Projects. This word strikes both glee and fear into me simultaneously. Glee for the change, the new, the progress. Fear for the time, the mess and the inevitable “oh shit” moments. This year, we’ve been in project go-mode. Having stayed home for the entire year for the first time ever, we truly had a moment to see what needed doing and oh boy, it’s a lot. Like any good project, each one began with hope and progressed like an unending nesting doll. Projects within projects (within projects, within projects) have an uncanny way of popping up.
Still, cross them off the list we did. There was trim to cut and paint and a ceiling to stain, tongue and groove to mill and paint for interior siding, a trillion tiny projects and umpteen garden projects and somehow we had the lumber for them all, lucky us.
The funny thing about living 8 hours from the nearest lumber yard (well, 4 if you want to pay double but that’s not often a ride I aim admittance to) is that when you buy lumber, you often buy a little extra. Mistakes happen and a buffer is key. The other “funny” thing about living so far out is said lumber must find somewhere to stay dry and cozy until it proves time for its project to commence. So, with a little extra and a lot to store, we set aside our lumber to side our house.
One year ago.
Last Summer we had hoped to have it up and done before the wedding. Did that happen? It sure didn’t.
With The Chief working 12-14 hour days for 42 days with one day off and me working full-time while planning a wedding and tagging in as his co-pilot firefighter a few times a week, we didn’t exactly have a lot of milling hours in us.
Two years ago this Fall, I wrote about our naked house and how, despite loving what it holds inside, I am embarrassed for its lackluster outside. Now, one year after buying the lumber to do it and umpteen Winter, Spring and Summer projects that required completion in between, siding our house had still found itself on the projects back burner (or on an understandable but equally frustrating seasonal delay). Our house still remains naked. So, we set to clothe it.
The siding project (in our heads) went something like this:
1. Order and pick up lumber – Done! We’d done this last Summer. Ahead of the game already! 2. Grab the boards 3. Mill the boards 4. Sand the boards 5. Stain the boards 6. Put the boards up Done!
Had I looked at that list when we hatched this siding plan, I might have let The Chief twist my arm to pre-built siding just to take a few of those steps out because…in addition to the above steps, our process, thus far, just to get to the third step (Mill the boards) has been:
1. Move an old couch that somehow got place in the way of the boards (Day O) 2. Organize the work tent so there is room to work in it (Day 1) 3. Uncover the boards (start of Day 2)
4. Set up sawhorses for the boards to stage them for milling 5. Discover that after a long Winter’s rest, some boards (which are 12 feet long) have gained a little weight (water weight, that is) and are wet 6. Set up another set of sawhorses for wet vs. dry boards 7. Sort the boards into wet and dry and move them into corresponding sawhorse piles 8. Set up another set of sawhorses for milled lumber 9. Get two generators from their two different sides of the property 10. Get the gas can and filter 11. Fill them with gas 12. Bring out the saw 13. Level the saw 14. Set up the guides on the saw to create the tongue and groove 15. Get another set of sawhorses to help hold the boards as they are milled 16. Try the first board 17. Realize that the sawhorse system isn’t working 18. Try another board Success. 19. Mill each board through twice (to get both sides) 20. Get through 14 boards before it starts to get dark 21. Set up two more sets of sawhorses inside the work tent 22. Start a fire in the work tent to dry all boards, milled and wet 23. Move milled and wet lumber inside the tent, stacking and stickering (essentially placing another piece of wood perpendicular to each row so as to create airflow) them to cure (dry) overnight 24. Move both generators back to their respective places on the property 25. Move saw back inside 26. Re-cover remaining lumber 27. Count remaining lumber while covering Realize that it will take you another day to finish all the milling Go inside (it’s now 7 pm) Haul water Run the generator Shower Run the air hose through the shower to make sure it doesn’t freeze and break in the sub-30 nights 28. Check on fire in the work tent (it’s now 9 pm) Make dinner Do dishes 29. Check on fire in the work again (it’s now 10:30 pm) End of Day 2
So, yes, it ended up being a little longer of a process than my 6 step process had anticipated and while I didn’t count the steps like hauling water or running the generator for the house, it’s all a part of the process too. It’s all part of why things take as long as they do, because there’s always another Russian Doll popping up.
In between finishing up and counting our progress on Day 2 towards the overall product, we also realized (or rather, re-realized) another “funny” thing about living in the woods? When you buy a little extra for your project, sometimes you forget just how much extra. Saturday, we found out. Through the variety of necessary projects we’d completed in the last three seasons, we’d managed to go burn through everything “extra” and straight on into our required materials. In fact, we have less than half of what we need.
I vaguely remember The Chief and I discussing this while shivering in 20 below zero weather. “We can just replace it when we are ready!” I can hear us saying. A statement we promptly forgot while we finished the ensuing projects: the trim, the tongue and groove interior siding, the planters, etc.
Still, whether starting with everything or just a less than half our necessary materials, start we did and while it took far longer than either of us had anticipated (surprised?) we came out ahead because we came out at all.
Sunday, we found our groove.
We were outside bright and early in the below 40 degree weather and had milled and re-stacked half of the remaining pile by 10:30 am. The work tent was warm and after a brief intermission for a volunteer day at the VFD, The Chief returned and we finished the non-wet pile. 63 boards, all 12 feet, a total of 126 passes through the mill, all finally finished.
So, what remains? 8 boards to mill once they are dry. A Town trip to grab 80 more boards. Milling said boards (160 more passes through the mill) and then, just those few simple steps:
Sand the boards Stain the boards Put the boards up Done!
I’m sure it will go just as easily as the first 63 boards went and by that I mean, not easily at all but deeply, deeply satisfying to see to completion. Perhaps our weather gambles will pay off and we will be able to stain in the late Fall sunshine or perhaps (fingers and toes crossed, no!), we will have to finish the project next year when we can again paint outside (you know, toxic fumes inside a tent heated by a flaming stove, not a great idea). Only time (on the weekends) will tell. Here’s hoping!
To you and your projects, I wish you good luck! May your process be speedy, your materials be plenty and your clothes smell of sawdust and congratulate you of progress.
I’ve never been much of a gambler. Despite going to Las Vegas a handful of times, the most I’ve ever lost was $100 and it was $100 a friend had given me to encourage me to “Get on out there!”. Get on out there I did for about 1 solid hour of Juju gambling time and then…meh. It’s just not me.
Recently, we had the chance to gamble twice. You see, the weather a month ago had been absolutely gorgeous. Bluebird skies. Not a cloud in sight. Warm, sunny days.
So, aiming to finally get “out” before the Fall closed in, we had scheduled a backcountry trip (where you fly in an airplane into even more remote Alaska). We met to match schedules with the flight company, deciding each to take one day off from work, and lo and behold, we found the perfect weekend. It was settled.
Then, The Chief’s boss switched around his work schedule. Suddenly, if we took the trip he would have missed one normal day of work AND one day of overtime instead of just one regular day. Being that his work season is coming to a close, the squirreling of dollars has begun and we couldn’t really swing it. Plus, one of the people who had given us the trip was visiting said weekend and we would have missed getting in some quality time with her.
So, novice gamblers that we are, we risked it: Gamble #1: Rescheduling. We scheduled for the last weekend the flight company was open: last weekend. Labor Day Weekend, which also happened to be our one-year anniversary. The visiting girlfriend who had given us the flight and had worked at the flight company had worried that it might be too cold or that we would get stuck in the backcountry. “Go! Dont’ worry, we will see one another soon! I don’t want you to get stuck or not go!” she cautioned.
Mid-Summer, it’s actually pretty fun to fly out to places that have difficult landing strips or are prone to weather delays and experience the maybe we will, maybe we won’t adventure of getting stuck in the backcountry. I mean, who doesn’t want more time in the mountains, right? As the Fall closes in, the chances of weather delays and rough landings increases and…this was the last weekend the flight service was operating. So, if they couldn’t pick us up, we’d have to Winter over in the mountains.
Just kidding! But…it would delay their closing if their ability to pick us up was delayed.
Still, the weather had been beautiful and if it were anything near how the weather had been last year at our wedding, we would be totally fine. So, we scheduled it. Labor Day weekend, goodbye! To the backcountry we go!
Enter: Gamble #2: Rescheduling…Again
As we cruised through the following weekend, post reschedule, the weekend we would have been in the backcountry originally, the weather showed up in style. It was GORGEOUS. T-shirt weather mixed with the leaves turning made for an epic precursor to Fall. Everyone reveled in the good luck we were having. What weather!
The Monday after that weekend everything changed.
We awoke to Fall. The sky was overcast and cold, and the temperature was in the 20’s. As Leto and I took our morning constitutional, we looked into the mountains.
A lot of snow.
The gloomy week continued and as the trip grew nearer, we had a gamble to make: we could go into the backcountry and risk getting stuck or we could cancel our trip until next year.
