ice cream

The Peek-a-Blues

Of the many questions I’ve gotten about living in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, one of the top questions/statements is:

“How do you handle the weather? It must be so gloomy and dark. I could never live there.”

And honestly, as many times as I cheerily answered with “I’m sure it will be great!” and “Yea, but we have the Northern Lights!” and other exclamation filled rebuttals, I really had no idea what I was getting into. My true answers would have been:

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle the weather.

“I think it is.”

and

“I hope I can.”

Growing up, my Mom had these bright lights installed in her bedroom. She would climb on top of her bed, (she had one of those amazingly comfortable yet still Princess in the Pea style tall, big beds that my girlfriends and I would always sneak into and cozy up in) close her eyes and turn on the lights.

Boom!

They would blast her with light meant to emulate the rays of the sun.

In California, Winter isn’t harsh in the sense of blistering cold and snowstorms and icy sidewalks. It’s harsh though in a more subtle way. We often were stranded without power for days on end during storm season and we rarely saw the sun until the storm passed through. Sometimes it would be a month before I’d see that ‘ol vitamin D provider and simply seeing that shine would remind me how much I had missed it. And so, when the storms hit and the skies clouded up and stayed grey for weeks on end, my Mama found her relief in her sunbed of sorts.

It was her happy place.

Me on the other hand, I never did the lights. I’m one of those, yes there’s a beautiful bathtub and I’m stressed to no end and someone is offering to fill it for me and still…no. No thank you. I’ll be just fine over here, just barely bearing the weight of my little world.

Well, at least I used to be like that. Now, I’m more open to relaxation and even a little more open to help from others and to helping myself.

And so, as we approached our departure date for my first Winter in Alaska and these statements (“I could never handle the dark”) kept piling on and on until I felt I was buried in a ball pit like a kid at Chuck E Cheese and I started to panic.

What if it was the most depressing place I’d ever been? What if I never saw the sun? What if I completely abandoned a schedule and ran around like a rabid animal, unaware of the day or time or place I found myself in?

Enter: La Mama.

She had the perfect solution for my fretting self: the sunlamps.

However, despite my efforts to more readily accept help, I still couldn’t budge in this arena.

I never used the lights anyways.

“Right, because you would never accept help or lay down long enough to feel their effects.”

Nonsense. Utter hullabaloo. I could do this by myself.

And so, I refused to buy the lights myself or to let my mother buy me the lights, despite her many crafty attempts to do so.

“Oh, how weird, we just happened to stop in this store together and they carry those sunlights you were talking about, Julia!”

My Mama’s never been very swift on the lies, a trait that makes us both laugh a lot and one which most definitely trickled down to me.

But no, I couldn’t be fooled. I was heading into the dark without so much as a headlamp (thankfully, the sweet guys at SBS gifted me one). I could do this on my own.

But you see, here’s the thing about the sun in Alaska, huddle closer now: she is her own. She does what she wants and because of that, she seems like that elusive person you always see at that one bookstore that feels so mysterious and obviously way cooler than you are and that you one day ask on a date and they end up to simply be a human being, just like you.

Weird, huh?

Of course, I only know that now in retrospect. Last Winter I spent my days sun chasing and when she was nowhere to be found, I felt it (or so I thought). She would peek-out for a moment and then hide away the rest of the day and I would consider her to be elusive and take it as a personal affront and then I would feel it: The Peek-a-Blues.

 

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Up for a moment, only to be engulfed by that cloud beneath minutes later

 

I did everything I was supposed to do in such conditions: I got “out”  (went for a walk or a ski or a something to be out in nature and to hopefully catch a few rays) everyday. I made sure to take my vitamins daily (a feat I’ve never been able to conquer in my life) and was even more utterly diligent with my Vitamin D (they were gummy chewables, kind of the perfect kid-like complement to my stoic attempt at adulthood). But still, at times I felt a little blue.

And so, my lifelines were my sunshine substitutes. Along with my get “out” and vitamin regiment I talked to my girlfriends and my mother almost daily. Some days I had to have a little cry (or a big one) and sometimes we only seemed to laugh. I kept busy, preserving food, revisiting old exercise routines I hadn’t had time for in years and even did my best to sit still long enough to pass it off as meditation.

 

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Yoga Jones. Put the mat down, turn away for a moment, return to dog on mat (not willing to budge).

 

I was so zen.

