loss

Everything Changes (Even Your Face)

After the last two loss-filled years we’ve experienced, one lesson has climbed above the rest: everything changes.

Everything.

However, despite its claim to #1 spot fame for me in the Top 100 Lessons of Grief, I have tried to ignore it, despite its shouts.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Intuition

Shout it loud, but we ain’t listenin’.

 

Everything changes.

The impermanence of it all has not left me in some zen-like state of acceptance. Quite the opposite. Rather, the worry that the potential for change has brought for me has left me in a sort of Henny Penny “The Sky is Falling” frantic permanence. Towards The Chief, towards our family, our friends, our little Leto. I considered all of the potentials for loss and tried to make every interaction left on good terms. Live each moment like it’s your last (Less , etc. etc. you know the drill. I thought that perhaps my worry would safeguard us from more loss. Yet this had always been measured outwards, away from myself.

And so in all my worry, I had forgotten to fret about one thing: me, specifically, my face.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done a great deal of worrying about my face, I did, after all, attend middle school and high school in which I’d say more often than not, that people were unfortunately judged first on the constructs of their face rather than the content of their character. I did my best to dodge the disses and watched as beauty unfairly bargained the way for those she bestowed herself upon to the front of the line. Yet, as the years went on, I felt a flip of the switch.

In my 20’s, the first thing one of my boyfriend’s mother said about me when she met me was “She’s so smart.” It made me cry. I realized the tables had turned and I was in a phase of my life where the content of one’s character actually did come into play. It made me want to be a better person, smarter and kinder.

After moving to Alaska and Falling in Love Naked with Cauliflower Armpits I found a further reprieve from the standards of beauty I still (despite smarts or kindness) felt confined by. Although I enjoyed the routine of putting on makeup, I no longer felt required to do it. The choice became mine.

And so, these last few years I’ve worried less about my face. I’ve aimed to embrace my “sparkle lines” as my girlfriend calls my smile lines that ring my eyes and watch the changes that take place as marks of memories rather than the marring of time.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Alaskan Couples

Smiles lines, for good reason.

 

I guess I didn’t worry quite enough.

Early this Summer, after a lovely night planning our wedding menu with friends over probably a little too much champagne, I decided to impress my husband-to-be with a little acrobatics. We were headed home and after crossing The River, we approached The Gate.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Kennicott River

My last picture of the night. On The Bridge, leading to The Gate.

 

The Gate.

This gate is one I’ve opened and closed countless times. We all have. Early in the morning, late at night, multiple times a day. It was high time I spiced it up. “Riding The Gate” is a term my fellow friends are quite familiar with. It refers to when one is opening The Gate and jumps on for a ride. The arm swings open and once it hits its full extension, the gate post sends you back as the car drives through.

Yet I had something different in mind. Something reminiscent of elementary school and flips on the parallel bars.

I took a running start at The Gate and by the time I hit The Gate’s full extension, my speed was such that I didn’t do a flip as planned but rather catapulted myself forward…

Straight down some feet below into a boulder below.

My body went limp and I came to as I felt the reactionary force dragging me and my open mouth backwards through the gravel. I stood up long enough to feel my mouth fill with a metallic taste and the sides of my face grow warm and then cool and decided that I should probably lay down.

I said out loud, to no one in particular: “I’ll just lay down for a moment.”

Needless to say, I hadn’t stuck the landing.

The Chief rushed to my side as I tried to comfort him.

“It’s fine” I promised. “I just needed to lay down for a moment.”

He went into full WFR (Wilderness First Responder) mode, checking my vitals and my comprehension. I went into full bravado.

“It’s no big deal. I just need to spit these rocks out and I’ll be fine” I said as I started to get up.

“Julia, stay where you are. You are not OK. There is blood everywhere.”

At that moment, looking at him looking down at me, eyes wide with fear, I started sobbing. The bravado melted away. It was bad. I knew it was bad.

Other friends and acquaintances crossing the bridge pulled up behind us and ran in shock to our side. From the stifled gasps I could hear as they approached the scene I knew it wasn’t good. The Chief called the head Ranger of our park for backup and once he cleared me for a spine injury we decided to go back to our house to reassess. The entire group followed, all helping, all concerned, all planning our next steps.

We got home and I was determined to clean the wounds to see how bad it really was. The head bleeds a lot and I was still certain that a few bandaids later, I’d be on my way to bed. Our friends helped me warm water for rags. I wetted them and started to try to clear the embedded gravel from my face. The pain was excruciating. I kept trying but within seconds I started to feel like I was going to pass out. I was sick to my stomach from the pain. The Ranger offered to try as well and I sat on my hands on our couch so as not to bat him away in automated self-defense. He kept apologizing as silent tears rolled down my face. It was all we could do. We had reached the limit. We were done for the night.

Or so I thought.

“I’m calling the 24-hour hospital, I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”

The Chief nodded.

Huh?

Before I knew it, someone was making tea for me, another making coffee for The Chief as he fired up the truck and off we headed for a 5 hour trip into the wee hours of the night. Off to the hospital.

Well, this was certainly unexpected.

I waded in and out of sleep, the pain increasing with each opening of my eyes.

We arrived around 5 am to a team readied for our arrival. After trying for over an hour to numb the area (I am apparently one of those people who doesn’t respond to topical pain medication) I submitted to feeling more than planned for. Again, I planted my hands firmly under me as the doctor picked and scrubbed and irrigated everything from rocks all the way down to the glacial silt out of my face. Tears streamed, my stomach seized but a few hours later it was done.

The Chief took a 30-minute catnap as the doc finished the liquid stitches, leaning over me to spread the “good word” as he held the two halves of my face together while the glue dried.

5 more hours later, we were home. The Chief helped me into the shower and gently washed the blood and rock from my matted hair. He tucked me into bed and when I awoke, I thought for just a moment that perhaps none of it had actually happened.

My reflection proved otherwise.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Facial scarring

Good morning, sunshine! The morning we got home. Pre-shower.

 

A split second had changed everything. The face I had come to know and embrace would forever be changed though how it would be changed, I didn’t know.

Everything changes, even your face.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Facial scars in Alaska.jpg

The next morning. Swelling ensued.

 

About five weeks after the accident, the final stitches melted away, the final scab fell and I stood face to face with my new reflection.

Well, hello new me.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Injuries

My first look. Not so worried about those sparkles now, eh?

 

When I first saw the scars I thought “That’s pretty badass” and that has been the overwhelming response from the crowd as well (another is that I look like the ultimate Harry Potter/David Bowie fan). It looks pretty tough and while Alaska isn’t a bad place to look like you can handle yourself, it’s not always the me I want to present. What if I want to look gentle or kind? My blank slate had been slashed. Or has it?

I’ll be honest, my road to acceptance has taken some turns and I don’t think I’ve arrived yet. In truth, it’s been a lot like the road of grief. Apparently, the universe wasn’t fond of my Henny Penny self and felt I still hadn’t learned the Everything Changes lesson, the lesson of impermanence and gratefulness and grace. I’m trying. Some days I love my scars. Some days I forget that they’re there. Others, I’m bombarded with Yikes! What Happened to You’s and it makes me remember.

Sometimes, they fill me with regret, with frustration and self-punishment. Sometimes, I wish I could just wake up and I would be the same old me. Sometimes.

Mostly, the scars make me remember to be gentle with myself. To remember how fast everything can change in an instant. To be grateful that more damage wasn’t done, that my eyes and nose and teeth are safe, that my brain wasn’t too terribly shaken. Mostly, appreciate my scars for what they remind, what they warn, what they promise. Mostly.

Always, my scars remind me that this too will change, as does everything.

The other day, my first Icelandic Poppy bloomed. It was brilliantly, joyously red. It unfurled, beaming with brightness, hope, youth. By the next morning, the colors of the petals had ever so slightly faded. A few days later, the last petal, still beautiful but more muted in her brilliance, fell.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Gardening Poppies in Alaska

 

All good and bad come to an end. What is to follow, we won’t know until we get there but chances are, you will be better off for it. And, if you don’t listen and learn the first time, the lesson won’t fade but will instead find new ways to tell you:

Everything changes (even your face).

 

With love,

 

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Families in Alaska II Malamute

 

// May you be gentle with yourself and not require too extreme of reminders. May you be gentle with those you love and those you encounter. May your last words to those you lose be words bred in kindness because it all can change and it will, in a moment. Let us aim not to let the fear of the future freeze our present. //

Six Funerals and a Wedding

Two years ago, although occasionally mired by a rainstorm or two, our life was pretty much rainbows and puppies, sunshine and ice cream. I’m not going to lie, we had it good.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Couple photo

A Sunday kind of love.

