As I type this, I have one hand holding our babe and one hunting and pecking her way through the QWERTY-verse. Coming from a Mavis Beacon graduate (where my elder Millennials at?!) this is a sorry excuse for the flying fingers I’d unleash upon the keyboard just 30 days ago. Still, it’s a drastic improvement from my previous postpartum post. In this last month, I’ve come to learn about this little human I’ve spent the better part of a year growing as well as a few other lessons like…(more…)
When to start planting in Alaska
Sometimes, you nail it.
Sometimes, it feels more like you…tape it.
This year’s garden may have been put together with more Scotch tape than a kiddo wrapping her first Christmas present but it is finally done.
While I know you’re probably thinking “Julia, a garden is never done” I would agree but…to me, I’ve reached the finish line and from here on out it’s just lemonade and cookies and pats on the back from myself for another marathon complete.
Did I spread all the wildflower seed I’d intended?
Do I have enough soil left for potatoes?
Do I care?
OK, yes, of course but…overall?
Because, it’s done.
How to Garden in Alaska
While it’s a perennial mad dash each and every year (usually over a weekend) for some reason, this year posed instead as a daily dash, extending over weeks on end. The weekends I should have been planting, I was gone and gone again and the weekends prior had been too cold. Finally, the sun and I aligned our schedules. I was home, she was out and it was time to start planting in every nook and cranny of time that I could muster. This meant getting to work early so I could finish early so that after each 10-hour day, I would have 2 hours to plant, do chores and get dinner ready. This being the worst mosquito year I’ve ever had the pleasure of being here for, each two hour dash included a 20 minute block of time for mosquito preparedness. I’d put on my tall socks, rain boots, long sleeves and overalls accompanied by a scarf, a hat and copious “bug dope”, despite the heat. Still, my protection did next to nothing and each night I’d head to bed, bitten to oblivion. It wasn’t until I’d endured a week of this that I finally thought to ask The Chief if we had bug nets. “Yep! There’s one in my pack.” I rolled my eyes at myself and donned the iconic lewk.
A little more secure from the bugs, I jumped back in with new muster. They’d buzz about my net, a viable storm of mosquitoes and White Sox and Noseeums (No See Ums, get it?! Because they are tiny biting jerks you can barely see!) incessantly buzzing in my ears. “We’re gonna get you!” they’d whisper. Yet with my new apparel, they were only right about 50% of the time. I’ll take those odds. Yes, my neck still looked like a junior vampire couldn’t quite find the right place to dig in for dinnertime but there were no more black eyes from eyelid bug bites and that, my friends, was movin’ on up!
Still, despite my new attire and my schedule, I felt like I was wading through quicksand. After my two hours were up each day, I’d look around and feel as if zero progress had been made. Sure, I’d added copious amounts of nutrients and dirt and compost to the beds. Sure, I’d hauled all the bags between stations and felt as if my arms were about to come off of my body. Sure, there was some visible change but still, there were no plants in the ground and caring for my starts had become a full-time job as an aphid infestation took hold. Dish soap to the rescue! Sort of.
It felt futile but despite my frustration, I kept at it, every day and every day The Chief would come home and say “Great work baby. You are killing it. This is a lot.” Some days I’d look at my plants, struggling under the aphid attack or strangling under their root-bound empire and think “It’s too much. I’ll never get this all in. Maybe I should just bail on gardening this year” but then I’d think of my plant babes that I (and a friend, when we went to Hawaii) had been nurturing since they first awoke from their seeded slumber back when the ground was still snow-laden.
I couldn’t let them down now. So, I persisted and after two weeks of a daily dash and two weekends spent solidly soil-bound, it’s done!
A few days ago I my first nasturtium bloomed and two weeks ago, the first zucchini and the necessary accompanying flowers came to being. I pollinated the little green babes by hand and now see traces of the grand squash of summers past. The cabbage, grumpy as could be in their containers have been stretching their leafed limbs, settling into their new, much expanded, soil abode. Every day I look to see if the carrots have come up and each time try not to listen to the voice that says they should have been in ages ago because while it’s true, it doesn’t matter. They’re in now. Do what you can, little ones.
It’s not the family feeding plus overflow to give away production I had anticipated when I sowed those seeds all the way back in April and it’s not comprised of solely things I grew from seed. Still, without those few additions, I wouldn’t have the brilliant begonia or the punk rock black dahlia that reminds me of our wedding who greet me on our porch every day.
And, years ago, I would never even have considered planting an entire garden from seed. It’s wild the standards we start to set for ourselves instead of simply looking back to appreciate how much we’ve grown.
So, no, it’s not the “perfect” garden I imagined, whatever that means, but it’s a garden that, slowly but surely, came to being. This morning, The Chief and I shared the first snap pea from the garden. Even if it was all just for that one pea, it would be worth it.
In our world of constant and instant gratification, it’s easy to forget that some things require slow and steady work to pay off and in a place of scarcity for time and warmth, like Alaska, it’s hard to not just want it all right now. Just like when I’d train in the gym for a day and run to the mirror expecting immediate results, I caught myself walking past seeds I had just sown earlier that day hoping for some light speed germination. It’s a good check for myself, provided by this constant place of checks and balances. Growth, of all kinds, takes time. The second we gets too far ahead of ourselves, we’re brought down to earth but…earth is a lovely place to be.
May your process be slow and steady and ever forward, even if they require a few steps back.
P.S. So…how does your garden grow?
Well, it turns out I was right, I’m terrible at relaxation. Well, terrible at relaxation with one, rather large, caveat: I’m terrible at relaxation as I thought it was meant to be. You know, lazing about, not a care in the world about what day or time it is. Napping at will. Leisurely meals throughout the day with cocktails poolside.
Yea…that’s not me.
Now, while some aspects of the aforementioned relaxation style aren’t even available to me (hint: the nearest pool is 8 hours away. The nearest poolside cocktails?! Who even knows), even if they were, that’s the type of relaxing I can do for a day or two. Any more spells A-N-X-I-E-T-Y. But that’s vacation, right? No rules, no worries, no restraints! A smorgasbord of decadence and overindulgence.
Again, not for me.
I’ve tried it before only to come to the conclusion that I’m terrible at relaxing. The reality? I’m terrible at relaxing as I think others do (and as I “should”). The reality? I had to find my own swing of things. One of the best parts of my vacation? Learning this about myself (and even, eventually, finding this swing) and were it not for cues from you, amazing readers, I don’t know that I would have.
Relaxation to me has often been this sort of unattainable nirvana. I’d see other people doing it or hear their different ways and think “I’m doing this all wrong!”. I’d go back to the relaxation drawing board, setting different relaxation parameters for myself (sounds relaxing, right?). Now, if you’re thinking, “Julia! You were doing it wrong!”, I’d wholeheartedly agree. Not because I wasn’t doing one person’s form of relaxation or another correctly but because I wasn’t relaxing in the way that worked for me. I was doing it wrong because (spoiler alert!) it turns out the art of relaxation lies within each of us.
Looking back, my girlfriends and I like to laugh at our 5th grade selves who all wore the exact same jeans, socks and shoes to school (I love how socks were included in this list of lemming-like fashion).
Similarity meant safety. We fit in with one another. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve become my own self, as have they. I have no idea what socks they are wearing today but I’m certain they are perfectly perfect for them.
Still, my relaxing self hadn’t quite caught up. I live off-grid in Alaska, a life more wild and more independent than I’d ever dreamed, and still I was looking around for someone, anyone to tell me how to relax. Thankfully, you, the readers, came to the rescue with your tales of relaxation.
