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”

Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”

Here’s something simple that I try with my kids. I take an apple and cut it in two. I present both pieces to my oldest. Sometimes she will try to stuff them into her mouth before her two younger siblings notice. Sometimes, she’ll bargain with them. “Okay, I’ll give you this apple, if you give me that Xbox controller.”

Always, I’m patient. Using these opportunities as teaching moments, I’ll remind her of the lessons we learned in Alaska. Always, she’ll give away the larger piece or press both pieces into the little hands of her brother and sister.

Parts of this post are excerpted from my original publication in First Alaskans Magazine.

Interview with Leigh Newman

Cross posted from  http://49writers.blogspot.com/2015/04/leslie-hsu-oh-interviews-leigh-newman.html
When I first met Leigh Newman at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I felt like I found my long lost sister. We are both raising our children in an urban setting (New York for her, Washington, D.C. for me) when we hope to pass on the values we learned in the wilderness. In Still Points North, out now in paperback from Shorefast Editions, Newman writes with tenderness about searching for identity and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love and Sunday Book Review, Fiction, Vogue, O The Oprah Magazine, Sunset, Real Simple and Bookforum. She currently serves as Books Editor of Oprah.com and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. 

The first time I read Still Points North, by the time I got near the end, I flipped through the last few pages impatient to find out whether this self-reliant/self-exiled travel writer would choose marriage or divorce. We are all dying to know if you are still married to Lawrence, for how long, how old are your kids, and what is his reaction to this book and comments readers have made about him? Does he come with you on book tours?
Wow! You’re right. I should included a follow-up insert. Yes, Law and I are still married. We have two kids, both boys. One is 9 and the other 5. As for Lawrence’s reaction to the book: he loves the reader comments; he comes off great!
At the end of your book, you drop teasers like “mugged at knifepoint by a transvestite (long story, another book)….drifting until you end up on camelback at the border of Libya (long story, another book).” Well, which book are you working on? And if you aren’t working on these stories, can you please tell us what happened?
I’m working on a book of short stories about Anchorage—and that weird existence between the city and the wilderness. Most of it is about dreamers, dazzled and deluded and crashing to earth. Not unlike myself.

The stories you’re talking about are part of a book I may never write…I ‘m not sure. It’s about very dumb things I did and survived.

 

In your book trailer, you say “by age eight, I could land a 40 pound king salmon, dig out an outhouse, patch a wader.” Will your kids be able to make similar claims? As a mother raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington DC area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska. I too have photos from my childhood like the one on the cover of the book (your sassy pose beside your father who is repairing something in front of his floatplane and your dog Jasmine) and those you shared in various interviews (you as an infant bouncing up and down in a pack n’ play in the woods beside a tent) which I’m trying to capture for my kids now. What have you done to make sure your kids have the same experiences you did with your dad?

I just do the best I can. I try to go up with the kids once a year. This year we’re going to Fairbanks to go snow machining with my brother, who lives in a dry cabin. Other years, we’ve gone fishing, camping , skiing. The Alaska I grew up is kind of gone for me now—my dad no longer flies so we use cars and boats to get into the bush, which is a totally different experience. Powerful but different. I also just try to teach them all the skills they will need. They both ski, fish and do archery.

 

One of the things I loved about your book was the parenting tips that surface here and there. For example, “Ask kids about feelings. Specific ones. Mad. Sad. Broken Heart.” Do you have any tips for moms who are or dream of being travel writers?

Leave the kids with dad. Go. Come back with big present.  It will be happifying for you and inspirational for your kids. Show them how you want to live.

 

In interviews you shared that the process of writing Still Points North was not easy including a coffee spill right before the manuscript was due that shorted out your computer, “I wrote a lot of sloppy, long, meandering drafts. My editor Jennifer Smith at Dial was the one who kept (gently) pointing me in the right direction. Her comments really woke me up to the values of collaboration, even when that meant cutting out 120 pages (an excruciating process). The same went for her editorial assistant, Hannah, who weighed in on key points. Once I let them in, I had to let everybody in—agents, PR people, other writers. They all had good ideas, ones better than my own. It’s kind of shocking when you think about how talented and insightful people can be when you offer them the chance to help you.” From the point of time in which you sold Still Points North on a book proposal to publication, what advice can you offer other memoirists on how to navigate the implosion or explosion of a book? When to listen to your gut vs. agents/editors/writers?
I think….that you have the best b.s. meter. Usually when a good editor or agent points out an issue, you already know it’s an issue, you just couldn’t admit it to yourself. It is almost a relief to get rid of the problem. If they point out something that really doesn’t resonate—just don’t do it. I usually sit on edits for 3 days before I say or do anything. The first day I’m furious and weepy and sure they are idiots who just don’t get my vision. Then the second day, they might have a point. The third day, they are so insightful! How could I not have seen it!
We’ve all heard in critiques to avoid the present tense because it complicates what Philip Lopate calls the “double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” And yet, you managed to do this beautifully in Still Points North. Please do share your secret.

