As I type this, I have one hand holding our babe and one hunting and pecking her way through the QWERTY-verse. Coming from a Mavis Beacon graduate (where my elder Millennials at?!) this is a sorry excuse for the flying fingers I’d unleash upon the keyboard just 30 days ago. Still, it’s a drastic improvement from my previous postpartum post. In this last month, I’ve come to learn about this little human I’ve spent the better part of a year growing as well as a few other lessons like…(more…)
Ok, cue the music…
A few weeks back, as The Iditarod began, I looked at The Chief and asked “Didn’t that just happen?”
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome (although this year, conditions necessitated an altered route). Mushers and a team of 14 dogs cover the distance, enduring everything Alaska has to give, in one to two weeks or more. The origin of the race lies in the amazing journey to get the Diptheria serum to Nome (try not crying while you read this article). It’s an Alaskan tradition, a huge event every year and I had genuinely forgotten that a year had already gone by since it last occurred.
Can you relate?
For me, it feels like this whole year has blended into the last, like it’s been winter for 365 days and counting. A global pandemic, stay at home orders and just the general upheaval of our societal norms as a whole aside, another huge part of why it feels like I’ve been living on The Wall (Game of Thrones, anyone?) has been this: sunshine, or rather, lack thereof.
People always ask me: “Do you ever see the sun?!” to which I reply with a chuckle, “Of course!”. Truth be told, in winters past this place was lit up like a Christmas tree. While our days were short, the sun still did her best to break up the dark and it was stunningly beautiful. Plus, even when the sun wasn’t shining, the moon would light up the night. The snow would look as if it were littered with diamonds, as if Sara Shakeel herself had designed it. This whole last year, however, it’s been pretty darn overcast. Last winter, as COVID hit, the days were often as gloomy as our attitudes. It was as if the sun would consider coming out and then deem it a little too risky.
Never fear, summer was coming.
Summer, with her hot days and ice cream cones and swimming hole days promised relief. I couldn’t wait.
It turns out I had to, we all did. I barely broke into my summer tote of clothes by the time the leaves started to turn. Sure, there were some sunny days but it wasn’t exactly tank top weather as we were used to. Still, winter, with her ever-reflecting light would provide our salvation, right? The northern lights would do their dances and brighten up the long winter’s night. The sunrises with their cotton candy skies would greet us each morning. It would be glorious and fully make up for all the gloom. I couldn’t wait.
Wrong again! This winter has been the gloomiest to date (for me). While overcast skies meant LOTS of snow, which is awesome, for the first time ever, I heard people say they were over winter long before she has ended. When it snowed two more feet last month, the late season storm was exciting but also…overwhelming. More shoveling, more schlepping, more whiteout days where, if you didn’t know the mountains were surrounding you, you’d never be wiser to their existence. Until, finally…
While it hasn’t been the sunniest March I’ve ever seen, I’ll take it. Nothing has been as it once was this last year. Seeing the sun beam each day has brought me out of a year long winter’s rest and I couldn’t be happier. Clear nights mean cold temperatures as -25 rears her head again but this clarity also brings with it the northern lights. Finally, both the night and the day greet us with gusto. I’m taking it for the beacon of hope that it seems to be. Brighter days are ahead.
Let the sunshine in.
P.S. Are you enjoying Beneath the Borealis? If so, would you share it with a few of your friends? Thank you!
P.P.S How are things in your neck of the woods? Has the sun decided to shine?
Well, it turns out I was right, I’m terrible at relaxation. Well, terrible at relaxation with one, rather large, caveat: I’m terrible at relaxation as I thought it was meant to be. You know, lazing about, not a care in the world about what day or time it is. Napping at will. Leisurely meals throughout the day with cocktails poolside.
Yea…that’s not me.
Now, while some aspects of the aforementioned relaxation style aren’t even available to me (hint: the nearest pool is 8 hours away. The nearest poolside cocktails?! Who even knows), even if they were, that’s the type of relaxing I can do for a day or two. Any more spells A-N-X-I-E-T-Y. But that’s vacation, right? No rules, no worries, no restraints! A smorgasbord of decadence and overindulgence.
Again, not for me.
I’ve tried it before only to come to the conclusion that I’m terrible at relaxing. The reality? I’m terrible at relaxing as I think others do (and as I “should”). The reality? I had to find my own swing of things. One of the best parts of my vacation? Learning this about myself (and even, eventually, finding this swing) and were it not for cues from you, amazing readers, I don’t know that I would have.
Relaxation to me has often been this sort of unattainable nirvana. I’d see other people doing it or hear their different ways and think “I’m doing this all wrong!”. I’d go back to the relaxation drawing board, setting different relaxation parameters for myself (sounds relaxing, right?). Now, if you’re thinking, “Julia! You were doing it wrong!”, I’d wholeheartedly agree. Not because I wasn’t doing one person’s form of relaxation or another correctly but because I wasn’t relaxing in the way that worked for me. I was doing it wrong because (spoiler alert!) it turns out the art of relaxation lies within each of us.
Looking back, my girlfriends and I like to laugh at our 5th grade selves who all wore the exact same jeans, socks and shoes to school (I love how socks were included in this list of lemming-like fashion).
Similarity meant safety. We fit in with one another. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve become my own self, as have they. I have no idea what socks they are wearing today but I’m certain they are perfectly perfect for them.
Still, my relaxing self hadn’t quite caught up. I live off-grid in Alaska, a life more wild and more independent than I’d ever dreamed, and still I was looking around for someone, anyone to tell me how to relax. Thankfully, you, the readers, came to the rescue with your tales of relaxation.
So, I started copying all the forms of relaxation mentioned above, right?!
Not this time!
Finally, it sunk in: the art of relaxation is uniquely your own.
So I tried my hand where I felt most drawn. Mostly, for me, it meant being out in nature and watching the comings and goings of the day. I took morning walks to greet the rising sun and bundled as could be, laid down in the snow to watch it rise. I took moonlit strolls, watching that glowing orb come up over the mountains. I skied long stretches and even hooked up the little Leto beast for skijoring.
Sometimes being outside just meant chores but with all the time in the world to do them, it was more pleasure than pain. I chopped wood outside till my fingers froze and smiled with delight at the stockpile I’d provided us. I got back in tune with the chores The Chief had so kindly taken over when I was at work and it made me feel reconnected to our life.
I won’t lie, some days I felt the panic of inactivity or lack of production come over me. I had nowhere to be, no time to keep. What would I do next?! And then, if I got quiet, my heart (or sometimes my stomach) would tell me where to go next. I’d pick up a book or unearth a craft, find a snack, tidy a corner of the house or meet a girlfriend for an epically long impromptu ski. Time marched on, as it does, some planned, some filled with random tasks.One day I talked for almost two hours on the phone with a girlfriend, the entirety of which I spent scrubbing our tea kettle back to life. Some days went so fast, I could barely recount the day before it fell dark.
Some days lingered ever so slightly as the light started to come back. Once, I spent the entire day in jammies watching TV and once we took an epic nap after both falling asleep reading. And speaking of sleeping, I actually let myself sleep in for the first time in Winter since my first Winter in 2015.
As I write this, my vacation comes to a close. The morning greeted us with a twenty below “hello” and a long list of to-dos for an impromptu trip to Town for The Chief. A flurry of activity will fill our day as we cross off the list and work our way through the cold. In some ways, it’s the perfect ending, revving up to help me ease back into the world of virtual places to be and people to see. Moving forward, the clock will decide my comings and goings again and my phone, mostly shut off during my time away, will become more of a presence. Routine will return and appointments will be kept and in some ways, that’s relaxing too.