Cancelling Pros: 1. Next year, we could go earlier in the summer with (potentially) warmer weather 2. We could harvest our garden which, given the current weather conditions, was unlikely to last through the weekend and greet us upon our return 3. We wouldn’t risk missing extra work (more than we could really budget for) 4. We essentially live in the backcountry, so even without a plane, we could get out into the wilderness on our own. This, however, is more likely in Winter though, which means temperatures far colder than Fall weather. But…I’d done it before!
Cancelling Cons: 1. Not being in the backcountry 2. Waiting an entire year to get into a plane and go in the backcountry 3. Feeling like we “never do anything” 4. Staying home and not getting that backcountry release one can only feel when phones are off and all is quiet
Come Wednesday of the week we were finally set to depart, the forecast gave us nothing. It was dark and cold and the predictions were about 50/50 cold with sun to colder with snow. After a dinner sit down we decided to call it: The backcountry would have to wait until next year. Having worked on our garden since March, and trying to stay true to our aim to live better off the land, we would have been devastated to come home to a spoiled crop. And, although there’s nothing quite like the backcountry, we did have one trick up our sleeve:
You see, this Spring we did something crazy. We bought 21 acres of raw land, 3 seasons sight unseen.
What does that mean? The Chief and I trudged about the property for a month in the heart of Winter. Snowshoeing in hip deep snow to create trails to discover the property lines of the different lots and choose which would be ours.
We ended up with two and come this Spring, we saw them for the first time in Spring. Come this Summer, we saw them for the first time in Summer. Come this past weekend, we finally saw our property in Fall. Finally, all four seasons, sight quite seen.
The property sits across The Road from Long Lake, a place that has always held a special place in my heart since I arrived. It was, in fact, the first place I ever stayed in our area and it had me from my first mosquito fleeing boat ride across it. I never dreamed we’d actually be able to live there but The Chief and I had always hoped, deep down, that someday it might work out and then…it did.
So, no, we didn’t go into the backcountry last weekend. On Wednesday we decided to cancel and guess what?! Come Thursday morning, the sun was shining bright as ever, the birds were singing and though crisp, the day was “warm”. The night and day shift in weather continued into the weekend and trust me, I doubted my gambling abilities, even going so far as to try to ruin the first few hours of our first day off together by drowning in self-doubt. Still, every time I looked up to the mountains, with its steady accumulation of snow, and down to our garden that lasted just until Saturday morning, when we harvested the last bits, I knew we had made the right choice.
To gather some of the backcountry vibe we were so desperately in need of, we turned off our phones for the weekend for the first time in months (hence the lack of photos). We spent the weekend pickling the vegetables from our garden. Carrots and zucchini and cucumbers found their way into jars and basil was hung to dry and set aside with carrot tops for pesto. The tomato plants with their fruit still green, were cut down and brought into the house to ripen on the vine and the last wild Alaskan medicinal herbs that grace our property found their way into tinctures and oils and onto drying racks.
It was a tidying up, a recommitment to our base values.
Then, it was adventure time. First, a hike out to The Toe of the glacier and then, a night at the property.
Being on the property felt magical. The Chief cut down the first trees ever, we started working on our trail and we had our first fire. We spent the night under the stars (it’s Fall, y’all and stars are back!), listening to howling coyotes and hooting owls. By dawn, it had started to rain and we threw on the tent fly, scooped up our Leto and cuddled into our family nest, cozy, safe and sound.
The next day, our one year wedding anniversary, we packed up and headed homeward. We spent the day unpacking and tidying, reading and napping. Then, as the night closed in, we 4-wheelered down to our somehow still standing wedding arch and toasted to a wonderful year together.
Our first year of marriage. As we had done during our wedding ceremony, we made vows to one another and promises born from the lessons we’d learned in the year past. Then, as we had done after our wedding ceremony, we walked down to the river, found a rock along the way and hollered our wishes as we threw the rocks in to the icy waters below.
As I tossed in my rock, I looked up to the snow-covered mountains and felt that, for once in my life, I’d made the right gamble. The biggest gamble of them all. I’d unknowingly gambled on Alaska and in it, I found the love I had never dared to dream of. Just like the weather, there have been moments to test me, to make me question myself but always I come back to here, back to you. With all of my heart, thank you to Alaska and to The Chief for gambling on me and helping me to see I’m right where I need to be.
“Patterns?” You ask? Yes, dear friend. Patterns. And no, not the plaid and houndstooth of the world. No, no, no. Patterns! You know, the type of patterns that aren’t actually patterns at all but rather one time happenings we aim to replicate into eternity!
For example, The Chief and I have a really nice evening. We happen to have meatloaf for dinner. It happens to be Monday and suddenly…poof! Meatloaf Mondays are born. That kind of “this was good, may it always be so” type of pattern. I’m always trying to sell The Chief unsolicited tickets to my patterned events: Sunday Strolls. Take Out Tuesdays. Sweep Up Saturdays. Chop Wood Wednesdays. It seems I’m a huge fan of “always” and a downright devotee to alliteration.
And perhaps that’s OK, no? A little bit of organization never hurt anyone, right Marie Kondo?
In my search for continuity, I seem to “find” patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist.
So last year, when I had a downright banner year in the garden, I assumed (read: decided) that was how the garden would go from there on out. Perfectly.
All the warning signs that I was experiencing pattern blindness were there. Some of the best gardeners I know had quite difficult years last year due to pests or pole vaulting moose or the reason scariest of them all: the unknown. Eek! Still, despite seeing the ebb and the flow in even the best gardeners, this emerging seedling of a green thumb looked at my beautiful brassica bounty and assumed it would always be so.
Clearly, I’m not winning any Best at Living in the Here and Now awards.
As the season came to an end and I did my best to put up what I’d grown and as the snow came, I tucked in the garden until next year.
The year that should have been just as good as last year. No, better!
I get attached to “patterns” even when they’ve yet to begin, even when their outcome is unlikely.
Yet sometimes patterns pan out, like seeing the same first flower every year, year after year, once the snow starts to melt:
I “see” a pattern and decide it’s a downright guarantee and while that’s totes adorbs and all, it turns out that even though I can apply mandatory patterns regarding food consumption or chores to myself, applying those patterns to others doesn’t go so hot. Especially when that other is Mother Earth. Mama don’t play that game.
Or does she?
If you’re still wondering, I have photographic proof that she, in fact, does not.
My cabbages that grew big as beach balls last year seemed not to have gotten their return tickets to 2020. This year’s cabbages have made no suggestion that they might decide to head up, lounging instead as small to medium leaves acting as shields for more delicate crops in our rainy year. In fact, the largest cabbage I have in my garden to date is one I threw in the compost last year that somehow overwintered and came back to life as a triplet. I kid you not.
So, I stand corrected: one cabbage got a return ticket this year and petite as she is, she’s putting all her leggy, leafy brethren to shame.
So, clearly, this year, the year to beat the banner year has been a bit of a dud in some ways. Certainly, it started out with a thud. I started my seeds early, earlier than I ever had in order to get a jump on things. The world was (is?) falling apart (yet never fear, here are some tips to wait out the apocalypse) as we know it and food shortages seemed to loom in our future. Being a “mere” 8 hours from the nearest large grocery store, I hopped to it. I would provide for our family for the summer and the following months to come.
My seeds had another idea. Since people were running about all Henny Penny and seeds were bought up faster than you can say “The sky is falling!”, I recycled them from the year before. Normally, a girlfriend and I share an annual seed order because we are thrifty like that but this year, the seed stores were low and shipping times were prohibitive so we opted to simply reuse last year’s pups. Big mistake?
Or maybe the problem was that the soil was bunk or the trays had a funk or maybe 2020 got wind of our plans and decided to throw her doomsday fancy footwork into the show. Either way, germination wasn’t exactly my strong suit this year. I may not be a pro but I’ve been consistently able to get the finicky Delphinium to germinate so to not be able to pop up a nasturtium, welcome some kale or greet a snap pea? That was weird.
My girlfriend experienced similarly lackluster results with flowers and veggies that were equally old hat to her. A few weeks later, I went for another round, and luckily some of those who hadn’t thrived earlier popped into play. I had the basics and the garden would go on.
The spring sunshine, however, would not. We’ve had the rainiest, coldest summer I’ve ever known anywhere. Like Hawaii, we’ve had afternoon showers almost daily. Unlike Hawaii, we didn’t experience much in terms of t-shirt weather until July, and now, come August, we are back to winter layers that never even had the chance to get put into storage. So, needless to say, the slow start of the seedlings never found a helping hand in the weather and certain things show it.
While others thrive.