 

I don’t know. I wish I did. I had read almost no memoirs when I wrote mine, save A Boy’s Life, which is in past tense. Now, of course, I feel so conflicted. Writing in the present tense is so natural for me. But I read all kinds of criticism about it (see William Gass) and it does rob you of reflecting, as an adult, on the complexity of what happened in your past. You lose out on your own hard won insight . So I wish I could do it differently—I feel very animalistic about writing, very instinctual—but I go back to the present, again and again. The past tense to me is sophisticated, elegant, and I long for it the way rube always long for urbanity, even as a rube knows she is still a rube.

The Couple in Trouble

A sticky fog descended as we made our way up loose boulders that peaked relentlessly towards the Summit of Chilkoot Pass. My stomach growled from missing dinner. Nothing in this historic landscape had been stable for the past few hours. My fingertips were raw from clawing my way up. Knees scraped. Feet duct taped and sore.

Getting ready to summit Chilkoot Pass.

Somewhere up ahead sending mini avalanches upon my head was my husband. “I’m not having any fun,” he had blurted out yesterday a few hours after we started the Chilkoot Trail and his back had gone into spasms from a pack that was too small.

“Good thing the kids aren’t with us,” he yelled as he slid and had to jam his hiking pole in a crevice to stop his fall. Crossing the Chilkoot Trail off my bucket list seemed like a good idea when we discovered we both had work in Anchorage. We thought five days off the grid would be a great way to celebrate our ten year anniversary.

A product of parents who never did anything without us, I worried whether I was being judged for leaving the kids behind.

Before we boarded our plane, Kyra, who just turned seven, blinked with her big round eyes.  “We want to go home too.”

“I miss Alaska,” Ethan, who just turned four, added. I nearly snuck them into my carryon.

But whenever we called them, Ethan was too busy playing to talk to us while Kyra yelled into the phone, “We’re fine. Gotta run.”

There were other parents on the trail who were feeling the same guilt. One couple cried when they called their one-year-old, who refused to stop balling.

As things grew colder and darker, two hikers approached us from the Summit. “Where are you headed?” we asked, relieved that we weren’t the only losers still hiking around 9pm.

“We’re actually looking for you.” They were the rangers stationed at the top of the Summit, who had spent the day asking hikers that crossed the pass whether they had seen a “couple in trouble.”

To ease our embarrassment, they offered “How would you like a honeymoon suite?”

They settled us into the warming shelter at the top of the pass with two steaming thermos of hot water. We collapsed beneath the weight of our packs and stared at the signs posted inside the cabin. One said, “Happy Camp is still 2 to 4 hours away. Do not stay here overnight.”

Warming shelter at the top of the pass.

We felt like teenagers that had snuck behind barricade tape. Peeking out the windows at a cloudless turquoise sky layered on top of snow covered peaks and emerald lakes, I said to my husband, “Now are you having fun?”

He smiled. The world was so quiet up there we could hear nothing, not a peep from an animal or rustle of wind. If we held our breath, we might hear the drip of ice melt into a clear stream.

We savored the silence, the kind of peace we rarely experience now that we are parents. I felt as if my brain was getting a desperately needed reboot, a chance to dump all the complications of parenting and return to the nuts and bolts of our marriage.

In the morning, we enjoyed an incredible view before heading down the side of the steep glacier.

That night, Thomas cooked me dinner and we had a chance to dry out our gear and talk. Ten years had braided and frayed our relationship so we were grateful to finally have the time to mend and forgive.