Plus, I am extremely grateful to be employed, especially over this last year, but we all need breaks, even from the best of jobs.
So, the art of relaxation? Turns out, it’s yours to decipher, yours to learn. For me, to feel relaxed, I need a combo of time alone, time outside and time getting things done. Even if I found myself poolside with cocktails, I’d still want to wake up in the morning to journal and do yoga. I’d still want a semblance of routine and continuity. A little bit of planning mixed with a little bit of spontaneity. To me, that’s relaxation. Finding a feeling of calm in one’s soul, whatever that looks like. Perhaps it’s not yet my forte but thanks to you, I’m learning my way.
May you find yours.
P.S. Anyone else finding their way towards their own version of relaxation? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.
Tools & Tips to Weather the COVID-19 Storm from Off-Grid Alaska
The other day my girlfriend, who lives in California, said to me: “If anyone is ready for this, it’s you guys.”
“This” being the COVID-19 pandemic. “This” being hunkering down in our days of social distancing. “This” being living off of and making do with what we have for an unknown amount of time. Normally, I would have thought to myself with pride “Yes! We are so prepared!”. However, as fate would have it, the past few months we have flip-flopped our tendencies as we have significantly tightened our belts around here. With that tightening went away any non-essential purchases and the well-worn habit of always buying a little extra. We weren’t preppers by any means but for the last five years, we’ve always had enough stocked to last us a few months at a time.
New reality versus old reality:
The past few months we’ve whittled down our freezer stores and eaten all the things we tend to forget (read: aren’t interested in eating) are in there (hello random fish filet. You weren’t exactly delicious but you got the job done). For the first time ever, we’ve run out of things and not immediately ordered them again without having a family discussion about it. Do we need this? Really? Or do we just want it? Chocolate didn’t even make the list you guys. Chocolate. Serious budgeting (and serious regrets).
You see, normally, we actually have it pretty darn good out here, despite being 4 hours to the nearest and 8 hours to a variety of grocery stores. Friends and family are constantly surprised to hear about all the fresh veggies we are lucky enough to have during the Winter, often due to the kindness of neighbors. Yet even that we have pared down. Wasting nothing has been our goal and so we’ve pared down all around. For the past five years, I’ve shopped to satisfy our needs for months at a time and so we’ve rarely run out of things. Yet in the last few months, vowing not to go to Town unless we needed to, we’ve let ourselves run out. We’ve been diligent in paring down just in time for…
Okay, okay, it’s the not the Apocalypse (It’s not, right?) but it certainly feels a bit doomsday-ish right now. Just in time for everyone to have cleared the shelves, we too have cleared out our freezer and pantry and now find ourselves at a bit of a loss in replacing our stores. Our first Town trip in months was scheduled for last week but was canceled indefinitely due to the virus. So, I ventured onto Amazon to try to replenish some basics. I found a 12-pack of pasta in the totally “normal” price range of $56.72-$326.69.
Being gluten-free, I’m used to higher prices but pasta over three hundred dollars? It had better be made with gold dust (it wasn’t). So, yes, price gouging is real. As I sat on my computer, trying to purchase the basics I hadn’t planned on needing to replenish via the web (beans, pasta, polenta, shelf-stable almond milk), panic started to crawl over me. Everything was either out of stock, exorbitantly priced or wouldn’t ship to Alaska.
I looked at our less than packed pantry, our dwindling freezer bounty, our single large package of toilet paper (a 48 pack we had started on February 13th. Yep, we have been budgeting that hard that we wrote it down on our family whiteboard to track how much toilet paper we actually use and try to pair it down, pre-COVID-19. FYI, over a month later we still have PLENTY) and our fresh food nearly fresh out and realized it was time to take action. No, we were not going into this prepared as we normally would. In food alone, it was not true that if anyone was ready for this it was us. However, we did have a trick up our sleeve: we live in rural Alaska.
While our stockpile may be lackluster at just the wrong time, our tricks and tips for making do with less are tools we use year-round. They are seasoned and ready. While we live with more than people typically assume, we are also well versed in living with less and making do with what we have. So, without further ado, here are some Apocalypse Tips (aka Apocatips) for weathering the COVID-19 s-storm we all find ourselves in:
- Get Used to Living With Less, Going Without and Substituting (Spoiler Alert: It’s Actually Fun): In these past few months of paring down, living with less has actually been more enjoyable than living with more. Certainly, when I found that I wasn’t able to get what I “needed” the other day, I panicked. However, this is where substitutions shine. It’s a real cup half full moment to step out of focusing on what you don’t have and instead look at what you do. Dig deep into your pantry and freezer and you might be surprised at what you do have versus what you don’t. Plus, the surprise is great an all but the pride I feel when I make something from improvised ingredients is the real cherry on top.
We ran out of almond milk for tea and coffee, baking, cooking, etc. so for my tea, I blended some coconut cream I had in our pantry with some water and voila! It was delicious. For baking, I substituted some powdered buttermilk I rarely use (and didn’t know existed until the grocery store didn’t have liquid and they gave me the powdered for free. Thanks, Freddy’s!) for some cornbread and again, delicious! Once the coconut cream is running low, we will make almond milk in the blender and save the almond meal produced from it for flour. While I know fresh is best, think of things that can replace what you might normally consume fresh (i.e. powdered buttermilk, milk, etc.). Step out of your usual tendencies and switch it up when you run out. Use maple syrup for sugar or make your own red sauce from scratch versus the can. The possibilities are endless. Also, if you have too much of something and it might go bad, share it. If that’s not an option preserve it! Pickling, fermenting, etc. scared the heck out of me but guess what? It’s so, so, so fun. You got this. Waste not, want not.
- Find Yourself a Handkerchief: Toilet paper a little low? No, no, don’t worry, I’m not suggesting hankies for your heinies but for your schnoz, it’s a different story. Here, we often use toilet paper to blow our noses (and in Winter in Alaska there is a lot of nose-blowing going on) but what we did recently (and what we should have been doing all along) was switch to handkerchiefs. They are durable, less wasteful and a fun little snotty accessory to brighten up your daytime jammies, er, outfit. No handkerchiefs laying about? Perhaps make one out of old shirts or other clothing you’ve been meaning to donate. The same can be said for paper towels. We haven’t bought paper towels in years (I’ll be honest, I missed them dearly at first) and use rags and cloth napkins instead. It works, I promise (plus, it makes me feel oh so fancy when I use a cloth napkin).
- Let it Grow: Winter is certainly a time we all help one another around here and right now is no different. Most often, anytime someone has come in these days they’ve checked to see if others could use some fresh vegetable or fruit supplies. However, even with people willing to bring things in, empty stores mean we have way fewer freshies than usual. Thankfully, I put up a ton of greens from our garden this year but frozen isn’t the same as fresh so…let it grow.
If you are able to get green onions you can put them in water and they will continue to grow as you cut them for use. You can also do this with ends of other vegetables by submerging the base in water (here’s one site about it but there are tons. Just search for “growing vegetables from kitchen scraps”). I’ve had great luck with lettuce.
Another option is to start some sprouts (you know, those things your hippie parents always had growing in the window? Yea, they were geniuses)! Lately, I’ve been super into sunflower sprouts. They are hearty and a bit sweet. Currently, I have lentils and alfalfa sprouts going.