So, I started copying all the forms of relaxation mentioned above, right?!
Not this time!
Finally, it sunk in: the art of relaxation is uniquely your own.
So I tried my hand where I felt most drawn. Mostly, for me, it meant being out in nature and watching the comings and goings of the day. I took morning walks to greet the rising sun and bundled as could be, laid down in the snow to watch it rise. I took moonlit strolls, watching that glowing orb come up over the mountains. I skied long stretches and even hooked up the little Leto beast for skijoring.
Sometimes being outside just meant chores but with all the time in the world to do them, it was more pleasure than pain. I chopped wood outside till my fingers froze and smiled with delight at the stockpile I’d provided us. I got back in tune with the chores The Chief had so kindly taken over when I was at work and it made me feel reconnected to our life.
I won’t lie, some days I felt the panic of inactivity or lack of production come over me. I had nowhere to be, no time to keep. What would I do next?! And then, if I got quiet, my heart (or sometimes my stomach) would tell me where to go next. I’d pick up a book or unearth a craft, find a snack, tidy a corner of the house or meet a girlfriend for an epically long impromptu ski. Time marched on, as it does, some planned, some filled with random tasks.One day I talked for almost two hours on the phone with a girlfriend, the entirety of which I spent scrubbing our tea kettle back to life. Some days went so fast, I could barely recount the day before it fell dark.
Some days lingered ever so slightly as the light started to come back. Once, I spent the entire day in jammies watching TV and once we took an epic nap after both falling asleep reading. And speaking of sleeping, I actually let myself sleep in for the first time in Winter since my first Winter in 2015.
As I write this, my vacation comes to a close. The morning greeted us with a twenty below “hello” and a long list of to-dos for an impromptu trip to Town for The Chief. A flurry of activity will fill our day as we cross off the list and work our way through the cold. In some ways, it’s the perfect ending, revving up to help me ease back into the world of virtual places to be and people to see. Moving forward, the clock will decide my comings and goings again and my phone, mostly shut off during my time away, will become more of a presence. Routine will return and appointments will be kept and in some ways, that’s relaxing too.
Plus, I am extremely grateful to be employed, especially over this last year, but we all need breaks, even from the best of jobs.
So, the art of relaxation? Turns out, it’s yours to decipher, yours to learn. For me, to feel relaxed, I need a combo of time alone, time outside and time getting things done. Even if I found myself poolside with cocktails, I’d still want to wake up in the morning to journal and do yoga. I’d still want a semblance of routine and continuity. A little bit of planning mixed with a little bit of spontaneity. To me, that’s relaxation. Finding a feeling of calm in one’s soul, whatever that looks like. Perhaps it’s not yet my forte but thanks to you, I’m learning my way.
May you find yours.
P.S. Anyone else finding their way towards their own version of relaxation? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.
After the last two loss-filled years we’ve experienced, one lesson has climbed above the rest: everything changes.
However, despite its claim to #1 spot fame for me in the Top 100 Lessons of Grief, I have tried to ignore it, despite its shouts.
The impermanence of it all has not left me in some zen-like state of acceptance. Quite the opposite. Rather, the worry that the potential for change has brought for me has left me in a sort of Henny Penny “The Sky is Falling” frantic permanence. Towards The Chief, towards our family, our friends, our little Leto. I considered all of the potentials for loss and tried to make every interaction left on good terms. Live each moment like it’s your last, etc., etc. you know the drill. I thought that perhaps my worry would safeguard us from more loss. Yet this had always been measured outwards, away from myself.
And so in all my worry, I had forgotten to fret about one thing: me, specifically, my face.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done a great deal of worrying about my face, I did, after all, attend middle school and high school in which I’d say more often than not, that people were unfortunately judged first on the constructs of their face rather than the content of their character. I did my best to dodge the disses and watched as beauty unfairly bargained the way for those she bestowed herself upon to the front of the line. Yet, as the years went on, I felt a flip of the switch.
In my 20’s, the first thing one of my boyfriend’s mother said about me when she met me was “She’s so smart.” It made me cry. I realized the tables had turned and I was in a phase of my life where the content of one’s character actually did come into play. It made me want to be a better person, smarter and kinder.
After moving to Alaska and Falling in Love Naked with Cauliflower Armpits I found a further reprieve from the standards of beauty I still (despite smarts or kindness) felt confined by. Although I enjoyed the routine of putting on makeup, I no longer felt required to do it. The choice became mine.
And so, these last few years I’ve worried less about my face. I’ve aimed to embrace my “sparkle lines” as my girlfriend calls my smile lines that ring my eyes and watch the changes that take place as marks of memories rather than the marring of time.
I guess I didn’t worry quite enough.
Early this Summer, after a lovely night planning our wedding menu with friends over probably a little too much champagne, I decided to impress my husband-to-be with a little acrobatics. We were headed home and after crossing The River, we approached The Gate.
This gate is one I’ve opened and closed countless times. We all have. Early in the morning, late at night, multiple times a day. It was high time I spiced it up. “Riding The Gate” is a term my fellow friends are quite familiar with. It refers to when one is opening The Gate and jumps on for a ride. The arm swings open and once it hits its full extension, the gate post sends you back as the car drives through.
Yet I had something different in mind. Something reminiscent of elementary school and flips on the parallel bars.
I took a running start at The Gate and by the time I hit The Gate’s full extension, my speed was such that I didn’t do a flip as planned but rather catapulted myself forward…
Straight down some feet below into a boulder below.
My body went limp and I came to as I felt the reactionary force dragging me and my open mouth backwards through the gravel. I stood up long enough to feel my mouth fill with a metallic taste and the sides of my face grow warm and then cool and decided that I should probably lay down.
I said out loud, to no one in particular: “I’ll just lay down for a moment.”
Needless to say, I hadn’t stuck the landing.
The Chief rushed to my side as I tried to comfort him.
“It’s fine” I promised. “I just needed to lay down for a moment.”
He went into full WFR (Wilderness First Responder) mode, checking my vitals and my comprehension. I went into full bravado.
“It’s no big deal. I just need to spit these rocks out and I’ll be fine” I said as I started to get up.
“Julia, stay where you are. You are not OK. There is blood everywhere.”
At that moment, looking at him looking down at me, eyes wide with fear, I started sobbing. The bravado melted away. It was bad. I knew it was bad.
Other friends and acquaintances crossing the bridge pulled up behind us and ran in shock to our side. From the stifled gasps I could hear as they approached the scene I knew it wasn’t good. The Chief called the head Ranger of our park for backup and once he cleared me for a spine injury we decided to go back to our house to reassess. The entire group followed, all helping, all concerned, all planning our next steps.
We got home and I was determined to clean the wounds to see how bad it really was. The head bleeds a lot and I was still certain that a few bandaids later, I’d be on my way to bed. Our friends helped me warm water for rags. I wetted them and started to try to clear the embedded gravel from my face. The pain was excruciating. I kept trying but within seconds I started to feel like I was going to pass out. I was sick to my stomach from the pain. The Ranger offered to try as well and I sat on my hands on our couch so as not to bat him away in automated self-defense. He kept apologizing as silent tears rolled down my face. It was all we could do. We had reached the limit. We were done for the night.
Or so I thought.
“I’m calling the 24-hour hospital, I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”
The Chief nodded.
Before I knew it, someone was making tea for me, another making coffee for The Chief as he fired up the truck and off we headed for a 5 hour trip into the wee hours of the night. Off to the hospital.
