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.
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“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.
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A few years ago, I was talking to my nephew about our beloved dog Cinda. I was telling him how every morning, after her breakfast, she would set off on her neighborhood rounds. Around the ‘hood she would trot, bidding good morning and begging for treats, eventually returning home to stand guard of her kingdom.
My Lou, my love.
He was amazed.
For her persuasive puppy ways? Her treat-seeking ingenuity?
For her ability to get through the fences.
He evaluated her, a regal dog lady in her later years, and remarked:
“Oh wow, Auntie Juju! How does she get through all the fences?!”
He lives in a sweet little wooded area himself and is no stranger to vast open areas of land but even the largest plots of land still have fences.
In a town where I could probably count on one hand the number of fences I know of, I had completely forgotten about them. Fence-less life had become so normal to me that his sweet surprise brought me back to reality: these dogs have it good.
No fences, no leashes, sometimes without so much as even a collar to hinder their wild spirits, with millions of acres to roam.
13+ million acres to roam.
Cinda had it good and trick or treat her way through the neighborhood she did all the way up until she passed. So, when we found our new ball of fluff and welcomed him home, we assumed he’d have the same fence-less life.
Well, kind of.
The poor pooch came down with Parvo before I was even able to pick him up. Then, once he puppy powered(!) his way through it, we were sequestered to the house for 6-weeks. Never once did he go outside without me and always attached to a leash. This grated against his punk rock Papa who made Cinda wear a collar, which he dubbed her “City Clothes” only when we went to Town. Eventually, Leto’s quarantine ended, and off from the leash he went, collar-less, mildly leash-trained, and ready to roam.
Leto, when he was just a wee one.
Free to be.
Until a few weeks ago.
Among the multitude of COVID complications, I never would have guessed that puppy love would have become a problem. You see, Leto is a lover. He’s one of the most social dogs I’ve ever known. He LOVES people, big and small (though he’s especially fond of babies). Yet in the time of COVID, despite his fence-less life, physical contact with his neighborhood besties, both furry and fur-less (well, maybe just less furry) has been notably challenging for this playful pooch. No going inside for his good morning rounds, no fun. And despite his fence-free life, he’d never wandered farther than the neighborhood houses he knows. Until…
Oh, what a joy.
You see, just as Leto hit the prime time for neutering, COVID-19 swept in. Not only was our trip to the vet on hold due to travel bans, but our banned travels would have been futile, as our vet had gotten stuck out of state and wasn’t allowed back in.
While puberty was a bit, umm, obnoxious (think: newfound possessiveness over his body-length moose bone, constant grumpy face instead of the happy to see me puppy of the year past) it wasn’t any worse than anything we’d already dealt with from our little Leto beast. It turns out, however, that puberty attitudes were nothing compared to the next hurdle his steadfast testicle friends posed:
A friend’s dog we’d dog-sat last year named Piper, is one of Leto’s favorite girlfriends. She chewed on his face so much that she gave him hotspots and still, he went relentlessly back for more. He was enamored. I would look out the window and there he would be, on his back with her dragging him by the neck through the mud. Leto was the ultimate pushover for her (are you also having flashbacks of your twenties right now? Eek!). The puppy love bug was strong.
Although they hadn’t seen one another in months, every time The Chief would return from seeing Piper’s Dad he would go crazy. Still, he stayed home. Until one day when he decided that if his girlfriend wouldn’t come to him, he would go to her. It was the farthest he’d ever wandered but I figured the isolation was getting to him and this behavior would be a one time blip on the radar.
You see, it turns out he discovered something on that visit, something I wasn’t aware of:
Piper was in heat.
His courting started coyly, with Leto greeting each early morning with a long and lonesome “Hello” howl to her. Unaware of the cause of the howling, I assumed it was just a new phase, he’d found his voice. It was cute and a daily reminder (though 13 hours early for the 8pm Howl) that we were all in this together, this quarantine life.
Apparently, the message wasn’t for us, nor was it getting through.
A few days after his howling Hello’s had begun, I got a call: “Leto is here” Piper’s Mom said. Miles away he had gone, again. I went to retrieve him and Piper’s Mom said: “I think she might be in heat”.
Still, to be honest, I didn’t think much of it.
Leto, on the other hand, did.
Transformed by the visit, his morning howls grew in intensity and frequency.
Our neighbors love us.
So, we brought him inside more often than not and listened for hours on end to his lonesome lullabies.
His once cute and mournful cries were now hoarse from exhaustion. He would howl so hard his voice would give out, howl so hard he would knock himself over.
It was lovely.
Working from home was even more lovely. I’d watch longingly as The Chief would set out for the day. “Bye! Let me know what life without earplugs is like!” I’d think.