Start your garden. While in Alaska it’s a bit early to start the entire garden (though I did spend a few hours yesterday shoveling our garden out so the ground would thaw faster. “Faster”, however, was not my personal speed as our snow shovel was at the fire department and I aimed to concur the few feet of snow with an avalanche shovel. I wouldn’t recommend it), microgreens are the way to go. Yesterday I brought my soil inside to start defrosting and I plan to start as many seeds as I have space for and then transfer them into containers to grow. If you live where you can garden outside this time of year, go for it! Even if your space is limited you can make do with windows (read: hanging plants) or windowsills or do some container gardening even in the smallest of outdoor spaces. Think vertically when space is limited (a true Alaskan tip).
- Being Sequestered: Ok, admittedly this is not as much of an issue for us out in the woods. While we are essentially following all shelter in place rules we admittedly have the luxury of a lot more area to roam. Still, y’all remember January? I do. In January this year, I was more or less housebound. I went for very cold walks when I could but overall, I was inside watching the cold crawl through the cracks in my wall. It felt tight and a little claustrophobic. It also made things a whole lot simpler. My options were limited.
While you may not have to stoke a fire every 30 minutes or haul water, there are certainly ways to fill your time when you can’t go outside. As an ex-personal trainer, I love to exercise (though sometimes you wouldn’t know it by my “I wore yoga pants all day without working out” approach I sometimes take. Ebb and flow and whatnot) and my body and mind love me when I do it. YouTube has a TON of workout videos for anything and everything. I love Yoga with Adrienne (she’s a gem. Even The Chief does her classes and raves about how much better he feels when he does). Classes make me feel like I’m around other people even when I’m not (and in all honesty, it’s what I prefer). Join a 30-day challenge or create a schedule for yourself and stick to it.
If you miss the camaraderie of your close pals, set up some virtual cocktail hours or start/continue a book club. Come mid-Winter this year, my California girlfriends and I started weekly phone calls and it made my night every time. Being alone can also be a good time for some soul searching. It’s one of my favorite aspects of living here is not being distracted from the work I need to do on myself. Melody Beattie’s book Codependent No More is amazing. My guy friend, upon listening to the book said with a chuckle “I wish I had listened to that ten years ago. I could have saved myself from having to go through my last 7 relationships”. It’s a keeper. Worried about money? I get it. I can’t recommend Tosha Silver’s book called It’s Not Your Money. Thank me (and my girlfriend who recommended it to me) later when you find 100 bucks in your pocket.
- Iron Chef It Up: Growing up, my brother and I used to watch Iron Chef and then we would aim to make dinner out of our own limited store. We pretended we were competitors on the show. We made egg drop soup one night when all we could find were eggs and broth. We’d scour the pantry and freezer and come up with the most random of meals but guess what? They were amazing. Plus, making the meal together, coming up with ideas from very little was extremely satisfying. Without a nearby grocery store, I often still feel like an Iron Chef. So, in addition to discovering recipe substitutions, step completely out of your dinner rut and create something altogether new. You might love it, you might hate it (we certainly had some kitchen fails) but either way, you’re getting creative in the kitchen and again, focusing on what you have versus what you are lacking. At a loss for ideas? Look at what you have and decipher which thing will go bad first. Plan a meal around that. If you don’t have any inspiration consult the oracle (aka Google) for ideas.
Cabbage is a great long-term vegetable to purchase when possible as it stores for a long time but you don’t want it to go bad (trust me, it smells ungodly) so use it up as it nears its end! Make cabbage rolls, sauerkraut or soup. I’ve made peanut chicken using the last bits of peanut butter and coconut milk, green soup using frozen veggies, smoothies using anything and everything. Go for it!
- Conserve What You Already Have: When we are used to being able to get whatever we need whenever we want, we waste more. Moving here, I found so many ways in which I was using far more than necessary and not utilizing what I had.
The easiest way to have more is to use less. The Chief and I love to eat but sometimes (read: far more often than I’d like to admit) we take an extra serving (or two) that we don’t actually need. Now is the time to decipher between want and need and it actually feels really good to set some boundaries around it. Instead of snacking post-dinner, try some tea. Harvest some wild herbs like mint, yarrow, goldenrod or chamomile, etc. if you can and dry them for your own tea.
Stretch it. Have you ever been making dinner for two and suddenly friends drop by? You stretch whatever you’re making to accommodate. Do the same here. Add a little extra broth to your soup (broth that perhaps you’ve made from the last time you roasted a chicken…hint, hint), add a filling side like rice or polenta or simply chop everything smaller. The last one may sound ridiculous but we found that we used far less when we chopped everything smaller.
- DIY: Just like with the almond milk example above, there are tons of things we buy on the regular that, with a little effort we can simply make. Pickles, sauerkraut, mayonnaise, broth, yogurt (this recipe for coconut yogurt is made by mixing probiotics into coconut milk and letting it do its thing on your counter for two days. It’s so yummers and truly simple), etc. are all things we’ve made versus bought. I’m not saying you have to make everything (nor do we all of the time, trust me), but the more we can self-sustain on what we already have, the better off we all are.
Next up: DIY what you would normally have done for you (warning: results will vary).
On our canceled Town trip last week one of the highlights for both my girlfriend and I was the idea of a haircut. Often here I simply go without certain beauty perks for months on end but if I really get a hankering for a change, I simply do it myself. Again, results do vary. I may or may not have (I absolutely did) given myself a haircut that resembles a mullet BUT, I did it myself and it feels pretty darn good to at least get some weight off.
Next up? Highlights. I’ll keep you posted. Fingers crossed that I won’t be able to win a Joe Dirt lookalike competition.
More DIY: Used to getting pedicures? Give yourself one! Waxing, dying your brows, facials, etc. You can do all of this from home and in a time of uncertainty such as that which we currently find ourselves in, a little self-soothing is certainly called for. Be nice to yourself, get creative and DIY yourself anew.
Overall, despite what a wild time this is, we can find the good in it. We can focus on what we have versus what we don’t have. We can get creative and brainstorm together. We can spend time with our loved ones. We can focus on the positive.
The reality is, no one is unaffected. Even here in remote Alaska, we definitely feel the intensity of the situation. People are returning to the valley from travels all over the world. Social distancing is in full effect even for our dogs and most are in agreement that two weeks quarantining upon arrival is a must. All of this reminds me so much of when Leto was shedding Parvo and he and I were quarantined at our house for six weeks. Six weeks! If we can do six weeks with a puppy who thought (read: knew) I was his chew toy, working full-time plus cleaning every surface he touched, not leaving our property and sterilizing everywhere he pooped, we can all stay away from one another for two weeks.
It seems most everyone feels a little on edge as our rural town with very little medical resources braces to protect our inhabitants. Our challenges, throughout the world, are different from one another but the reality is, we are all in this together. My health is your health is all of our health. It is my responsibility not just to keep myself safe but to keep you safe. Every single one of us holds someone dear to them who is at risk. Treat the loved ones of others as you would want your loved ones treated.
Think outside of just yourself.
For goodness sake, do not hoard.
Keep you and your local and global community safe.
With love (and lots of handwashing),
The relatively recent access this town has gained to the technological pleasures of the “real world” has always been for me a double-edged sword, a sort of high-tech thorn in my side.
When I first met The Chief he had a “dumb phone”, as they are called these days. I loved it. Instead of vying for his attention over some device, there it was, stable and pure. In all reality, it was he who had to fight for mine at times. He would marvel at my texting dexterity and volume at which I transacted such “conversation”. His phone required each letter’s input until I showed him Predictive Text. You guys remember that one, right? Suddenly, a text merely caused him half the frustration it once had. Still, his texting didn’t increase.