 

I had somehow happened upon the life of my life, despite being tucked in the woods as he was, and we fit together seamlessly. I felt like the knight who had rescued Rapunzel (or however that went) and off we had ridden into the sunset.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher's Kingdom Sunset

Olive grove sunset

 

And then the sun didn’t come up.

Two years ago in August, we lost our dog Cinda Lou in a terrible, and preventable accident.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Cinda Lou's Kingdom

Cinda’s Kingdom

 

Eight months later, the Chief’s mother died suddenly in a car accident the day before his 40th birthday.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Family portrait

Donna, Chris, The Chief & Mychal

 

Less than two weeks later, his grandmother Jane passed.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Grandma Jane

Sweet Jane.

 

A few months later on a cold morning this Winter, I received a call that my godmother Ellen had passed away suddenly. She had gone in for routine surgery and never come out. She was a beautiful jeweler and we were designing the wedding rings she was going to make for us. Suddenly, she was gone. The news hit me so hard it took my breath away. I sat there catatonic as a meeting for work started. I just stared forward, numb.

Times were dark. It felt as if the world had closed itself off to us, as if we’d hit our limit on happiness. We had been so lucky. Maybe too lucky.

We waded through the pain and stumbled as we reached its new depths. We tried to hold one another close but felt alone. We fought endlessly, our anger at the world had nowhere to go in a tiny wintry cabin and so it found its way towards one another. Still, we remembered how it once was.

And then, a ray of sunlight.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, The sun will come out

Sunshine morning on the olive ranch

 

Somehow, almost suddenly, The Chief and I came together again. The anger lifted. We softened. I hadn’t realized how far we’d gotten from one another, how cold our new normal was. Grief has a way of sneaking you away from yourself, away from your loves without your even realizing. It leaves you alone.

Yet we could finally see we weren’t alone. Our sun was back. We cuddled again, sat entwined on the couch again, lingered in one another’s embrace again. The sadness was still there but for the first time it wasn’t blinding, we could see past it. We could find the beauty in what remained and the excitement for what was coming.

 

 

 

 

 

The Chief’s dad, Christopher was part of that beauty. We grew very close in the month and a half we spent together in California after Donna and Jane’s passing. His consistency made me feel so safe in a time where it felt like our world was collapsing and again he was there when Ellen died and it felt ready to collapse again. Despite the immense pain he felt in the losses, he always found a way to be kind. When issues would arise or plans would change he would simply, softly say “Ok, dear” in a way that made my hardening heart melt ever so slightly. He was a steady port in the storm and I clung to him.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher's Kingdom

Christopher’s Kingdom

 

Two months ago, he died of a heart attack.

The anniversaries of Donna and Jane’s passing had hit us hard in the week leading up to his death. One year gone already. Gently, we navigated through the reminders, trying to remember the good instead of fall deeply into the pit of sadness. Two days after Jane’s passing anniversary (which also happened to be her birthday and Cinda’s birthday) the call came.

The man who had become a beacon of hope for our newly blossoming family, who had tied us all together when the seams started to fray was gone.

He was a man full of surprises. As an ex-military man, full of discipline and prestige, I was intimidated by him at first. I would set alarms just to make sure I woke up “early enough” because I feared he’d think me lazy if I slept in. When I did manage to get up, the payoff was wonderful as I’d get to accompany him on his walks. Every day he walked the property to check on his thousands of olive trees and despite his love of solitude, he welcomed my presence to become part of his norm too.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Take a walk

One of many family walks in the orchards.

 

He was methodical and principled and repetitious to a T but just when I’d think I had him pegged, he would surprise me again. He would send me random texts to say “Hi” or “What’s your weather like today?” with a picture of a bluebird morning at the farm. I once received a text from him with a picture of himself, sweaty as can be, in front of a hot yoga business. Since it was pouring rain, he couldn’t be outside and get his exercise and so, he tried something new. I loved that about him. He didn’t care what anyone thought, he didn’t have to stay put in any idea others had about him. He was his own person, through and through and I will forever wish he were with us still.

Despite his ashes in our living room, his death still feels unreal. I still expect a text from him to remind me not to worry, that he will do all the cooking at the wedding and to offer other help I didn’t know I needed. I still wait for a call to randomly check in and tell us he loves us.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher

C.E.K.

 

These days, the simple ringing of a telephone strikes fear in my heart. I feel fear constantly and picture death and destruction in even the safest situation. I fear for the family and friends I have, for our Leto, for The Chief, for myself. I fear for the worst for I know it’s face, I’ve stared right into it’s eyes and still it doesn’t back down.

Yesterday, the phone rang again, this time to tell me that my grandmother Gam had died.

I had just worked up the nerve to tell of the loss of my father-in-law, to write about him here, to tell his story and what he meant to me. I was not prepared to write two obituaries. It feels odd and unseemly to group two of the most important people in my life into one post, yet they are interwoven, all of our losses are.

My Gam is the reason I feel comfortable calling myself a writer at all, and only because she called me one first. She was the person I was most afraid to tell I was moving to Alaska because I was afraid she’d think I failed her. I was so wrong. She beamed at my choice, prized my passion and applauded my leap of faith. She once told me that if I loved The Chief, I had to love all of him. I hadn’t realized that this was how she had loved me, all along. She was smart as a whip, did the crosswords every day and could hold a conversation with anyone. She was an avid reader, a teacher, a lover of art and nature and jazz and a constant help to those in need. She stood up for herself in a time when women were expected to be quiet and continued that strength until she passed. When she had had enough of you, she would tell you “I’m ready for you to go”. She adored The Chief. He was the only man I ever brought to meet her about which she said “I like him”, with a special emphasis only she could put on “like”. I can hear her say it now. That was a very high regard. She gave us her blessing and when she found out The Chief was planning to propose, she immediately offered him her wedding ring. I wear it now and forever.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Grandma Jeanne and us

Giving her blessing. Don’t mind the black eye, apparently it runs in the family.

 

I adored her. She was a force to be reckoned with and I will deeply miss her.

I hope, ever so much that these are the last obituaries I write for a very long time and that instead this place holds happiness in its tales of the Last Frontier. I hope with all my might that a phone ringing won’t always make my heartbeat quicken and that in every way I won’t always fear for the worst. I hope The Chief and I can continue in kindness and gentleness and hold tightly to the even keel we once had and that our wedding in September can move us forward, together in love and lightness. I hope our ancestors gather around us to celebrate in spirit. We love you.

I wish for you that you and yours are safe and sound.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Giant Dandelion Wish

A giant wish.

 

With love,

 

from Alaska and a couple of hand holding, “don’t embarrass me, Mom” pups to make you smile.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Husky and Malamute holding hands

Best friends caught in action.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Alaskan sunset

Potlucky

Last night, in the early evening just as the dinner rumblings began and reminded me we had nothing thawed and nothing planned, the phone chirped an invitation:

West Side dinner party?

There’s few things more magical to me in the Winter than an offering of food cooked communally. Sometimes I forget that for months on end, every meal we eat, every ounce of sustenance we obtain would be purely from our own hands were it not for our friend family. Every dish dirtied and recipe rendered would be by our own doing. The Chief and I break it up so that at times just one of us makes dinner and the other gets to dine without any output. But the restaurant effect doesn’t last long after one peek around the half wall from the living room to the kitchen at the greedily multiplying pile of dishes.

So, when the offer comes, you can’t help but get giddy.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Giddy Goldenrod

Giddy as Goldenrod

 

 

For me, our neighborhood feels like an embrace and on this particular night, I longed to be held.

With one question, “What to bring?” the planning began. I found my best produce. My most alert lettuce and least wrinkled peppers sat welcomingly in the baking pan I was using to transport them. In went my tip top tomatoes and a some limes that only had one or less brown spots. Only the best for my neighborhood loves.

Off we went, tromping the 3-minute walk through the crystal clear starlit night. The constellations were out at play and Orion and the dog we are dogsitting put on a show for us to guide the way. We arrived to what I can only describe as dinner heaven.

Potlucky.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Alaskan Husky

I felt this happy, to be exact.

 

 

The spread took the entire counter. Taco night. There was brown rice steaming away in the pressure cooker, beans bubbling their earthy goodness into the air and halibut, shrimp and pork all ready to be cooked. I made a design of my freshies and my girlfriends and I grated a mountain of cheese (which we simultaneously began depleting via quick “tastes”. We take quality control pretty seriously).