In reality, I was alone. A lot.

 

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Well, I did have Miss Lou. That helped a lot.

It’s not that The Chief wasn’t present in his heart, it’s that he was absent in body. He worked construction on the restaurant I came to work in during the Summer for almost the entire duration of Winter and throughout its near entirety he was very sick. In the attempt to get the restaurant open they worked almost every day. Twenty below? Bring extra coffee. We are doing this. I was both thoroughly impressed by them and thoroughly depressed by my own seemingly smaller achievements. Every morning I would kiss The Chief goodbye and as the door closed behind him, the little panic would start. The Peek-a-Blues.

What to do?

What to do?

The simple thing about Alaska, or at least living in the middle of nowhere in Alaska is that she answers this howling call tenfold with demands.

Chop some wood. Build a fire. Defrost the generator. Wash the dishes. Start dinner. Do some laundry. Organize the Bachelor Pad into Our House. Organize the recycling. Mend your clothes.

There was a never-ending laundry list (upon which laundry always had a place) of things to do and things that needed to be done but all of it seemed so small. I wanted to do more than the inside and light outside chores. I wanted to be the one who brought down a tree by myself and presented it to The Chief proudly like a cat brings its owner a mouse. I wanted to build shelves while he was away and see the surprise on his face when he came home. There was so much I didn’t know how to do and what I did know felt unimportant.

On some days, that feeling didn’t bother me, but on the third day of overcast, not snowing and not doing anything other than inciting a dismal feeling in me, on those days, it got to me.

And I would think of the lights.

Maybe I had been too stubborn. Maybe I needed them after all. And so I would call on my lights: my Mama and my girlfriends and they would somehow part the dismal sky.

This year I still can’t take a tree down by myself. I still don’t know how to build shelves. When the snowmachine has been sitting at 30 below plus temperatures for a week I still have a very hard/potentially unsuccessful time starting it. I still can’t do what The Chief can do out here but you know what? I can do more than I could last year.

No longer is chopping wood an expletive-fest for me, instead I see what The Chief was talking about when he said you get lost in the motion. Last year it was all sweat and swearing when I just couldn’t get a log to budge. Now I look at the weather and pick my logs accordingly and if I still can’t get through? I leave it for a colder day when wood snaps apart like a Kit-Kat and the axe moves through it like soft butter. No longer is driving the snowmachine as difficult. I know how to move my body to better move the machine, I’ve found my riding stance (a very strange sidesaddle-esque approach that my body somehow came up with and which fits me like a glove), even if it is a little odd and I’ve crossed the creeks I rode solely across as a passenger last year.

And you know what? I’ve been slacking. We’ve been here a month and I’ve only recently started taking a Multi-Vitamin. I consistently forget the Vitamin D and although I get outside almost every day, I’m not so stringent as I was before. I listen to my body (most of the time).

Oh, and another You Know What? It’s been a much greyer Winter this year.

And the last You Know What? It’s been blue skies and sunshine in my head. Well, more of the time at least, especially despite the dismal array of cloudy days.

 

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Looks like a black and white photo. Isn’t. Dreary skies in a beautiful land.

 

When I lived in Italy (a land that was and will always be one of my favorite places on Earth) and I ate fresh pasta and drank local wine and consumed gelato every day and still didn’t gain a pound and where I was surrounded by some of the best art the world has produced and entrenched in a language and a lifestyle that encourages a rich life and love of it…still, I felt blue.

The sun shone almost every day I was there.

And so last year, despite all the happiness of brand spankin’ new love and a new lease on life and an awaiting adventure, still I felt a little blue. And, forgetting my time in Italy, I worried it was the sun.

It’s not so much about where you are but where you’re at and it’s not just whether the sun is where you are but if sun is within to follow where you go.

Last year I was overwhelmed by the new-ness. I hardly knew anyone that was here, I knew little about the life I was embarking upon and had a stiff learning curve just to stay afloat but I looked outward for the reason why.

The sun, or lack thereof. That was it. It had to be.

It wasn’t. And it still isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. These dreary days we’ve had of late with sun-less skies of grey can be daunting or they can be an invitation: overcast might mean warmer temperatures which means more time outside before turning into a popsicle. Or, a dreary day could just be the perfect excuse you need for a movie day and some down time. Or, perhaps, it could be a day to feel a little blue, if that’s what you need to do.