The Chief would question the benefits of such a fancy device as mine (an iPhone). What was the purpose? I would espouse the wonders of having directions to anywhere, anytime and the sheer possibilities of the world of the internet at my fingertips to which he would reply: “That’s what a map, a dictionary, other people and then, last and least, a computer are for.”
In all honesty, I remember defending the phone lightly. I wasn’t sure if I really liked its bells and whistles but I did know that I had grown accustomed to it. When I learned that only a few years earlier, our town had conversed to the world only via one pay phone and to one another via CB radio, I felt like I had missed the boat. I had arrived when technology had fully nestled herself in (again).
Still, I was used to her, simultaneously comforted and duped by her.
I remember pondering the meaning of a word together once our first Summer together and as I reached for my phone, The Chief reached for his dictionary.
This moment struck me and I promised myself that I would be better at reaching for books than reaching for my phone.
That Fall we headed to California for our first annual family visit and The Chief started to understand the supposed benefits of the iPhone. Lost as could be, we would suddenly be found. Wanting to see a movie, we could know the schedule at the typing of a few words. Hungry, we could decipher where to eat with a quick search. Yet, the retrieval of such information didn’t always make things easier or more fun or more quickly expedited. The plethora of information sometimes made it harder. Which route to take? There were so many options. Which movie or restaurant to go to? Everyone had an opinion and an experience and after wading through a few reviews they all melded together.
Still, in the return to our cabin that Winter, the phone stayed and the computer did too and now, a few years later, they’ve started to multiply.
These devices do bring “us” together. They have made it easier for me to keep in touch with friends and family, they’ve made writing and publishing this blog a possibility and they’ve connected me to people and ideas I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Yet does it bring us closer? The “us” that is right in front of us, right next to us?
The other day, I was in a conference call in which the attendees joined from all over the Western edge of the US. We were in offices and homes, in business suits and extreme business casual. We were a mix of people, all working together to one goal and I thought to myself how crazy that we can all be in one “place” together despite our distances apart.
Yet, were we? Did the “us” we created by attending actually come together? Technology has this way of bringing together while simultaneously dividing. During the call, I received multiple texts from co-workers about the meeting. We were finishing the last bits of a presentation and I was getting last-minute updates on how to proceed, what to share, what to present. I was there, in those texts, in those directions, not in the meeting and I could tell that I was not alone. Minutes later, another attendee mentioned that he had just acquired some new information. Not meaning before the meeting, meaning during the meeting. He too was off in his own technological bubble, checking email while others spoke and debated and brainstormed. We were all tapping in and out of the meeting. Together or alone we retreated and reappeared, never announcing our coming or going, everyone under the assumption that everyone else was participating. Assuming that we, in our importance, could check out to do something more important, or something far less important. Take a break to check our email, disconnect for a moment.
The meeting was an hour-long.
One hour for which I would bet none of us were completely present. My job, which required me to be there, also required me elsewhere, to be simultaneously mentally present in two places at once.
As a society, we talk about the pros and cons of technology, about the coexistent togetherness and the isolation we feel from being so “connected”. Yet, steadily we continue. We slowly accept what should be rudeness as commonplace. Accepting that the person you’re speaking to will be scrolling on their phone, half-listening. Accepting that we text someone and two minutes later can’t remember what we said. I saw a meme the other day that said: “If I respond to your text with ‘Oh, cool’, that means I’m over the conversation”. We accept sub-par communication and call it connection because we’ve agreed to those standards. We accept them for one another and for ourselves. We accept when we look up from our screens and realize an hour of “relaxation” has passed after which we feel neither relaxed nor refreshed.
I know, for me, I’m a sensitive little beast. I need structure and continuity, ceremony and rhythm. My body now (and always has, though I neglected it) requires 8 hours of sleep and if I don’t get outside, even for a short moment every day, I feel unsettled. I can’t be too social or I will feel depleted and although certain foods are my heart’s desire, when I abstain, my whole self feels better. Candid conversations with my girlfriends and guy friends are essential to my happiness and I know I need quality time with The Chief, just the two of us, cuddled up on the couch reading or watching a movie.
All of these things I’ve known and aimed for and missed and tried again and sometimes failed twice, yet I’ve always reached for them. Yet until that conference call, I didn’t realize how badly a break with technology also needs to be on that list of Self-Love Daily To Dos.
The Chief and I have been taking nights off lately, turning off our devices in tandem and spending the evening together, devoid of personal technology (we will still watch a movie if that’s what we are in the mood for) and it’s funny in a nervous laugh kind of funny how often I feel myself think to reach for my phone. Just to look at it. Just to check. Distract instead of being present. After that call, I realize that these nights can’t just be here or there. The feeling I got when I walked into the living room to ask The Chief a question and didn’t see him looking at a screen is one I didn’t realize I’d needed so badly. One I had missed. A feeling of importance and togetherness and presence.
I’m not saying that we are tossing out our phones (though I have thought about it) nor am I saying that technology is bad. It’s beautiful in so many ways. Yet, just like my inclination to eat chocolate chips every night en masse, I too need to curb the technology addiction that so sneakily wormed its way into my life. We are here, surrounded in beauty, but I know that sometimes I’m missing it.
I don’t know exactly what it looks like to not miss what’s in front of me, I’ve gotten farther away from the shore than I thought. Perhaps it’s turning off the phone every evening at 6 pm. Perhaps, it’s buying a real alarm clock so that I don’t wake to the news of “my world”. Perhaps it’s using the phone only as a phone and the computer for everything else. Separation. Perhaps it’s mailing more letters instead of sending more texts. I’m not totally sure yet what it means, but I do know that it’s necessary for me and mine and the little boundaries we’ve set so far have made a world of difference.
Here’s to you and yours. May you be present and feel important to those you surround yourself with.
How do you deal with technology? I’m all ears.
How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico*
*If your idea of “perfect” is getting completely sick, fighting with your fiancé (and still having a good time)
A real vacation report
Every vacation report is a “real report”, however, in our world of perfectly posed playbacks of everything from our day-to-day Starbucks pics to our dripping with decadence vacays, I think it’s important to display the not so pretty and the nitty-gritty, the sand in your trunks, sunburn kind of report, along with the good.
A little context:
The last few months in California have been less filled with hiking and friends and sunshine-filled days of relaxation and more crammed with 10-hour stress-filled workdays. Which, honestly, I thought was fine. I could handle this.
And I did, for a while.
We flew to Mexico right after Thanksgiving (which we had spent in St. Louis seeing a little of my family and a lot of our hotel room as I had gotten sick and ended up working 12 hour days in bed). Flying on or near the holidays, we quickly realized, is never ideal. People travel no matter the state they are in and so, as we flew to Mexico, we found ourselves amongst a cacophony of coughing and sneezing and the like. Still, having just gotten over the flu myself, I figured I was immune to whatever bug was bugging about.
I also assumed that all of the stress of the past few months would instantly melt away the second we walked onto that airplane heading to the land of Mexico.
We flew into Puerto Vallarta, a spot where I’d only ever visited long enough to drink far too much tequila and leave. I figured it was more of a stopover town but had heard great things so we decided to stay for two nights before heading off and I’m so glad we did.