Without 24/7 connectivity and the stress of bills or deadlines or obligations, it was easier to relax into the present moment. With four days of nearly twelve hours of hiking where we had to worry about nothing but placing one foot before the other, we had time to hear rain staccato on our tent or photograph the gills on an orange Alice-in-Wonderland mushroom. Finally, I could enjoy Alaska the way I dreamed of and give myself a chance to be a kid again.

Resting on the trail.

Fellow hikers reassured us that that’s why it was critical for parents to take time away from their kids. Rekindling the parts of yourself that you had neglected after you became parents, they said, made you a better parent. When things got tough in the future, we had moments like this to grip onto. Mothers reminded me that it was important to show my daughter that when she became a mother, it’s okay to take a break and take care of yourself.

A man in his late sixties who kayaked from Washington State to Skagway in order to hike this trail patted me on the back and said, “You can’t sacrifice your life for the kids. That’s really smart that you are doing this now, when you are young.”

Before we reunited with our kids, we squeezed in a fishing trip, which would fill the bellies of our family and friends. We even ran into a former classmate of mine passing through Whitehorse. Similar to our reasons for moving away from Alaska, my classmate and his girlfriend had tears in their eyes when they told us that Alaska was the only place they ever felt at home or made any friends. They were grateful to hear how we’ve stayed connected to Alaska. It had been a year since we left Alaska and I was surprised to hear myself say, “When you miss Alaska, just remind yourself that home is wherever your family is.”

Home

Forehead pressed against the cold window, I waited impatiently for the plane to descend through thick clouds.  My breath held and released only when Turnagain Arm welcomed me “home” with a ripple of its silky waters.

The jagged gray mountain peaks that I loved were already coated with termination dust, hinting at my favorite time of the year.  As the wheels touched ground, I sighed, the kind you release when you’re coming home after a long business trip, even though I was now a visitor with only ten days to teach a class for 49 Writers, wrap up loose ends with various jobs, and put our house in Eagle River on the market.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, home is “a refuge, a sanctuary a place or region to which one naturally belongs or where one feels at ease; a place where something flourishes.”

A few moments with my feet on Alaskan soil and I felt as if I was wrapped in the softest robe, sipping a cup of tea.  Physically, I am extremely comfortable.  My metabolism is such that in places like D.C., even in an air-conditioned environment, Thomas catches me climbing into refrigerators or freezers.  Cold temperatures calm me down so that I am more willing to let things be.  Emotionally, I flourish in nature.  A placid body of water, so still that it reflects the drifting clouds in the sky, inspires poetry, while manicured lawns, office buildings, and traffic jams put me on edge.  Shrink-wrapped in pantyhose, high heels, and a tight suit, I’m not only uncomfortable but I feel judged.

Escaping the rat race of job titles, houses, and cars, is one of the main reasons why my friends swear they will never leave Alaska.  Here, we can smoke salmon in our pajamas on our front lawn.  Or wear Bogs and Carhartts to work. Or crash into a friend’s truck and simply be forgiven with the words, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve done worse things to this piece of shit.”  For many of us, it’s hard to find another place in the world that makes you feel so much at ease.

For all of these reasons, Alaska will always be my “home,” which is why it was difficult for me to accept that eventually I would have to write a “last post” for KTD.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines “home” as “the family or social unit occupying a house.”   No matter how much I might savor a long soak in a hot tub beneath skies lit by the Northern Lights and a full moon, my mind lingered in Vienna, Virginia, worrying about whether Thomas remembered to brush the kids’ teeth or whether anyone made him breakfast.

My phone conversations with my family went like this:

“Hi, it’s Kyra Oh.  Mommee, I didn’t miss the bus today.  Mommee, I love you.  I miss you.  When you come home, I have a surprise for you,” Kyra speaks so fast that I can’t get a word in. “Come home soon, okay? Here, Ethan talk to Mommee.”

“Wait!” I say, but now I can hear my son walking around with Thomas’ iPhone.  “Mommee?  Mommee? Mommee?” his voice reminds me of the pitiful cry of a hungry baby bird waiting for his mom to feed him.

“Ethan?  I love you!” I say, but my iPhone goes silent.  The connection is still running.

“Hello? Ethan?  Thomas? I think Ethan hit the mute button.”  I pace back and forth in frustration.

Finally, a child’s voice comes through, “Are you in Alaska?”  Now, I understand why my relatives can never tell the difference between Kyra and Ethan on the phone.  Their voices are virtually indistinguishable, but as the mother, shouldn’t I be able to tell?