Well, this was certainly unexpected.
I waded in and out of sleep, the pain increasing with each opening of my eyes.
We arrived around 5 am to a team readied for our arrival. After trying for over an hour to numb the area (I am apparently one of those people who doesn’t respond to topical pain medication) I submitted to feeling more than planned for. Again, I planted my hands firmly under me as the doctor picked and scrubbed and irrigated everything from rocks all the way down to the glacial silt out of my face. Tears streamed, my stomach seized but a few hours later it was done.
The Chief took a 30-minute catnap as the doc finished the liquid stitches, leaning over me to spread the “good word” as he held the two halves of my face together while the glue dried.
5 more hours later, we were home. The Chief helped me into the shower and gently washed the blood and rock from my matted hair. He tucked me into bed and when I awoke, I thought for just a moment that perhaps none of it had actually happened.
My reflection proved otherwise.
A split second had changed everything. The face I had come to know and embrace would forever be changed though how it would be changed, I didn’t know.
Everything changes, even your face.
About five weeks after the accident, the final stitches melted away, the final scab fell and I stood face to face with my new reflection.
Well, hello new me.
When I first saw the scars I thought “That’s pretty badass” and that has been the overwhelming response from the crowd as well (another is that I look like the ultimate Harry Potter/David Bowie fan). It looks pretty tough and while Alaska isn’t a bad place to look like you can handle yourself, it’s not always the me I want to present. What if I want to look gentle or kind? My blank slate had been slashed. Or has it?
I’ll be honest, my road to acceptance has taken some turns and I don’t think I’ve arrived yet. In truth, it’s been a lot like the road of grief. Apparently, the universe wasn’t fond of my Henny Penny self and felt I still hadn’t learned the Everything Changes lesson, the lesson of impermanence and gratefulness and grace. I’m trying. Some days I love my scars. Some days I forget that they’re there. Others, I’m bombarded with Yikes! What Happened to You’s and it makes me remember.
Sometimes, they fill me with regret, with frustration and self-punishment. Sometimes, I wish I could just wake up and I would be the same old me. Sometimes.
Mostly, the scars make me remember to be gentle with myself. To remember how fast everything can change in an instant. To be grateful that more damage wasn’t done, that my eyes and nose and teeth are safe, that my brain wasn’t too terribly shaken. Mostly, appreciate my scars for what they remind, what they warn, what they promise. Mostly.
Always, my scars remind me that this too will change, as does everything.
The other day, my first Icelandic Poppy bloomed. It was brilliantly, joyously red. It unfurled, beaming with brightness, hope, youth. By the next morning, the colors of the petals had ever so slightly faded. A few days later, the last petal, still beautiful but more muted in her brilliance, fell.
All good and bad come to an end. What is to follow, we won’t know until we get there but chances are, you will be better off for it. And, if you don’t listen and learn the first time, the lesson won’t fade but will instead find new ways to tell you:
Everything changes (even your face).
// May you be gentle with yourself and not require too extreme of reminders. May you be gentle with those you love and those you encounter. May your last words to those you lose be words bred in kindness because it all can change and it will, in a moment. Let us aim not to let the fear of the future freeze our present. //
The relatively recent access this town has gained to the technological pleasures of the “real world” has always been for me a double-edged sword, a sort of high-tech thorn in my side.
When I first met The Chief he had a “dumb phone”, as they are called these days. I loved it. Instead of vying for his attention over some device, there it was, stable and pure. In all reality, it was he who had to fight for mine at times. He would marvel at my texting dexterity and volume at which I transacted such “conversation”. His phone required each letter’s input until I showed him Predictive Text. You guys remember that one, right? Suddenly, a text merely caused him half the frustration it once had. Still, his texting didn’t increase.
The Chief would question the benefits of such a fancy device as mine (an iPhone). What was the purpose? I would espouse the wonders of having directions to anywhere, anytime and the sheer possibilities of the world of the internet at my fingertips to which he would reply: “That’s what a map, a dictionary, other people and then, last and least, a computer are for.”
In all honesty, I remember defending the phone lightly. I wasn’t sure if I really liked its bells and whistles but I did know that I had grown accustomed to it. When I learned that only a few years earlier, our town had conversed to the world only via one pay phone and to one another via CB radio, I felt like I had missed the boat. I had arrived when technology had fully nestled herself in (again).
Still, I was used to her, simultaneously comforted and duped by her.
I remember pondering the meaning of a word together once our first Summer together and as I reached for my phone, The Chief reached for his dictionary.
This moment struck me and I promised myself that I would be better at reaching for books than reaching for my phone.
That Fall we headed to California for our first annual family visit and The Chief started to understand the supposed benefits of the iPhone. Lost as could be, we would suddenly be found. Wanting to see a movie, we could know the schedule at the typing of a few words. Hungry, we could decipher where to eat with a quick search. Yet, the retrieval of such information didn’t always make things easier or more fun or more quickly expedited. The plethora of information sometimes made it harder. Which route to take? There were so many options. Which movie or restaurant to go to? Everyone had an opinion and an experience and after wading through a few reviews they all melded together.
Still, in the return to our cabin that Winter, the phone stayed and the computer did too and now, a few years later, they’ve started to multiply.
These devices do bring “us” together. They have made it easier for me to keep in touch with friends and family, they’ve made writing and publishing this blog a possibility and they’ve connected me to people and ideas I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Yet does it bring us closer? The “us” that is right in front of us, right next to us?
The other day, I was in a conference call in which the attendees joined from all over the Western edge of the US. We were in offices and homes, in business suits and extreme business casual. We were a mix of people, all working together to one goal and I thought to myself how crazy that we can all be in one “place” together despite our distances apart.
Yet, were we? Did the “us” we created by attending actually come together? Technology has this way of bringing together while simultaneously dividing. During the call, I received multiple texts from co-workers about the meeting. We were finishing the last bits of a presentation and I was getting last-minute updates on how to proceed, what to share, what to present. I was there, in those texts, in those directions, not in the meeting and I could tell that I was not alone. Minutes later, another attendee mentioned that he had just acquired some new information. Not meaning before the meeting, meaning during the meeting. He too was off in his own technological bubble, checking email while others spoke and debated and brainstormed. We were all tapping in and out of the meeting. Together or alone we retreated and reappeared, never announcing our coming or going, everyone under the assumption that everyone else was participating. Assuming that we, in our importance, could check out to do something more important, or something far less important. Take a break to check our email, disconnect for a moment.
The meeting was an hour-long.
One hour for which I would bet none of us were completely present. My job, which required me to be there, also required me elsewhere, to be simultaneously mentally present in two places at once.
As a society, we talk about the pros and cons of technology, about the coexistent togetherness and the isolation we feel from being so “connected”. Yet, steadily we continue. We slowly accept what should be rudeness as commonplace. Accepting that the person you’re speaking to will be scrolling on their phone, half-listening. Accepting that we text someone and two minutes later can’t remember what we said. I saw a meme the other day that said: “If I respond to your text with ‘Oh, cool’, that means I’m over the conversation”. We accept sub-par communication and call it connection because we’ve agreed to those standards. We accept them for one another and for ourselves. We accept when we look up from our screens and realize an hour of “relaxation” has passed after which we feel neither relaxed nor refreshed.
I know, for me, I’m a sensitive little beast. I need structure and continuity, ceremony and rhythm. My body now (and always has, though I neglected it) requires 8 hours of sleep and if I don’t get outside, even for a short moment every day, I feel unsettled. I can’t be too social or I will feel depleted and although certain foods are my heart’s desire, when I abstain, my whole self feels better. Candid conversations with my girlfriends and guy friends are essential to my happiness and I know I need quality time with The Chief, just the two of us, cuddled up on the couch reading or watching a movie.