Our hotel was nestled in the Romantic District, a cobblestoned beauty that gracefully balanced old and new. The city was booming with the start of tourist season (December is the official start of “open season”) but there wasn’t the crazed clamor you can expect in other cities. People were kind and open and helpful beyond belief. Our taxi driver dropped us off and left us both with a hug and a “welcome to Mexico!” adieu.
I adore Mexico.
That’s the pretty picture.
The not so pretty?
On my first week off (as in, “Honey, I swear, I’m totally turning my computer off and not answering work calls”, off) in two years, I was…
I spent the entire flight over typing in a manic panic amidst the sneezing chorus. I worked at full-tilt from takeoff straight until my battery died (the plane didn’t have outlets). Thankfully, The Chief slept most of the flight (we had awoken at 3 am after a quick 3-hour snooze) so I didn’t have a witness to my panic or a scornful eye to give me the “I thought we were on vacation” look I knew I fully deserved.
That came later.
After our taxi sweetly dropped us off, we were ready to get into vacation mode!
…I just needed to do a little more work.
Enter: the scornful eye.
A few hours later, we finally made it out of the hotel and down to the beach. Immediately, I was taken over by the colors. I absolutely love the use of color in Mexico. Lime green? Bring it on! Fuschia? Yes, please. All together with every other color palette, you can imagine? ¿Por Qué No?
Still, the colors couldn’t quite lull me out of responsibility into vacation mode. My mind was still with work and The Chief could feel it. So, as you probably could guess, the night didn’t exactly go as swimmingly as it might have had I actually been present. We ended the evening in a tiff over the very important (to me) specification of adding “County” after “Sonoma” in a sentence (I am from Sonoma County, Sonoma is a town in the County. I am not from Sonoma).
We followed this up with a second tiff the next night regarding Tom Petty (Tom, I had your back, but it might not have been worth it and in reality, The Chief was on your team).
Things were off to a great start!
Not quite able to shake the very important arguments of nights past, we grumbled our way through the cobbled streets, The Chief lugging our communal suitcase through the not so suitcase friendly alleys and hailed a boat to the remote town of Yelapa to spend a little more time together in close quarters. That always helps, right?
By dinner time, we both were through with our tiffs and I was finally relaxing into vacation mode. We were in a jungle paradise, sitting outside in short sleeves in the balmy eve amidst a candle’s glow at an outdoor restaurant. I had even bid an actual “Adios” to my work (even after repeated attempts to convince The Chief that this week “off” might be a great week to actually catch up at work. Thankfully, he nixed that genius plan). We held hands and wondered how Sonoma and Tom Petty had ever found their way between us and vowed to do better as the stress slipped off and we slipped into vacation mode.
Things were looking up.
On our walk back from dinner, The Chief mentioned he felt a little funny.
By the next morning, he was wearing a shirt, sweatshirt, pants and socks, all under a load of blankets and still, was shivering.
It was 85 degrees in our little casita.
Then, it started storming.
I headed out to find sickness supplies and made it all the way out of the jungle and to the store before I realized I had forgotten my money. I trudged back, only about 50% certain of my path through the mossy backyards of jungle abodes, collected the coinage and headed back out.
By the time The Chief felt better a few days later, down I went. Our roles of patient and caretaker did a quick 180 as I burrowed down into layers and blankets and The Chief, still quite ill but in better shape than I, busied himself making me tea and warming me up.
Like I said, things were looking up!
And, in all honesty, they were. We were back to giggling together, back to feeling lighter, despite feeling absolutely awful. And hey, we still were in Mexico, in the jungle with iguanas as neighbors and a view of the ocean. Things could be worse.
We spent our last day in Yelapa on the beach (you walk through the hand laid paths of cobblestone and then cross the river to the beachside, hoping for low tide) sipping fresh juices and hoping to soon be sipping margaritas. We were on the mend.
The next morning, The Chief did not look mended. We contacted a local doctor who said that she and most others would be off that day due to the Presidential Election (whoops! Clueless, much?). Thankfully, the woman whose AirBnB we were renting in our next locale of Punta de Mita suggested we visit a pharmacy with a doctor on hand (how convenient is that?!). We found just that and 50 pesos later (about $2.50) we had paid for our visit and found that The Chief had a throat infection. I decided not to get looked at because I was feeling better. The local lady of pharmacy (not a pharmacist but very helpful nevertheless) in Yelapa had given me a tablet of who knows what and I was feeling good.
After the doctor, we were ready to get on our way to Punta de Mita. We unintentionally put on our We Don’t Know How to Get Where The Heck We Are Going faces and within moments, a woman was explaining the bus we actually wanted to take and setting us up with someone who would watch for the bus and explain to the driver our trajectory.
Again, Mexico, you amaze me. Thank you for your kindness.
A few hours later, we made it to Punta de Mita, a town known for the dichotomy of mega-ritzy hotels and great surf (and thus, non-ritzy surfing culture). Our Airbnb host, who had been checking on us and The Chief’s status all day was there to retrieve us when we were given incorrect directions and collected us and our luggage on her scooter.
Despite it being the last weekend night before I was about to start working again (I only was able to take off one of our two weeks there from work) we both were too tired to do anything other than walk down to the beach for a waterfront sunset and tuck in for the night.
We needed to rest up so we could do what we came here for: Surfing.
Rest up we did. Surf, we didn’t.
When the pills the Yelapan grandma had given me wore off, I too started getting worse and despite a round of antibiotics, The Chief was not improving. He was white as a sheet and I sounded like someone shaking a bag of popcorn and a dog barking combined when I coughed (which was constant). The Chief’s earache kept getting worse. Finally, we both went to the doctor and were granted the reality that we both had throat infections and The Chief had an ear infection as the cherry on top of our sick sundaes.
Still, we were having fun.
Still, we thought we might surf.
We rented boards and carried them all the way to the beach. I’m pretty sure that 6-minute walk qualifies as one of my life triumphs thus far. We arrived and I felt like someone had punched me in the chest. I was exhausted. By the time I paddled out, I knew catching a wave was not in the picture and so, I laid on my board and watched the sunset while getting to chat with our Airbnb host who had paddled out to meet us. The Chief did catch some waves. Someone had to represent for the family. After it was dark, we slowly paddled our way in, letting the waves guide us home. We walked the boards home and delivered them back promptly the next day. Surfing would have to wait for next year.
Without surfing to occupy our time, I woke early and worked before The Chief was up, sitting on the rooftop to watch the sun come up and then, by midday, we were free for adventuring.
Which, despite still feeling terrible, we did.
We met a long-lost friend of mine in La Cruz, a town South of Punta de Mita and met his potential new roommate (a HUGE iguana that decided to plant itself on his fence).
The next day, we rented a scooter and scooted our way North to the town of Sayulita (also a surf town) to stroll around for the day. I adore Sayulita, even if it is a tiny Sonoma County in Mexico. It had everything you could want: easy waves, smoothies, music, chocolate covered bananas (not my thing, but apparently, I’m in the minority so I put it here for you all to be enticed by) and I’m sure all of the things that top your list.
On our last day, we snorkeled around the Islas Marietas and even snorkeled into the “Hidden Beach” (which at super high tide, you have to hold your breath and swim through the cave to the beach, we thankfully only had to bob our way through). We saw lots of boobies (Blue Footed ones, you perv) and the bluest of blue waters.
On our last night, we bussed about and found ourselves in Bucerias, a town south of Punta de Mita (closer to Puerto Vallarta). We arrived just as the outdoor market was shutting down (apparently an amazing time if you’re a bargain hunter. I’m more of a pushover payer) and I found the perfect wedding cake topper for The Chief and I. We dined on the beach and bussed our way back home and I barely got carsick.