Three walks per day still weren’t cutting it. When he wasn’t howling, he was sleeping from the sheer exhaustion the howling caused.
Finally, one night at 2 am, we broke. By 3 am, I had consulted every puppy resource I had and the verdict was out:
This won’t end until her heatwave does.
More good news?
Heats can last from 2-4 weeks.
It turns out that in comparison to the horror stories I read online, we actually had a pretty cush situation with our Leto.
So cushy, huh?
About as cushy as sleeping on a pinecone.
Two weeks and 74,000,000 howls later, we’ve discovered a semi-successful Ignore and Reward system but boy oh boy has working from home with a howling 1-year old Malamute been a pleasure. Thank goodness for the mute button in online meetings and noise-canceling earphones. Sometimes, they even work!
And so, in his first year around the sun, we’ve come full circle: quarantined again. Every move he makes is attached to a leash, except for the few times I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt and been sorely reminded that no amount of treats can dissuade nature’s call. Again and again, I’ve made the drive over to Piper’s house to retrieve him, tail wagging.
“Mom! So good to see you. Thank goodness you’re here. Can you let Piper out for me? We have some, uh, business to attend to.”
Two crazed puppies in love.
One night, he stayed under their stairs all night long. A real Romeo, you know.
One of his best tricks. Peek a boo!
Finally, we are staring down what must be (please, oh please) the last week of her heat. The howling, so loud it rattles the walls, has become ever so slightly less frequent and his manners have improved. He is, however, on a seemingly love induced hunger strike this weekend but, as I’ve been reminded time after time, this too shall pass. Leto has finally accepted his tied up fate (something we vowed he would never do to a dog) for the most part and has even become a bit of a gentleman on the leash.
A few months ago, at a Ladies Night, back when such things weren’t relegated to Zoom, I mentioned that Leto wasn’t as leash trained as I had wished.
Be careful what you wish for.
Despite the fact that we live in a leash-less, fence-less place, my goal had been to train Leto to acceptable standards. What were those standards? The Chief and I had different ideas of what acceptable meant and without an agreed-upon agenda, things got confusing for the young lad. Enter: puberty and things started getting messy.
“Shake it off, Mom” – Leto, in the lower left.
Lucky me, I got my wish, and training became a must, as did a family plan. Forced by the piercing cries of our oh so lovesick pup, we had no choice but to land on the same page and for that, I am grateful. I’m also grateful for understanding neighbors and for trees to somewhat bury his lovesong sounds.
Oh, Alaska, you sneaky beast, always lying in wait to serve us up the lessons we avoid best and need most.
Despite the frustrations of the last few weeks, the family fights and the utterly “I’m going to lose it” inducing cadence of his howls, Leto has provided us with an opportunity to grow as a family. I’m not saying it was pretty but it was worth it. Hopefully, someday soon, to the vet, we will go.
Cheers to you. May your unexpected COVID conundrums be few or if many, may they soon subside. Best wishes in these strangely trying times.
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.
This reality came tumbling all the way out of my subconscious during a walk the other day and it’s been on my mind ever since.
In the woods.
Mostly just the two of us.
Sometimes all alone.
Cabin fever anyone?
I have the Fever, Dad. Put what you’re doing down and pet me (Note: The Chief is already using his left hand to draw but that was not good enough).
I mean, I’ve physically left my house. I ski or walk daily though mainly the same variations of loops. Yet, the farthest I’ve ventured out in three months has been 15 miles down The Road to two different friends’ houses for a total of three trips “out” since November.
Christmas, New Years Eve and a dinner party.
Aside from that, we’ve done dinners and parties in the neighborhood often enough for all of us introverts to meet our personal levels of social overload. Yet leave our house, shut it fully down and be away overnight somewhere?
Not for three months.
When I quantify it, as in “Oh girrrrrrl…you haven’t left the house in a quarter of a year!” It seems insane or at least a little closer to shut-in status than I ever thought I’d venture. Yet when I think of the time in increments, in weather, in months and happenings, it doesn’t seem that long.
In November, the at-home novelty was fierce. I’d been back and forth to Town more times than I could count. In October, I took my last trip out, or so I thought until a kidney infection had me on a rushed 4-hour trip to the closest clinic. Two doctor visits in two weeks added to all the travel of the Summer made me feel like the calm would never come. I longed to pull into our driveway for the long haul and finally, we did.
I spent Halloween, my birthday and Thanksgiving here at home for the first time ever in all of the almost five (five?!?!?!) years I’ve spent in Alaska. Through Fall into Winter, we whistled the months away, looking alternately at the ground and the sky, praying for snow and watching as the final trickle of people leaving for Winter came to a close. Those who were staying were here, those who were going were gone.