All of these things I’ve known and aimed for and missed and tried again and sometimes failed twice, yet I’ve always reached for them. Yet until that conference call, I didn’t realize how badly a break with technology also needs to be on that list of Self-Love Daily To Dos.
The Chief and I have been taking nights off lately, turning off our devices in tandem and spending the evening together, devoid of personal technology (we will still watch a movie if that’s what we are in the mood for) and it’s funny in a nervous laugh kind of funny how often I feel myself think to reach for my phone. Just to look at it. Just to check. Distract instead of being present. After that call, I realize that these nights can’t just be here or there. The feeling I got when I walked into the living room to ask The Chief a question and didn’t see him looking at a screen is one I didn’t realize I’d needed so badly. One I had missed. A feeling of importance and togetherness and presence.
I’m not saying that we are tossing out our phones (though I have thought about it) nor am I saying that technology is bad. It’s beautiful in so many ways. Yet, just like my inclination to eat chocolate chips every night en masse, I too need to curb the technology addiction that so sneakily wormed its way into my life. We are here, surrounded in beauty, but I know that sometimes I’m missing it.
I don’t know exactly what it looks like to not miss what’s in front of me, I’ve gotten farther away from the shore than I thought. Perhaps it’s turning off the phone every evening at 6 pm. Perhaps, it’s buying a real alarm clock so that I don’t wake to the news of “my world”. Perhaps it’s using the phone only as a phone and the computer for everything else. Separation. Perhaps it’s mailing more letters instead of sending more texts. I’m not totally sure yet what it means, but I do know that it’s necessary for me and mine and the little boundaries we’ve set so far have made a world of difference.
Here’s to you and yours. May you be present and feel important to those you surround yourself with.
How do you deal with technology? I’m all ears.
Here’s a confession:
As much as I love our life and where we live, I’ve always been a bit reticent to show what our house looks like.
Well, at least on the outside.
The inside of our cabin is our cozy haven, filled with bright colors and soft fabrics and candlelight enough to make a Dane shout “Hygge!” (if you don’t know about the Hygge movement, check it out. You won’t be disappointed).
The outside…well, let’s just say it doesn’t quite evoke the same feeling.
Still, I tried to pretend it didn’t matter. In my newly found simple life, it felt incongruous to care so much about appearances. It was such a small part of my life. The outside of my house bothering me? It seemed petty. I tried to push it down.
I’d take nighttime photos of snow lit evenings, the house aglow with the warmth it possessed inside but in the day, without the camouflage of night or the focus shifted to something in the foreground, I was less likely to share the view.
Our house is naked.
With Tyvek that doesn’t even cover all of the house and no siding in sight, our little haven looks a little rough from the outside.
There’s a lot of things I’ve grown used to while living in Alaska that I realize are still strange to others, no matter how normal they’ve become to me.
Peeing outside? Normal.
No running water? Normal.
Infrequent showers? Normal.
Living off the grid? Totally normal.
I’ve adapted and found a way to make these changes work for me and some I’ve embraced completely unaltered, loving the way they’ve changed me instead. And of all those normal to me, strange to others things, not a one felt noteworthy or strange or something to hide…except for the outside of the house.
It’s a work in progress and a work in progress is a very common thing in Alaska but it never sat quite right with me. Perhaps it’s because we are really stretching the “normalcy” of it all since we most likely are holding the current record for most years before siding. Still, it’s not as if our neighbors scoff at it, though it is a bit of an ongoing joke at this point.
You see, our house was built by The Chief and his family over a decade ago. I loved it on sight and it immediately felt like home. Despite its bachelor veneer, I saw the beauty underneath and with a little (ok, a lot) of scrubbing and love it became our home. Our cozy cabin has everything we need. Yet, because of the grand plan for the house (The Chief added a 10’X12′ addition on a few years back and we have plans for more expansion), our house has remained “in progress” and naked (read: without siding) since birth. We may not be the only house in progress, it’s definitely more common in Alaska than the Lower 48 but still, at ten plus years, our house really takes the cake.
Houses, like ours, that have additions added throughout the years are lovingly titled “More-On” houses where we live. It’s, you guessed it, pronounced like “moron”, insinuating simultaneously that you’ve learned a lot of what not to do along the way and that the project is never quite done. There’s always more to add on.
It took me time to adjust. In the Lower 48, you buy a move-in ready house or construct a house and often, you don’t move in until the last nail is placed and the final bits of sawdust have been vacuumed. In Alaska, it is far more common for people to move in before the project is finished. There are a lot of factors that make this so. For The Chief, it was a race against Winter. He could stay in the house he built, even though it was unfinished, or he could again rent a cabin that was not his own. He chose to go with his own work and finish it as time went on. And he did, but when it came to the siding, it just didn’t take priority. Houses take two things to build on your own: time and money and when you’re a young man in your 20’s with a roof overhead that you built by hand on a property that you own, I’d say you’re doing pretty well. Who cares if you don’t have siding? And, if you plan to expand, why go through the time and money to simply provide a finished look outside, when the inside is where you spend your time?
It made sense.
Yet still, the more we planned and talked about the projects we wanted to do in the future, the farther away we realized that the future would be. As we already know, construction is costly in both money and time and every project here always ends up being 10 times more involved than it seems. From needing extra wood because you missed a cut to running out of screws or vapor barrier or running into unpredictable weather, there is always something that prolongs the process. So, for now, we’ve decided that we have plenty of space in our 12’X22′ cabin for the two of us. At some point we will expand, but for now, we’ve decided to focus on improving that which we already have.
And so, along came the birth of the siding project.
It would be simple. The Chief have already harvested trees and milled them into boards in a late Spring shuffle. All we had to do was “slap them on” (a favorite phrase of The Chief’s).
In order to put siding on your house, your house should be complete. This was the step I thought we had completed prior to deciding that it was finally siding time. But (big, big “But”), in talking more, we realized that wasn’t true.
As a man in his 20’s building a house from scratch on his own dime, The Chief had to be resourceful and so, in that resourcefulness, he had incorporated plenty of recycled materials to finish the job. From windows to interior siding, our house was a lovingly crafted hodge-podge of materials from the valley we live in. From historic to hand-me-down the house had come together in a wonderful, less-expensive amalgamation of materials. Yet, despite the low-cost at the time, the novelty of some of these things was wearing off as they started to lose their functionality. We finally relented to the fact that the old windows he had salvaged that no longer had screens and wouldn’t open, needed replacing.
“Great! Let’s do it next Summer when we have a little more money!” I suggested.
Like I mentioned earlier, a fact which is clearly new to my construction understanding, every change needs to be complete before the siding goes up.
We had ten days before we were leaving.
If we wanted to side the house this Winter when we finally would have time to, the windows needed to go in.
And so, The Chief made the trip to town which he graciously allowed me to back out of since I’d basically been on the road since July.
A few days later, he returned and the race began.
New windows before departure.
The clock was ticking.
In a hustle like I’d never seen, The Chief not only put in windows but also built us a shed for our newly acquired solar freezer (so we did not have to ask for storage help as much) in less than a week. Thanks to some serious help from our friends, everything was built in time to start the project…
Siding project: Phase I: Complete.
Now, we only have to wait a few months until we get home to start actually siding.
Just like everything in Alaska, this too will take time.