That night, we went to a beach bar with our friends we’d made in Punta de Mita and sat in lounge chairs with our toes in the sand around a bonfire. It was a beautiful goodbye for now, and fully assured us that we were coming back to “do it right”.
The next morning, we said our goodbyes and off we bussed back to Puerto Vallarta and back to the States.
So, that’s how you do it, folks! 13 days in Mexico filled with so much guacamole I probably shouldn’t be able to zip my pants, very little margaritas, two very petty (pun intended) quarrels and a sickness to bring it all to the front: what’s important?
Working too much, so much so that when you have time off, you can’t actually be off and when you are, you end up sick?
Experiencing new things together, meeting new people, speaking new languages?
Although those two weeks didn’t exactly go as planned, I’d give the itinerary to anyone because it did help me filter through whatever I’d been operating on as fact and focus on the reality of what really matters to me:
Watching the sun rise and set on the same day.
Cuddling with The Chief.
Stepping outside my comfort zone.
Working, but not killing myself to do it.
Holding The Chief’s hand.
Feeling the warmth of the sun.
Trying new things together.
Eating good food.
Being in love.
And so, folks, that’s how to plan the perfect Mexico vacation, as long as your idea of “perfect” means getting completely and utterly ill, fighting with the person you love most and still, through it all, having a good time.
Here’s to the honest report. May mine help you to feel less alone in yours, or at least provide you a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. May you share your stories with those who need to hear them most.
Here’s to things not going as planned but helping you instead get back to basics.
Here’s to you and yours, may it not get petty.
//How have your vacations gone? Feel free to share your stories, as planned or otherwise in the comments below//
Finally, thank you to Mexico, as a whole for being such a beautiful, open, kind place to us. You and your people are truly special. We are honored to spend time on your soils and plan to be back very soon.
I am an artist.
I can’t tell you how many other artists just cringed at reading that.
Not because they deem it false or have questions as to my membership in the club. In fact, not because of anything to do with me at all. It is, in my experience, because they are wrestling with their own membership in this club or remembering the first time they announced their arrival.
This may not be true for every artist. I dare not declare it universal, lest the unicorn artists who knew they were just that from birth come and correct my wrong statement. I will say, after spending a weekend with artists that it seemed a nearly universally hard statement to conjure up for the first time for everyone. Some, even those on panels, were still choking on it.
Yet, I’ve said it.
You see, last weekend I attended the Alaska State Council on the Arts biennial conference in Fairbanks.
I first heard about the conference a few months ago when a friend, who’s helped me more in writing this year than I can explain, mentioned that it was coming up. I looked at her and said something along the lines of “Oh, that will be fun!” She looked at me as if to say “Yeah…that’s why I’m telling you about it.”
A few minutes of her explaining it later and I still didn’t get it.
Finally, she put it in terms I could hear:
“Julia, it’s an artist’s conference. You’re an artist. You should sign-up.”
I’m an artist?
When I first started this blog, it unleashed in me the well-kept secret from myself that I, in fact, do want to be an artist. Yet I wasn’t ready to call myself one. As a youngster, I knew I was an artist, as kids simply know themselves without ego or fear. I was a singer and a writer and I knew it down to the depths of my little lady being that an artist was what I wanted to be.
Because I felt alive.
Alive when I sang.
Alive when I wrote.
Yet, as I grew and grades and prestige and stability became a focus, I let that knowledge go and I covered it up with the “shoulds” of existence which placed more emphasis on succeeding than feeling alive.
And soon, I felt deadened.
Moving here allowed me to step outside of myself. It allowed me to bring with me not only that which was useful from my old life but to re-invite those aspects of myself I had lost. It felt like I was traveling. I was free to be whomever I deemed myself to be. And without thought, I suddenly found myself in a band, singing again. I had invited art back in and it had entered my life with a warmth I hadn’t felt in decades.
That first Winter, writing invited herself in. She opened the door, kicked off the snow and asked not why she’d been sequestered for so long but if I was, in fact, ready to begin.
I am an artist.
It may not be easy to say, but once you do, it’s like walking through the closet door into Narnia. The world feels a little more magical. It’s exciting and important and alive.
You don’t have to be a full-time artist to be called an artist. You don’t have to be in a gallery or be published or be the director of a Broadway hit. Art can lie in the simple act of taking the time to study a flower that strikes you, in letting your mind play. It can be as small as decorating a salad you make or as big as a complex canvas painting you’ve spent hours on end creating. It can be the notes you scribbled on a piece of paper towel 30 years ago that become your book 30 years later. It can be a photo that inspired reflection.
There are no entry fees, merely the self-realization that you cannot be anything else.
Do what makes you feel alive.
In Alaska, I’ve had to learn a new language. It’s one I didn’t know I didn’t speak and certainly didn’t know existed until I stumbled into it. The focus of my learning has been less on dialect or accent and more on meaning. Take, for example, the word “hike”. To me, coming from California, I considered myself a pretty good hiker. I’d go off on my own for a few hours, traversing the mountain lion, rattlesnake filled fields and feeling very brave along the way. That was a hike. In Alaska, or at least in my neck of the woods, a hike may mean something very different. My first “hike” in Alaska turned into an 8-hour day, for which I was neither in shape nor mentally prepared. I came back feeling like I had gone through a battle. I had gone through an Alaskan “hike”.
Another example is the word “cold”. California cold is anything colder than 50 degrees. Freezing is just insane. “Cold” in Alaska? Let’s just say, during my first winter, when I first experienced a week-long stretch of the negatives (25 degrees below zero, to be precise) that was considered “warm”. When I used the word “cold” to describe how I felt (like someone was sandwiching my fingers and toes and nose between ice cubes) people would downright laugh.
At 25 below zero.
So, needless to say, there’s a lot of play in what means what and to whom and Alaskans just have a different threshold of what’s normal to me.
“Hike”: Anywhere from 4-10 hours
“Cold”: 60 below zero
“Hot”: Anything above 70 degrees
And so, I’ve learned this language as I go along, oftentimes by finding myself in the midst of a situation I thoroughly thought I understood only to realize I was sorely mistaken and highly under-packed in snacks. So, to avoid said misunderstandings, I try to avoid assumptions and never leave the house without at least three other layers, a change of socks, a rain jacket and snacks enough for a half-day endeavor. Therefore, even if I don’t fluently speak the language, at least I might have the tools to survive whatever I’ve gotten myself into.
The most common area of the Alaskan language that I still find myself tripping over is scale. “Hills” here are what I would consider “mountains” and “creeks” are often what I would deem “river” material. Just the other day, scale popped up again when my girlfriend asked me if I wanted to take a stroll.
Stroll (my definition): a lackadaisical walk, perhaps with ice cream in hand – no, scratch that, definitely with ice cream in hand, in footwear ranging from flip-flops to none at all across even terrain, preferably covered in soft grass, or sand.
Stroll (her definition): a 4-6 hour hike (hiking shoes most definitely required) through a forest, followed by scaling a rocky hillside to a bolder-laden steep peak surrounding a glacial lake far below and eventually ending at another lake requiring sidehilling (read: trying to emulate mountain goats, or in my case, falling with style – or not) and then doing it all in reverse. Call me crazy but this, I would call an “adventure”.
So, yeah…a clarification of terms and scale is helpful.