Though I may not be rich in sauerkraut from cabbages this winter, we will certainly have squash goodness galore. While my arugula itch never got scratched this summer, beautiful heads of red, butter and romaine lettuce led the charge into the salad bowl. Despite not a single snap pea coming to fruition, the climbing fence The Chief fashioned for me holds a plethora of sweet peas whose scent transports me every time I breathe it in. And further developments like the new stacking boxes he fashioned promise potatoes aplenty.
And while doubles were the wildest combo I’d ever seen my zucchini flowers produce, I was lucky enough to see triplets this year!
So, how does my garden grow? Differently. Beautifully. In a way all its own.
Patterns, while consistent and trustworthy, leave little room for the here and now. I’m certainly not keen to give up some of them (Meatloaf Mondays forever. If you haven’t had meatloaf since the 80’s, I implore you to give it a revamp and another try. Thank me later) but I think, I hope I can make a little more room for the abstract to come and share its wisdom as well. Despite learning the lesson that everything changes (even your face time and time again (though hopefully not ever again in that manner ever), it’s still a hard one for me to accept. Yet, when I take a step back to truly see what change reveals, it turns out the picture is uniquely beautiful, every time.
It may not have been a replication of last year but this year’s garden was drop-dead gorgeous and super productive in so many other ways. The sun didn’t shine into the 80’s every day like it did last year but perhaps we were better off without the wildness a relentless midnight glow can bring. I didn’t buy a single flower this year, as I always have in the past and hoped my few starts would brighten up the place. It’s been the best flower year yet.
The garden didn’t produce in the same way as last year but it did in so many other ways and because the garden took longer to take off, I’ve found myself foraging more in the bounty that surrounds us. Picking fireweed blossoms and wild raspberries, mint, chamomile, yarrow, and more in our yard. Discovering the joy of Orange Delicious mushrooms, thanks to the teachings of a friend.
Moving away from the old made room for discovering the new, perfectly imperfect as it is.
A year’s passed and life has sure has changed. Last year I was up to my eyeballs in cabbage and greens. This year I find myself a zucchini queen. Last year I was prepping for a wedding, this year, an anniversary. Imagine that. Change. Despite the feelings of safety a pattern might elicit, trying to force it to stay finds us ripping at the seams. So, I’ll let go…
P.S. How does your garden grow?
Liking Beneath the Borealis? Make sure to sign up at the top of the page to have it hand-delivered to your inbox every Monday. P.P.S
It was a summer Saturday like any other: we had things to do.
Weekends around here have been a little more chores and responsibility than chill and rejuvenate so when last Saturday rolled around, out of bed we rolled to an alarm, bright and early, though bushy-tailed we were not. Still, a bit of cheer filled our faces because the day ahead of us held a little pot of gold at the end of the responsibility rainbow: camping.
The responsibility rainbow however, began with selling our couch. Seems easy enough, right? Ah, I thought so too. I must have forgotten we live in the woods where everything takes thrice as long and each situation is game to deal up unexpected cards to boot. Still, the plot that day was simple: as soon as we met up with the couple driving in to buy our couch, we were off to camp at The Lake.
The journey to selling the couch however, had already been an interesting one so we didn’t count our chicken plans before they’d hatched.
Who am I kidding, of course we did!
So there we were, running around as fast as kids post birthday cake, getting all of our chores done (laundry, water, dishes, etc.) when we got the call: there’d been trouble on The Road.
Our road here is notorious for being rough on cars but this wasn’t even a problem to blame on the bumpy 60 miles of dirt madness. This time, the couple’s transmission had blown and they were only half-way down The Road.
You see, this here couch transaction had been in the works for over a month. Schedules hadn’t aligned and travel out here is tricky. With an 8-hour round-trip from their home to ours, the interested couple couldn’t exactly pop on over to see if they wanted it. Thankfully, through the magic of the interwebs, we were able to send pictures of the couch from every which way (posing. Posing with my arm) and they were certain it was their dream couch. Now, we just had to figure out how to get it to them.
Both of them are teachers in the nearby (read: 3-4 hours away) districts and with the school season fast-approaching, we only had a few weeks to make it happen. So, three weeks ago, they had headed our way and…car trouble round one: something had malfunctioned in their vehicle, sending them back to Town. Still, all repaired up and ready to go, they had opted to give the couch a round two last weekend and…bam! Transmission.
Things weren’t looking good for this transaction.
Thankfully, Alaskan magic sent one of the wife’s prior students down The Road at just the right time and he gave them a lift to our town while we debated what to do. Their truck wasn’t going anywhere anytime fast. The reality was, they needed a ride home.
The end of the rainbow was getting farther away.
We decided we can’t just live in Alaska and not do the Alaskan thing and so we offered to drive them and our couch home. Still, first thing was first: getting the couch out of our tiny cabin.
[Sidenote: why oh why are we selling a perfectly good couch we bought less than a year ago? This pint-size princess, as my Dad used to call me, was a bit too pint-sized. My feet couldn’t reach the floor and so, despite my best attempts with a barrage of pillows arranged every which way, the couch and my back were not best friends and so, she had to go.]
Ok, back to it: getting the couch out.
We whistled the “I need help with a household project” whistle (just kidding, we called them on telephones) and our neighborhood besties came to our aid. First, we’d have to maneuver the couch out of the house (which meant completely rearranging everything to make enough room to move). Then we’d have to load it in the truck (which meant taking apart the Ramp of Doom railing). Then we’d have to put back on the camper shell we’d taken off for fishing earlier this Summer (which meant more heavy lifting).
Just then, it started to rain.
I rearranged the house while The Chief disassembled the railing on the Ramp of Doom enough that we could lower the couch from the house down into a huge plant of blooming Mugwort rather than try to pivot on the treacherous incline. The friend at the Mugwort end was apparently allergic and within minutes, his eyes were red and running. So, basically, it was going perfectly. Rain, allergies, awkward movements, breaking apart our house. A typical furniture move in AK.
Eventually, the couch was tied up snug as a bug in a rug in burrito tarps, away from the threat of rain in the bed of the truck with the camper on (thanks to The Chief’s wiggling in between the camper and the couch in order to secure it. Thanks, honey!) and good thing because we were already late to meet our road trippin buddies!
What an odd way to meet new people (“Hi! Do you have masks? Here’s one you can use!”) but lucky for us, they were awesome and lucky for me, my husband is a talker. I was pooped from an overly social week (which could mean seeing 6 people instead of my normal 3-5) and so appreciated being able to sit back and ask a few questions but mainly just listen for the 4-hour escapade. The husband in the couple was the same way. Opposites attract.
The rain gave up a little when we finally arrived at their house and unloaded the couch. Settled safely in its new home, we bid our adieus, sanitized and waved a farewell to our masks, at least for a little while. Juju needed some snacks! 4 hours without one? I was basically shriveling up.
The drive gave us an excuse to grab a few fresh goodies (though I got so in Get Home Mode that I forgot to even buy a treat!) and a chance to just catch up. With The Chief’s maniacal work schedule this summer (who am I kidding, EVERY summer), we hadn’t really seen one another other than early mornings and rushed evenings aiming to make our prescribed bedtimes. We were able to finally hold the space for talks we needed and the time we needed together to simply unwind. Sure, it wasn’t camping but it was a place and a time reserved only for us and it was a treat. The day had been perfectly Alaskan: completely off-course and exactly what we needed. Exactly what we needed in order to say:
Tomorrow, we do nothing.
I can’t remember the last time we hadn’t woken to an alarm, weekend or weekday alike but last Sunday, we did. Even amidst a pandemic, we still find ourselves incredibly busy with responsibilities to the fire department and our home but that day, the only responsibility was: nothing.
When we finally got up, we simply moved to our “nest” on the ground The Chief and I fashioned out of all of our camping gear.
What? Hadn’t you prepared and bought another couch for when you sold yours?
The transaction had seemed so up in the air I hadn’t really ever known if it would actually happen. So, we sat in our little nest, cozier than we ever were on the couch with our little Leto joining the snuggle puddle, the perfect cherry on top of a do nothing Sunday.
Eventually, (aka hopefully this week while I’m in Anchorage. Eek!), we will find a new couch. Until then, it’s the nest and the reminder it provides: remember to rest.
Cheers to the unexpected. I guess its best to celebrate her, as she’ll show up to your party either way.
It’s a gasp inducing revelation, I know. Catch your breath, in and out. You’re going to be OK.
I come from fishing stock, a family where Alaskan salmon was so plentiful that towards Summer’s end, it became a bit more of a job than a joy to eat. Yes, I know how that sounds but as a kiddo, I didn’t totally appreciate the pink perfection of omega-filled goodness. I just saw filets for days and days and longed for a little variation.
I am not an expert on Black history. I am not an expert on our present day. I can educate myself and I am learning but I have not, nor will I ever know what it’s like to live as any Black person, past or present. Because of this, I have written and rewritten this post in my head hundreds of times over the past months. I have started and stopped, afraid to misstep, afraid to say the wrong thing.
That was my first mistake.