And so, now that the secret is out, now that you know our house is naked, I’ll share with you it’s clothing process along the way.
Until then, may your projects be speedy and finished…eventually.
from Alaska & California.
Alaskan Chore Strong
Life in an Alaskan Tiny Home Requires Big Chores
I’ve always wanted to be strong. Since I was a little girl, I would flex on command my little tennis ball biceps and burly quads. I grew up a competitive Irish dancer and the amount of control you need quickly brought me into a conversation with my body. What can it do? What can’t it do? How can I get it to do that? I’d watch the older girls and shuffle my feet in mimicry until, one day, I could be taught those dances.
At home, my strength was required on the monthly dump run where I would lift and throw with my Dad the things that would then live in the pit below. One time, I myself even ended up in that pit, but that’s another story. Yet overall, my strength was relatively for my own pursuits in leisure and play.
For the most part, it stayed that way. As an adult, I had random chores and days that required strength. I’d marathon garden the heck out of some ivy, battling it until we both swept our brows in fatigue and called a leafy truce. Yet, those days were more of a choice and less of a chore.
Nowadays, the chores choose.
When we returned this year, our neighbors were over when we realized we needed to haul water. There was not a drop to be found. Not a drop in the tea kettle or under the sink running to our faucet, not a drop in the pot that sat on the stove, not a drop in our glasses. The house was parched and so was I. So, we quickly set about to haul the 55-gallon refill required via 5-gallon buckets through the slippery snow and up the Ramp of Doom.
Our friends jumped in.
My girlfriends, total badasses as they are, grabbed two buckets apiece and headed up the old ROD into the house in one effortless motion. Despite the lack of a trail (read: post-holing through the knee-deep snow with 80 lbs. of water hanging from your arms) they made their way up the slippery Ramp of Doom in no time. I, myself grabbed two buckets to follow and quickly realized that, despite their having broken trail for me, even following in their footsteps was not going to be the break that I needed.
I was no longer chore strong.
I dropped the second bucket and hefted the other up and around into a belly bear hug hold at my chest and waddled my way to the house.
It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done and got my wheels turning.
From chopping and hauling wood, to driving snowmachines, to carrying the generator up and down the ROD to moving and refilling water vessels inside the house, the body simply can’t go a day in a total standstill here. And so, despite how far I had to come (adding a whole 40 extra lbs. to the load, to be exact), I knew I’d get there.
Two weeks later, there I was. Without even realizing it, I easily picked up the two 40lb. buckets and made my way inside. Lifting them over one another to stack in the kitchen, pouring them into the different vessels without spilling a drop, it all came easily whereas weeks earlier, it had felt so far away.
When I was a personal trainer, if you wanted to get better at something, you kept doing that thing. Sure, you’d do complementary exercises but for the most part, you kept going back to that which you wanted to better yourself at. Yet this wasn’t the same.
The two weeks in-between the one bucket at a time haul and the two bucket haul were dimpled by water runs, but the funny thing was, I wasn’t a part of them. The Chief had hauled water in the interim for us and so, I hadn’t practiced the feat since I had been at bucket one.
Yet in those two weeks, I had used my body in ways I hadn’t in months. I had forgotten the chore soreness. My forearms ached every day from chopping wood and skiing and lifting and moving boxes from the truck, up the ramp, and into the loft. My legs tired from walking through snow and lifting and skiing and climbing our stairs countless times a day. All these little muscles I hadn’t known I hadn’t used conspired together to make sure I knew where I had started but also to get me to where I needed to go.
The body responds.
Through my life, my body has been strong and soft, vigilant and lazy, painful and pain-free and all other iterations in between. I’ve loved it and loathed it, doted on it and ignored it, cursed it and coddled it, pampered and pushed it and still, it shows up for me.
The reckless little bicep flexing youngster still resides in me, I want to feel strong, but thankfully, she’s starting to couple with a different knowledge: I need my body. The times The Chief or I have been downed here, by injuries or illness, I’ve watched the entire house shift. All the chores rotate to one person and while that is the ebb and flow (and the luck) of having two people, it doesn’t feel good to be the one just watching.
The chores are endless here but in this home where the hard is, I consider myself lucky. Lucky to see the growth and appreciate the starting points. Lucky to challenge and nurture simultaneously. Lucky to get laid-out when I’m not listening, even if it doesn’t feel lucky at the moment. Lucky to have someone to split the chores and the wood with.
Cheers to the chores, whatever yours may be and the bodies that allow them. May they teach us the lessons they hold and may we listen and then, upon their completion, may we celebrate.
As a California grown lady of the sun, I’ve spent my whole life around surfing. I grew up at the beach, I spent my summers by any body of water I could find and I loved a good beach blonde suntan combo. I had all the components of surfing: I lived near a beach, there were surf shops galore with boards and wetsuits for rent (and sweatshirts I desperately wanted but would allow myself, lest I be discovered a poser) and I knew of people who were surfers. Yet what I lacked was the confidence to try.
The times I came closest to learning, I realized that the people wanting to “take me out” actually had more interest in taking me out for a date than really teaching me to surf and so, frustrated, I had bailed (surfer lingo, brah).
A few bails in, I stopped trying. Certainly, without question, I could have gone on my own or grabbed a girlfriend to go with but in my awkward earlier years I was less Grab The Bull By The Horns and more Oh Shoot, I Just Watched That Bull Go By.
And so it went.
Suddenly, I was 31, still wanting to learn to surf and realizing that the only thing about surfing that I’d learned was that saying you want to surf and actually surfing are a world apart.
Enter: Ecuador, or as I’ve started to call it: Alascuador.
This place, I swear is a cousin to our State of Brr. Everything from the reservation at first interaction to the utter triumph one feels getting a pint of ice cream home (one of our friends paid a taxi driver 50% extra just to get him home as fast as possible with a quart of ice cream he was bringing home for a celebration) to the timing (Alaska time, Ecuador time, Hawaiian time, same, same), to the dogs running about being a celebrated part of the town, to the what to do with toilet paper has made this southern spot seem like a flip side family member to the Alaskan way.
Which makes it no surprise that upon landing here, Ecuador has kindly kicked my behind. Just like in Alaska, if you’re not on the right path, Ecuador seems to either firmly correct your trajectory or high-five congratulate you for your ability to go with the flow. From our first escapades in getting to know one another in travel (firm corrections) to gliding through bus connections with uncanny luck (high-five congratulations) to finding our home for these last few weeks and me struggling to learn to relax (firm corrections as far as the eye can see) this place has been full of the ups and downs that I cherish about Alaska. The things that make life in Alaska feel, well, alive.
All the while, firm corrections and congratulations popping about, in the back of my head an anxiety started to rise. Was I going to continue to talk about surfing or actually learn? We had come to Ecuador to learn to surf and it was day 10 with no waves in sight. Don’t get me wrong, there were waves all about but we certainly weren’t on them. It had been years since I’d been fully immersed in an ocean, something I didn’t realize until we got here and the last beach I had been on had been unfriendly, to say the least.
Yet, when we arrived, I figured I’d jump on in like I had for years as a kid and start off right away with some epic bodysurfing.
It turns out I wasn’t as comfortable in the waves as I had planned. While The Chief seemed to glide out past the break into calm waters, I was left in a whitewash whirlwind. I had forgotten all the tricks my Mom had taught me.
Diving under waves
I realized it would be a few days until I was comfortable alone in the water, much less to attach something to me and bring it into the water.
Enter: the boogie board, the perfect transition between body surfing and surfing.
We broke it within 20 minutes.