So I try to be quiet and just listen.  Once the words “I’m mad” and “Spiderman” and “Batman” surface, I sigh with relief.  It’s Ethan.

Finally, I decipher a full sentence. “Mommee, why are you not home?” Ethan demands.  Then the connection drops, probably because he hit the “end” button.

The longer I stayed in Alaska, my refuge and sanctuary, without my family, the more I felt uneasy.  Soon, I heard myself saying that I couldn’t wait to go “home.” I scrolled through photos of my kids on my iPhone and counted down the hours to lying in bed with a kid tucked under each arm and a book propped on my belly.

When I did reunite with my family in the D.C. area, I filled their tummies with smoked salmon and blueberry jam made by my Alaskan friends.  The kids insisted that I read Kiska and Kobuk every night as they snuggled with their Kiska and Kobuk huskies.   At the center of our dining table, I filled a vase with dry reed grass I picked from a hike on Glen Alps, where I dozed to their gentle rustle in the wind.

I have a feeling that part of me will always be curled up like my son  in front of Alaska’s door, waiting patient and loyal, cheeks squished, butt propped high and proud.

 

The Ablation of Grief – Part III

Before the day heats up, Ethan and I slip on our Bogs, still caked with mud from the mouth of the Kenai.  We inch our way down the steep incline behind our house.  Ethan marches confidently ahead of me.  His raspy voice bounces between the trunks of oak trees, “Where did the Mommee deer go?”

Thomas had left hours ago for his first day of work.  On our way back to the house from Kyra’s bus stop, a white-tailed deer froze in the middle of the street studying our every move.  Ethan and I stared at our first animal sighting in Virginia.  Then, the deer flicked her head and two fawns appeared out of the woods. The three of them ran into our backyard with their tails raised, white underside flickering.

Still in our pajamas, we follow the deer into our backyard and check out the areas that had been underwater just a few days ago.  We are outside for no more than five minutes when Ethan screams “Spider” and hides behind my back.

Nearly every tree is linked by fine strands of spider silk.  Some hang elaborate orb webs, glistening with dew.  Others are so fine; you can only see the fat body of a spider twisting in the wind.

Putting on a brave face for my son, I use my camera bag and fling it ahead of me in hopes of taking down some of these webs to create a path for us.  The hike is not fun.  We’re brushing whispers of webs across our faces.  Our feet trip over roots and mushrooms.  At one point, I turn around to check on Ethan and the boy has one tiny mosquito on his forehead and another one on his neck.

With arms folded across his chest and his lower lip sticking out and a red bite swelling to the size of a nickel on his head, Ethan says, “Mommee, let’s not EVER do this again.”

Back in the house, Ethan deals with our setback by slipping on his Batman suit.  While I’m scratching irritably at three new bites on my back and arms, he sits down and starts his daily routine.

I wish adults could adapt that easily, too.  My mentor, Elaine Abraham, Naa Tláa (clan mother) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moiety), K’ineix Ḵwáan (people of the Copper River Clan) from the Tsisk’w Hít (Owl House), encouraged me to “feel the earth.  If you go into the woods and just sit there and rub your hands up and down on a tree or put your hand on the soil, there’s warmth. The spirit of the land is warm. You can make connections with the earth anywhere anytime because today we are travelling people.  Now, we can adapt.  You have to have a real strong spirit to adapt.”

Looking out my ceiling to floor windows at the maze of webbed trees, I can now appreciate the strong spirits of my military friends, who had to leave Alaska.  Keilah Frickson, who moved to Eagle River, Wisconsin, last year, says she misses “the smell of the mist on the mountains on cool, rainy days, the texture of the landscape, the road trips through breathtaking vistas, and the constantly changing moods of the mountains.”

Alaska taught her to slow down and take breaths regularly.  “I tried things I never thought I would do, and I loved it!  The broad, ruddy foundation of the Chugach range still grounds me. The fierce winds whipping off of the ocean and through my hair still remind me that I can weather any challenge in life. The cool mountain air still helps me stay calm under pressure. The muddy bottoms of every shoe and sandal I wore in Alaska still remind me that ‘it’s just dirt and it won’t hurt anything.’”

The Conaboys, who left in 2007 for Japan and currently reside in Massachusetts, still fill their bellies with Alaska Amber, salmon, and halibut.  Jed has managed to return to Alaska every summer on business trips and charter a boat with his squadron.