Dinner was served.

At home that night, minus the invite, we probably would have made something far less regal with far fewer options. Perhaps a chicken veggie stir-fry with meat pulled from a chicken we’d roasted the night before or a pasta something or other. And don’t get me wrong, it would have been great but this was another level altogether. Like going to a restaurant in the middle of the woods. It was as if our reservation day had finally come up. What a feast.

Satiated we sat together, shooting the breeze. My mind had been a flurry of thought that day and it felt good to let it fade into the conversational calm.

After a few deep full belly breaths, the thing that takes me longest to motivate for at home was a breeze. The Chief and I tapped in halfway through and before long, 4 pairs of hands had done away with the mess. Normally, at most restaurants, at least with wallet intact, you don’t end up doing your dishes, and in truth, it was a rarity. Dishes aren’t always something we let others do around here. There’s a know how that’s different for each kitchen here, a different system and perhaps a sense of pride in being able to do them on our own. Yet the intimacy of dishes done together warmed my heart that night.

The embrace tightened.

Eventually, I made my way home but not without a hug and an “I love you” with each goodbye. What a beautiful rarity to find in the middle of nowhere.

To find a family of friends willing to let me in. A hodge podge mix of lovelies for whom I’ll always go to bat and always pick the best produce to share with.

Potlucky.

With love,

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Historic Alaska

Sunset preparations

 

 

Dedication

This morning, I awoke with an urge to make something. I started with kombucha (with a scoby from a girlfriend) and made my way to an apple crisp (with a can donated long ago) and hardboiled eggs (brought in by a friend) all before The Chief came down from the loft. Midway through my burst, realizing I’d need to thaw more butter for my next round of food goals, I stopped and felt the embrace again, but this one was older. This one was familiar in a way that made me feel childlike and my eyes welled with tears. This one was my godmother, telling me to feed the ones I love, even from her recent and devastatingly unexpected move to the other side of the living. She was my first introduction to friend family, to pulling together every last person you know who needs a warm plate of food and a kind word around one table. To always being able to squeeze in one more. She rooted me on with unfailing love, she had adoration for me even when I felt I least deserved it. She blessed my gifts and made less scary my shortcomings. She adored me when I didn’t adore myself. She’s the reason I went to Italy and changed my life after my heart was broken, the reason I know what a wishbone is and save them every roasted chicken and the reason I’ve ever even thought to whisper myself an artist.

She was a beautiful soul, artistic as can be with a masterful way of pulling all of the pieces together and last night, on the night of her funeral, I needed to feel those come together more than I knew.

Thank you, Auntie El for your presence, your reminders and for your love. You were and are a driving force in my life and I thank you for visiting through busied baking hands today. I miss you dearly, think of you daily and love you always.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Alaskan sunset

Sunset date with a girlfriend, tea toasting to you.

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California making jam

The Good (in the Bad and the Ugly)

How are you?

If your current state is anything like most of the people I know, your honest answer is probably something along the lines of “good, mixed with some bad and some ugly”.

I hope this isn’t true for you, but for me, it seems every person I know has been touched by the tougher realities of life as of late. From health to happiness, a lot of basic standards of living for those I love have been put to the test lately and it seems we have found ourselves in a sort of communal hardship.

The fires that broke out early last week in both Northern and Southern California have truly brought that hardship to the forefront. Our skies have been smokey enough to obscure the sun. We’ve been relegated to the indoors, to our own locales, to hunker down and hermit our ways through this. And in those times, when the sky shines its ominous, apocalyptic orange light, it’s easy to feel alone.

But we aren’t.

In all this bad and ugly, we can still find the good.

Today, I found myself wanting just that: good. Just wanting a moment of reprieve. I found myself hoping to write to you about something uplifting, to take a break from the heartache and feelings of doom around us.

I tried.

I took myself on a walk, despite the smoky skies to get myself into my writing rhythm. Since the beginning of this blog, each post has been born while walking. Like a dog circling to find the perfect spot to lay down, I too circle around the ideas circling me and this little dance always sorts itself in my strides. Once I return home, the ideas have settled and I too can settle into my perfect spot.

So, today, I took myself on a walk to sort out what I should say. However, unlike my normal walks, I spent the time trying to dream up other things to write about instead of acknowledging what was actually happening. I tried to block out what was there, ready to be said. I wanted to write something happy but my mind had already made her mind up.

And so, we made a compromise: yes, we could acknowledge the bad and the ugly and we also would lump on a little good.

Because the good is always there.

So, since I think we’ve sufficiently acknowledged the bad and the ugly, here’s a little good. Even they are a little silly, a little surface, here are some things, happenings, and reminders that have brought me joy this week. I hope they bring some to you too. Here we go, happiness train, okay? All aboard!

This look on our friend’s dog Atari’s face as he finally gets to get into The Chief’s lap:

 

 

 

 

Feeling absolutely loved by a kiddo you’ve known their whole life when she makes your coming to her house a calendar event (in hot pink, no less):

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Friends

 

 

Seeing a little hint of blue for the first time in days:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Fires

 

Spending a night with life-long girlfriends that ranged from feeling very satisfyingly adult (we had an olive tray, you guys) to very satisfyingly juvenile (pop music sing along), to very happy and very sad. We ran the gamut and it was beyond healing to be around you loves (fun times/sad times not pictured as we were too busy eating olives, crying, laughing and singing. Oh how I love women).

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Pt. Reyes National Seashore

 

Coming up with the best band name ever, and then having it immediately embodied in whiteboard drawing form by our young eavesdroppers:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Fart Cactus

 

Remembering full blue skies and full, deep breaths:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California

 

Cactus ears from your sister-in-law. ‘Nuff said:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Cactus

 

Nature, in all her glory:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Olive Ranch

 

These ridiculous and adorable slippers my brother gave me:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Kitty Slippers

 

Learning to make jam for the first time:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California making jam

 

Laughing at the awkwardness of this toilet brand name (First Impression):

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Toilet

 

Laughing too hard to be able to take the photo:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Alaskan Women color

 

Those kind eyes.

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Hiking

 

 

I had to acknowledge the hard, the bad, the ugly today because it’s what’s real for me and so many others right now and I’ve always tried to be real with you. As for you, I hope you are in the good but if not, I hope this brought a little sparkle to your day. Let’s try to spread it around. There is always good to be found.

 

Wishing safety and so much love to you and yours,

 

From Alaska by way of California.

P.S. Want to help? California and Californians would so appreciate your support. Please donate if you can. There are so many wonderful organizations out there but one quick way is to text “Red Cross” to the number 9099. When you agree to the transaction, your phone company will add $10.00 extra dollars to your phone bill this month. It’s easy (it took me a total of 10 seconds) and every donation, no matter the amount is important. Thank you.

P.P.S. Thank you, a million times over for those with boots on the ground. Firefighters, volunteers, citizens. You all are amazing and we so appreciate you.

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Bulb Blooms

Back in the Saddle

Growing up, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by horses. I spent hours in the stables chatting away with my beloved friends, sharing stories and carrots and sometimes just a wee bite of their oat mix. They were my world and to answer the burning question I know must be on your mind, yes, my birthday parties were pony themed and I’m so sorry we didn’t know one another then so that I could have invited you.

Riding horses was my life. However, as any lady or gent of the pony parade knows, riding horses isn’t always about riding. Sometimes, it’s about falling.

From the first time I set foot in the arena to the last, emphasis was always placed on preparing to fall. We practiced finding a safe landing to the inevitable via what my instructor called Flying Dismounts, a special surprise situation we would find ourselves in at least once a lesson. There I’d be, focusing on doing a flying change (where the horse, in mid-air, like the magical beasts they are, switches which foot goes forward first in a canter. Try it, I dare you. I’ve never tripped myself harder) when all of a sudden, my teacher would crack a whip while simultaneously yelling “flying dismount”. The whip would hit the horse in just the right way to break his concentration and buck he would and, ideally, off I would fly, totally in control, landing gently and effortlessly on the ground in one, unharmed, piece.

Ideally.

More often than not, the Flying Dismount looked less like a flight and more like I’d been shot from a catapult aimed straight at the ground. I’d flail through the air and meet the arena soil before I even knew what had happened. Dazed, I’d stand up, find my horse, listen to my instructor’s critiques and pop back into the saddle. I was like those clown faced blow up therapy punching bags that just pop right back up at you after you give them your hardest hit. Pop! There I was.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Julia Sings the Blues (Leggings)

The closest picture I can find of me on horseback, at present. Back in the studio saddle.