In writing this, I have gone through countless iterations, down (new to me) rabbit holes researching things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and into deep self-questioning and still, it won’t be perfect. I am not here to brag to you about how aware I am but rather to illuminate how asleep at the wheel I’ve been and to implore us both to wake up. This post won’t be the ultimate representation of the situation (many white people have finally realized) we are in because this situation is centuries old, endlessly nuanced and unbelievably ingrained in our society. This post will, however, aim to illuminate our harsh reality and how white people can do the inner work no one can do for them to address the past and the present. I may misstep. I have misstepped on this same path before and I appreciate those who have taken the time and energy to correct me. Still, my hope and my understanding is that being on the path is better than watching from the sidelines as I have been.
I don’t have all the answers but I know silence isn’t one of them.
So, let’s start with underwear, obviously:
“OK ladies, where are the best places to buy cute but comfortable underwear online? Go!”
This was a text I sent out to some girlfriends a few months back and the response? Overwhelmingly Aerie. Aerie, a child brand of parent company American Eagle, was one I’d heard of but never bothered to check out. I figured it would be the same stick-thin, whitewashed company I remembered from my youth.
I was wrong.
When I visited the site, I found myself among my people: women with curves, women with cellulite, women with stretch marks. None of them were hiding their “imperfections” or strategically posing to shield our eyes from their “flaws.” I saw myself represented in a way airbrushed media doesn’t often show, and it felt good. Yet, it wasn’t just me. Women of all shapes, sizes and skin colors graced the screen (though at my most recent visit, there were, unfortunately, more white faces than before on the main page). There were women with disabilities and women who had clearly had children and wore their tiger stripes proudly instead of covering them up (if you haven’t heard of Sara Shakeel and her amazing glamification of stretch marks, please check her out). It felt good to see a wider range of representation. Our bodies tell a story. It feels so validating to see your story shown, right?
The thing is, I’m white and if you are too, our story has always been shown (and often, glorified). While I may not have grown up seeing my particular body type represented, I have always seen my skin color represented. From government and other positions of power to media (everything from books, movies and magazines, down to the pamphlets you see in your doctor’s office) to toys and more, everywhere you look, there are white people. The default has been white and the thing is, if you’re white, you may not have even noticed. Everyone, regardless of sex or skin color, knows how horrible it feels to be misrepresented. Imagine not being represented at all.
Maybe you’re thinking “Yea, but how much damage could not being represented do?” Simply put: a lot (and we’ve known it for a long time). Seeing a singular positive depiction of what it means to be beautiful via whitewashed everything and a singular negative depiction of black skin (think only being cast to play the parts of enslaved people or criminals in movies, ads, etc.) whispers to us; it sneaks into our subconscious: white is better (and just to be explicitly clear: no, it’s not).
The Doll Tests from the 1940’s illustrated this as well. They illuminated the negative effects segregation had on African-American children’s self-esteem and their feelings toward their race and social status. When posed with a choice between dolls of different colors (at the time, there weren’t any Black dolls. A white doll had to be painted black), the children overwhelmingly chose the white dolls and assigned positive characteristics to them.
This test, performed by Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark was cited in the Brown vs. Board of Education Superior Court ruling which desegregated schools:
“To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
And with that desegregation passed! Problem solved, right?
While this acknowledgement was a win against segregation, the NAACP LDF (Legal Defense and Education Fund), a legal organization fighting for racial justice, reported in this article that “Dr. Kenneth Clark was dismayed that the court failed to cite two other conclusions he had reached: that racism was an inherently American institution, and that school segregation inhibited the development of white children, too.”
The study has since been recreated and the results replicated. White and Black children more often ascribed negative terms such as “ugly” or “dumb” to the Black dolls versus the white dolls. While segregation is legally gone (although with redlining and racist policies, is it?), the impacts of devaluing darker skin remain. Social movements like the Black is Beautiful movement, which gained momentum in the 1960’s aimed to dispel the damaging narrative that black features were inherently ugly or bad (the societal rhetoric children were subconsciously bringing with them into the Doll Tests). Yet the sheer reality that such a movement ever had to originate shows just how much damage has been done and this is just one piece of the bigger picture.
Just one piece.
So, we’ve gotten this far in and all we’ve talked about is underwear? Well, no. We’ve talked about the deeply ingrained devaluation of darker skin. Why does this matter? One: because how we make people feel about themselves and how we feel about others should be based on who they are as a person, not ascribed to them based on negative, untrue preconceptions about their skin color. Two: because these preconceptions aren’t just painful, unjust and ugly, they are dangerous.
This problem of racism is massive. We haven’t even talked about the lasting financial effects of slavery and racist policy (essentially, our system is based on racist beginnings bringing us to a racist present where white people are helped to succeed and Black people are not). Kimberly Latrice Jones does one of the best breakdowns of our history I’ve seen right here. We haven’t talked about redlining. We haven’t talked about the unequal numbers of Black people incarcerated versus whites (here’s a quick fact sheet). We haven’t talked about the disproportionate brutality towards and killing of innocent people of color at the hands of officers of the law and white vigilantes. There’s innumerable ways racism has shown up and reared its hideous head in the world and it will continue to do so if we, as a society, let it.
So, what can you do?
Nothing, right? It’s too big. Too ingrained. Too powerful.
No. Sure, it would have been great if our ancestors never started this horror story or realized the wrong in their ways say, oh, 400 years ago, but they didn’t. We know that we know better. Now we have to be better. [Sidenote: If you are feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to do and learn to fight injustice, I get it. It’s a lot. Yet imagine being at the hands of that injustice for hundreds of years. Hundreds. If you are feeling sensitive, stop and feel that and then move forward. Remember (from Dear Ally): “As a first step, take the discomfort you are feeling about potentially being perceived as racist and use it to develop compassion for people who are experiencing racism itself.” Start wherever you need to in order to do the work within yourself. Encourage others to do so as well. Many hands make light work and we’ve got a mountain to move.]
Here are four things you can do right now to do your part:
Listen: I’ve heard it said a million times: You were given two ears and one mouth, use them proportionately. The easiest way to break down preconceived notions of people and obliterate hatred is familiarity. It’s a lot harder to apply stereotypes to someone when you actually talk to them. That being said, be respectful of people’s space, time and emotional needs and be realistic about your relationships. Reaching out to acquaintances or coworkers about such a deep issue is inappropriate. Don’t force friendships and don’t force friends to be your teachers. This is not anyone’s job but your own. Confused? Watch the quick clip below from Trevor Noah to give a little light and levity to the issue. You mean well, just make sure to do it well.
Learn: You know when you buy a new (or new to you car) and suddenly you see it everywhere? It’s the same with racism. The more you learn about how we got to our present situation, the more you see how it permeates everything, and the better you will be at helping to stop it. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it is one that I have been building myself and through the contributions of friends and leaders I deeply respect (thank you especially to TAB, EM, AM & CC all for your time and thought):
Books (Thanks, EM & KC!) – Not into reading? Listen on Audible:
This incredible resource a friend (thank you, TAB!) forwarded to me. I don’t know who to credit for its creation but it is stellar. It also has resources for talking to your kids about race. The Doll Test showed us how early racism can affect our children. Don’t wait to talk to your children. Check it out here
Social – follow these accounts. You won’t be sorry.
Speak: You know the request you see at airports: “If you see something, say something?” Well, if you hear something racist, say something to stop it. We’ve all heard racist things said. It’s time to say something. The more we all speak against even the smallest injustices, the less space we allow them to occupy. If someone tells a racist joke, don’t answer with uncomfortable laughter. Answer with education. Let the joke fall flat. Silence makes injustice louder. Mute, don’t amplify hatred. Share what you’ve learned and implore others to do the same. Speak up for racial justice everywhere.
Support: The Chief and I are on a budget. We are by no means swimming in cash. Every month we sit down and prepare a budget built on necessity versus want. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, but we’ve added donations as a non-negotiable part of our budget. If other things have to give in order to keep this up, give they will.
Every month we research (which takes us to the Learn step again) different organizations fighting for racial justice or that support causes we believe in. For example: Kiley Clark’s dream to start a Black-led, regenerative farm (donate at Kiley’s GoFundMe here). Donations contribute to a down payment on farmland with housing, farm equipment, infrastructure and tools to create a warm, nourishing place where all are welcome. A little more about this amazing project (and person) from Kiley’s GoFundMe page:
“I have always dreamed of working on my own land. As a Black, queer, woman land ownership has felt evasive for much of my life, not having the capital or the generational wealth to make this possible. I want to build a dream together, founded on regenerative, no till practices and paying homage to the traditional ecology knowledge of my ancestors, and the land’s original Indigenous caretakers.