December was jovial. We finally got some snow and the holidays were sweet and intimate, unrushed and unscheduled. Seasons greetings filled our little home and cookies and cakes (and tighter pants) were aplenty. Winter had finally arrived and we settled in to enjoy it.
Our itty bitty backyard tree.
January arrived with a little more light and a lot more cold. Almost the entire month was spent heads down trying to stay warm in near 50 below temperatures. We were deep in the thick of it: Deep Winter.
This pretty much captures January.
Then, in danced February, warm and cheery. It felt as if the days have been flying off the shelves like hot, fresh donuts (mmm, donuts). The light has brightened and lengthened and finally, after all this time, my cabin fever has finally arrived.
Skiing in the middle of the river
For the past week, it’s been sunny and warm and not just the “Oh yay, I don’t have to bundle up like the kid in A Christmas Story every time I go outside” kind of warm. It’s been the “Oh no, all of the snow has fallen off of the trees, the ground is melting and the rivers, so nicely frozen into highways have been ripped open” kind of warm.
A river runs through the old river highway.
With the warmth and the sun comes a new energy, a different energy, and for the first time in four months, I wanted to leave. Cabin fever, right?
You see, as beautiful as Cabin life is, Cabin Fever is a thing. In the darkest of days and for months on end, I’ve drooled over the idea of a long, hot bath or the simple luxury of ordering an overpriced cocktail in the appropriate barware from someone I don’t know. Other times, the idea of being surrounded by strangers and spending dollar after dollar sounds suffocating. Sometimes I walk or ski our local loops and feel closed in. Other times I feel the expanse of thirteen million acres spread out before me. There are days when either The Chief or I (or god forbid both of us) are in a bad mood and these four walls feel awfully tight while other times we dance in our “spacious” abode.
Sometimes, your woodshed is full, your water is hauled, your batteries are charged and you’ve just gotten a replenishment of freshies from a friend in from Town and life is good. Other times, your batteries are dead, the house is cold, you’re out of water, wood isn’t chopped, you have to pump gas (and of course you’re at the bottom of the barrel) and the generator, which holds the key to most of these problems, is frozen.
There are days when all you need is to see a girlfriend (yes, there are other women here, thankfully) but the only other women around are 15 miles up The Road and at 40 below, going anywhere is out of the question. So, you sit with yourself, your emotions, your needs and tell them they will all simply have to wait until the weather moves out.
Puppy cabin fever. Leto took to the drink.
Feeling feverish yet?
The funny thing is, honestly, I wasn’t.
Of course, I can think of a day or two throughout the last three months when it felt like the walls were a little closer to my personal space bubble than I was comfortable with. There were days when I just wanted to be clean with clean clothes for more than twenty-four hours at a time. But the quiet? The calm? No one around for miles? I was OK with that. In fact, I loved it. The other things were just creature comforts I experience less in the Winter but miss year-round. The truth is, I’d never felt cabin fever this Winter in the way I felt it the other day when I realized I’d been here for three months straight. The “fever”, however, wasn’t about being stuck in the cabin, it was about our being “stuck” coming to an end.
Don’t get me wrong, Winter is hard but I think the hardest part about Winter, for me, is letting it go.
We’ve all grown accustomed to it. Even Leto’s paws pray for more Winter.
This past week with its temps in the low 40’s (read: everything is melting) it really hit home. For three months, leaving felt like the last thing I wanted to do. Now, it feels like the first. I want to outrun the change. To find another place to cozy down for just a few more months of a good Winter’s rest. I feel like a kiddo sleepily asking for “just a few more minutes” of shuteye every morning as the alarm goes off. I want to hit Snooze on Spring.
I’ve never been good with change. Especially change I didn’t choose (read: you know, most of life). Sure, the weather might shift again. Even as I type this post this morning the boards of the Ramp of Doom let out a crack as The Chief descends them, signifying a drop in temperature to below zero. The paths that are now icy might again be covered in snow, the river might again freeze. Yet the shift woke us all from our Winter slumber and there’s no way to dismiss it: Summer is coming…slowly.
Once the Winter spell is broken, you can’t go back. The reality is there. As snoozing pales in comparison to deep sleep, we too feel the end in sight. You know there’s no going back to the quiet calm you came from.
So long middle of the river skis…maybe.
Until next Winter.
Until then, I’m grateful for the stretch we’ve had and pray to the skies for a little more snow, just as we did those three months ago in November.
Only time will tell.
Cheers to you and yours wherever you may be. Whether you are ready for Summer or Spring or still clinging to the depths of Winter. Wherever you are, may you be happy.