But it’s not always the obvious trip-ups like scale either, sometimes the Alaskan language is a little sneakier.
The other day, when I decided to sign-up for the 3rd annual Women’s Packrafting Clinic, I felt very secure in my decision because I knew what I was going into. There were no unknown Alaskan terms and the conditions of the day were understood. We’d practice some skills, self-rescue techniques and then have an awesome ride down the “creek”, which I knew to be more of what I would consider a “river”. The “creek” was raging from our hot days we’ve finally been having (hallelujah! Welcome, Summer weather. We missed you) but I knew that already. The day would be long but beautiful and I had just enough snacks. No surprises here.
However, I felt a little tingle as my spidey sense alerted me to something that suddenly felt closer to me than I was comfortable with: swimming.
“Swimming” was a verb I felt competent I knew the definition of until moving here. When I first heard it used, no one was smiling, but there I was with a big grin. Swimming! Fun! No, no, silly. “Swimming” to me conjures up images of pool floaties or Ethel Merman-esque swimming caps. It has a lightness to it, an easy, breezy, “these are the days of our lives” feel to it.
That definition also exists here but there’s a second “swimming”, the “swimming” I heard where I was smiling solo, a “swimming” which would perhaps be more aptly named “falling out of a boat into a freezing river”. It doesn’t have quite the same ring though, does it? And so, “swimming”, I came to find out, means two things here: fun swimming (smiles included), and potentially scary swimming (less smiley). I opted to stay on the smiley side.
I’ve been packrafting (an awesome sport, check out Alpacka Raft for a look into the wonderful world of bringing your boat wherever you go) a couple of times each Summer here since my first three years ago and it’s a sport with an instantly addictive quality. The Women’s Packrafting Clinic is one of the highlights of the year and since I missed it last year, I was stoked to join in. 35-ish women teaching and learning from one another, packing up boats and hiking a few miles upriver and then boating down? Amazing.
Still though, that spidey sense was kicking. Swimming. I’d never “swum” before and for some reason, it felt like it was knocking on my door. During the freestyle practice time in the local swimming (fun swimming) hole, I did something I normally don’t and I practiced falling out of the boat and self-rescuing. I practiced three times and on the third flip, something tweaked in my neck, sending it immediately into spasm. Oh joy!
A few ibuprofen, some lunch and an hour or so later, the spasming had lessened and I figured my spidey sense would too but there it was. “Careful, Miss Pancakes!” it warned, “You’re going to swim”.
Always listen to your spidey sense.
Perhaps I swam because of that voice in my head. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps, it was simply time. Three years without a spill was starting to get to me. I kept wondering when it would be my time to “swim” and how would it go? The anxiety of its looming inevitability had crept up and so, by my own doing or by pure chance, inevitability finally showed her face.
One moment I was up, the next I was caught on a rock and the next? I was coming up for air, facing the wrong way, flipped to the wrong side, heading face first into Class III rapids.
I was swimming.
Thankfully, instinct and training kicked in and I flipped onto my back and turned myself around, feet first as I rode the next set of rapids while trying desperately to grab my boat. I had managed to hold onto my paddle and used it to the best of my ability to steady myself as I aimed to keep my head above water. It wasn’t going well. Each time the water would go over my head, I’d come up just in time to hit the peak of the next wave and take on more water. I started to panic. I wasn’t getting enough air. I couldn’t see. I was hitting my feet and seat on rocks as I sped through the mid 30’s-degree water. Then, I heard the voices of the women that day.
“If you find yourself swimming, stay calm. Keep your feet up, hold onto your paddle and don’t worry about your boat, worry about your life.”
In that moment, I realized that my attempts to catch the boat were going to be fruitless. As I gave up on rescuing the boat and focused on rescuing myself, I slammed into a rock, coming to a stop as I watched the boat speed away. Slowly, I assessed my surroundings. I was sandwiched between the rock that had caught me and the current that was pushing me into it. Thankfully, it wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t move and so, ever so carefully, I steadied myself to find my way to shore. Foot entrapment was also something we had gone over that morning and as I felt the shifting rocks below me, I again heard the women’s words:
“Slow and steady. People have drowned in even the shallowest water from getting themselves trapped in a mad dash for the shore. Slow down.”
Slowly, steadily, I made it to the shore.
Just then, the rest of the group showed up, saw my predicament and eddied out to help. After they checked in with me with the double “Are you ok” (the first happens immediately, the second comes a few minutes to make sure you’re telling the truth when you reply “yes”) we devised a plan where two of them would scout for the boat and the other would stay with me. Upon their sighting of my craft, I then hiked downriver and they all rafted down. Finally, after bushwhacking along the moose track laden shore for 10 minutes, I caught up.
There they were, my group, waiting with smiles, and my boat (which had beached itself – see, don’t worry about the boat, worry about your life) to greet and congratulate me.
“That was a long swim! Nice work!”
I love those ladies.
The rest of the ride home, I talked myself through the rapids as I always do, pumping myself up as I go and congratulating myself on doing it…
I had finally gone swimming…
and I was exhausted.
Staying afloat in those icy cold waters is no ice cream-toting stroll in the park and the fear that kicks in could tire a horse. Yet thankfully, this pony was headed back to stable.
As I came into town, sleepy and sopping wet, I made my way to our truck to change and regroup. There, under the center console was a cookie, just for me. The Chief had bought me the little treasure earlier that day and I sniffed it out like a kid finding hidden Christmas presents. It was glorious, like a hug from within.
Learning to speak Alaskan has pushed me into situations I might have otherwise wiggled out of. It has coaxed me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. It has given new meaning to words I thought I knew and still new meaning as I learn what they mean for me. “Swimming” was a word I lived in fear of. When would I swim? How would it go? Learning the word and living the word are two different things and here, there are still so many words I only know the definition of. Yet, despite the bumps and bruises that sometimes come with learning them, I’m excited to add my own stories to my Alaskan dictionary. Cheers to learning a new language, even in the place you call home and to learning a new side of you along the way.
Cheers to our very varied definitions of terms and to learning to speak the language of the locals.
Cheers to swimming, in all it’s forms.
With love, from Alaska.
As a California grown lady of the sun, I’ve spent my whole life around surfing. I grew up at the beach, I spent my summers by any body of water I could find and I loved a good beach blonde suntan combo. I had all the components of surfing: I lived near a beach, there were surf shops galore with boards and wetsuits for rent (and sweatshirts I desperately wanted but would allow myself, lest I be discovered a poser) and I knew of people who were surfers. Yet what I lacked was the confidence to try.
The times I came closest to learning, I realized that the people wanting to “take me out” actually had more interest in taking me out for a date than really teaching me to surf and so, frustrated, I had bailed (surfer lingo, brah).
A few bails in, I stopped trying. Certainly, without question, I could have gone on my own or grabbed a girlfriend to go with but in my awkward earlier years I was less Grab The Bull By The Horns and more Oh Shoot, I Just Watched That Bull Go By.
And so it went.
Suddenly, I was 31, still wanting to learn to surf and realizing that the only thing about surfing that I’d learned was that saying you want to surf and actually surfing are a world apart.
Enter: Ecuador, or as I’ve started to call it: Alascuador.
This place, I swear is a cousin to our State of Brr. Everything from the reservation at first interaction to the utter triumph one feels getting a pint of ice cream home (one of our friends paid a taxi driver 50% extra just to get him home as fast as possible with a quart of ice cream he was bringing home for a celebration) to the timing (Alaska time, Ecuador time, Hawaiian time, same, same), to the dogs running about being a celebrated part of the town, to the what to do with toilet paper has made this southern spot seem like a flip side family member to the Alaskan way.