Why now? In this time of horrific pain and reckoning over systemic racism in this country, it is crucial to not just support Black people in our deaths. You must also support Black joy, uplift Black liberation and invest in Black-led organizations and entrepreneurs. The farm I am building will be a community hub, a place where Queer folx can get their hands in the dirt, where our communities can thrive, laugh, and be fed.We’re building this dream together and I can’t wait to welcome you all around my future farm table! Thank you for your love and support.”
Think about the dollars you’re already spending on eating out, home goods, music, etc. Instead of solely shopping or dining (use this site to search Black owned businesses by state) at your typical spots, consider shopping at Black owned companies as well. I love Justina Blakeney’s site Jungalow for anything home goods. So good.
Support artists: anything by Desirée Hernandez of Sonera Pottery makes my heart sing, musicians (a few to recommend: Blood Orange’s Coastal Grooves, Goapele’s Even Closer, Beyoncé’s Lemonade plus accompanying film is important and amazing, The Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, Valerie June…), authors (see Books, above).
Support, however, does not have to take the sole form of donations. Support can mean a wealth of things and not all of them have to do with monetary exchanges. Get politically involved. Attend rallies and protests (safely). Uncomfortable with or unable to gather? Seemingly small things like calling and writing your representatives and senators or signing petitions have a huge impact and…
Support can flow through all aspects of your life. Does your workplace line up with your anti-racist values? If you’re in charge, change policy anywhere you can to make sure it does. If you’re not in charge, suggest changes. What about your children? Do you talk with them about race? It’s never too early (again, this resource has some really nice info on talking to your kids about racism). If the Doll Test taught us nothing else, it’s that it’s really never too early to talk about race and…(what the Supreme Court left out): diversity makes all of us better. Everyone’s development slows when we are segregated. Do what you can to open your children and yourself diversity.
Listen. Learn. Speak. Support. Just as we are all connected, so too are these four steps. You support a Black author by reading her book, and there you are listening and learning. You hear something you now know to be racist and you speak up. The cycle perpetuates itself, keep it going.
Teach others what you have learned.
Look inward and unearth the not-so-pretty preconceived notions you might have.
Do the work to move through them so you don’t perpetuate them or pass them on to others.
Dismantling racism starts with all of us. Let it begin within yourself.
One last thing:
I hear you if you’re thinking “I’ve struggled too.” I know you have, sweetie. You have without a doubt lived through pain, heartache and injustice. I know you have because you are human and all of these things are part of the human experience. But have you experienced these things based solely on your skin color? Maybe. Or maybe you’ve experienced them because you’re a woman or you grew up poor or you have a disability.
We all have something that has caused us to experience inequality. In this interview with Time earlier this year, Kimberlé Crenshaw describes today’s expanded notion of intersectionality as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
We’ve all experienced inequality but the reality is, if you’re white, societal norms and protections weigh heavily in your favor to keep you safer than people of color. Injustice is painful for everyone but it is disproportionately deadly to Black people. I mean, have you ever had to have this conversation with your child?
That is the difference. That is white privilege (the societal privileges that benefit white people over non-white people based not on their merit but solely on their skin color). As Peggy McIntosh wrote in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance”. Invisible systems can be brought to light and undone. It’s time.
Still not quite convinced? Read this article for examples of ways you might not even realize you’re experiencing white privilege or this one for a really helpful breakdown of the term.
Thank you for listening and perhaps, for opening up to learning. I know it wasn’t perfect (and I’m here for and open to feedback) but if we wait for perfect, we will always be silent. Move with your best foot forward, speak from love, live in this world with kindness in your heart and an openness to learn.
We are all human. We are all equal. We all deserve to be treated as such.
Comments? Additions? Ideas? Please leave yours down below. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me personally and I LOVE that but I think we also need to converse as a group to learn and grown together. Leave your thoughts below. Thank you for reading.
If you like Beneath the Borealis please feel free to show your support by subscribing or following below.
“Should I bring a hairdryer, or do you have one there I could use?”
This was the first of many faux pauxs I made in preparing for my initial endeavor into the woods of Alaska. It was met with a laugh from my girlfriend and an “I’m not so sure my inverter could even handle a hairdryer.”
So, that’s a “no”?
Don’t bring one?
And you’re sure you don’t have one?
I had no frame of reference for how silly of a question that was at the time. Despite the fact that my hairdryer-less girlfriend had told me multiple times that her only power source was a generator, the off-grid reality just hadn’t hit me yet. It seems I simply saw the on-grid amenities my life in California afforded me coming along on my adventure into Alaska.
My hair would be dry.
Cocktails would have ice.
Showers would be long and luxurious.
Harvest your cocktail ice here, friends!
I knew some things would be different. I knew it was more laid back, more casual. I knew my girlfriend told me to only pack hiking clothes, a stark change to my normal heeled getup. I also knew, no matter how formal or informal the town was itself, I myself had the opportunity to show up as whatever me I wanted to be. I looked forward to the opportunity while simultaneously was a bit terrified to showcase my new makeup-less look.
Did I still pack makeup? Yep.
Did I get my hair done before going?
Still, in all honestly, before unexpectedly moving to the woods I thought that I was relatively low-maintenance. I actually hated blow-drying my hair but since living in Italy where one of my classmates informed me that I was called Lei Con I Capelli Sempre Tutti Bagnati (essentially, that chick who always has wet hair) I felt that I needed to try a little harder. In perennially put-together Italy, it was an indicator of poor self-care and sloppy timing (I also was often sick in my early 20’s too…coincidence?). It resonated with me.
And so, twice a week I would try to stay cool while I sweated under the obnoxious blowing heat of a hairdryer. Because I was not a fan but did it anyway (despite the fact that I rarely brushed my hair in between), because I wore some but not a ton of makeup every day, I still thought that I was low-maintenance.
Come as you are.
No makeup mornings. Trying it out, with trepidation.
If Italy is the overbearing parent who cares just a little too much what you look like, Alaska is the fun aunt or uncle who just lets you play in the mud. So, for the most part, I’ve spent the last 5 years getting dirty instead of gussying up, wearing overalls and work clothes and jeans and sweatshirts with ponytails or braids instead of heels with fashionable versus functional fabrics with my hair in curls.
In California, despite the fact that I didn’t brush my hair much, I rarely stepped out without it at least looking “done”.
Going to the gym?
Hair was done.
Lazing around the house?
Pretty much done (ish).
My daily driver.
So, when I moved to Alaska, where turning on a hairdryer could have blown up our inverter, my hair became a lot more un-done and I didn’t miss it one bit. Sometimes I brushed it, most days I didn’t, and away I went with 15-60 minutes more in my day than I would have had in California. Sometimes I’d twist it back into a bun to dry to give myself some beachy waves or pull it back into a ‘do of sorts but mostly, it roamed free or in a ponytail.
It took me two years and a little more familiarity with (and upgrades to) our power system to realize that, while a blowdryer was probably out of the question (and even if not, having dropped the habit, I had zero interest in picking it up again), a curling iron which drew little power could still take a few tussles with my tresses, if I wanted.
I used it once before it broke and I didn’t think about it again until this last year when I realized that since I was doing my hair for our wedding I would probably need to replace it. It took me 10 minutes and held through to the next day. I loved it. It was bouncy and celebratory. Then this Winter when we took our 6-month celebration photos in the snow, I pulled it out again. Another 10-minutes and voila! Fancy tresses.
Move over, Mom.
It planted a seed, it seems because recently I’ve started thinking: I miss having a ‘do to do.
Throughout my 20’s I had countless variations on cuts and colors and suddenly, mid-quarantine (hmm…connection?) I started to feel like my long style-less locks were a little lackluster. Maybe I’d start dyeing my hair black again?
Black ‘do and Dempsey.
Hmm…that’s a commitment. Maybe brown? At a minimum I needed some layers, right?
Out came the scissors (insert extremely sinister background music).
I was tired of my nearly down to my buns one length hair. It had been with me through so much in the past few years and like The Chief (who asked me to chop off his shoulder-length locks this Winter), I felt the need for a shift.
Chop to it, little lady!
The first home haircut round went well but I ended up with a slight mullet.
So, I did what every good quarantiner did these past months and consulted YouTube (sinister music gets louder).
I settled on a couple videos on the same variation: the unicorn approach (hint: approach this mystical beast with caution. She’s not all sparkles and magic). Should I have settled on one video and one technique?
Nope. Two different techniques to one approach.
Watch the horn!
It seems this is how I approach most things. When searching for recipes I lookup about 5 variations and make one of my own combination depending on what we have available. This haircut would be no different. Unfortunately, I forgot that while most of my recipes come out “mmm mmm good”, everyone once in a while they’re a little more “meh”. Maybe I didn’t forget but I certainly ignored this fact.
One might say this is where the trouble started. One would be right.
You know when you go to the salon and your hair looks dope-tastic-fabuloso-put-me-in-a-magazine-straighaway right out the gate?! You and your new ‘do float out of the salon, Tresemme reps at your heels.