Still, getting tumbled about in waves far bigger than me was good for my morale.
Until it wore off. Finally, on day ten, panicked that we would never learn to surf (I love to pop in nevers, even when I have control of them) we went to Town to find June and his week-long surfboard rentals. Four hours later, after waiting for 2 hours for the shop owner to return, we had our boards. It was late in the day and we were set to be picked up for our traveling trivia team (apparently, The Chief and I make a sought-after trivia duo) and so, we said “goodnight” to the boards which had taken so long just to find and hours to rent and waited until tomorrow. Mañana, mañana.
I was sick of mañana.
Today was the day.
Unfortunately, Ecuador didn’t agree (or in actuality, she did agree, but she was testing my will. Do you really want to learn or do you want to talk about learning? Sound familiar, Alaska? Alascuador). A storm set-up, the sky was pregnant with rain and right as we went in for my first set ever, the waters came down upon us. The sea responded. The waves were all over the place, coming in diagonally, double crashing and the current was so strong that within minutes we were out of sight of our hotel. Gone were the parallel sets of beautifully set-up, semi-consistent waves of the morning only an hour prior. If I hadn’t been in a bathing suit in warm water, I would have sworn I was back in Alaska. The timing was just too much. The Chief and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. Decades of build-up and we couldn’t have picked a worse time.
It was perfect.
By the time we were out of the water, my hips and knees looked like I had dyed them blue. Bruises welled up before my eyes and I plopped down in the sand, exhausted.
I’d been in for 20 minutes.
And…I’d gotten up. Sure, we may have just been chasing whitewash but after 20 years of hoping, wanting, giving up and hoping again, I had gotten up on a surfboard and rode that whitewash all the way to shore.
A few hours later, still storming but not as bad, we went in again. A couple we met from Canada was sharing the boards with us and had impeccable timing so the next time they went, we went after.
Still, it was storming.
Still, there we were, up again, riding the whitewash.
I feel like my body had been planning and scheming and approximating just how it would do this task for me for years, I just hadn’t unleashed it.
I looked at The Chief and we were both beaming, smiles from ear to ear.
Those three seconds of the joy of floating above the water were worth the ten minutes of push and pull to get to them. I couldn’t believe how it felt. Better than I had imagined. Maybe like flying.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
That night I went to bed, completely physically exhausted for the first time in a long time. In Alaska, I often fall into bed, absolutely fatigued from the day’s duties. That day, the duties were purely pleasure-based but they were as challenging as any other chore I’ve performed.
Finally, finally, I had tried. The years of wanting washed over me. How simply such a buildup could just go away. How unnecessary the buildup to begin with.
I hope so.
One week later, I’ve caught even more than the whitewash. I’ve caught my first real wave, from crest to finish, I’ve even turned (a little). I’ve fallen more times than I can count, my body is more bruised than unbruised, I’ve caught a fin twice in the thigh, I’ve been hit in the back, had the board land on my head, done a somersault into the ocean floor and broken a fin and I can’t think of anything right now I’d rather be doing.
It may have taken me until 31 to try, but now that I have, I’m a sucker for it.
It’s time to start checking off the list of the long overdue wants and wishes.
Thank you, Alaska for starting the teaching. For forcing me to test myself and trust myself. Thank you Ecuador for testing that teaching by forcing me to get out in a bathing suit day after day even on the days I’d feel more comfortable in, say, a parka. Thank you for pushing me to make new friends, get out of my comfort zones, to get a little scared but to try anyway and in the end to get to the base of it: to enjoy oneself. I’m listening. I’m trying.
Thank you. You are beautiful.
Shall we continue?
The Chief was leaving and I was about to be alone in the woods. He and a couple of friends were building another friend’s house 3 hours away. Not exactly a commuting situation and so, away he would stay for…
well, we weren’t sure how long.
If you’ve ever been around construction, you know that it can take longer or shorter than expected at any given time, and so, being the super laid back person that I am, I tried to plan out how long exactly he would be gone.
Which, of course, we didn’t know.
Which drove me crazy.
Finally, after a few days of uncertainty, one thing was certainly clear: The Chief was leaving. Today. It was a cold morning, the sky felt pregnant with snow. We shivered as we unloaded our truck, re-loaded the work trucks and said “goodbye” and “see you soon”. No “See you Saturday”, or Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday or… Just “soon”.
And so it was. All that hustle, all that bustle, all the wrangling of gloves and boots and tools and last-minute wonderings, all that shuffle and then…
I returned home to a silent house.
Alone in the woods.
A few years ago, this sentence would have struck fear in my heart but this time, it felt like exactly what I needed.
Time alone has done a full-circle flip through my life a few times over.
Growing up, adults always noticed how I seemingly loved to fly solo. My grandma Gam would comment how she’d “never seen a child play alone for so long”. I’d entertain myself for hours on end, doing what I’m not entirely sure, but seemingly enjoying my solitude. I wasn’t an only child but my brother is eight years my senior which proved to be almost a lifetime in kid years and so our interactions were mainly wrestling (read: injury) based. I adored him but understandably, he wasn’t exactly dying to hang out and so I played alone. To increase the alone time, we’d always lived somewhat in the “boonies” (which, now, by comparison, seem like metropoles). Neighbor kids were far and few between and often an age gap lay between us as well that couldn’t be bridged by sheer proximity alone. And so, again I mostly kept to myself and for the most part, I liked it.
To add even further to alone time factors, I grew up in one town and went to school in another town over an hour away. So, until 3rd grade I didn’t really engage in the whole after-school playdates brigade, nor did I have many close friends who close by, but my troll dolls were all the posse I needed.
Public school in 3rd grade in my hometown, a mere 30-minute walk from my house, brought on an onslaught of interactions and by 5th grade I actually had some consistent friends again who even, catch this, lived nearby. Suddenly, it was all about talking on the phone and “hanging out” and being alone wasn’t as normal as it had once been. If my phone wasn’t ringing at night and notes weren’t being passed my way through sneaky hands in class, I felt lonely until being alone was no longer a thing I was known for but a thing I chased away. Whether the interactions were vapid or meaningful, I didn’t much care. Either way, I was filling the space.
However, in my twenties (sound familiar?) I found comfort in circling back to my alone time roots. It took me a while to sort out being lonely from being alone but once I had divided the two, I fell back in love with the solo sessions of my youth. Yet, I also found myself in a relationship where trust was about as present as a watermelon in Winter and despite my new love of alone, I didn’t take the time for fear of what would happen when I wasn’t there. In an effort to control what I couldn’t trust, I spent the time I should have afforded for me, to recharge and reconnect, being available for someone else so they wouldn’t go elsewhere, which, of course, they did anyway.
So, as Saturn struck and I found myself newly single, I promised I would be different. I’d spend the time learning me and creating new habits to bring into my next relationship, which likely wouldn’t be for a long time.
As we know from last week, Saturn picked me up in a flurry and “returned” me to Alaska and to the furry man we all know as The Chief.
The thing about relationships in Alaska, or at least out in the Bush is that you will likely come together at light speed. The time you have to set patterns for what is to come happens in the snap of a shutter. Dating? What’s that? We met, made eyes and moved in within a week. Thankfully, I felt like I had circled heartily around this old pattern of dropping it all and neglecting myself in the months I had been single, I had been practicing listening to what I needed and I had established a baseline.
And thankfully, Alaska helped fortify that baseline in a strange dichotomy of keeping us closer than I’ve ever been in proximity and also forcing us apart.
Alaska creates the built-in breaks.
