Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kitty's Requiem

Kitty’s Requiem

It’s crazy to think that over the past three years I’ve spent over a year of my life in the wilderness. Most of that alone. Surrounded by mountains, pressed in by snow, touched by wind and sun. With untamed creatures leaving tracks behind as evidence of their existence and sometimes letting me see them as they go about their business. And here I am again to add more months to that time.
This winter I return with a mixed bag of emotion. 

I found out in the fall that my good buddy, my friend the cat had died during the summer. The preferred theory is that the cat was ready to go the way of all things and found a place, comfortable and enclosed (something to do with irrigation), to die. She could have gotten out, I was told, but chose not to. Someone, who didn’t know she had taken residence in that spot, flooded the line with water and that was the end. Goodbye, Kitty. Maybe she chose her own time. Maybe she’d used up all nine of her lives. Maybe she knew this winter would bring long strings of negative weather and she decided she’d had enough of that and said peace out. Who can speak for a cat? Whatever it was that happened the end result was the cat was dead.

My grief surprised me. And the anticipation I’d felt in returning was greatly diminished. As silly as it was, I’d told myself throughout the summer, “Only six more months till you see the cat, only five more months till you see the cat.” And that thought had given me great joy. In my life where I work hard to not become attached, I had become attached. I had been quite fond of my cat friend and I think she of me as well.
Though already months in the past when I heard about it, her death for me was sudden, unexpected, and sad. I knew the lodge would feel empty without her around.

As the days went by, as the holidays passed, I didn’t want to go back, but I also didn’t know where I would rather be.

I reminded myself, time and again, how lucky I am to have this opportunity. Because I really am. What better place to hunker in and write than a snowed in lodge practically in the middle of nowhere? It’s ideal. The past years, I’ve managed to churn out a good amount of work. Edit a ton of previous work and then refine and reedit and revise. 

I also love the mountains, high altitude, and winter weather when I don’t have to drive in it.

I remind myself of all of this, often, with varying degrees of success in adjusting my attitude.

Then the time comes to return. So I do. With my grief packed in tight with my other things, I throw my bags onto a sled and climb onto the back of a snowmobile. As I cling to the backpack of the guy who is sledding me in, with the wind slipping coldly in under the scarf wrapped around my face, I practice gratitude. Who gets a chance like this? Who has a life like this? Don’t forget it’s amazing, I tell myself. And don’t fall off the snowmobile.

There is satisfaction in recognizing the landmarks as we get closer. I could ski in from here, I think, 
I’ve done it before. Around this next corner is the giant rock. Around the next one, is the fence.
And then there are the buildings, there’s the lodge.

A lot of work has been done since I left last spring, and a lot of changes have been made. The caretakers I’m replacing give me a quick whirlwind tour of the new systems and set ups. If there’s one constant it’s change and that’s certainly true here. When the tour is done, everyone climbs back onto their snowmobiles and with the whirring of the engines they head back up the hill, out of sight and then out of sound.

Now I am alone. Again. This time really alone.

Ah, Cat, I do miss you.

There’s a lot to be done and it takes me days to get settled in, organized, to bring food in from the root cellar, to become accustomed to the new systems, to remember that I enjoy being in this place. I know that once I start my writing project, once I get past the hardest part of starting, I’ll feel better, happier.

On New Year’s Eve and then on New Year’s Day I’m still sad so I scan through pictures and look back over my calendar of the past year to see the highlights and the joys, the low points, the things I’m glad I never have to do again, and the things I’m glad I got to do. I realize from the outside how cool my life must look. Seeing the pictures I’ve taken, even I’m impressed. And that’s part of the story. That’s a lot of the story. I live a good life. But, every once in a while, there’s sadness too. There’s grief. And that’s okay, for if I didn’t grieve that would mean I didn’t love. And if I didn’t love how much I would miss out in life. If I missed out in life, if I missed on life, that would be the saddest thing that could happen.

Instead of saying I will never become attached again, although that’s easier on my feelings, I recognize the power of connection between one creature to another.
So to you, Cat, I raise a glass. May your rest be sweet. For your life was grand. And I was glad to know you.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Great Expectations

Today in Alaska
Great Expectation

I didn’t expect it to rain so much. Here where the overcast days never grow entirely dark and a continuous soft drizzle blends with the cool sweeps of the breeze coming off the waters of Kachemak Bay.

“Is this a usual summer?” I ask Tom, Fay’s husband. “With so much rain?” Though I’m asking on a day when the sun has broken through the clouds to reveal sweet patches of blue. Redemptive blue. Comforting warmth. I’ve been outside the entire day, getting a touch of sunburn with joy.

“Yes,” he says. “It’s a little depressing. I come from Montana with the open blue sky and it’s gloomy here a lot.”

Before arriving I’d asked Fay what the usual summer temperatures were. “Usually in the 60s and 70s. Though sometimes as low as the 50s and as high as 80.”

In the month I’ve been in Alaska, we’ve had a lot of 50 degree days. And a handful of perfect summer days that highlight the snow tipped mountains and the glaciers that cling meltingly to the ground between the peaks, that cast sparkles across the water, and dry up the tall grass.

I hadn’t done much research beforehand. I figured so long as I had the appropriate clothes for work and weather I could figure out the rest as I went.

My expectations had been to work the summer in Alaska (and work is a hodgepodge of jobs. Gardening, weeding, watering, clearing up brush, picking strawberries, hilling potatoes, mowing, raking, taping and bedding, sanding, pulling nails out of 2x4s, painting windows, cleaning, picking wild spinach off the beach, helping with a garage sale, weed whacking, being chef’s assistant as Fay makes a wedding cake, making town runs, dump runs, haying, and doing whatever else might come up); to work and to see Alaska.
This Alaska I’ve come to has more rolling hills than I expected. More people. But then again, I came from the wilderness where I was a crowd of one among the moose, coyotes, birds, and other fauna. A town of five thousand is a horde. And summer brings tourists and fishermen in droves. Even on the homestead where I stay with Fay and Tom there are people coming and going like ants.