I thought it went well…at first.
Then a day or so later the glow of the salon is gone and you’re stuck with a ‘do you actually have to do yourself that looks a little less stellar and more stale? It’s like buyer’s remorse…on your head.
In combining the two unicorn styles (double unicorn?! That’s even better than a double rainbow!) something went awry.
The shortcut that was supposed to cut off length while simultaneously making perfect layers. I came out the rainbow’s end with some serious layers and pretty much zero relief in length (think layers like steps in a large staircase or even better, multiple bowl cuts in succession). It was glorious.
Actually, it looked pretty darn good at first, I had that salon de Julia glow going.
Then, I washed it.
The “layers” were unveiled and out came the truth: another mullet! This time, uneven to boot! Kind of like multiple mullets…
Now, I will say that when I lived in Italy nearly 15 years ago, the long mullet (which I am currently rocking) was in fashion and in fashion years, it seems about time that it would have finally made it’s way to Alaska (if we were a phone, we’d be a flip phone in terms of what gets here when) so…maybe I was just in time?
I’ve spent the past month with a ding dong ‘do and some days it’s really bothered me. Some days I could care less. Some days, most days, it’s somewhere in between. I’ve gone through every iteration of change from how to fix it to absolutely hating it to liking it. I’ve decided on fixes (Should I just chop it all off? Should I attempt another go? Perhaps just some length this time. Maybe I should get bangs again?) and decided to wait. I’ve felt everything from remorse at my hasty chop job to total apathy about anything hair related.
I’ve gone from one extreme to the other, not only in the last month but in my lifetime. I’ve aimed to love the inside and care less about the outside and then watched myself struggle to maintain that as the outside changed. In the ups and downs and backs and forth, however, I did realize something: my self-love pendulum has finally started to swing a little more consistently closer to the middle than ever before, I just needed the extremes to find out. Before I moved here, I felt trapped by keeping up an image, I was far to one extreme. When I moved to Alaska, I felt like I shouldn’t care at all and sometimes faced ridicule if it seemed like I did (“why are you wearing lipstick?! Is that seriously mascara?!”. Yaaas boo, it is.) that made me second guess myself. The other extreme.
Spiffed up in CA, spiffed up in AK:
Spiffed up in CA
Spiffed up in AK
I’m somewhere in the middle, somewhere it seems a lot of us might live.
I’ve had women in Alaska ask if they could borrow my lipstick upon seeing me wearing it out one night or comment things like “I sometimes want to wear mascara too but don’t want to catch guff for it”. I hear ya, sister. I’ve also had friends in “the real world” who wished that they didn’t feel (as I did) like they had to put on a “face” every day. It’s ok to want to glam up or glam down. Your beauty throttle is up to you, boo.
I do care what I look like but I care less and I love myself more than I used to, and that’s something. I’m accepting that I do like a little spiff up now and then but I don’t weigh my worth by it anymore. I’m low maintenance to a degree, to my degree. My degree, that will pounce in a mud puddle all day long, but maybe have nail polish on while doing it. That’s me.
We can get purty, we can get dirty, we can find ourselves somewhere in between. It’s all just an outer shell to the inner you, but there’s no need to apologize if you want to revamp that shell from time to time, nor are you required to do so.
So, perhaps I’ll keep trying at the spiff up and pick up the scissors to try my hand again someday soon. Better yet, maybe I’ll finally get to see a professional (and to any stylist reading this, I offer you my sincerest apologies. To my California stylist, my hair and I miss you dearly) to help undo what I’ve done. Or…maybe I’ll just wait it out. Let the sun kiss my locks, let time grow them out, let the pendulum swing.
Winter pendulum, Summer pendulum.
It all depends on which wild hairs I get and which I listen to…the ones who chant “chop, chop, chop” sure have gotten louder while writing this post. The most important voice though, always, is the one that says “I love you, just as you are”. Slowly but steadily, I’m learning to listen.
With love (and currently, no makeup and a mullet),
Even Leto likes a new ‘do occasionally. He calls this one Grass Stripes.
What about you? Where does your pendulum fall? Got a quarantine cut or story to share? Share on, hair sisters and brothers, in the comments below 👇
As a child, my mother always referred to me as a “voracious reader”.
I relished the title.
It felt energetic, powerful, and important.
Like the first blooms of Spring. Hello, Anenomes!
I consumed books like I consumed pancakes: hungrily and with a happy heart.
As the second child of my family, born nearly a decade after my brother, I often felt more like an only child as I spent a great deal of time alone. Yet alone I never really was, not when in the company of the most steadfast of buddies: my books.
The local library was where all of these buddies lived and thankfully, by the time I was old enough to take myself on outings, we lived a mere 5-minute walk from this literary haven. It was a place of absolute wonder for me. I can still remember the room’s intoxicating symphony of smells all those books created together; pages worn by time, lovingly thumbed through over and over.
Walking into the library felt like a warm embrace, which I needed at the end of each school day. Life at a new school where I was the youngest student in my 3rd, 4th, 5th combination class, was inhospitable, to say the least. I was teased and taunted and spent most of my time in the nurse’s office pretending to be sick in order to be rid of my classmates.
Leto, you captured the look perfectly! Let’s get this pup an ice cream.
The library was my respite, my reprieve, the place where I could be nameless and safe as I jumped into the lives of the characters I read about. I spent most days picking up or dropping off books on the way home from school. My only deviation in between the library and my bedroom was a quick stop for ice cream. It was a routine I loved and figured I’d always have.
Then, we moved.
I realize now, more than ever, that ease of acquisition makes all the difference. Not being able to simply pop-in to check on my book besties as I was beholden to the schedules of others in my very young, very driver’s license-less state was devastating. Over night, the library was no longer a part of my day-to-day. With our move so too came a change of schools (and finally, the addition of friends!) as well as the addition of homework.
Don’t be jealous of our outfits. Best friends still today.
Suddenly, reading was not solely for fun, it was also for work. As a slower reader, in order to get my homework done on time, the books of my choice were no longer front and center but cast aside, waiting in the wings.
As it does, the increase in schoolwork continued exponentially. By my last stint in college, I was reading (read: skimming in a panic) hundreds of pages every day. My late teens and early twenties found me reading less and less for pleasure and more and more for grades. That is until, schooling Gods sufficiently satisfied for the time being, I found myself a graduate. The passing of that diploma into my hand meant suddenly, I was free to read anything I liked.
The voracity returned.
Bookstores and the library became places I could actually utilize again, not just browse for “when I had time in the future”. The future had come. I made time for reading and my appetite returned, strong as ever. I’d spend whole weekends in bed with my newest book, lost in the tale, entranced by the intrigue of what would happen next. I even found myself a member of a book club, which was a truly sweet full circle: friends and books (and ice cream)?! Oh my!
All was well.
Then, I moved here, to rural Alaska where the nearest library is 4 hours away, at best.
Luckily, the books here are bountiful. It seems I have found myself amongst a whole town of voracious readers. A book is always being borrowed or recommended or returned. I love thumbing through the pages, knowing a friend has also has sat up at night, unable to sleep for the curiousity of what lies ahead on the next page.
At first, the books seemed endless. The Chief very proudly introduced me to our own neighborhood library, also known as the old outhouse. Yup. You read that right.
Pretty cute, ain’t it?
Yet, after a few years, the pages of books I intended to read have already been turned. Thankfully, yet another resource lay at our fingertips: the local library, The Tony Zak.
A local resident (you guessed it! Tony Zak) left his house to the community upon passing and since then, it has been filled to the brim with community gatherings. We have held events for everything from community yard sales to the annual Naked Lady party (an amazing clothing swap) to Christmas dinner. It also is chockfull of books, floor to ceiling.
First Christmas at Tony’s (circus games included).
Still, I’ll admit, there was a part of me that missed a library like the one of my childhood. The smell of it, the sheer possibility of it, perhaps most of all, the knowing look of a librarian about to unearth in you a world unknown. Here, the selections have already been made by others, like rooting around in a friend’s closet. It’s delightful, but it doesn’t always fit. Sometimes, you need picked especially for you.
Aren’t there libraries in Alaska?
Certainly. Yet every time we go to Town, a leisurely stroll through the library is the last thing on our mind, despite both of our deep love of books (I’ve married a man who consumes books at a rate greater than anyone I’ve ever known. If my voracity is a 5-course meal, his is a non-stop Las Vegas all you can eat buffet. Get after it, babe). Amidst the hustle and bustle of non-stop chores, time to read feels very far away and a stop at the library would expel luxurious time we often simply can’t afford. Plus, then there’s the whole issue of actually returning the books. There was nothing worse to me than the disappointed look accompanying the phrase “Would you like to pay your late fee now?”.
So, I set to rest the idea of libraries for the time being.
Until one day.
“Oh, these? I got them from the library.”
“No, the library.”
“The Tony Zak?”