From the first day we were together, we already had a built-in break come the end of Summer (I had to go back to California and The Chief couldn’t yet leave). Sure I was worried to part, but it also felt natural and honest. We were solid already, we could handle it.
Plus, almost every Alaskan couple I know spends at least one month apart per year. This for me has never been the norm in a couple but it was a welcome surprise.
The built-in breaks.
Over the last almost three years, we’ve had many of these built-in breaks. I went to visit my Grandma last Summer and to meet my first friend niece this Spring for 5 weeks. Our time apart has built up on average to about two months every year, so why did The Chief leaving this time feel so big?
Well, for the first time, since the first time I set foot in those woods, I was about to spend more time alone, without a partner, than I had for the last decade, anywhere. For the first time, I wasn’t the one leaving, I was staying, in our tiny cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere, alone. Not only was I testing my love for being alone by being in a place where I could go days without seeing anyone, I also was in charge.
And then, it snowed.
In the hustle, bustle, shuffle of getting ready for The Chief to leave, we had neglected a few things on the property. The snow took care of that and by “took care of” I mean the snow broke and buried everything. Goodbye mosquito tent.
First day, off to a good start!
I was feeling really rundown from all of our runaround and so, since the weather forecast called for rain to melt away the 6 inches from the night before, I let the snow sit.
Well, if trusting the weather (wo)man in Alaska is part of your good plan, you might want to rethink your trajectory.
The six inches of snow melted slightly and then promptly hardened. Still, I thought, maybe predictions for tomorrow would be right.
More work for me.
By the time I finally gave into the tug of war between the weather and the weatherman, things were firmly frozen into the ground. I spent the better part of an afternoon chipping the now ruined mosquito tent out of the ice grave it lay in.
But, one good thing came in terms of work in this world of snow (I mean, in addition to the beautiful snowglobe I found myself in): sleds.
If anything makes hauling piles of roofing tin from one side of the property to the other easy, it’s hauling it by machine. In the week prior, since we don’t have a trailer, I had hauled all of it by hand. Carrying sheets more than twice my height in length over and over and over again had wiped me out and seeing them frozen into the ground had visions of shovels and grunting going through my head. Until I remembered the sled. I attached it to the 4-wheeler and hauled the day (and debris) away.
Snow, how I love thee.
So, the first snafus of staying alone had been relatively easily rectified and the test of being alone, really alone, had felt like no test at all. I’d even had invitations to meet up, poker nights to attend and when I really checked in, I realized that really, truly, I wanted to be home, alone.
The first week flew by. I had been working online from home and had gotten behind so, I spent most of my days tidying up outside and typing away inside until finally, it was the day before The Chief was to arrive home. I decided to haul water that night so I could do dishes and shower and have the place all tidy and ready to go in order for his arrival the next day.
Out I went to the well, bundled against the cold and started it up.
I looked down at the feet after feet of hose at my feet from which water wasn’t spewing as it should be and put two and two together: water in a hoseline + freezing temperatures = frozen hoseline = no water.
One might think I would have learned this lesson last year when we returned to the Summer set-up frozen solid but alas, no. I had run the pump, turned it off, and promptly let it freeze.
And so we (I had to check with our other well owner to make sure I was taking the right route) disconnected the Summer set-up and brought in the smaller hose that would be our Winter set-up, to thaw.
The next day, ice chunks finally defrosted, I prepared to get water, but on my way to set it up, I brought the already warmed generator outside with me. I always try to multi-task when heading outside and that day was no different. I placed the genie on its stand and the six water buckets from my other hand on the ground while I quickly got the generator started.
Ten minutes later I was worried I had flooded the engine. I then spent the next ten minute trying to remember where the spark plug was in order to see if it was wet, indicating that the engine indeed was flooded. No such luck, well, no such wrench, at least not that I could find, anyways. After looking up seemingly endless and unhelpful YouTube videos, I finally gave in and asked for help.
Over to the neighbor’s house, I went, for the second day in a row with a problem.
Two hours, disassembly, correct socket wrench, spark plug checked and changed, gas drained, new gas added, oil added, fuel treatment added, ether sprayed, spark arrester removed, ether again sprayed, reassembly and we had troubleshot everything we could think of. It wouldn’t start.
Until, one last pull and…
The neighbor and I cheered and then he returned to his project I had stolen him from for the last two hours and I returned to mine: water. I attached the Winter set-up and…tadaa! Water, sweet water, was flowing freely. I took two trips inside to fill the shower and under the sink and the water on the stove and then three more trips to haul all six buckets inside. Finally, I was done. The generator was fixed, the yard was tidied and no more snow accidents would occur and the house was full of water so dishes could be done and showers could be had and…
it was already six o’clock. The day had disappeared like the Winter sun and The Chief was due home within the hour. The choice presented itself:
Dishes or Shower.
I think we all know the route I chose. And just then, as I started the hour-long process that is bringing in the shower curtain and the frozen tote I shower into to defrost and pulling up the stairs and setting everything up, just then, the generator stopped.
I had to laugh.
You see, there’s always something in the woods. Something always breaks, something always stops working right when you need it most and my ten days alone was no different.
And so, I did what I could: nothing. We had exhausted all options. It was a project for another day. I got in the shower and let that hot water laugh me through it.
The Chief came home just as I was finishing and amidst our happiness to see one another the dishes and the generator weren’t such a big deal after all.
I had survived, in the woods, mostly alone for the first time ever and a few things were made very clear:
I realized that yes, I truly do love time alone, with all of my heart.
I also realized that my system when The Chief is home is not all that different from when he is not here, which means that I am in fact living up to my wish for myself: to do what I need to do for me, whether I’m in a relationship or not.
I realized how grateful I am for the built-in breaks Alaska forces upon us. Of course, I love being around The Chief, Alaska sussed that one out already by putting us through our first Winter together in a tiny cabin with trials and tribulations aplenty but I appreciate the forced time apart. It makes it so you get time alone before you need time alone and so instead, you just miss one another. I adore being with him and I appreciate that we are able to separate and then come together again, even happier to see one another than usual.
This time alone journey I think has finally come full-circle once again and perhaps has found its resting place in the security of a peaceful relationship, with me and with us.
Thank you, Alaska, for forcing change on me even when I am hesitant to move, in shaking me up in conjunction with Saturn to toss me about and land me right where I need to be: in a place that challenges me and changes us and forces me out of my comfort zone time and time again. But please, don’t make the built-in breaks too long, O.K?
If there’s anything Alaska has tried and tried to teach me time and time again, it’s been the slow transition.
These past few weeks of Fall have been glorious (a word that often seems a bit over-enthusiastic but suddenly seems a Goldilocks “just right” to describe the colors we’ve seen).
Truly beautiful. The Summer seemed to slink away overnight and suddenly we awoke to a world changed. Everything. The leaves did their dance through the wee hours into new colors and the air suddenly broke into crisp and away we went from a smooth Summer and into the quiet…
The quiet that descends upon this Valley is one I’ve never truly experienced in the Fall. Every year before I’ve either left before it came or left just as it was settling.
Well, it has settled.
It’s a Winter kind of quiet that wraps its arms around you and tells you to dive in. It’s the kind of quiet to feel alone to, like a sad song you need to hear to feel what you need to feel.
But it’s not Winter yet. And suddenly, the Fall is no longer the Fall but the Shoulder Season into Winter because just as quickly as Fall settled in, it faded and so now we welcome the Shoulder Season of the in-betweens and the lesson it carries.
The lesson that Alaska keeps hammering, time and time again.
The slow transition.