Our pensive pup.
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Our little Leto is one month shy of his first trip around the sun. Recently an old friend came back to visit, reminding me of one of the best highlights of his first year: The Fox and The Hound.
When Leto was just a few months old, his Auntie E brought him his first-ever toy: Lambchop. Leto and Lambchop were an inseparable pair.
Two peas in a pod
Every morning I’d come downstairs and greet the pair, often double-taking between the two of them to decipher which was which. Despite being nearly the same size, little Leto carried his friend with him on all of his adventures. Lambchop was by his side more often than not but soon enough his mini-me started to lose her parts. An ear here, an eye there. His little teeth made his way through the toy till there was nary a lamb shank left.
Thus, entered his second-ever toy: Elephant.
Love at first sight.
Despite her lackluster name, Elephant was the apple of little Leto’s eye. While Lambchop had been by his side more often than not, Elephant might as well have been glued to it. Outside they ventured together into the woods, Leto always bringing her back in, tucking her into the bed they shared each evening. He would lovingly mouth her trunk but not a bite was taken from her, ever.
One day, Leto’s Unclue Ruger (a 2-year old German Shorthaired Pointer) came by to check-in.
Just a couple pups, out for a drive.
The dogs of our neighborhood love to do the morning rounds, greeting each household, checking for treats, marking “their” territory. Only this morning, Ruger had another plan in mind. In he came for some morning snuggles and no sooner had I bid him “Hello” did he lunge for Elephant and abscond with the prized possession. Leto was in hot pursuit but his 3-month old legs were no match for the long-legs of his thieving friend. Defeated, he sat on the front porch and howled, a long and mournful howl, for the first time ever.
He sat out on the porch that day, bewildered and tucked into bed that night for the first time, alone.
He did, however, stay entertained with a duck he was “gifted” from Uncle Ruger, much to Ruger’s chagrin. The gift we think started it all.
As the months wore on, the captive Elephant would make random appearances with her captor. Through the yard he would prance, head held high with his prize daintily held between his teeth. Leto would try to catch him, as would we, but none of us came close. It seemed he moved Elephant every day or so, always staying one step ahead, guarding Elephant like the treasure she was.
And so, Leto found other ways to amuse himself.
Like hunting for Morels (he pointed me to all of these! I just had to get to them before he devoured them all).
And ignoring his replacement toy.
Until one day this August when Leto and I returned from a walk by the river to come home to…
No bumps, no bruises and only a little worse for wear.
Gently placed in a cluster of willow branches lay his prized friend. He grabbed her and yipped and threw her into the air and then brought her inside to safety.
Months went by and as our little pup seemed to grow overnight, outgrowing his elephant by leaps and bounds, his fondness seemed to hold steadfast. We’d bring her with us on road trips and he’d cuddle her along the bumpy roads and each night he’d tuck her in. All was right with the world again.
Little tiny, not so tiny.
Yet our little one, who suddenly was not so little, grew up and suddenly, grew a little careless. One night this Fall, he left his Elephant outside in the early November snow. I saw as he attempted to bring her inside but she’d frozen into the ground and so, cavalier pup that he is, he left her to weather the night solo. The next morning as we warmed ourselves by the fire, I saw a shuffling figure outside. I went to the window and watched as a fox came up the driveway and sniffed about. Loving finally seeing the animal that whose tiny prints painted our yard, I grabbed my phone to tape the sighting and no sooner had I turned it on did The Fox discover Elephant and…
After a few tugs to pull her from the ice, off he went with her (see the video here)! I barely realized what was happening before he had snatched her. I hurried outside and he stopped and turned to face me. I was having a hard time holding in my laughter as I asked:
“Are you certain? Do you really want Elephant?”
If he took it, surely we’d never see Elephant again. After such a long journey back home, I didn’t want a howling Leto to twice lose his Elephant. Yet lose her he did, for a second time.
The Fox stared at me as I questioned him and then seemed to think to himself, “Yes, I really, really do want Elephant!” and off he went with her in tow.
Leto ran outside behind me, sniffing in seeming disbelief. He paused where his Elephant had been and sat down in the spot, dumbfounded. Then, he took off after The Fox. An hour or so later, he returned, empty-pawed.
Elephant was gone.
Pouting on the couch
The Fox returned almost every day that week, sometimes more than once a day, seemingly to taunt Leto as his Uncle had in the Summer. They would have a staredown, The Fox in the driveway and Leto in his pup cave under the house and then, one of them would make a move and the chase would be on.
So much cuteness.
It went on like this for weeks until we dog sat another dog and suddenly, three was a crowd. The Fox didn’t return again.