“No, Julia, the library.”
It seems, my girlfriend had discovered an unknown magic portal to the library!
Lead the way, Buddha!
As you may well already understand, though I certainly didn’t before moving here, Alaska is massive. Utterly massive. Yet this mass is inhabited by endlessly curious souls, industrious to the bone and so, they deciphered a way to satiate the need for knowledge: the mail.
I don’t know why, but I had never thought of it as an option for borrowing before, just buying.
I got online and registered and immediately, it was better than I had hoped.
“Would you like us to curate a collection for your first order or order on your own?”
A curated collection? Yeeesssss, puhhhlease!
While I was able to request certain books, the librarian also handpicked books he thought I might like after personally calling me to discuss my interests. I felt like I was back in my childhood library, looking up into the librarian’s bespectacled eyes with admiration as she inquired to my interests: “Hmm…so you loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, have you read The Diary of Anne Frank?”. How special.
A few weeks later, a beautiful red package arrived with my name on it (for freeeee – insert Oprah’s intonation here – faaaarrrreeeee, people!). It felt like Santa’s giant red gift bag had been flown in by plane versus reindeer and they were all for us.
All dem books, plus a new rug from an oh so special friend! Love you, D!
Amongst the goodness was a letter to us from the librarian who had curated our shipment, a Mr. Giant (best name ever).
Greetings, Señor Giant!
As fate would have it, I had also just received a shipment of books from my new job and those, like homework of the past, required my attention first (though they are much less like homework and much more like reading I would have picked for myself, luckily). Still, in the nights, I dove in. Building and gardening and fiction, oh my! My 8-year old self beamed with happiness.
I wrote an email thanking Mr. Giant for the bounty of goodness and, star lender that I am, asked for an extension ahead of time, realizing the work/life book balance would need more time.
Grandma, Mom, Julia, Frida, the radio, and books? Pretty good combo for this lass.
Soon thereafter, the books were mine for a month longer. Oh, happy days.
Who would have thought that in the middle of nowhere I would land, lucky enough to be surrounded by beauty everywhere and…
Yet another return to childhood goodness, in the wilds of Alaska.
Happy reading, all!
P.S. What are you reading these days? Comment below to let me know!
My latest nighttime adventure. Loving it.
P.P.S. Follow BTB on Facebook (you’ll see the “Like” button at the top of this page) for weekly goodies and up-to-date details.
The annual seed planting party has started and this year, it’s a two-stage event.
As acquiring fresh food has become more of a logistical marathon than even the “best” Alaskan shopping trips, creating your own something fresh has become more important than ever. For months now, I’ve been sporting a serious rotation of sprouts and have discovered, through scarcity, ways to stretch fresh foods farther than ever before. Yet as Winter seemed to hang on rather than hang her hat, I wasn’t so sure when the real growing season would begin.
Sweet little pawprints in still deep snow.
So, I began.
While most seedlings are ready to go outside by about 6-weeks, the longer and longer Alaskan days (the sun is barely set by 10 pm these days) sometimes speed that process. The sun greets the little starts and the starts salute her back, stretching to meet her daily. Start too early and your sweet seeds will have legs for days (in this case, a bad thing). Start too late and your seedlings will still be maturing when the ground is ready, shortening your growing season. Plant now? Plant later? It’s a dance we all do out here, every year.
“Have you planted?”
“Do you think it will be a June 1st kind of year?”
With almost two feet of snow on the ground and April midway through her reign, getting plants into the ground by June 1st, even two weeks ago, didn’t sound all that feasible. Still, I figured, why not start a sort of starter crop? If the season held tight and refused to greet Spring, I could re-pot the most gung-ho of starts into bigger pots and keep them inside, further transforming our house into a greenhouse.
These babes have been with since last Fall and have brought me more joy than I could have imagined.
So, I braved the slippery descent under the house to round up the seeds a girlfriend and I share. A few days earlier I had gone under to grab my remaining half cube of soil, a huge bag I wrestled inside in order to defrost. Trying to keep my footing on our under the house ice rink, I smacked my head in the process hard enough to put a ringing in my ears. Perhaps I need a helmet. So, on my second descent, I proceeded with care, retrieved the seeds and got to work. It seemed as if the little ones had reproduced over winter. The options were endless.
Grandma watched over via her decanter. Love you, Gam.
Easily overwhelmed, I used a lifeline, phoned a friend, and decided to start with the basics:
Early beginners (those who need a longer season, like tomatoes, peppers, etc.)
I divided them by the above delineations and then by their needs:
A 24-hour soaking period prior to planting
Daily foot rubs (oh wait, that’s my need)
And then, I got to planting!
By the end of the prepping, planning and pampering my babes to be, hours had passed and I was pooped.
The Chief looked at me and back at the half cube (think: about 15 pounds) of soil sitting in our “enormous” house (that was sarcastic) and gently said “It’s ok. Just leave it inside for one more day”. The soil, after being moved into and about the house from inconvenient place to inconvenient place for the last few days of planting procrastination certainly wasn’t going outside to freeze again. The nights had been cold and the snow continued to flurry and so we tucked in for the night, Leto, The Chief, the soil and I.
Mind meld nap
The next day was the day: Planting Day (Round One). I budgeted an hour or so to get all the seeds into their cozy, warm soil homes. I mean, I’d already done the hard part of sorting and debating over and soaking the seeds. It was planting time.
Time it was. Somehow, it took me three hours to simply plop some seed pups into soil. It’s a process and one I really love to do. I forget every year how lost I get in the process and how the hours smoothly slide on by. The day was sunny but cool and as the sun made her way behind the trees the temps dropped quickly. I got up every few sown rows or so to get more water from inside, as the water I had cooled within a few minutes. My frozen fingers plodded along as I finished up by fashioning darkness for some of the finicky flowers and cilantro. The cold nipped its final warning. Inside time.
Already rising from their dark sleep.
It was done. Round One of the great seed party was complete and as the sky threatened snow I knew I had made the right choice. Winter would hold on, but at least we’d have fresh food inside.
Then came the rain. Winter had ceded her throne. How wrong I was.
The very next morning, Easter morning, I heard the familiar old sound of rain on the roof greeting me from my bed. It had been months since I’d head that sound, since last November, and it brought with it a sweet fondness and familiarity. Change was coming. The lightest of pitter-patter turned into a substantial stream and in it, The Chief, Leto and I took our final true Winter walk. The next day, the trails were an ominous mixture of hard and soft, packed and porous, and I sunk with every few steps up to my knee. Precarious as it was, it announced what I had wondered on for weeks: Spring was on her way.
In the last week, Winter has finally given her final bow and into our lives Spring has sprung with gusto. My garden beds I’d shoveled weeks ago finally melted their last icy layers and for the first time in months on end, I saw the earth below. I dug my fingers into the still nippy soil and looked up to a bright sun in my face.
In the last week, all sorts of things have returned to my reality, like old friends returning home.
Hello, butt stump!
From pulling out our rainboots to seeing what’s unearthed by the melt, things I’d forgotten were buried beneath the season (and our house) have shown their faces again. Processes and patterns, well-weathered by months on end of repetition, have changed and with them, we find ourselves sometimes awkwardly shifting with the season. Even simply getting water from our well is a different experience and although one might think it would be exactly the same experience for us and our neighbors with whom we share the well, it isn’t.
This time of year onward into Summer is the easiest time for us to get water. We hook up two hoses and thar she blows! Instead of schlepping buckets up and down the Ramp of Doom we simply run the hose to the top of the Ramp and fill buckets quickly and easily. Our neighbors, on the other hand, once the snow has completely melted have to walk over, carrying their 70-pounds of water home because their 3-wheeler isn’t working (though they can borrow ours, of course, but I know that sometimes the exercise is nice. Sometimes not.). In the Winter, walking up the Ramp is treacherous and tiresome while they simply load and unload a snowmachine. Two households with the same opportunity (the well) and two completely different realities. One easier, one harder.
Spring. The Flipped Perspective.
As the season shifts, it means different things for different people, even those in relatively similar circumstances, especially for those in different circumstances. For me, I’m praying to be eating a harvest from these seedling babes in a few months. For my girlfriend in Oregon, she’s enjoying the current bounty from her Winter garden while simultaneously prepping her next season’s crops. We all live in different circumstances yet want the same things: food, water, shelter, love (and pancakes. Did I mention pancakes?). The simple shifting of the season makes it oh so clear that while we are all in this shift together, it means different things for different people.
Tender new sweet peas. Leaves of little hearts.
Shift these times will, and remind us of that which perhaps we had forgotten under the cover of Winter. The other day, after the rains had abated, I visited the wedding arch a dear friend crafted for us on our wedding day and saw the stones he had placed to hold the two willows in place. I had forgotten that beneath the snow lay a base. A base of love, built by hand, stone by stone.
Thanks, M.T. We love you.