 

 

Now, this may seem like a rough lesson for a kiddo but the thing is, riding really can be just as much about falling as it is riding because if you ride enough, you’re bound to fall and when you fall, a little grace never hurt. And so, fall I did, gaining a small bit of grace as the years went on. Back then, the ruling was that in order to be a great rider you had to have 7 non-instructor induced falls and I was quickly making my way towards that magic number.

Once, in a moment lacking, perhaps, my best judgement, I decided to ride a horse in a nearby field whose owner I neither knew, nor consulted. Obviously, the room for disaster was minimal. What could go wrong? A nearby bee heard my confidence and decided to sting said unknown pony in the rear. Ah, I forgot to mention too that it wasn’t just myself I entered into this surefire sob induced drama. I was also “babysitting” a neighbor who was a few years my 8-year old self’s junior. She rode in front of me and for the few minutes we trotted about, it apparently didn’t occur to me to mention the old Flying Dismount maneuver.

Bee in play, horse in panic and us bouncing around uncontrollably like a bunch of pre-teens in their first mosh pit, the outlook wasn’t good. The horse was at deadspeed (as fast as it can go), which for a moment was thrilling since I’d never before reached that elusive speed, until I realized I was not exactly in control of the situation. It was time. “Jump!” I yelled.

It didn’t go well. We both ended in rocky thistle patches and walked the mile home with bloodied knees, elbows and faces, crying at the top of our lungs. Truth be told, I was crying mainly out of fear as the repercussions of my not-so-bright idea came to full clarity and the screams of the kiddo that was my responsibility got louder. I competed with her cries, dead-set on not getting in trouble.

It did not work.

Yet, even that fall, I think perhaps it was number 5 or so, didn’t bother me. It was all part of the game. I was racing towards number 7, hell-bent on getting that badge of honor and fearless in my endeavor.

 

 

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Pop up, poppy Page

 

 

Until…

the next fall.

The next fall was unintentional, non-teacher induced. It counted and I was closer to my 7 but I didn’t jump for joy because this time, I was unconscious. I had been riding one of the bigger horses, a departure from my favorite white pony named “Killy”. My Thumbelina stature made me feel look like a mouse on an elephant but the power of the horse made me feel powerful too. I went for it, full-bore.

And so did he.

Spooked by something only he could see, he reared up as we rounded one of the four corners of the arena. Feeling very brave, I aimed to stay on. He, aimed for me to dismount.

He won.

Bucking his hardest, I finally lost my grip and went flying into the air, landing headfirst into one of the 16-inch by 16 foot logs that created a barrier in the arena. The last thing I remember was my helmet cracking and the visor snapping off and then?

Darkness.

When I finally came to, the first thing I did was laugh and the first thing I heard was “Time to get back in the saddle. Every good rider has to get back on”.

“Pop on up, buttercup”, I thought to myself as I nervously laughed my way through the pain, but a therapy doll I was no longer. My body wouldn’t let me.

I was terrified.

Thankfully, Mama to the rescue, the lesson ended early. I promised to get back on as soon as I felt better. I just needed rest, I reasoned. But the aching in my head was not what was holding me back. I’d been stepped on and bounced into the ground more times than I could count from lessons and unintentional lessons of falling but I’d never felt that fear. And I’d never failed to get immediately back in the saddle.

Eventually, shortly after, I made my way back in. I rode the horse that had bucked me and made my peace with the fear, but it didn’t leave. It sat beside me, monitoring my movements and dealing me visions of doom. I was back in the saddle, but I had seen the other side and I was changed.

 

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Goldenrod

 

 

The past few months have dealt The Chief and I more bucks than I thought possible. Every time something else would happen, we’d say “Well, it can’t get any worse than this” and then, it would. Don’t try that tactic, it doesn’t work. And so, we stopped saying it and as thing after thing after thing piled on, we eventually had to laugh our ways back into the saddle. We laughed, not because of the humor in the situations, of which there was none, but because of the sheer shock.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Anchorage Art Museum

The exhibit I unintentionally went to during the ups and downs. Well, that pretty much pins the tail on the donkey, Anchorage Art Museum.

 

 

The Chief and I lost two family members back to back, so fast that we found ourselves in the same funereal attire before it could make it back into the closet. After that, we were continuously kicked while we were down, financially, physically and emotionally. The small things didn’t matter compared to the loss but they made it feel like we would never come up for air. If that horse had trampled me while I had been on the ground, that might have been a close second to how we have felt these past few months that I haven’t written. It’s been a haunting hiatus but also one filled with immense love.

Our little neighborhood has been hit hard this year. A surge of sadness abounds in such a small area and our love for one another links us so that our pain, is theirs and theirs, ours. Yet, we’ve been able to lift one another. While we were gone to California in the familial tailspin, our neighborhood came together to hold us from afar. They tended to our seedlings, watering them and keeping a daily fire in our house to protect them from frost.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Bell Pepper Seedlings

Bell pepper from Ali. When a friend brings you a pepper gift, why not try to make her one too?

 

 

They kept our freezer frozen by running our generator. They kept our hearts from splitting from our chests when the struggle to keep them in felt far too great to bear. Those whom we love, from here, from near and from far have found us when floundering and steadied our stride. To our friends and family everywhere, we are forever grateful.

Like that fall off the horse, these blows too tried to force fear and for a while, it worked and sometimes, it still does. Every time the phone would ring, I would panic. Every moment felt like an opportunity for disaster because disaster was all I saw. Yet, that fall wasn’t meant to teach me fear and neither was this, it was to teach me respect. Respect for that which is greater than me, that which I cannot control and perspective on that which I can. Respect for the relationships I value and the beautiful story we all lead.

Respect for life.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Double Yellow Squash

What hides behind? A double yellow squash from the saved seedlings.

 

 

To feel pain is to know we are alive and I don’t want to live at half-mast. I was blinded to the beauty all around me while under the spell of pain but I have awoken. Let’s move through, shall we?

Thank you for your patience in this time off and thank you for joining me again, back in the Beneath the Borealis saddle. Here’s to entries of joy.

 

To you and yours,

to life,

with love,

Julia

 

//This post is in honor of the three females who raised The Chief. To Donna, Jane and Cinda, I am eternally grateful. We miss you dearly and feel you with us daily. Your touch on this world lives on.//

 

Beneath the Borealis Back in the Saddle Bulb Blooms

Grandma’s beauty still blooms.

 

And thank you, M for the push to start again and for the fabulous snow pants I will wear with pride. I appreciate you.

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Polar Bear Alpaca

A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home

We’ve arrived.

After two weeks of shuffling and switching between sleeping spots, packing and unpacking and repacking again, we’ve arrived home.

Home.

From the moment we left California, everything was different (other than shipping a case of wine for free, that was the same. Thank you STS + Alaska Airlines).

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home CA view to AK.jpg

The goodbye glow.

 

 

 

For the first time, we returned to Alaska saying “Yes”.

For the first time, we returned with clear work plans for the Spring and Summer months.

For the first time, we traveled in our own truck with a working heater.

For the first time, we returned in late Winter.

For the first time, we returned just us two.

 

Once on the Alaska side of things, we were smoothly skating along.

Pre-Alaska wasn’t as easy. Our last day went a little like this: high stress, filled with rain, a broken car defroster + windows that won’t roll down = no visibility, locked out of our storage unit where ALL of The Chief’s new tools that he needs for the season were stored, soaked in rain trying to get in and then running my face into my car window in an effort to jump quickly inside, resulting in a sweet little shiner.

There were a few too many last-minute chores and odds and ends but, in the end, the skies cleared and we sat at the kitchen table, my Brother, my Nephew (the fearless, toothless wonder), my Mom, The Chief and I eating tuna salad and laughing it off. It was good and hard to leave. My heart straddles the states with neither part taking or leaving more. It’s good to arrive and hard to leave each time, each place.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Fresh Squeezed Lemonade

The simple joys of California living: making fresh squeezed blood orange lemonade in March.

 

 

But leave we did in the smoothest of fashions and arrived just the same. We were back to our well-oiled machine Alaskan selves.

I wait for luggage, you pick up the car (already running and warm inside. Pure luxury).

You drive the icy streets, I navigate.

We arrived at The Musher & Hula’s Anchorage abode around 2 am, you know, the normal hour for guests and immediately, I felt Alaska sinking in. After being gone for so long, I was missing that connection.

The smooth continued on into the next day when we gazed upon the two lists I’d made:

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Blood Orange Lemonade

List magic. The Chief is in the background pondering my superhuman abilities…

 

 

One listing everything we had at home.