I outwitted the last slow change.
I had my last ski in March, left for California and returned in April to mush (and very little of it).
No skiing. Awkward walking. But the bulk of the slow transition has passed before I had come home and we were at the tail end of the Spring Shoulder Season just as the long Spring was just about to jump into Summer.
This time, for this Fall Shoulder Season, I decided to let it come. Let it wash over me. Historically, Fall was always an awkward time for me. I think I noticed the quieting of that which surrounded me and tried my darndest to avoid it. But there’s no escaping it. Even in a bustling city, you can hear it. You can feel it. The slow down. And it sank into my bones and made me ache for the rattling of Summer to take me away from having to dive deeper.
This Fall, I wasn’t running. I was driving. We were supposed to drive South. We were going to watch the colors change on the trees and then change back again as we drove from Fall here back into Summer down South. The “we” was Cinda and I. We had been planning it for almost a year, since before we had even gotten our first truck, round 1. I’ve always been a huge fan of road trips, especially of the solo variety. There’s no way to return unchanged. I was nervous, of course. I’d never taken the route and certainly not solo, but I didn’t feel solo. I had my girl.
We would talk about it and plan about it when we were out for walks. I would envision us with our windows down, Lou’s ears blowing in the wind with that specific smile she had for when things were just so easy, so good.
We would camp together and I’d finally get to cuddle with her (she wasn’t a huge cuddler but she would tolerate a bit) in a tent of our own like her and her Dad had done on the property when they first settled in, a decade before, to our home. It would be our first solo road trip together.
My Mom used to tell me about a road trip she took with one of my childhood dogs, I believe out to see my Grandmother in St. Louis, then all returning together to California. I pictured Lou and I in the same light and it felt like a sort of changing of the guards, a tradition passed on from my Mom and her first baby to me and mine. It felt important.
It, of course, didn’t happen.
We returned home to the end of Summer without our first baby in the Time of Plans.
“What are your plans for Winter?” which, of course, means, where are you going in the Fall and Winter and Spring until we see one another back here at Adult Summer Camp.
My plans had been set in stone and then, suddenly, there was nothing.
It took me weeks to speak what I already knew: I didn’t want to leave and at the same time, there was no place I wanted to be farther from. Cinda was everywhere, in everything. She was the bush at the Swimming Hole she loved to tackle after swimming. She was the road into Town that we would walk every Friday night to go see her Dad play Softball. She was in the flowers I had planted that were now shifting to seed, the fireweed sending its last showers of pink upon us. She was everywhere in a landscape that had shifted so much in the torturous week we had been gone. It had been full-fledged Summer when we left and now, it was ending. Everything was different and everything was the same except that she was nowhere to be found and yet everywhere all at once. I couldn’t stand to leave her and I couldn’t stand to be here without her.
And so, against my tradition of running, I decided to stay. I decided to stay in the pain of being here without her and of being here with her, in everything I do. I decided to sit through the long transition and let it wash over me.
Her death has been full of slow transitions, full of little letting-gos.
For the first few weeks I found her Cinda fuzz everywhere, she was notorious for it. Our friend used to joke that we could come over as long as I told Cinda not to shed. We would all laugh aloud as she said it. “Lou-Lou, don’t you shed now, O.K?” I had taken to one fuzz in particular and used it as a bookmark and then put it into a locket a dear friend sent me. And then suddenly, there were no more. No more fuzzes. Suddenly, I was cleaning dog hair from visits from our neighbor dogs, but not from mine.
Last week I finally felt ready to contact a girlfriend whose dog I thought of immediately to give Cinda’s dog food to when she passed. That was two months ago. Being the super-savvy dog mom that I am, I had found a way to get her food out here for free and delivered monthly and since I like to be ultra-prepared, I had two months of dog food in the arsenal, ready for my Lou. We returned to the 55-gallon drum full of food and two months later I was finally ready to empty it. I brought a sample of it to a girlfriend’s birthday where I knew my fellow dog mom friend would be so she could see if her little lady liked it. All the dogs followed me around all night like some Pied Piper and it felt good to feel important to a dog (or 10) even if it was just because of food. Thankfully, that popularity held true for her dog as well and the food was a hit, and just like that, it was time to give it up.
Today, I woke up ready to jump on the train of this day and ride it to the last stop. I had and have a lot of work to do but right as The Chief was leaving this morning, my phone was telling me to check it. On it was a reminder: CJ kennel.
Cinda Jones kennel.
Today was the day to give it up.
A friend had posted on the Mail Shack bulletin board that he and his fur baby were looking for a kennel for travel. It was posted right when we got back without Cinda and The Chief called to let him know he could have ours. Two months ago. Today was the day. I went to load her kennel into our truck for The Chief to drop-off when I realized that the hardware was not with it. Savvy dog mom that I am, I had put it away separately in my suitcase. I crawled under our bed and moved the various totes out of the way and pulled the suitcase out and as I opened it, I broke down. There was my baby’s travel kit. Her no-spill water bowl and her collar that she only ever wore if we were traveling and even little poop bags for the trip out of the wilds and then, the hardware. I ended up giving him everything except the collar (obviously), packing it away with love for the new generation and love for ours we had lost. The Chief and I held one another as tears rolled down our faces. He had just been telling me earlier in the morning of a dream he had about her, alive again and well and here we were, sending off her things. Time to let go.
The little letting-gos.
The little letting-gos in the grand scheme of the large letting-go.
It’s been two months since we lost our little Lou, our Tiny T, Cinda Muffinberry, Fire Marshall Jones and it has been the most poignant lesson from Alaska yet, the slowest slow transition, in the Fall of all times. This year, I welcomed the Fall, I welcomed the quiet and the time to truly take that slow transition and to feel pain. Losing Cinda has made me realize that my whole life, I’ve run from pain. I’ve seen its glimmer and have shielded myself and so, it grew. It compounded and bubbled up and started to ooze out of cracks I hadn’t reinforced until suddenly, it burst. Submitting to the pain of Cinda has opened the floodgates to truly feel pain.
I highly recommend it.
It’s awful, it’s the depths you didn’t know but it’s finally moving through you and what better time to let go than the Fall?
The glorious colors of Fall have faded and it would be now, in the past, that the sinking feeling would come in but there’s no need, it’s already been here. The leaves have turned to brown and fallen. The landscape is full of browns and greens again, making color a treat for the eyes instead of a constant. The rain lets up for a day of bluebird skies, only to fade away into a dreary pitter-patter pattern on the roof.
And for the first time, it’s O.K.
These little letting-gos haven’t made me feel farther from her, on the contrary, they’ve made her feel closer. The constant torture of remembering feeling the life leave her as her head grew heavier on my knee that day has stopped being as frequent and instead I tend to remember more her goofy smile when she was sleeping on the couch or her prancing dance she’d do when we got home at night (if she wasn’t already with us).
And I remember her lessons. She not only taught me how to move about the woods, how to find my bearings and my way home she taught me to trust. Cinda is the first being I’ve ever truly, wholeheartedly trusted and it was amazing to know how that felt. And more than that, she taught me to trust myself again. She gave me her utter faith and she made me feel like a good mom and then she taught me to feel the pain.
I could have asked for nothing more, except for more time but I guess that’s just another little letting-go in a land of slow transitions. I think I’m learning, Alaska.
Love to you, my Lou. Thank you for taking me through the seasons of myself and finding the quiet within. It’s not as scary as I thought.
Happy Fall to you, whatever it may look like. Here’s to the little letting-gos and to the big.
‘Tis the season.