The Registers, who left in 2008 for Florida and currently reside in Texas, say that Alaska is their “measuring stick” for every place they travel.  “Plus, our first child was born there. We will always have a connection to Alaska, especially through her.”

I know that eventually I must adapt too.  After all, I have survived the death of my mother, brother, both sets of grandparents, and my father-in-law.  And I will always have to chase down my Alaskan babies, who ablate grief in seconds.

But for now, change is not my friend.

A loud THUMP-thud-thud-thud skips across our roof and lands on our deck.

“What’s that?” Batman asks.

“It’s an acorn,” I tell him about every hour, when this disturbing sound echoes through the house and makes my heart skip.

“You want me to stop it?” Batman throws two punches into the air.

“I wish you could,” I answer. “I wish you could.”

The Ablation of Grief – Part II

Two weeks after moving to Vienna, Virginia, Tropical Storm Lee kills at least seven and forces tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.   A fifteen minute drive home turns into several hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, something I’ve never had to deal with in Alaska.

This is where Thomas parks to take the bus to work. Photo credit: Washingtonpost.com

My windshield wipers cannot keep up with the rain pouring at a rate of four inches per hour from the skies.  Every detour that GPS offers routes me back to the same closed road leading to my neighborhood.  Meanwhile, Thomas, Kyra, and Ethan, dry inside our rental home, call me on my cell to report that our neighbors and their horses are being evacuated.

Stuck only a mile away from my family, I have a lot of time to ponder the wisdom of resisting change.

Kyra and Ethan ride change like champions.  On our last day in our Eagle River log cabin, Kyra woke us up in the morning with, “Come on guys.  It’s time to go to D.C.”

Whenever I look down, Ethan asks, “Are you sad Mommee?  Is it Alaska? Do you need kiss?”

Starting first grade was rough for me, but not Kyra.  The school encourages all kids to ride a bus to school.  Since Kyra has never ridden a bus before, I begged her to let me take her to school on the first day.  I was worried about her transition from a tiny school with one classroom of kids in her grade to one with five classrooms of first graders.  The school is so large that the four of us got lost during open house.

Kyra said to me, “Mommee, I’m not scared.  If you don’t let me take the bus, I’ll be mad.”

I ask Kyra, “Tell me everything that happened on your first day of school.” Kyra answers, “Nothing happened.”

The kids ask me from time-to-time when we are going back to Alaska.  They will even say that they miss our house, but I can tell they have moved on, something I’m not very good at.

To be honest, I’m still at Patricia (“Trish”) Opheen Redmond’s Celebration of Life, the eve before we depart Alaska, grieving about my loss of Alaska and Trish, a colleague of Thomas’ who always made me feel loved.

With the rain beating down all around me and the shrill of passing ambulances with boats strapped to their roof, I remember that Trish’s best friend of 40 years, Carolyn Bettes, encouraged all of us to “move forward” in her remembrance speech.  She offered a list of moving forward ideas, things that Trish used to do: prepare an amazing meal and share it with friends, send a postcard to a best friend about your day, walk a dog, be a mentor, volunteer, live up to your own potential, live out loud.

Mike Redmond, Trish’s husband, defined Trish’s attitude towards life as a woman who could never cook the same thing twice, “no matter how strongly I pleaded, because there were so many other recipes to try.”  If it was a sunny day, she would cancel whatever they had planned for the day.  “Even if we had planned something for weeks, nope, she would change the plan so we could be together outdoors: hiking, biking, backcountry sledding.”

Trish enjoys a sunny day with Harry above her cabin in Resurrection Bay.

Adapting, letting the waters of life sweep you off your feet, moving on.  I grip the steering wheel and force myself to move.  Approaching the cop car that blocked my road, I roll down my window and plead with him.  I tell him I need to get to my family, that I am driving our only form of transportation.

The cop says, “Well, you can go around us, but do so at your own risk.  Your street might be underwater.”

With images of Trish coasting down mountains lit by moonlight with the engine turned off or sipping a glass of wine to the sunset on the landing of their Resurrection Bay cabin, I maneuver around the cop and make my way slowly down the slick street.  I’m the only one on the road and I can see a lake where the road disappears around the bend.