Another, listing everything we needed.

The Chief congratulated himself on being genius enough to have caught such a genius fiancée.

Arriving at 2 am and leaving one day later sounded ambitious, but as we floated through our chores 12 hours later, we became giddy with the reality that we were indeed heading home tomorrow.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Costco.jpg

Just one basket!

 

 

 

After dinner at R&J’s with even more Alaskan friends, we were getting more and more excited to head home.

And, an early rise and a blood draw later (we had to at least throw in some medical issues) and we were off.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Alaskan Men.jpg

My moon, my man.

 

 

We’d heard tales of The Road, 60 miles of ice covered in slush and so we steadied ourselves for a tough journey but 6 hours later, as we laid our first tracks, it still felt easy, breezy.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home McCarthy Road

Easy, breezy because I wasn’t driving, that is.

 

 

After a few quick inhale moments (on my part, The Chief was relaxed, as always while driving in insane conditions) crossing through some tougher road glaciers, we were home. We arrived at our snowmachine, with the sled attached, at the end of our driveway, ready to haul our goods to an already heated house with working lights.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Snowman.jpg

Snow aliens.

 

 

It has never been easier.

Lordy, I love our friend family.

The hard part came in heart form when we awoke from our warm bed the morning after to the quiet. I quickly awoke, worried that I’d slept too long and Lou would be hungry. But, of course, Lou wasn’t there.

 

Just the quiet.

Just the two of us.

 

Through all of the beautiful, growing up life changes we’ve welcomed since we’ve left from and returned to Alaska, that jarring sadness still remains. It followed us through California to Ecuador and back, all in different forms, despite the thought that I might escape it. It’s smaller but it’s there.

Thankfully, so are our friends.

After a cry and a realization that we needed the house to fill up with more than just our own sounds, we heard a call. Just like that, our needs were met, as our neighbor (who had set our house up so cherry for us – which was no quite feet given the inch of solid ice under all the snow. That’s a lot of Ramp of Doom chipping…) hollered as he walked over. An hour later, another neighbor followed with his pooch and after him more and more of our family (canine and human) arrived until we found ourselves amongst half of the valley, at a bonfire in our backyard.

We’ve arrived.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home Polar Bear Alpaca

My favorite spot. Patterns, much?

 

 

 

 

 

Home again, home again, different as it may be and same as it always was, joys and sadnesses set in balance by those we share this place with and are lucky enough to call our friend family. Thank you for making it easy, physically and emotionally, to snuggle in so sweetly again.

Welcome home.

Love,

Winter & Friends

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis A Straddling Heart Heads Alaskaways Home True Romance.jpg

With love, The Scribe & The Chief

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Smile Baby.jpg

The Little Letting-Gos

If there’s anything Alaska has tried and tried to teach me time and time again, it’s been the slow transition.

These past few weeks of Fall have been glorious (a word that often seems a bit over-enthusiastic but suddenly seems a Goldilocks “just right” to describe the colors we’ve seen).

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Golden Hour

 

 

Truly beautiful. The Summer seemed to slink away overnight and suddenly we awoke to a world changed. Everything. The leaves did their dance through the wee hours into new colors and the air suddenly broke into crisp and away we went from a smooth Summer and into the quiet…

 

The quiet.

 

The quiet that descends upon this Valley is one I’ve never truly experienced in the Fall. Every year before I’ve either left before it came or left just as it was settling.

Well, it has settled.

It’s a Winter kind of quiet that wraps its arms around you and tells you to dive in. It’s the kind of quiet to feel alone to, like a sad song you need to hear to feel what you need to feel.

But it’s not Winter yet. And suddenly, the Fall is no longer the Fall but the Shoulder Season into Winter because just as quickly as Fall settled in, it faded and so now we welcome the Shoulder Season of the in-betweens and the lesson it carries.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - The Change.jpg

Fall fades.

 

 

 

The lesson that Alaska keeps hammering, time and time again.

The slow transition.

I outwitted the last slow change.

 

 

 

 

I had my last ski in March, left for California and returned in April to mush (and very little of it).

 

 

 

 

No skiing. Awkward walking. But the bulk of the slow transition has passed before I had come home and we were at the tail end of the Spring Shoulder Season just as the long Spring was just about to jump into Summer.

This time, for this Fall Shoulder Season, I decided to let it come. Let it wash over me. Historically, Fall was always an awkward time for me. I think I noticed the quieting of that which surrounded me and tried my darndest to avoid it. But there’s no escaping it. Even in a bustling city, you can hear it. You can feel it. The slow down. And it sank into my bones and made me ache for the rattling of Summer to take me away from having to dive deeper.

This Fall, I wasn’t running. I was driving. We were supposed to drive South. We were going to watch the colors change on the trees and then change back again as we drove from Fall here back into Summer down South. The “we” was Cinda and I. We had been planning it for almost a year, since before we had even gotten our first truck, round 1. I’ve always been a huge fan of road trips, especially of the solo variety. There’s no way to return unchanged. I was nervous, of course. I’d never taken the route and certainly not solo, but I didn’t feel solo. I had my girl.

We would talk about it and plan about it when we were out for walks. I would envision us with our windows down, Lou’s ears blowing in the wind with that specific smile she had for when things were just so easy, so good.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Smile Baby.jpg

Super fuzz face

 

 

 

We would camp together and I’d finally get to cuddle with her (she wasn’t a huge cuddler but she would tolerate a bit) in a tent of our own like her and her Dad had done on the property when they first settled in, a decade before, to our home. It would be our first solo road trip together.

My Mom used to tell me about a road trip she took with one of my childhood dogs, I believe out to see my Grandmother in St. Louis, then all returning together to California. I pictured Lou and I in the same light and it felt like a sort of changing of the guards, a tradition passed on from my Mom and her first baby to me and mine. It felt important.

It, of course, didn’t happen.

We returned home to the end of Summer without our first baby in the Time of Plans.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - The Change Fall Foliage.jpg

Fall time foliage

 

 

“What are your plans for Winter?” which, of course, means, where are you going in the Fall and Winter and Spring until we see one another back here at Adult Summer Camp.

My plans had been set in stone and then, suddenly, there was nothing.

It took me weeks to speak what I already knew: I didn’t want to leave and at the same time, there was no place I wanted to be farther from. Cinda was everywhere, in everything. She was the bush at the Swimming Hole she loved to tackle after swimming. She was the road into Town that we would walk every Friday night to go see her Dad play Softball. She was in the flowers I had planted that were now shifting to seed, the fireweed sending its last showers of pink upon us. She was everywhere in a landscape that had shifted so much in the torturous week we had been gone. It had been full-fledged Summer when we left and now, it was ending. Everything was different and everything was the same except that she was nowhere to be found and yet everywhere all at once. I couldn’t stand to leave her and I couldn’t stand to be here without her.

And so, against my tradition of running, I decided to stay. I decided to stay in the pain of being here without her and of being here with her, in everything I do. I decided to sit through the long transition and let it wash over me.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Fall y'all

Solo shadow.

 

 

Her death has been full of slow transitions, full of little letting-gos.

For the first few weeks I found her Cinda fuzz everywhere, she was notorious for it. Our friend used to joke that we could come over as long as I told Cinda not to shed. We would all laugh aloud as she said it. “Lou-Lou, don’t you shed now, O.K?” I had taken to one fuzz in particular and used it as a bookmark and then put it into a locket a dear friend sent me. And then suddenly, there were no more. No more fuzzes. Suddenly, I was cleaning dog hair from visits from our neighbor dogs, but not from mine.

Little letting-gos.

Last week I finally felt ready to contact a girlfriend whose dog I thought of immediately to give Cinda’s dog food to when she passed. That was two months ago. Being the super-savvy dog mom that I am, I had found a way to get her food out here for free and delivered monthly and since I like to be ultra-prepared, I had two months of dog food in the arsenal, ready for my Lou. We returned to the 55-gallon drum full of food and two months later I was finally ready to empty it. I brought a sample of it to a girlfriend’s birthday where I knew my fellow dog mom friend would be so she could see if her little lady liked it. All the dogs followed me around all night like some Pied Piper and it felt good to feel important to a dog (or 10) even if it was just because of food. Thankfully, that popularity held true for her dog as well and the food was a hit, and just like that, it was time to give it up.

Little letting-gos.

Today, I woke up ready to jump on the train of this day and ride it to the last stop. I had and have a lot of work to do but right as The Chief was leaving this morning, my phone was telling me to check it. On it was a reminder: CJ kennel.