One day, in the last days of December I walked out into the driveway and there was Elephant, completely encased in slobber made ice. The Fox had returned her. It seemed the whole neighborhood was in on the game now, The Fox and the Hounds (well, Pointer and Malamute but you know what I mean). Who would make the next move? Only time will tell.
These days, she’s still the apple of Leto’s (outside only, it seems) eye. Outside Elephant sits with nary more than a torn ear. She’s weathered many a storm and gathered many a tale…if only she would tell.
Almost two months ago now, back when Fall colors had fallen and the leaves paved our paths in gold, we were starting to settle in. Time had slowed, Summer had fallen away and with it, hundreds of people were gone. There were no drumbeats for us to keep pace to. The quiet was upon us.
With the wedding in the rearview and no looming leaving deadlines ahead of us, without plane tickets requiring chores to be done and the house to be shut down, we were home for the foreseeable future for the first time ever in our four years together. Since our very first year as a couple, the Fall has meant packing up and shipping out to the Lower 48 and spending a great deal of money to do so. It’s been a time of continuing the energy from Summer, rather than a slowing down as the season requests and of spending resources we don’t exactly hold in excess.
This year, we looked forward to the continuity and calm of home and the tightening of our financial belts by living simply.
So, two months ago, on a quiet Sunday, in keeping with a calm home program, Leto and I decided to take a walk with our neighbor and her dog while The Chief read and dinner bubbled away on the stove. The stage for the night was set: a leisurely sunset walk with a friend, sausage soup with greens from the garden and herbs harvested throughout the Summer for dinner and a cozy evening, just us three.
Chester Family photo, September 2019
Leto has a tendency to be like a horse to stable, barn sour if you will. For most of the duration of our walks, he’s within eyesight, regularly stopping to check in on me, sit and watch for me, circle back for me but there’s a point too when he realizes that “Homeways is rightways now” and home he heads, leaving me in the dust. Our last pup, Cinda, used to do the same thing and we joke that she’s up in Pup Heaven (a.k.a MXY in the Sky) teaching him her wonderful ways. So, I wasn’t surprised when, as we rounded the bend up from the river, indicating the turn back towards home, he started gaining ground ahead of us, taking a shortcut through the woods.
I was surprised, however, when I heard what I can only describe as a scream coming from the direction he’d run (and by surprised, I mean surprised and then terrified). It sounded as if something had been dealt its final blow. The something, I wasn’t sure of. It was a noise I’d never heard Leto make but something told me all was not well with my pup. My heart started pumping faster as I tried to place the scream and run towards it. Bears were still out, moose are always a concern and wolves had been roaming the neighborhoods of the valley and have taken dogs as their prey. There was no knowing what this could have been but the sinking feeling I felt told me the options weren’t great. If I found him, I expected to find him dead.
“Leto!” We yelled as we circled back through the woods he had run through. No, this didn’t feel right, I thought. Homeways, head homeways. Screaming for him and hearing nothing in return, no movement, no yip, no whimper sent my fear into overdrive. I started running home and then, around the corner, running towards me, came Leto.
Leto with a face full of porcupine quills.
In my wildest worries, I had never considered that the scream could have come from a porcupine encounter. A wolf, a bear, a moose, yes, but a porcupine? We just don’t see them on our side of the river very often. In fact, I had never seen one in our neighborhood in four years. Lucky Leto, he’d found the mystical West Side porcupine.
Immediately upon seeing me, he came in for a moment of comfort and then ducked into the trees to lay down and assess his situation. I did too and the outlook was grim. I’d seen dogs with quills before but they’d always been few enough to pull ourselves. This was another level. He started thrashing about, trying to pull them out with his paws, each time coming precariously close to the one just centimeters from his eye. In his panic, he threw open his mouth and I saw the roof, littered with quills.
This was bad.
Still, he wasn’t dead. A face full of quills was suddenly the best-case scenario I hadn’t considered and bad as it was, I was glad we were in it as opposed to the other fears that had fetched my mind.
Finally, we convinced him to come home with us but the quills in his paws must have been excruciating as he would duck back into the soft mossy ground of the woods every few paces and lay back down. I needed to get him home to where the pliers were to see if this was something we could even handle on our own. Finally, he just stopped. He wouldn’t move and I couldn’t get a hold of The Chief as he was fully ascribing to our evening electronics shutdown goal and his phone was off.
Our neighbor offered to go and get him while I stayed with Leto. I didn’t want him running off deeper into the woods like he wanted to. I had a flashback of our Cinda doing the same thing when she got the injury that eventually ended her life and it made me sick to my stomach. Off E went to fetch The Chief and just as I heard our truck rumbling closer, Leto decided he could make the journey home.
