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.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Careful What You Wish For

Today In Alaska
Be Careful What You Wish For

My younger sister and I used to talk a lot about going together on a whale watching tour in Alaska. It seemed the ultimate in adventure and really awesome because of the whales. After all, I’d read Moby Dick and (horrified by the harpooning) fallen for the Cetacea with all of a Free Willy type of love, wanting to see with my own eyes the giant ocean creatures who could sing heartrending notes like underwater operatic tenors. 

As we dreamed big with no money in our pockets and the future somewhere ahead of us just out of reach, Michaela’s and my phones calls faded into years.

Then I went off to Peru and then ever-ever onward and she moved away to Mexico.

We didn’t exactly forget about our dream, but we backburnered it. Also, we began to live our lives as a day to day adventure as best we could. She found whales and dolphins in Mexico and I found moose and other wild things out in the wilderness.

But, occasionally, I still had Alaska on my mind.

This past winter, my mom and I were talking about my travels and where I’d yet like to go. Alaska came up in my list.

A few days later, as if spoken into existence because of my conversation with my mother, I found an ad in the Caretaker’s Gazette for a summer work exchange in, of all places, Alaska. With nothing to lose, I shot off an email. And then soon after that found myself locked in to a summer gig.

Oh lord, work. Now what have I done?

I’d wished for Alaska and gotten it. And while that was a magic of its own, the work (somewhat unspecific in scope and with a number of hours to work in exchange for a place to stay before I get paid) daunted me.

“Are you excited about Alaska?” my grandmother asked as the days sped me forward toward my travel day.

“Yes,” I’d said, but I hadn’t been sure if I was. Whale watching was one thing, work was another.

There’s a quote by Russell Baker in which he says, “The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.”

While my suspicion about what writing requires has been doused by the reality of trying to make my writing good (and then better)(can suspicion be doused?), I had latched on to the part of the quote about not being fit for real work—mostly because I was tired of unfulfilling hours of work for other people. It wasn’t that I was lazy, not exactly, I simply realized my own limitations and desires. Also, I wanted to do my own thing. I liked my freedom.

Unfortunately, as of yet, I cannot live on dreams (or writing) alone.

But I can choose where I go and what I do. In this life that’s a lot.

For now, I’m lucky enough to be able to write half the year in the relative solitude of the wilderness and work out in the world in an attempt to gain money the other half.

Which has brought me to Alaska.

And though my sister isn’t here with me and though I’ve yet to see whales, I have the summer ahead of me to discover what this territory is all about. I’ve made it and here I am.
Hello, Alaska.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

That Girl and Her Sister in Paris

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond


In our last European city together, Jesse and I spend a week, a lifetime, and not nearly long enough in Paris. It’s fall in France. Golden leaves flitter over the walkways and across the streets, tumble down from branches to sit on the grass of the gardens.

Moody clouds press against the sky. On our first morning there, fog hides the top of the Eiffel Tower from our view giving the monument and the city a misty, magical feel.

As we make our way through the Metro tunnels from one line to the other heading to the little apartment we’ve rented for the week, a woman sings into a tinny microphone to an accompanying tune.
“She’s singing Jean Jacques Goldman,” I say, stopping in my tracks as I recognize the French rock n’ roll star’s song Comme Toi. When we were young, our family and our friends’ family hosted French exchange students who then introduced us to the popular J.J. Goldman. Loving French ‘80s rock ‘n roll as a child and then a teenager, I’d never imagined that one day I’d be here listening to the words I’ve known for so many years fill the subway tunnel and carry on with me even after the sounds fade from our hearing as we move on and away.

Jean Jacques Goldman! We really are in Paris.

Over the week, Jesse and I visit many of the main Parisian sites. We stand in line for three hours to get into the Louvre where we see the Mona Lisa and (to my great surprise and joy) the Nike of Samothrace among other wonders by da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Luini, Raphael. Many of the paintings and painters I’d learned about in art history I’m seeing with my own eyes. And it’s crowded and busy and overwhelming and wonderful.

The next day, we stand in line again and eventually get to the Eiffel Tower’s summit from where we gaze down upon all of Paris. We drink espressos from the second level immersed in our own lofty thoughts.

Another day, we climb up all the stairs of Notre Dame’s North Tower where we make friends with gargoyles and meet Quasimodo’s bell.

Later on, with the song in our heads, we venture down the busy Champs-Élysées without shopping and then go stare at the Arche de Triomphe.