Cinda Jones kennel.

Today was the day to give it up.

A friend had posted on the Mail Shack bulletin board that he and his fur baby were looking for a kennel for travel. It was posted right when we got back without Cinda and The Chief called to let him know he could have ours. Two months ago. Today was the day. I went to load her kennel into our truck for The Chief to drop-off when I realized that the hardware was not with it. Savvy dog mom that I am, I had put it away separately in my suitcase. I crawled under our bed and moved the various totes out of the way and pulled the suitcase out and as I opened it, I broke down. There was my baby’s travel kit. Her no-spill water bowl and her collar that she only ever wore if we were traveling and even little poop bags for the trip out of the wilds and then, the hardware. I ended up giving him everything except the collar (obviously), packing it away with love for the new generation and love for ours we had lost. The Chief and I held one another as tears rolled down our faces. He had just been telling me earlier in the morning of a dream he had about her, alive again and well and here we were, sending off her things. Time to let go.

The little letting-gos.

The little letting-gos in the grand scheme of the large letting-go.

It’s been two months since we lost our little Lou, our Tiny T, Cinda Muffinberry, Fire Marshall Jones and it has been the most poignant lesson from Alaska yet, the slowest slow transition, in the Fall of all times. This year, I welcomed the Fall, I welcomed the quiet and the time to truly take that slow transition and to feel pain. Losing Cinda has made me realize that my whole life, I’ve run from pain. I’ve seen its glimmer and have shielded myself and so, it grew. It compounded and bubbled up and started to ooze out of cracks I hadn’t reinforced until suddenly, it burst. Submitting to the pain of Cinda has opened the floodgates to truly feel pain.

I highly recommend it.

It’s awful, it’s the depths you didn’t know but it’s finally moving through you and what better time to let go than the Fall?

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Sourdough Sunset.jpg

Sourdough Sunset

 

 

 

The glorious colors of Fall have faded and it would be now, in the past, that the sinking feeling would come in but there’s no need, it’s already been here. The leaves have turned to brown and fallen. The landscape is full of browns and greens again, making color a treat for the eyes instead of a constant. The rain lets up for a day of bluebird skies, only to fade away into a dreary pitter-patter pattern on the roof.

And for the first time, it’s O.K.

These little letting-gos haven’t made me feel farther from her, on the contrary, they’ve made her feel closer. The constant torture of remembering feeling the life leave her as her head grew heavier on my knee that day has stopped being as frequent and instead I tend to remember more her goofy smile when she was sleeping on the couch or her prancing dance she’d do when we got home at night (if she wasn’t already with us).

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Couch Smile.jpg

Cozy comfy

 

 

 

And I remember her lessons. She not only taught me how to move about the woods, how to find my bearings and my way home she taught me to trust. Cinda is the first being I’ve ever truly, wholeheartedly trusted and it was amazing to know how that felt. And more than that, she taught me to trust myself again. She gave me her utter faith and she made me feel like a good mom and then she taught me to feel the pain.

I could have asked for nothing more, except for more time but I guess that’s just another little letting-go in a land of slow transitions. I think I’m learning, Alaska.

Love to you, my Lou. Thank you for taking me through the seasons of myself and finding the quiet within. It’s not as scary as I thought.

Happy Fall to you, whatever it may look like. Here’s to the little letting-gos and to the big.

 

‘Tis the season.

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Golden Hour 2.jpg

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

All around me, I heard tell of bears galore. Bears in the road, bears in the yard, bears blocking the trails.

But me?

No bears.

Perhaps because of the prayer. You see, I do a little silent prayer as I walk about these woods:

“Please let me see something…safely.”

And so, perhaps my timing was off or perhaps the prayer was working because I hadn’t had hardly any run-ins, safe or otherwise.

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

Our two friends, a brother and sister duo by way of CA, came to visit late July. They came bearing a full Costco/Freddy haul I was almost embarrassed to ask for and they shopped for our entire Summer re-supply like pros. They navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan terrain in a swift 1-2 punch and made it out with barely a layer of dirt. They were stocked and stoked and ready to…

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

“Safely.” I would add, either under my breath or aloud in a sort of micro-managing OCD attempt to put a little gold safety light around her. It’s a funny sort of strange to live in a place where an invitation to visit comes with a quick and dirty death by bear or moose disclaimer. You know, just FYI.

But she was hell-bent and so I wished we may and wished we might see a bear tonight, or today or anytime before their week-long woodsy retreat, well, retreated, melting back into the California sunshine.

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

We had hiked out to the glacier and stood amongst that frozen fantasy in awe and then hiked home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier Danielle

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

The next day, we ramped it up a notch. Without ever having ridden a 4-wheeler, we made our friends brave driving up to our next hike: the mine.

Driving a 4-wheeler, not such a big deal. Driving a 4-wheeler for the first time up a muddy, rutted, sometimes split in half with deep ditches running through the already narrow road up a couple thousand feet of rocky terrain? Well, that’s quite another thing. So, in typical Alaskan fashion, we geared them up and pushed them out of the nest and…

they flew.

Up, up and up for an hour until we finally reached our destination point: the beginning of our hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09- 25-17 A Very Bear- Y Summer 4-Wheeling Bonanza Mine

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

Apparently, I had forgotten to mention that a hike would follow the harried path we had already tread but, again, they jumped right in.

Up, up, up we climbed. It’s the kind of hiking where you (unless you happen to be far more fit than us) take about 30 steps and then take a break. 30, break. 30, break. Repeat, repeat.

An hour in and we’d identified endless plants and flowers, already found copper rocks, found fresh water and snacked and rested on a mossy knoll.

Beneath the Borealis 09:25:17 A Very Bear-Y Summer McCarthy Alaska

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

A pain my girlfriend had been experiencing on our hike the day before suddenly turned into a searing pain. Going up was not an option, but going down? That felt pretty good. And so, she decided to head back down. We would finish the hike up and circle back to pick her up on the way down.

Easy-peasy.

We were pretty close to the top at that point, it would be a quick turn-around and then we’d come to her rescue and swoop her up in our 4-wheeler chariots.

Right?

Wrong.

Apparently, laws of physics and all, going up is a lot slower than going down, especially when the grade is such that in going up you feel like one with the ground because of the angle. It looks like you’re in a fun-house mirror.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Mine Kennicott Alaska

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Peak

Ominous, eh?

 

 

I’d been to this mine the year before but I had been terrified to reach the top. My knees got wobbly just looking at it but this year, it was my goal. I was to see the other side.

And we did.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier 2

The same family of white ice we had been on the day before.

 

 

It was an amazing view of the glacier I’d never seen though the wobble in my knees returned and I had to immediately sit down once we’d gotten up. The Chief bounced around like the gazelle that he is while I tried to take it in, turning tummy and all.

Soon, we decided to putter around the mine and made the journey down from our perch.

Inquiries and a few sketchy maneuvers later and we had seen all that we had come to see.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanaza Mine

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

And then, the clouds started to roll in and it was time to leave.

What time was it anyway?

We hustled back down the mountain to our rain gear and fired up the machines, picking up a wet walker along the way, keeping an eye out for Sis.

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

The invitation disclaimer rang through my head. I kicked myself for not having gone with her for fear the boys would turn back too and miss the mine. I thought it would be a good esteem builder, a mini vision quest of sorts.

I was an idiot.

Now, my friend was out there, by herself in this very bear-y Summer that she had suddenly tapped into.

We put the hiking into high-gear and made it to the 4-wheelers in time to put rain gear over our already wet clothes.

Finally she got back to me. She was O.K.

We hustled down the mountain, picking up a very wet walker along the way and finally made it back to her.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley Virga

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

She had beat us to town, a fact that seems obvious now (again with the physics and all) and had made her way to some well-deserved wine at the local lodge.

Finally, we were able to get eyes on her and know she was O.K. She described her encounter with the bear in the bushes, gorging on berries and how she had done the very right thing of making herself known as she skeedadled around it. All four back together again, we saddled up for a rainy ride to the restaurant and then home. We were pooped. An unexpected double-day unexpected hiking, rain and heights with a very bear-y topping had worn us out.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley

 

 

A Summer without bears for me and suddenly, my guest of all people had a solo run-in. I was both proud of her and mortified of my lack of hospitality all at once. While I was conquering (read toying with) my fear of heights, she was face-to-face with a berry-lovin’ bear.