I’m not saying lack of sun is a good thing. Some people are gravely affected by its shyness. I saw how happy it made my Mama to lie in that bed with the rays surrounding her and I saw later how it helped her find her inner sunshine in the days of grey. I’ve felt myself open like a bloom to the rays, not knowing I had been bundled into a bud.

But the sun isn’t the only thing to decipher how we feel.

At the time I wrote this, late last week, I had just completed a week of work that made me feel successful, I had been to a good friend’s birthday party and seen people I loved and I had also hit my head hard enough to throw my neck out (from falling down the Ramp of Doom to hitting my head to missing stairs down from our loft, I seem to be clumsy. Who knew?) I wrote from the comfy coziness of home. I was happy, in a way, to have an excuse to do nothing and sure enough, it was grey, grey, grey outside. I felt at peace as I have most of this Winter which is in stark contrast to the ups and downs of last year.

Fast forward to yesterday, a showing of sunshine we hadn’t seen in weeks and there I was, still grounded by pain. Day 3 on the couch. This day at least I could get out of bed without it taking 15 minutes of propping myself up and alligator rolling my way out so as not to use my neck. But I’ll be honest, I didn’t really feel that sunshine in my heart. And I know it’s there. I yearned for my independence that my body could no longer provide. I couldn’t haul water or chop wood or drive or ski and walking was excruciating. I was the anti-independent Level I (the Levels go up to the umpteenth but still, I’m progressing) I’ve grown accustomed to being. There were projects I wanted to do and my second attempt of an online Pilates challenge laughed in my face. I was three days from finally completing it (again, it was the second time I’m attempted it now). I needed to see a girlfriend and laugh it off or just get outside of the tiny realm of reality I had been encased in but my body couldn’t take me there. I felt desperately restless.

 

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Oh, Alaska. She must have heard me typing last week and decided to send me a lesson. And it was a good lesson. Sun or no sun, more lessons learned versus less, I am not immune to the Peak-a-Blues. I was a teary eyed mess of pent-up energy (I’m someone who needs at least an hour and preferably multiple hours outside in order to spend the rest inside). Thankfully, The Chief and I were eventually able to giggle a bit at my sobby display and extra thankfully, a friend stopped by and infused my ouch routine with something new. Still I felt the Peek-a-Blues lingering in the form of a restless Poor Me but they were softening.

They always say in Alaska “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes” because something is always changing. Clouds come in and the sun disappears and it starts to snow and the temperature goes from 30 below to 30 above in 24 hours. It’s a whirlwind sometimes and so, one has to keep hold of their sunshine and lasso it back when it tries to go.

“I could never live there” still resonates in my head and I’m so glad I pushed through to see if I could. And I can. There are ups and downs just like anywhere. Happiness on the cloudiest of days and blues on the sunniest. The joy of slowing down and the need to speed up. A lust for life and a “blah” for life. It can happen anywhere and it happens everywhere.

I’m thinking this might just be what they call Life.

Be you here or be you there, the sunshine you seek might be within.

Clearly, I’m still learning how to harness it (and occasionally getting ahead of myself at which point Alaska sends me such sweet reminders) but I can say that every year it keeps getting better and I guess that’s all we can really hope for.

That and maybe a few of those lights wouldn’t hurt either, huh Mom?

 

With love and (sometimes) sunshine,

 

From Alaska.

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Summer Speed & The Solstice Countdown

Solstice has always been a celebration of light for me, a nod to the sun in thanks for her light and energy and a sort of kick off to the festivities of Summer.

Let the fun begin.

Every year it’s been that same feeling of joy for the sun.

 

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Until this year.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a lizard for the sun. I find the place with the most Vitamin D per square inch everyday and put myself right in its light, moving with the sun as it draws across the sky.

But this year, Solstice was different. For one, I was still sick with Tonsillitis (last year I was also afflicted with a malady. Perhaps Solstice is my body’s annual fall apart moment) but being sick didn’t mean I wasn’t happy for the day, it just made me realize that I was happy for a different reason than I ever had been before.

The Winter Solstice this past Winter was a true celebration. We had made it through the darkest hours and from there it could only get lighter. But with the light come the crowds and with the crowds our small town of maybe 20 turns into a bustling tourist town with hundreds of people all wanting their piece, all here for a short time, all needing to get it all in. How we live becomes a sort of experience for others to snap shots of and report home about. Our life becomes this commercialized package for others to buy and record. We’ve had people step in front of the fire truck as we were driving in order to snap a shot of us. Friends have had lost tourists wander into their tucked away cabins. There’s a sense of shattered privacy and protection.