Like ships in the night, the missing game began. The Chief came my way, I went back his way. Now we both were panicked. Back at home, Leto tucked himself in under the house. I crawled in after him, still listening to The Chief calling for us but still not wanting to leave Leto. Our neighbor came to check on us and saw that The Chief had missed us and off she went to find him again. Thankfully, this time when ships in the night floated past one another again as he turned back home at the same moment as she arrived to tell him where we were, The Chief was headed back to us. The Laurel and Hardy, Who’s on First routine certainly didn’t help the frustration of an evening already thoroughly thrown off the rails.
I think not.
After we pulled the first quill, huddled under the house with headlamps, Leto knew the game and was not a willing player. Quills are barbed, like sea urchin spines and so when they go in, they lodge there, making pulling them out extremely painful. He was wild-eyed and after pulling 15 or so, we realized that this was not going to work. There was no way we could get the quills in his mouth, he wouldn’t dare let us near them. Another neighbor came over to check on us and validated what we feared: a trip to the vet was in order.
The emergency vet was four hours away and I didn’t know if she was even on-call these days (I called our regular vet and she was out of town and wouldn’t be back for weeks). Thankfully, she was.
“How soon can you get here?”
“Probably by 11 pm, depending on how good driving through The Pass goes.”
And so, we set out to drive the wintry pass to Valdez. We loaded our quill-faced pup into the car where, after an hour of pain and thrashing and panic, exhaustion started to set in. He sat up, trying to sleep without putting pressure on any of the quills, not being able to rest his head. The drive was dark and tense as we still hadn’t purchased our much needed new headlights (after losing not one but two lightbars to the 60-mile bumpy dirt road) and the view of the night was dim at best. I put on an audiobook to lighten the mood: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. If you know the book, or just even a basic history of our beginnings, you know that it didn’t quite do the trick.
Finally, four hours later, we arrived. Still, despite everything, Leto wagged his tail and joyfully greeted the vet. He’s a big fan of new friends. A few minutes later the sedation came on and the quills started coming out. His face filled with blood as she ripped the quills out of his delicate lips and sweet little nose but it wasn’t enough and he thrashed about, despite all three of us holding him down, screaming and crying as only a Malamute can do. It was awful. Finally, with more sedation, she was able to prop open his mouth to unveil the work to be done inside. It was like a cave with stalactites and stalagmites. Top to bottom was filled with quills: tongue, roof, cheeks, gums. She started pulling. Some were wedged in sideways, going longways through his gums but she worked methodically to get them out and soon he was near finished.
Still smiling (or just very stoned).
She checked his body for any stragglers and found them in his back, his neck, his paws and his shoulders. We had a moment of lightness as we joked, “Did he roll on it?!”. I pictured him trying for a tasty bite of the “spikey bunny” and being in such shock at the pain of the taste that he fell and rolled onto the poor creature. Some quills came out quickly after we found them (which is no easy feat since the quills burrowed through three layers of fur) but some had gone in completely and lay flat against his shoulder blade and face. She tried to cut them out but decided they weren’t going to budge. “They will work themselves out”.
Two hours, one very wobbly drugged dog and 400 plus dollars later, we were out the door, in Valdez at 1 am with nowhere to stay. We stopped by every hotel we could find but as the tourist season had just closed shop for the year, our pickings were slim. We took turns running into the hotels and each time came back with a thumbs down: no dogs allowed. Finally, the last hotel allowed dogs for a 20 dollar fee per night.
20 dollars in addition to their nightly rate of almost 200 dollars.
Thankfully, the front desk took pity on our little man and gave us a discount bringing the total to just under 200 dollars.
Still a stoney baloney
Still not able to walk, The Chief carried Leto through the slippery parking lot. He howled and cried every time he moved even an inch, in pain and dysphoric from the drugs. We settled into our very expensive hotel room and I washed the night off of me with a bath. Leto whimpered and panted all through the night. None of us slept well. The next day, my morning started early and with yet another bath (someday, someday I will have a bathtub and I won’t even have to pay 100 dollars per bath) as I prepared for three hours of Monday morning meetings at work. Thankfully, there was a breakfast buffet.
A few hours and a few meetings later and it was checkout time. Leto still could barely put pressure on his paws but he finally peed on his own. It was time to go home. We filled up on fuel and grabbed some road snacks and off we went.
At least it was a beautiful drive.
What a Sunday. What a start to the week.
Four hours later, we returned home where yesterday felt very far away.
In just 12 hours, we had spent over 800 dollars of unplanned expenses and our quiet, cozy Fall evening had turned into a panicked, hours-long stress fest. We were all completely exhausted, but we were home.