And it wouldn’t be the last time. It turns out she had opened up the waterway. Finally, the very bear-y Summer came our way. In fact, all the wildlife did. The next few days were chock full of the wilds. Swans and moose appeared as if they had finally gotten their invitation to the party, bear poop appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

They had arrived and the next bear we saw was right in our “backyard”.

“Jules, that’s awful close to your house, isn’t it?”

It was. It was on the River Trail that Lou and I walked on the daily. But hey, we live in bear country, that’s the deal, right?

Gulp.

We watched it devour a bush of Soapberries in minutes, thrashing the poor thing about with its powerful swings. It unearthed small boulders in the blink of an eye looking for goodies and we all just sat there watching. Cinda, looked on from the back window of the truck unconcerned. This was no bear run-in, this was a day at the zoo and she was content with our safety enough to let us explore without so much as a yip.

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

And so, the very bear-y Summer made its way to our neck of the woods. A few days later, our friends left and soon after I followed with Cinda and the loss of our Lou began the journey we are still on.

But the bears stayed and now, home without my girl, I was on my own.

A couple of weeks after she had passed, I was forcing myself to take a walk. Walks these days without Lou have taken on a sort of double-edged sword because walks are one of the few things that can lift a hard mood or ease a sadness but when I’m walking, I miss her the most. Our walks were a comfort only she could provide and her presence is irreplaceable. But still, I went. This particular day was extra bear-y, I could just feel their presence but I was crying so hard that I set it out of my mind. On my way down to The River, I stopped in to borrow Cinda’s brother, which made me howl even louder, missing those two peas in their odd pod together. There’s nothing quite like walking while crying to make you feel reduced down to your inner toddler and that was where I needed to be.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Cinda + Diesel

Bat dogs, back in the day. Pups in the snow.

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

Because suddenly, as I rounded the corner to drop down onto the River Trail…

I was face to face with a bear.

The same bear, most likely, that we had seen unearthing small boulders with the swing of a paw. The same bear that decimated the bushes in one fell swoop. And there I was, less than 12 feet away without my sense of security, false or otherwise. Her Brother had gone on ahead but as I whistled back he came, charging around the bushes, catching sight of the bear and quickly leading the way home. Although I’m not fluent in his language as I was hers, it was easy to decipher:

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

Tears were replaced by adrenaline and my pumping heart got me home in a jiffy. Her Brother followed me home to drop me off and then went to his own abode to tell his Dad the day’s tale.

And often since then, her Brother or the rest of the neighborhood dogs will watch over us. They patrol our yard, chasing moose or bear through the night. For we live in the woods, amongst the wilds…

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

Thank you to our friends for coming to share this amazing place with us, disclaimer in full-effect and all. I can’t explain how much it means to us that you made the journey, jumped right in and swam.

Cheers to the end of a very bear-y season, and to facing your fears, even when you don’t mean to. And cheers to our safety nets that at some point set us free to see if we fly without them.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset Skip to My Sunset Lou

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

The First Hard Frost

I anticipated the first hard frost here like an innocent youngster anticipates a chance meeting with their first crush, not really knowing the depths of what it meant or what it would bring. I was simply excited. I thought it would mean that Winter actually was on her way instead of just threatening to be, that our town would quiet down and the berries would sweeten up and off I could go to harvest them, a small feat which I’ve always turned into something larger and one which I’ve always set myself up to fail at.

You see, one of my own little personal Julia recipes calls for:

a bit of a procrastination

with a dash of self-doubt

mixed with a large serving of an uncanny expectation to do things right the first time.

(There are many more uplifting recipes, of course, but I might as well be honest about the collection).

 

This here concoction has set me up for failure more times than I can count but it has also done something worse: it has set me up to do nothing at all.

And so, this year I promised it would be different. I watched the weather and waited and when the first hard frost hit, I promised that out I would go to reap the benefits of the fruit sweetened overnight by the harsh conditions. Harvest and enjoy instead of again missing them. But like a first crush, I didn’t think about what else the first hard frost would bring. I was just excited.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall

 

 

 

And then I awoke, to the first hard frost. We’d had a frost a couple of weeks before and the buzz over thermometer temperatures had spun through town.

“I had 25 when I woke up this morning.”

“25! I had 29. Wow.”

Fall is coming.

 

 

First Hard Frost Sunset

 

 

 

And then she did. She blew right into the valley, down the 60 miles of dirt road and into our backyard (and presumably into many of back and front and side to side yards of others). And I awoke and immediately realized the fault in my young crush desires.

Because the first hard frost meant something I didn’t anticipate:

While the berries may have sweetened, most of my plants, the plants I had grown for months, some from seeds started in April, were now dead.

Before and after.

 

 

 

 

 

The plants that I have spent more time than ever before loving and trimming and thanking as I picked them and placed them about the house or into our food. The flowers that have brought me such joy when I return home to their shiny faces.

 

 

 

 

 

The plants that I have too slowly been harvesting because although I was anticipating her arrival, I hadn’t hurried enough for Fall’s approach or realized the (now obvious) tenacity with which she would arrive. It was a juxtaposition of wills and wishes that ended in an equation I didn’t quite add up.

 

Some plants survived and I immediately made a mental checklist of all of the preserving that I needed to do. Preservation? Canning? This, like berry picking and processing, is a major mental block of mine. My girlfriend had visited from California and the one thing she wanted to do in Alaska? Teach me to make fermented foods. I couldn’t bring myself to do it consistently on my own and so, we whipped up an entire batch, 12 quarts of beautiful sauerkraut adorned even with local juniper berries we’d harvested on a hike. It was glorious. And then, as fate would have it, The Chief and I promptly left in a state of emergency with Cinda and returned a week later without her to a house full of spoiled kraut. My first endeavor.

So yes, I have a bit of a block about it.

But this was the year to change that and now, it is time to get a move on. Perhaps this is where the procrastination part of my recipe, paired with a serious deadline from nature will come into play and our shelves will be lined with krauts and kimchi and pickles to boot from cucumbers and cabbages and berries harvested.

Perhaps,

perhaps,

perhaps.

 

I tried to revive the plants that didn’t survive the night but their shriveled leaves and broken cells were far past repair. I tidied them as best I could and then went to chop some wood to try to overcome the persistent cold that had settled into the house with the frost. I returned inside to see The Chief making pancakes.

Pancakes, people. Pancakes.

In case you don’t know, Pancake is my middle name (well, second middle name: Julia Elizabeth Pancake Page) and the last few months have been utterly devoid of the fluffy fantasy that is eating pancakes.

And so, one would think I would be overjoyed, for the only thing better than eating pancakes is eating pancakes you didn’t have to make yourself.

But instead of the elation that follows the presentation of a present as perfect as pancakes made by the man you love just for you, what followed were tears.

Big rolling alligator tears, slip-sliding down my cheeks and chin and down onto my robe (it was Sunday afterall) that soon slipped and slid down onto The Chief’s robe as he held me in our kitchen, pancakes pancake-ing in the cast iron next to us.

I had spent the morning in and out of sleep, waking to my worst memories of Cinda, of the moments when she was in so much pain that the only words that describe the sound she would make is a bone-chilling scream. I was preyed upon by the memories of the hope we had repeatedly being crushed by the weight of obscenely unlucky circumstance. I was paralyzed remembering watching her try to walk and not be able to, trying to move and howling in agony. It haunts me though I try to shove it away. And so I had tried to shove it away this morning, the morning of my highly anticipated first frost, but when I walked outside and saw all of the beauty of my favorite distractions gone, I lost all ability to shove the haunting away.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Nasturtium Down

 

 

 

The plants and flowers I grew had two purposes:

One: Joy. They made me happy. They greeted me as Cinda would have when I came home and made coming home to The Quiet a little easier.

Two: Food. They provided sustenance and flair to our kitchen. Fresh food that we didn’t have to buy. Fresh food I could be proud of.

But when Cinda died, they served another purpose.

Three: Ritual. Every day or so, I would walk to Cinda’s grave to add to and take away from the bouquet of home-grown flowers that I’ve kept for her since the day we put her in the ground. As I walked out into the frosted landscape to see them all shriveled and dead it hit me: we are moving into the next season without her. She truly is gone.

Recently someone asked me how it is that I decide upon what to write about each week. I told her my favorite image of myself writing: an idea comes when it decides it’s ready and then I circle around the idea like a dog trying to get comfortable enough to lay down. I circle it and circle it until it feels just right and then…I sit down and write it just like a dog finally settles in and stays put for hours, so do I. But recently, the only thing I’ve been able to circle around is Cinda and for the first time ever, I’ve not allowed myself to write about what it is that comes up for me. I’ve censored myself. And so last week, with the censorship in progress for fear of becoming a broken record even I don’t want to hear, I instead wrote nothing.