If that’s how you want to look at it or that’s what you want to focus on.

It can also be a great chance to meet new people from all over the world as long as you open yourself up to it.

Either way, either approach, it’s a world changed and light years away from the solitude and silence of Winter and a shift that everyday I have to prepare myself to see the best in.

So in celebration of the light returning this Winter, there was also an apprehension built-in. Thank goodness for the light, the energy, the plants and animals coming out to play and also, a sort of buckling up for the wild ride of the Summer approaching.

Summer Solstice to me has always been a celebration of light but I realized this year that I had been looking at it backwards, or ignoring what I knew: the Summer Solstice means that every day forward, the light is decreasing. It’s a departure from light.

 

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The sun barely sets, she just makes shadows.

 

Winter will soon be here.

The Chief and I were celebrating the Summer Solstice at The Restaurant and among the crowds of people I felt a sudden sense of overwhelm come over us both. But I paused as I realized that our friend was packing her bags in the Southern Hemisphere and I looked to The Chief, smiled and said:

“Winter is on her way. We are heading back to the dark.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him beam like he did that night.

I love Winter. But come last Fall as we bid adieu for 5 weeks, it was in the back of both of our minds that perhaps I wouldn’t like Winter, perhaps I would utterly despise it and then where would we go from there? So when I looked to him that night, a year later and truly happy to feel the approaching shift towards Winter, I swear I saw his heart do a happy dance.

We had so many uncertainties going into the dark together, so many unknowns. I literally walked into it blind with no idea of what I was getting myself into.

But I did not walk in alone.

And so we came out on the other side excited for another turn in the dark. Another Winter together in the woods, this time a little less blind. There will be snow machine trips to take, lessons to learn, time to just breathe, away from the hustle of Summer and away from the Springtime Shoulder Season of her approach. You see, the Summer here is completely opposite from any Summer I’ve spent anywhere else.

Before now, Summer to me meant cookouts and beach days, lazy hours by the pool, popsicles and ice cream, road trips, gardening and an overall sense of play and relaxation. I’ve always worked a lot as well, but there was a milder sense of urgency to earn in the Summer versus the Winter (work time).

Not here.

Summer means Go Time.

Summer is the time to hustle. To work as much as possible to make your money for the Winter months ahead. This week I worked over 50 hours, driving or biking or walking 30-60 minutes each way. It feels as if I haven’t been home in over a week because the only time I am home is to sleep off the day and prepare for another.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not all work and no play. The Summer here is also filled to the brim with things to do. Mondays are Movie Night, Wednesdays are Fire Night, Thursdays are Open Mic Night, Fridays are for Softball, Saturdays there is usually a band playing somewhere and Sundays are for Roast Chicken and Tunes. There’s also Yoga Classes and Craft Nights and Farmer’s Market and Rock Building Party and Events which I’ve never been able to attend. Every day can be filled to the brim with work and play and every night filled with a few hours of sleep to refuel for the next. Even if I don’t go out I still never get home before 11pm. Thankfully, the sun seems to make solar-powered people out of us all because despite little sleep and lots of work, we all seem to power through with energy not felt the other 9 months of the year.

And so it makes sense to miss Winter in ways, to miss the quiet and the calm before the party/work storm.

But for now, it is Summer. I haven’t seen a sky full of stars in quite some time because the sun graces us for what feels like the whole day and I can walk without a headlamp at any hour and place my feet with certainty. Instead of miss the stars I try to remember that it will be Winter before I know it and I’ll miss the gifts the light brings like…

Just Being Outside. No agenda. No rush. No need to do calisthenics to keep warm. Lazily walking the property to see how the sun has changed the earth’s face instead of hustling to beat the cold back inside.

 

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Color. The Winter is beautiful in its pristine white but a pop of color brightens the soul. I swear it took a month for my eyes to adjust to seeing all the different colors again instead of simply shades of white and grey.

Ice Cream. ‘Nuff said. There’s a store and everyday they have ice cream. Every day. Luckily for the integrity of the seams in my pants, I typically get off of work long after the ice cream store is closed but just knowing that it’s there makes my little heart sing.