Yet another day, we descend into the Sewers of Paris with their Jean Valjean fame, excited as children to peer down at the murky water, twisting pipes, and covering grates, remembering Hugo’s Les Miserables and the movies made after his story which we’d seen both as children and adults. As I lean over a railing, I imagine Jean Valjean carrying the wounded body of his enemy through the dirty, cloying sewage to safety, and am glad I don’t have to do the same.

In between the waiting in lines and the seeing of sites, we stop off at cafés for drinks and desserts. We wander along the Seine. Pass by museums and churches and even the apartment where Marie Curie lived for a time. We shop for fruit at our local corner store. We even take a daytrip to Versailles.

Every morning but one (when we have French Toast in France at a little restaurant around the corner from the Eiffel Tower), Jesse and I eat our breakfasts at the café on the street below our apartment where we’re waited on by the Happiest Waiter in the World. Each morning, he greets us with a cheerful “Bonjour!”
“Bonjour!” we reply.
 “Ҫa va?” Jesse asks, her French better than mine (mine is very rudimentary consisting mostly of phrases from the French Albums we listened to as children. “Bonjour, Helen” “Bonjour, Maman.” and then a long exchange about it being late and time to get up which I can still recite even if I can’t spell the French correctly).  
 “Ҫa va bien. How could I not be?” the Happiest Waiter in the World says, a morning person who truly loves morning. “The usual?” he asks going back toward the kitchen. His smile has enough energy to light up a street. His joy at living is nearly better than the caffeine in our cappuccinos for waking us up.
He’s the spirit of Paris, this waiter. The joie de vivre. Élan. The expression of emotion that neither Jesse nor I quite know how to voice for ourselves. And now, why should we when we have the Happiest Waiter in the World to do it for us?

All in all, it’s fiction that brings Paris to life for me. The connections between Victor Hugo’s work and the city, and then to the more recent books I’ve found.

More than anything else I’ve seen or loved here, I fall most in love with the river of Paris.
This is in part by its own merit and partly because I’m taken by a fictional character who also loves the Seine. For a number of years now I’ve been reading the French author Fred Vargas’s Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series, waiting eagerly for each new book to come across the ocean, translated to English from the French.   

From book to book, Adamsberg, a quirky, flawed, intuitive rather than practical Commissaire of the Serious Crimes Unit in Paris, leads his team to solving the tricky murders that his city suffers under. When he needs to get away from the bustle of the station he goes for long walks along the Seine and it’s there by the changing colors of the water that he often gets his breakthroughs.

In one book, the mystery is solved in part by a packet of sugar and the apple brandy Calvados which the characters drink throughout the story. One night, blending the real Paris to the Paris I’d read about, I order a Calva while Jesse gets a dessert. My drink is served on a small saucer with an accompanying sugar cube and I’m thrilled by this. With the magic of fiction and reality swirling like the waters of the Seine around us, we sit outside of our café (waited on by someone who is not the Happiest Waiter in the World) and enjoy the night air. Jesse reads and I people watch.  

Following in his fictional footsteps with more than liquor, on more than one day we wander a long path along the river, and as we go, I think, “This is where Adamsberg walked. This is what he saw. This is where he was.” And the fiction comes alive, the stories take on a more solid reality. The books and characters and arrondissements come to life. And isn’t that the power of fiction, the power of place?

On our last day in Paris, Jesse and I take the Metro to the far end of the line and then trace our way back through the city along the Seine. Stopping occasionally to eat, to get a latte from a charming café with outdoor seating, to have a glass of wine and a snack, and to sit on the stairs and ledges along the river to watch the water move. Jesse reads. I sit and muse.

Was there ever a more perfect time than now? Was there ever a more perfect place than here? The answer is no. Not when I live in the moment. Not when I’m here feeling so full I could cry, feeling bittersweet that this is my last full day in Paris, trying not to remember that. In only a handful of hours, Jesse and I will part ways. I’ll head off to the airport and back to the states and she’ll stay at the apartment one last night before taking a morning train to Brussels. We’ve been together, working over the summer and here on our trip, for five months and this parting is strange and disconcerting. We’ve grown accustomed to looking over our shoulders to make sure we haven’t lost the other as we take trains, subways, and meander down streets. We’ve come to rely on our separate strengths. Now what will we do? 
I don’t think about that here by the Seine as the clouds move and the water slips on by. I don’t think about that as I add this day, this week, this city to my growing list of perfect days, weeks, and cities. With my feet dangling over the water, thinking about real life and fiction, I sit there in companionable silence with my sister for a little while longer, feeling so lucky to be alive.

Behind us, the Eiffel Tower stands tall against the clouds, a silhouette of wonder. The bridge in front of us charms people into walking across it. And a tour boat passing by carries tourists who take pictures of us sitting there like Parisians, like we belong, like this is home.