The thing is, writing is how I move through and eventually forward. I tried to censor my feelings during the first hard frost morning and out they came anyway and so, if I want to continue writing, there she will be, as she always was. I can’t censor her out.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall My Love My Lou

 

 

 

And today, I miss her, more than usual and it won’t let me go. It’s what’s on my mind, it’s what I’m circling around. It’s the idea that won’t let up until I release it.

And trust me, I know I have it good. I know that, in fact, I have it great. I have a beautiful house in the middle of the woods in which I awake daily to a wonderful, handsome man who loves me deeply. We have loving friends and family and all that we need. I know we have it great. But just like I told my girlfriend who is going through her own feelings of loss now, it doesn’t matter what you have, you can still be sad.

It’s hard to take one’s own advice.

A death or a loss doesn’t just occur and end in that same instant. It is the shape that keeps shifting and just when you feel a grip, it slithers through.

And so today, I allowed myself to write about her because I want to move through remembering the pain and to remembering my baby, as she was, fuzzy eared and smiling, watching over me, ready to set me straight, ready to love me in even my worst moments. She was my starting point, my anchor and she’s gone.

And so, I will take a walk without her as I have done more times than I ever hope for in this past month and despite my personal procrastination recipe, I will go out and pick berries. I will harvest the fruits of my anticipation. The fruits that were only brought on by conditions too harsh for delicate life. The harshness that makes them sweet.

I hope that in turn, that this harshness too makes me sweeter.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall Backyard Cranberries

 

 

 

Thank you to the seasons for your abrupt displays, for your jarring leaps into the next step, whatever that may be. Alaska, you shake me, you tumble and break me but thank you for extending a hand to help me back up again.

Goodbye Summer, The Summer of the Dogs, you were a tenacious beat I couldn’t always dance to.

Onward, towards Fall.

Onward towards Winter.

But right now, onward towards berries.

 

**Update: I did, in fact, harvest berries and I did, in fact, take a very much-needed walk. But I didn’t walk alone. Our neighbors’ dog Benny joined along and even warned me off of a seemingly impending bear encounter and by the end of our walk, we had two more pups in tow and a hat full of berries to share (processing to come. Probably).

Thank you to the dogs and people of our town. Your company means more to me than you can know.

 

So…what are your favorite canning, preserving, pickling, etc. recipes?

Please, do tell…

 

First Hard Frost Fall Highbush Cranberries

 

 

 

 

 

DOGTOWN, U.S.A Part II: Full Circle

I felt Death knocking.

I felt Death knocking and I bolted the door against her advances. I covered the cracks in the door frame, piled the furniture high and steadied myself against her pounding.

And all the while holding vigilant against her overtures, I scolded myself for my loss of optimism. I deemed myself cynical and paranoid and told myself to ignore my gut.

I felt Death knocking.

I hoped I was wrong.

And then she came in.

She pushed away our barricades as if they were nothing and in one fell swoop confirmed my worst fears in a swell of sadness that swept me away.

 

I lost my best friend.

 

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On Wednesday after the worst week of all three of our lives, we made the hardest decision we have yet to make together:

We bid farewell to our Cinda.

Together we held her as she took her last breaths and together we wrapped her body in a blanket. Together we secured her onto the backboard her Dad had made for her. Together we said our goodbyes to those whom had kindly housed us in Town in our worst time.

Together the three of us went home.

It felt like a cruel joke.

The last time we had gone to Town, I had brought Cinda with me because I was concerned about her health. She and my Mom and I had piled into the truck that too was having issues. The ride there was quiet as a feeling of panic spread over me. I was paranoid about her health. Our town had already lost two dogs this Summer, I couldn’t handle her being next. And so I said a prayer over and over in my mind:

“If something has to fail, make it be the truck. Anything but my girl.”

And my prayers were answered.

Two days later Cinda and I had made it home with the help of a girlfriend and her trusty steed. Our truck hadn’t made it back but Lou? She was fine. The picture of health. It had been superstition after all. I had been paranoid and I had been wrong. I shook off the feeling of Death. We were together and she was healthy.

And that was all that mattered.

 

 

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Cinda Bones scaling the glacial walls like it’s nothing. 

 

 

There would be more trucks.

 

And then there was a new truck and The Chief went into Town to get it.

A few hours later Lou and I followed, catching a ride with a friend when I realized that her condition was worsening.

The whole way I again prayed to anyone and anything that would listen. I told myself Death was just taunting us, knocking louder now but that she could be quelled like the last time. She would stop. Cinda was at the top of her game. Svelte and happy and healthy. The Vet had told me so only weeks before.

Still I prayed over and over along the drive and in the week that followed. I offered up my own health, our home, money. Anything. Everything. “Please, take what you want. Anything but my baby. Please let her make it through.”

 

 

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One week later, The Chief and I drove home together hand in hand in a new truck with our baby’s body in the bed.

We returned home to an oppressive feeling of emptiness and to the most painful full circle experience I’ve ever had.

When we walked in the door we were greeted by a dinner left for us by our neighbors and to a beautiful note of condolence. Those were the same kindnesses and love we had bestowed upon them only a few months before when they had to make the transition of walking through their doorway for the first time without their baby.

Full circle.

Life is cruel and beautiful all in one.

In the morning we awoke for the first time in our house without our baby.

 

You never realize the quiet until it comes.

It’s deafening.

 

We spent the day digging her grave. The spot where she and her Dad had slept together in a tent the first Summer they had lived on the property was where we laid her to rest. As we walked the property earlier that morning to find where she would rest, the spot had called us in and put its arms around us the way only the Earth can.

We dug until we were up to our shoulders in an earthen grave, until we had to help one another out, until we were sure she would be safe from the wilds of the woods.

All the while, her Brother watched over us. He had come over from next door and had greeted us with his head down and without so much as the twitch of his tail. He was solemn and stoic as he let us bury our faces in his fur. We sobbed into him. He slept beside the ever-growing hole that would be her grave and as I dug my heart was broken again and again as I would look up and catch a glimpse of his tail and think that it was hers.

But it wasn’t.

And then as we left to prepare her body, her Brother left too.

We cleaned her and dried her and cried into her fur and then wrapped her again in one of her Dad’s blankets from their early days. Slowly we lowered her into the grave and said our final goodbyes. In the hours that followed we filled her grave with dirt and covered the top in moss and rocks and flowers.

Our baby.

 

 

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Our first Christmas.

 

 

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Our last family ski

 

 

Cinda was our first baby.

And she was my very best friend.

She was the reason I made it through my first Winter when The Chief worked all the dark day long and I was left in an unfamiliar place all alone. In the cold and the vast darkness she was my light and I was no longer alone. I talked to her more than anyone else. She waited patiently as I learned to ski and made me feel safe in the big white world I had found myself in.

 

 

 

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Keeping me company while I organized totes.

 

She showed me around and taught me to navigate the place I called home. At every turn she would wait for me to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.

 

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This way, Mommy.

 

 

She was my best friend and I lost her.

I lost her and still, she is everywhere.

I hear her though she’s not there. I smell the way her paws smelled in fleeting moments and it taunts me. I find her fur at every turn. I see her footprints in the soft landings of the river’s shore.

I still look for her in her bed under the house every time I walk up the stairs and I wait for her to peek up at me over the table in our living room. My heart breaks in expectant surprise when I turn around in the kitchen and she isn’t there to sample what I’m making. I feel as if I’m just waiting to turn the corner and see her again, as though I’ve simply lost her and not that she’s lost her life.

 

 

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Sneaky, peaky T.

 

 

She visits us in our dreams and in the memories of our Friend Family who have been there every step of the way to kneel at her grave and cry, to wrap us in their arms, to feed us and to tell stories that make us able to laugh again.

It’s a constant up and down whirlybird of a rollercoaster on a ride I never wanted to go on that I never paid admittance for. It feels as if we are here by accident, by a terrible joke.

But we aren’t.

This is our new life. Just us and the quiet.

 

Despite the despair and the pain that feel infinite it was worth it. I wouldn’t take back getting to love her in order to avoid this but I would do anything for more time together.

I love you, Cinda, dog of unflinching personality and infinite nicknames and lessons and love. There will never be another like you. Thank you for letting me be your Mom, for as one of your Grandmas said with a laugh: you didn’t have to let me be your Mom but you did.

Thank you. We will see you on the other side.

We miss you. So much.

 

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