Playing Outside & Exploring. Being able to just throw on a pair of running shoes and take off into the wild. Hiking on the glacier or along the river and hearing the rush and the movement of water broke the sense of stasis that a valley blanketed in snow created. Having the outside be accessible again without having to pack as if going out to war is so amazing and living in a place that is an outsider’s dreamland doesn’t hurt either. Sure, we may not have as much time as I’d like to go out and enjoy it but at least it’s there for the times when we can sneak away to it.

 

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Hiking on the West Side of The Glacier towards The Archway – an enormous arch of ice that leads deeper into The Glacier

 

Bare Skin. In the Winter I would walk twice daily to see the Sunrise and the Sunset. Every time I went out I would expose as much skin as I could to soak up the sun but often that only meant that I could sneak out my face or my hands and only for a few moments. Bare arms and legs in the hot sunshine makes my day everyday.

Friends. It’s impossible to walk through town without a familiar face and a hug. In the Winter we had to seek out company other than one another and 20 below zero temperatures didn’t make engagements any easier. To be able to just see sweet faces about our world (some that we only get to see for a few days a year) without planning and packing all day for it is a treat I try not to take for granted.

Gardens. In the Winter, the only living things in the house were the vegetables I was trying to grow from scraps (try it. It’s awesome. Even in the dead of Winter in Alaska I had green onions, celery and romaine lettuce growing). I missed seeing blossoms and blooms. The smiling faces of my pansies at the bottom of our stairs makes me smile/giggle every time I pass them. Almost every morning I forgo breakfast or a shower or reading with tea because I get caught up in the garden watering and checking on our plant babies. It’s magic to get to be surrounded by life ever-changing.

 

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I know, I know, it’s too early for a cauliflower to come out and this one may not taste great but this is the cutest dang thing I’ve ever seen and that’s redemption enough. It’s about an inch across. Adorable.

 

A Good Old Fashioned Party. Sometimes, you really just need to let your hair down. With The Restaurant and the local watering hole open every day now there’s always a chance to play. Sure, the bar can get panic attack packed but sometimes the feel is just right, the local to tourist ratio is in the local court and we are all in the mood for a rowdy night. The Winter doesn’t exactly lend itself to dancing to live music or staying up late with 30 friends. Sure, we get together (and often it’s around a big fire, which is pretty awesome) but there’s something about a big group of friends feeling good all at the same time, friends who haven’t seen one another due to busy schedules and sometimes all of the parts of the equation just add up to a night to remember.

Eating Out. I love cooking, but when you cook every meal you eat every single day of the week for months on end (minus the dinner party or potluck here and there) you are chomping at the bit to eat something you haven’t made on dishes you won’t have to clean. It’s pure luxury.

Overall Ease. When people ask me what we did all Winter they always seem to surmise that basically we were just surviving and in the most basic sense, it’s true. In the Summer we may be trying to keep our heads afloat (and on) throughout the never-ending Go Time but everything from driving to getting water to staying warm and fed are so much easier.

Plant Medicine. Last year I came down with my apparently Annual Solstice Malady and I was able to go into the woods with a girlfriend and harvest plants to help to ease the pain. I took medication afterwards (after someone in town thankfully had what I needed, otherwise I would have had to wait for a week for the mail plane to bring it in) but the initial care from the horsetail we harvested was a lifesaver. This land here is filled with remedies for everything from cramps to cuts and all one has to do is walk outside. It’s pretty amazing too the differences in flora between the two towns here: ours on the woodsier side and the higher elevation historic town. If there’s something I can’t find here I can almost always find it there. Nature is an amazing gift giver.

 

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From this…

 

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To this…to chapstick.

 

And the list goes on. Every day I add to it. Painted Toenails, Flip Flops, Not Freezing Every Time I Have To Go Outside To Pee. It really just keeps going and going. The point is not that I am trying to love Summer, it’s that I am recreating what Summer means to me and what Winter means to me. This place has completely turned my 29 years of understanding the “seasons” on its head and its something I have to remind myself of constantly. I like the challenge to see my world suddenly in reverse. Sure it can cause a bit of vertigo sometimes but life is made to stretch us and Alaska, you seem to think I’m a yogi. Maybe someday.

Until then, I’ll keep aiming to stretch with differences and appreciate whatever light there is in the sky, be it shining over snow or creating a double rainbow.

 

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It’s all pretty amazing.

Thank you Alaska.