Fortunately, the entrance to our rental is still above water.  I drive into a forest of trees, where my friends joke that I managed to find the only Alaskan cabin located in Northern Virginia.  Thomas is waiting anxiously at the front door.

“This is not good,” he escorts me into the house and points out our glass sliding doors facing the backyard.  Through the dense trees, what used to be roads and homes is now a lake as far as our eyes can see.

Our backyard turns into a lake.

“Let’s go to my sister’s house.  Pack your bags,” Thomas announces.

Kyra and Ethan erupt into excitement at the prospect of playing with their cousins.  “Yeah, I’m Superman!” Kyra yells, then starts to run in circles around me.

Ethan chases her and says, “I’m Batman!”

My heart is pounding and my knees feel weak from “moving on” and I can do nothing at the moment but lie down on the carpet where I stood.

The Ablation of Grief – Part I

I never thought that one day, I would be sitting in front of my wood burning stove with the heat warming my back against an emptied house, not just any house, but the first I ever owned.  A log cabin my husband and I chinked every summer.   Maple hardwood floors carved by my kids learning how to walk. A weathered porch where I surrendered the things I couldn’t control in life to the roar of Southfork Eagle River.

It’s my last night in Alaska and I am weighed down with grief.  Tomorrow, we will board a flight to Washington, D.C., where Thomas grew up, where his extended family and college buddies still reside, where we first met and married.

We are returning to a place that once made us happy and yet, all I could think about was the calving of events that started last year when Thomas’ dad was suddenly killed in a metro accident.

Many Alaskans return to the Lower 48 due to a death in the family.  I have certainly uprooted myself in the past due to MaMa and Jon-Jon’s death.  And yet, this time, I resisted.

I think I wanted death to take pity on us, just this once.

A week before the movers arrived at my house, I attended a potlatch, a gift-giving ceremony to honor a clan member who died and a naming ceremony, in Yakutat.  I told Thomas I had to accept this invitation even though the timing was terrible.  At the potlatch, I heard a translation of something Tlingit Elder Jessie Dalton had once said:

Does death take pity on us too?
It does not take pity on us either,
This thing that has happened.

Death does not take pity on anyone.  I let those words sink in during the 20 hour long potlatch.  I let them sink in as Yakutat soaked me down to the bones the few hours I had before returning to Anchorage to face my remaining two weeks in my beloved Alaska.

I walked and collected some Yakutat flowers for Kyra and sat on the earth until the anger and resentment I had towards all the forces working to uproot me seeped away.  I had not expected to come to any peace about this move in Yakutat.  I thought it would make me miss Alaska more.  Instead, I realized that I learned a great deal about balance.

In the potlatch, every action was thoroughly discussed and planned out years in advance.  Each sad song balanced by a happy one.  Each sad story balanced with a happy one.  Each person’s contributions no matter how big or small remembered and repaid.

I learned that everything has its turn.   That  things never happen when I want them to.  That I can be stronger than I think.

And I was strong for the most part, until the movers drove away with all our possessions.  Faced with an empty house, all these words of wisdom floated beyond my reach.  I knew what I needed to do when I was ready.  But now, I simply wanted to mourn.

Leaving Alaska was equivalent to a loss, a death to the good life we had here, where my kids could strap on crampons and hike glaciers, where we could scoop salmon out of the ocean.

A time to say how grateful we are to the people who have become our family these past seven years.  We form these tight bonds with adventurous adaptable souls.   We give and give, even though we know that like the plucking that occurs in glaciers, we might lose this family at any time.

Shehla threw a farewell party for us even though she was just as upset as I was about the move.  She lent us air mattresses, pillows, and sleeping bags.  She took my calls no matter what time of the night and told me to look for the positive aspects of the move.

Erica brought me meals and held my hand in the park while my kids played and told me everything happens for a reason.  She promised to keep my fridge stocked with salmon.

My neighbor, Lian, whom I met only a year ago, snuck into my house after the movers left and cleaned my nasty fridge. She lent us a car when ours were shipped out and babysat up my kids so that I could focus on the move.

Even Thomas’ colleague, Patricia (“Trish”) Opheen Redmond, who died unexpectantly a few days ago, inspired  everyone to live life to its fullest at her Celebration of Life, which we attended today.  When the pastor urged us to examine our reflection and see that Trish still lives in us, I wondered whether Alaska will always live in me too.