It’s funny how we forget that which was familiar only months ago and even that which has been for years, every year. We forget that starts take hours on end to complete. That soil has to be brought inside sometimes days before planting. That you never remember everything you need the first time to get the planting job done. That some things that are hard for you are easy for others and vice versa. That your loved ones will surprise you with little miracles to last the seasons through.
Throwback to when A.T. brought me a bell pepper (!) in the middle of Winter. Cheers to beautiful friends.
I think in this most precarious of times, seeing that which lies beneath by shedding our winter coats, feels a bit like a rebirth. Seeing soil, shifting our chores to reflect the season, starting fresh with life anew through the simplicity of seedlings soothed my soul in ways I didn’t know I needed.
Rows on rows on rows. Hello, loves.
Perhaps June 1st will welcome these sprouting babes and the planting beds will be filled with warm soil, ready to receive them. Or, perhaps Spring will snap again and whisk herself away from Summer’s grasp and our house will turn further into a jungle. Perhaps some of the seeds will sprout and some won’t. Not everything that’s planted blooms. Either way, I’m grateful for the shift that has already occurred, away from darkness and into the light.
Last month, for the first time since my first Winter here, I had significant time off at home, in Alaska.
Not just time, an unprecedented amount of time: an entire month.
Aside from a few months in my first Winter (which I spent nearly paralyzed by all I had to learn in order to live and thus, not very much enjoying my unemployed freedom), I’ve always worked at least one job, most often two or more, while living here. Before that, I worked consistently since age 14, always carrying at least one but often closer to three. Even on “vacations” in the last few years, I’ve always worked at least a chunk of the time off.
So it came: A whole month off, for the first time in longer than I can remember.
Well, yes, eventually.
Work, to me, is security and purpose. I like to work (maybe a little too much) and so the idea of not working, of not having a schedule or deadlines or responsibilities or (especially) cashflow felt very overwhelming. I also knew it was exactly what I needed. The past few years have been a lot, to say the least, and I desperately needed a reset before jumping into my new job (the impetus for the time off). Thankfully, my new boss agreed – scratch that – actually, encouraged me to take the whole month off before I started my new job (thank you!) and so…I did.
“What will you do with your time off?” was the question I received most often.
“Don’t waste it!” was another common sentiment.
Yikes! I could feel the pressure building. So, I set out to quell the panic with my most favorite of lists: a To-Do list
Watch the sunrise and sunset every almost every day
Exercise every day
Write every day
Train Leto to skijor (become professional skijorer, obviously)
Leash train Leto to police dog status
Become a seamstress
Become a collage artist
Embroider onesies for all of the newest babes in my life
Finish all remodeling projects on our house
Bring the large washing machine inside and do all Winter laundry
Bake every other day
Go to the doctor and the dentist (a full trip to Anchorage)
Become a fermenting pro
Learn to play the guitar
Learn to play the keyboard
Record a few songs
Oh yeah, relax
The list went on and on so I won’t bore you with the details but I will say this:
I completed every single To-Do!
No, I didn’t.
Of course, I didn’t.
In retrospect, I see how fast a month flies by and how utterly over the top my ambitions had been. I chuckle to think of my therapist trying to slow the runaway train of my month off ambitions so I’d finish the month in a realistic, rather than a disappointing state. Yet try as she might, I was unstoppable.
In the first two weeks of my vacation, I spent my time waking early and working on any and all business I had at present or had neglected in the past. Taxes, property searches, car insurance, titles, oh my! My heart beat far too fast and my adrenaline surged from the moment I awoke each day as my need to fill time and “not waste” my vacation jumped in the driver’s seat. I did my best to suck all the fun out of those two weeks but in retrospect, it was exactly what I needed so that the third week, I could relax.
By week three, I had finally allowed myself some time to just chill. While sleeping in eluded me for the entirety of the month (though I was able to wake at 8 am once versus my 6 or 7 am daily rooster routine). Eventually, my anxiety waned as I found the rest I desperately needed in ways I normally wouldn’t allow myself. I read in bed, which to me, is perhaps the most luxurious thing one can do, made only more luxurious by The Chief bringing me tea in bed as well. I watched trashy TV in the middle of the day (before doing so, I stopped to look over my shoulder as if to say “Am I really allowed to do this?!”) and had phone conversations with friends and family I hadn’t been able to catch up with in ages. I read magazines I’d received months earlier and never even opened and baked scones and biscuits and other buttery bits I wouldn’t normally let myself whip up.
“Muffin tops”. Apparently, I didn’t fill them enough to get the full effect but you get the idea. Ha!
I also implemented a hint of a schedule via parameters: before I looked at my phone each day, I needed to complete my morning ritual of reading and journaling. It was surprising how hard that was at first but instead of waking and obsessing over everything on my To-Do list via phone from the moment I awoke, it gave me a moment to connect inwards and check in with what I needed. It allowed me to let go of my To-Dos for a moment and just listen to what my body needed.
Not an exercise regime but instead a long, rambling ski (and snacks. Lots of snacks).
Not a sunrise/sunset agenda but a snowshoe hike or a walk whenever my body needed it.
Not a concrete daily schedule but time to be open to whatever came next.
What my body needed was a mixture of play and work, a mixture I had been missing for a very long time. So, when my body asked for a timeout, I took it and when I started getting anxious from too much downtime, up I went.
I baked and tidied the house and started long overdue organizing projects and skied and worked on skijoring with Leto a bit too.
Organization in progress. What floor?!
Everything on my list was given a nod though not necessarily the full processional. I never even got out my sewing machine but I did go on many an unplanned adventure. New To-Dos came up that trumped my original plans. Things shifted and priorities swayed with my inner tides by simply asking myself: What do you need?
This. I needed this.
What do you need?
So often, we forget to check-in with ourselves. So often we forget that we can provide what we need. Once I had focused on what my body and mind needed, I realized there was something else I needed: a desk. The Chief and I realized that in order to accommodate the command center my work was sending me, I certainly had a need: a new desk.
So, I went online and…
We built one. All too often, I think of something I need and go to procure it rather than manufacturing it myself. If nothing else, this virus has brought me back, full circle, to the realization that I’m often far more able to meet my material needs than I realize (and doing so myself is often far, far cheaper) So, I didn’t buy one online. I certainly researched ideas and designs online but instead of clicking “Buy” The Chief helped me manufacture a beautiful cream-colored lass made especially for me.
Work in progress
Half of the shop
Gorgeous as she was, she inspired us to finish our bedroom (finally) with trim and even (gasp!) actual walls. I know, I know, fancy, right?
My time off ended in a flurry of warming the work tent in the morning, working long days that carried into the night, then stoking the fire for hours afterward to protect our painted pieces against the suddenly cold outside temperatures that threatened to cool the tent. We went to bed that last week with sawdust in our hair and paint on our hands and the joy of making something, together. Down to the wire we were nailing in trim and navigating the plethora of connections my new computers required. I finished out my month off in a scurry, in true Julia fashion, but the job was done and done well. All in time to start my new job.
The command center!
Last week, as my vacation came to a close, my therapist and I laughed at my overzealous To-Do list. “This is why Europeans take a full month off every year. In the first two weeks you are detoxing from work, the third week you relax and the fourth you prepare to go back to work. There’s not really much time to start a million new hobbies. You have to pick a few”.
And I had (though not the ones I would have guessed I would have prioritized).
It was just as she said, my European vacation. Full of decompression, relaxing and then re-compression in a mindset anew. Full of hopes, reality, daydreams and dust bunnies. Full of surprises. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar surprise situation due to an unplanned virus-induced vacation of sorts. Perhaps your mountain of a To-Do list is overwhelming you. Perhaps the vacation doesn’t have an end in sight and monetary pressures loom over you.
Yet still, I implore you to dig into this moment of reprieve from the daily grind. Give yourself whatever time off you can and if possible, find the calm after the decompression. I promise you, it’s a beauty. I don’t say this as someone who is comfortable not working or as someone who would be alright financially not working for weeks on end but I do say this as someone on the other side of four weeks who didn’t realize how badly I needed them until I reached their end.
Mountain play date. The only thing on the To-Do list that day.
Despite the intensity of this COVID situation and the different challenges we all independently face, there is beauty in a necessitated slowing down. A moment to take stock of what we do have, what we can do and DIY (and save money doing so), without looking outward. Take a bath (please, for me, take a bath. Is there anything better for relaxing than a bath? Someday…), take a nap, phone a friend, build something you’d normally buy or bake a pie for no reason other than you are alive (and what a reason that is).
Turkey Pot Pie deliciousness
Give yourself a moment in this mandated moment of pause to do just that.
Cheers to you, wherever you are sequestered. May your troubles be few and your time off from our persistent reality calming. May work come back to you if it has fled and if not, may financial security find you in some other way. May you find yourself a moment of calm.