And yet, there are also mother moose with their babies wandering in the yard, eating the tips off the raspberry bushes, trying to get at the caged off trees. There’s the porcupine that sniffs at me as I weed the raspberry patch and ventures close enough to eat leaves off the row only just opposite of where I’m working. There are rumors of bears. There are whales in the water, halibut, sea otters, king salmon, starfish, clams, seagulls. I imagine that a little farther away from Homer is the Alaska that I’ve imagined. Unpeopled (sparsely peopled anyway), thick with wild, untamed.

My imagined Alaska is rife with whales, whales that greet you as you walk along the beach, whales that can rest undisturbed in the waters that should be theirs alone to share with the other water things, whales that spout and sing and dive and swim.

On a boat trip to Seldovia I see them, these whales. An Alaskan dream come true—humpbacks whales that spout and breach and float lazily at the surface of the water. And wonder what it would be like if they could sleep in peace without a score of boats gathered around them like hovering nannies.

What must the bears think of the tourist sightings at their feeding places? Do they mind the clicking cameras, the low-flying planes, the helicopters? Do they hope for a misstepping tourist to add to their lunch menus?

Around ten o’clock each day I yawn, ready for bed, but feel odd when outside it still looks bright as the afternoon. Surely there’s a balancing point between making the most of the available light and getting proper amounts of sleep. I’ve been getting plenty of sleep.

The sun sets around 11:30. Even then, though, the sky stays dusky and half-awake until the sun rises again sometime just after four A.M. I sleep fine, but it’s strange this never-darkness. Night continues on, and I, with the blinds drawn, sleep with a blanket pulled up over my head because the sky never turns black enough to showcase stars, I sleep through the twilightly half-light of this Alaska summer. And my dreams attend me.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Absalom, Absalom

Today In Alaska
Absalom, Absalom

As a child I was drawn to and horrified by the Old Testament story of Absalom. Because of the long hair. The story goes like this: King David’s son Absalom has been in hiding for years after murdering his rapist brother Amnon. After David has mourned his dead son he brings Absalom back to the kingdom. But somewhere between his call for justice and his return to David’s good graces, Absalom begins to have delusions of grandeur. From a nearby city, he rallies the Israelites to himself.

David’s men with Joab his general as their lead go out against Absalom. As they’re leaving, David begs them to treat his son kindly. I imagine the generals cast each other sidelong glances, thinking David has gone soft. Which, in a way, he has. Their glances made and their thoughts hidden from the king, the generals and their men go after the errant son.

While out riding his mule, presumably fleeing the surging army, Absalom gets his hair tangled in the limbs of an oak tree. Caught fast, Absalom is left hanging while his mule, suddenly free of its rider, ambles away.
The account makes sure to say that Absalom was a beautiful man without flaw. I suppose they mean without the flaw of usurpation. His long and glorious hair has him in a literal bind.

It seems as if Absalom has been left alone to hang. Where all his faithful Israelites are now is not stated. There’s no one to cut him down. Or maybe he prizes his hair too much for that to happen.
At this moment of suspension, one of David’s men passes by and does not a thing except run off to tell Joab what he’s seen.  

Disregarding David’s plea, Joab, mad that the man has not killed Absalom straight off, goes with javelins in hand to the oak tree and spears Absalom through the heart. As if that weren’t effective enough, Joab’s men finish off Absalom completely with swords and javelins and who knows what else. There’s no doubt the beautiful, rebellious prince is dead.

When David is informed of Absalom’s death he cries out, “O Absalom, o my son Absalom. Would I have died instead of you!”

Joab reprimands the king for his lack of self-interest or appreciation of his faithful ones’ act on his behalf. But still David mourns.

And that’s the story of Absalom.

On Thursday, I learn how to mow the orchard (I’ve already learned how to ride a 4-wheeler, use the watering system, pick strawberries, collect wild spinach, find my way around town, take trash to the dump, work the riding mower at the beach cabin, operate the hose pump, pull up grass, tape and bed a room, and throw around bales of hay). To show me the proper way, Fay makes some initial passes and then gives the riding mower over to me.

Go counterclockwise. Try not to break off tree branches. Watch the steep hill. Don’t tip over. Let the cut grass collect in the bushes and around the tree trunks. Go, therefore, and mow.

It’s daunting. All those rules and Fay nearby watching me.

My first time around I make it safely up the hill, but then on the far side of the orchard I forget to duck low enough (though successfully avoiding a crash into the tree trunk) and my hair is caught.

O Absalom, Absalom.

Brakes? I think of them too late.

Onward the mower goes. I’m not caught so tight to be left hanging, but I leave my hair behind me, a great tress of it torn from my head.

The hungry branches had reached around my hat to grasp at my hair. As if to entrap me. But, I’ve not murdered anyone. I’ve not plotted against a king. Why the harsh treatment?

I’m not sure how bald I’ll be but perhaps a bit of bare scalp is better than being left hanging as the mower-mule ambles on.

I don’t think Fay observes this.

On a second or third pass, I pull the incriminating mass of hair from the catching limb.

O Absalom.

I twirl the hair into a ball and put it in my pocket to toss away at a later time.

As I ride around and around, I lament with my cry of “Absalom, O Absalom!” laughing at myself and hoping the next time I mow I do a better job and have less of a balding, catching time.