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.

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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 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.

 

Three Tips for Taking Young Kids Fishing

Balancing our heavy five-foot-diameter dipnet on my right shoulder, I plunged one foot at a time into the gooey mudflat.  It was low tide at the mouth of the Kenai River and the mudflats had already killed Ethan’s talking Finn McMissile and petered out Thomas.

Every step was a gamble.  I could fall flat on my face or sink so deep that I got stuck.  As I plunged into the ocean with all my strength, the net whipped in the current and nearly knocked me over.  Licking my lips, I tasted the spray of saltwater, the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next.

The icy waters cooled my feverish excitement of being an Alaskan as I fought my net and tried to tame it against my ribs.  To my right in one deft move, a neighbor knocked a salmon out with his club and hung it on a string tied to his waist.

It was our third year dipnetting and still I felt like a novice.  Here are three tips that made this year’s fishing easier.

  1. Bring the proper gear:  The shore is often littered with fish guts, seagull droppings, and puddles that kids can’t resist touching.  Last year, Kyra and Ethan were drenched and miserably cold five minutes after we started fishing.  So this year, I invested in waterproof jackets, pants, and gloves.  Check the label and make sure that it states the product is 100% waterproof and not just water-resistant.

    Bog boots or something comparable that stays warm down to -30° F keeps socks dry, toes warm, and shoes on! (My kids love any excuse to go barefoot.) Those easy-on pull handles also saved Ethan’s boot several times when it got stuck in the mudflats.

    Kid-sized camping chairs surprisingly act like an invisible leash.  Last year, Kyra and Ethan couldn’t climb into the adult-sized chairs easily, so they drifted and complained that they were tired, and eventually buried themselves in the wet sand.  We didn’t even bother bringing adult-sized chairs this year because we could squeeze our bottoms into their chairs if we really needed to rest.

    Finally, it’s all about the toys and snacks.  Supply them with easy snacks that they can open and dispose on their own and make sure they eat first before they start playing.  Check their pockets and make sure that they don’t sneak their favorite toy down to the beach.  They each have a set of waterproof beach safe toys that they only get to play with when we go fishing.

  2. Engage your sidekick:  There’s something about the title “sidekick” that my kids love.  Maybe, it’s because lately Batman and Robin are their favorite bad guy fighting pair.  Or maybe, at this age, they want to feel like a member of the team.

    Kyra and Ethan help me entangle two fish from the net.

    Ethan was frustrated that he couldn’t fish and I had to keep a close eye on him because he kept trying to walk into the ocean like Dad.  His hands would get caked with mud and he would start to wail.  I asked Kyra to get a bucket of water to wash his hands and this evolved into their job.  They never tired of lugging buckets of water to our side so that we could clean tools or fish.

    Although Kyra can’t wait to cut fish, I told her she could start by helping me to vacuum seal them.  She took this job very seriously and knocked aside my hands if I hovered.

  3. Create teachable moments:  The Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations guide came in handy when Thomas cleaned the salmon.   I taught Kyra about the five different salmon species found in Alaska and asked her to identify each salmon. She then tried to teach Ethan who was much more interested in swatting away the flies.

    With Ethan, I also played the “I spy with my little eye” game to review his numbers, colors, and alphabet.  But unlike his sister, Ethan runs away if he thinks he’s being tested or educated.

What lessons have you learned about fishing with young kids?