Home sweet home.
Two months later, we are still finding quills in little Leto. They burrow their way out and pierce through the skin. One erupted over a few hours and was heading straight towards his eyeball until The Chief deftly pulled it out. Even last night, I was rubbing his chest and felt one slide sideways through his tissue. Someday, they will all work through.
Hello, handsome dude!
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be crouched under a cabin with my husband in the middle of nowhere pulling quills from our Malamute. Four years ago I’d never even thought twice about porcupines. What a difference a few years can make.
The Fall finally fell into place and the quiet settled in again, even more so as the final departees left the valley. We retightened our financial belt that had been busted loose from our porcupup and cozied down, preparing for Winter.
In the two months since Leto’s brush with the pokey bunny, we’ve had two more unexpected trips to Town and the expenses to go with it. One to replace The Chief’s broken snowmachine and one to repair a UTI turned kidney infection of mine. Oh, joy! So much for spending less by staying home but, still at home we are, mostly. Despite missing friends and family, I know it’s exactly where we need to be right now: cozied down, pulling quills and praying for snow.
I’m not sure what was in the air or the water or the stars this October but for some reason, the month brought with it many confessions. From candid to long-hidden, confessions came from dear friends and new friends alike, as if the month held a sort of truth serum that all of us had unknowingly drunk (for, of course, I had confessions of my own).
In this growing age of online versus in-person, of creating personas based on snapshots and moments in time, it’s easy to assume that another’s life is just how he or she portrays it: downright near perfect. That’s not to say that across the board, we all simply share the good times and hide the bad. I’ve seen plenty of Instagram feeds with hilariously relatable “fails” or beautifully honest posts. Yet overall, the online personas we often see showcase the best of the best of the very best sides of all of us and sometimes, I think that too flows into our in-person lives.
Leto and the new ice.
I think the truth is catching and it caught like wildfire. The truth serum must have been drunk at a gathering of gals early on in the month and from there it spread. That night I learned “dirty secrets” (that were neither dirty nor did they need to be secrets) that made me feel…
Since that night, I’ve aimed to honor that honesty and spread the good word: we all have things we think are odd, weird, ugly, bad or boring when it comes to ourselves but unearthing those hidden weirdos, bringing to light what you consider bad might just make you feel a little bit of good.
Let’s hear it for the weirdos in our lives! Love you girls.
And so, in that honest vein, I bring to you: Cabin Confessions, a sort of mini-series within BTB to keep the truth moving through us all, self-included. May it spread your way and help you to feel a little better, brighter and lighter. Or, just a little more normal.
Cabin Confession: Putting Up
Sometimes it feels that upon moving to Alaska, you’re supposed to have already learned all of the “Alaska Skills”.
Chop wood? Of course I can!
Fish? Sure, old hat for me!
Garden? Duh, easy peasy.
Survive in the woods? Yesireebob!
The list goes on and on. The truth is, when I moved here my first Winter I scored about a wobbly, uncertain 1.5 out of 6 on the list above and the above just breaks the surface. Heck, I didn’t even know how to dress myself (and in truth, when the weather changes these days, I still find myself wondering how I did it last season). So, when it came to Putting Up (a term I had never even heard before) I felt my familiar “friend” creep over my shoulder. Hello, Overwhelm.
Four years later, I still feel that sense when it comes to Putting Up food.
What is Putting Up?
Canning fish, pickling cucumbers, drying herbs, making sauerkraut, freezing bulk garden goods, etc.
Basically, to Put something Up means to harvest and preserve something you’ve bought or for more Alaska gold stars, something you’ve grown or harvested (typically in the warmer months), so that you can enjoy it for the colder months to come.
Confession: Nope. Not for me.
Certainly, some Putting Up I fell in naturally with. I love harvesting, though sometimes I have trouble with the follow-through if the follow-through involves more than drying. Thank goodness for tea!
Goldenrod, Spruce Tips, Labrador Tea, Yarrow, Lupine & River Beauty
Spruce tips (and Leto0
Morels, found by Leto (and Leto)
Yet, for some reason, putting up fermented foods has always made me feel more put down, by myself. The phobia I had discovered in California didn’t suddenly melt away upon moving to Alaska (I must have missed the Alaska Newbie Handbook), it froze solid. I can’t tell you how many cabbages I’ve bought at the store to make sauerkraut or kimchi that ended up moldy in the compost. Wasting food out here, where the nearest grocery store is 4 hours away is a serious no-no. Sure, food going to waste happens, but it’s often more of an accident; someone gifted you something you couldn’t quite finish or you had to leave for a few days unexpectedly and your refrigeration failed in some way. It’s not often because you have been staring down your food, too scared to fail and thus too paralyzed to do anything with it, that it goes bad. This year, to ensure I’d really learn the kraut craft, I grew my own cabbages.
Brand new garden bed
The pressure was on but it was ok because this year I was making sauerkraut, no matter what.
A few days ago, I peeked at my last harvest of cabbages, 5 beautiful cabbages I had been lovingly caring for since starting them from seed in April. Watering, feeding, guarding, admiring every day, watching grow bigger and bigger…
They were rotten.
I’ll give myself a slight out to say that food storage in a tiny cabin where the temperature fluctuates between 90 and 40 degrees almost daily is a challenge but…I had also procrastinated for almost a month since their harvest. Sure, there had been an unexpected Town trip and well, I definitely needed to deep clean the oven…twice. I had procrastinated them into oblivion.
* I did, however, eat these first babies up!
Cowabunga, dude! Enormo!
My last harvest of beautiful cabbage babies met their end in the compost, joining the many before them.
The second harvest as the frost came tumbling in. Leto helped a lot.
Not only was it disappointing in the sense that all this time and energy had gone into this food that now lay spoiled before me, not only was it disappointing to have lost 5 good cabbages which could have made endless meals if not kraut, but the disappointment that again I had failed after 6 months of preparation was almost too much to bear. I was so disappointed…in me and I didn’t want anyone to know that I had, yet again, failed.
I felt a little bit like this.
Thankfully, The Chief was in the next room, a few feet away to hear the sigh.
“It’s OK, we just won’t let this happen next year. It’s OK, Julia. Plus, we still have one cabbage left!”
Oh great, one more cabbage to stare me down as it degrades.
Yet, instead of going down that path, I remembered honesty. I told everyone about my ruined cabbages and as I listened to others lament about kraut cold feet or pickling paranoia I suddenly felt better. Not in the misery loves company way because they were no longer miserable as I was, in the way that I felt I could (finally) get over this, as they all had.
The last cabbage left was a behemoth of a babe that my girlfriend had grown this year. She is an epic gardener (you can read all about it here) and after a dinner date at her house this Fall (read: 2 hours out, 2 hours back. That’s an Alaskan dinner party, if I’ve ever heard of one!) she gifted me one of her gargantuan gals.
I may ruin storebought cabbages and I may ruin my own, but I wasn’t going to ruin hers.
Finally, the answer was “Right”.
Three weeks later.
Meh, better late than never, right? I had been battling this fear for years, three lousy weeks weren’t going to take me under this time (plus, I had some gentle nudging from a friend, moving me slowly but surely along).
So, three weeks later than I had planned on doing something with her cabbage, I finally did.
1 Quart for experimenting
1 Big Bowl of Potluck Coleslaw for Poker Night
1 Big Crock
later and the enormous cabbage was finally gone and…
Kraut is on the way.
Finally, I felt like this!
I’ve psyched myself up time and time again to do the Putting Up I dream to do here but time and time again, I’ve found myself talking myself down, stressing the details, deciding I’ve failed before I’ve even started and thus, never begun. Perfectionism sure is a sneaky beast that robs you of entering new experiences with lightness or confidence, if you enter into them at all. Yet step by step, uncertainty by uncertainty, I moved forward this time and I owe it all to honesty (and certainly to some truly non-judgemental love from The Chief and friends and to my furry Leto, who sat on my toes or watched me squish cabbage the whole way through).
Opening up about my own shortcomings, or things I just see as such, has helped me to see how normal they are. Certainly, mine may not be yours. You might be scoffing at this little backwoods cabbage waster but I’m certain there is something for you too. Some half-finished project, some goal yet unmet, some hidden habit that you feel guilty or sad or embarrassed about. The good news is: you don’t have to! Who knew?! Feeling bad provides little impetus for change. Feeling bad leaves the cabbages rotting and the sauerkraut supply still empty. So go and tell your tale of your closeted self, whoever that may be. Chances are, the person you tell might really, truly need to hear it and I guarantee you’ll feel better.
Best wishes to you and to all of your quirks and flaws and beauty that make you who you are. You are doing just fine.
Cheers to you.
Cheers to honesty.
May it spread to you and yours and beyond.
With love (and sauerkraut),
Alpenglow time of year.
P.S. Do you too have a fermenting phobia? My friends pointed me towards Nourished Kitchen, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and searching Facebook for helpful groups. There are many salt to cabbage ratios but one tried and true method I’ve heard (and tried) is to make it as salty as the sea. If that’s too vague for you, I totally understand. Let the professionals guide your way, it’s not as scary as I thought. I promise.