Which makes it no surprise that upon landing here, Ecuador has kindly kicked my behind. Just like in Alaska, if you’re not on the right path, Ecuador seems to either firmly correct your trajectory or high-five congratulate you for your ability to go with the flow. From our first escapades in getting to know one another in travel (firm corrections) to gliding through bus connections with uncanny luck (high-five congratulations) to finding our home for these last few weeks and me struggling to learn to relax (firm corrections as far as the eye can see) this place has been full of the ups and downs that I cherish about Alaska. The things that make life in Alaska feel, well, alive.
All the while, firm corrections and congratulations popping about, in the back of my head an anxiety started to rise. Was I going to continue to talk about surfing or actually learn? We had come to Ecuador to learn to surf and it was day 10 with no waves in sight. Don’t get me wrong, there were waves all about but we certainly weren’t on them. It had been years since I’d been fully immersed in an ocean, something I didn’t realize until we got here and the last beach I had been on had been unfriendly, to say the least.
Yet, when we arrived, I figured I’d jump on in like I had for years as a kid and start off right away with some epic bodysurfing.
It turns out I wasn’t as comfortable in the waves as I had planned. While The Chief seemed to glide out past the break into calm waters, I was left in a whitewash whirlwind. I had forgotten all the tricks my Mom had taught me.
Diving under waves
I realized it would be a few days until I was comfortable alone in the water, much less to attach something to me and bring it into the water.
Enter: the boogie board, the perfect transition between body surfing and surfing.
We broke it within 20 minutes.
Still, getting tumbled about in waves far bigger than me was good for my morale.
Until it wore off. Finally, on day ten, panicked that we would never learn to surf (I love to pop in nevers, even when I have control of them) we went to Town to find June and his week-long surfboard rentals. Four hours later, after waiting for 2 hours for the shop owner to return, we had our boards. It was late in the day and we were set to be picked up for our traveling trivia team (apparently, The Chief and I make a sought-after trivia duo) and so, we said “goodnight” to the boards which had taken so long just to find and hours to rent and waited until tomorrow. Mañana, mañana.
I was sick of mañana.
Today was the day.
Unfortunately, Ecuador didn’t agree (or in actuality, she did agree, but she was testing my will. Do you really want to learn or do you want to talk about learning? Sound familiar, Alaska? Alascuador). A storm set-up, the sky was pregnant with rain and right as we went in for my first set ever, the waters came down upon us. The sea responded. The waves were all over the place, coming in diagonally, double crashing and the current was so strong that within minutes we were out of sight of our hotel. Gone were the parallel sets of beautifully set-up, semi-consistent waves of the morning only an hour prior. If I hadn’t been in a bathing suit in warm water, I would have sworn I was back in Alaska. The timing was just too much. The Chief and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. Decades of build-up and we couldn’t have picked a worse time.
It was perfect.
By the time we were out of the water, my hips and knees looked like I had dyed them blue. Bruises welled up before my eyes and I plopped down in the sand, exhausted.
I’d been in for 20 minutes.
And…I’d gotten up. Sure, we may have just been chasing whitewash but after 20 years of hoping, wanting, giving up and hoping again, I had gotten up on a surfboard and rode that whitewash all the way to shore.
A few hours later, still storming but not as bad, we went in again. A couple we met from Canada was sharing the boards with us and had impeccable timing so the next time they went, we went after.
Still, it was storming.
Still, there we were, up again, riding the whitewash.
I feel like my body had been planning and scheming and approximating just how it would do this task for me for years, I just hadn’t unleashed it.
I looked at The Chief and we were both beaming, smiles from ear to ear.
Those three seconds of the joy of floating above the water were worth the ten minutes of push and pull to get to them. I couldn’t believe how it felt. Better than I had imagined. Maybe like flying.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
That night I went to bed, completely physically exhausted for the first time in a long time. In Alaska, I often fall into bed, absolutely fatigued from the day’s duties. That day, the duties were purely pleasure-based but they were as challenging as any other chore I’ve performed.
Finally, finally, I had tried. The years of wanting washed over me. How simply such a buildup could just go away. How unnecessary the buildup to begin with.
I hope so.
One week later, I’ve caught even more than the whitewash. I’ve caught my first real wave, from crest to finish, I’ve even turned (a little). I’ve fallen more times than I can count, my body is more bruised than unbruised, I’ve caught a fin twice in the thigh, I’ve been hit in the back, had the board land on my head, done a somersault into the ocean floor and broken a fin and I can’t think of anything right now I’d rather be doing.
It may have taken me until 31 to try, but now that I have, I’m a sucker for it.
It’s time to start checking off the list of the long overdue wants and wishes.
Thank you, Alaska for starting the teaching. For forcing me to test myself and trust myself. Thank you Ecuador for testing that teaching by forcing me to get out in a bathing suit day after day even on the days I’d feel more comfortable in, say, a parka. Thank you for pushing me to make new friends, get out of my comfort zones, to get a little scared but to try anyway and in the end to get to the base of it: to enjoy oneself. I’m listening. I’m trying.
Thank you. You are beautiful.
Shall we continue?
The Chief was leaving and I was about to be alone in the woods. He and a couple of friends were building another friend’s house 3 hours away. Not exactly a commuting situation and so, away he would stay for…
well, we weren’t sure how long.
If you’ve ever been around construction, you know that it can take longer or shorter than expected at any given time, and so, being the super laid back person that I am, I tried to plan out how long exactly he would be gone.
Which, of course, we didn’t know.
Which drove me crazy.
Finally, after a few days of uncertainty, one thing was certainly clear: The Chief was leaving. Today. It was a cold morning, the sky felt pregnant with snow. We shivered as we unloaded our truck, re-loaded the work trucks and said “goodbye” and “see you soon”. No “See you Saturday”, or Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday or… Just “soon”.
And so it was. All that hustle, all that bustle, all the wrangling of gloves and boots and tools and last-minute wonderings, all that shuffle and then…
I returned home to a silent house.
Alone in the woods.
A few years ago, this sentence would have struck fear in my heart but this time, it felt like exactly what I needed.
Time alone has done a full-circle flip through my life a few times over.
Growing up, adults always noticed how I seemingly loved to fly solo. My grandma Gam would comment how she’d “never seen a child play alone for so long”. I’d entertain myself for hours on end, doing what I’m not entirely sure, but seemingly enjoying my solitude. I wasn’t an only child but my brother is eight years my senior which proved to be almost a lifetime in kid years and so our interactions were mainly wrestling (read: injury) based. I adored him but understandably, he wasn’t exactly dying to hang out and so I played alone. To increase the alone time, we’d always lived somewhat in the “boonies” (which, now, by comparison, seem like metropoles). Neighbor kids were far and few between and often an age gap lay between us as well that couldn’t be bridged by sheer proximity alone. And so, again I mostly kept to myself and for the most part, I liked it.
To add even further to alone time factors, I grew up in one town and went to school in another town over an hour away. So, until 3rd grade I didn’t really engage in the whole after-school playdates brigade, nor did I have many close friends who close by, but my troll dolls were all the posse I needed.
Public school in 3rd grade in my hometown, a mere 30-minute walk from my house, brought on an onslaught of interactions and by 5th grade I actually had some consistent friends again who even, catch this, lived nearby. Suddenly, it was all about talking on the phone and “hanging out” and being alone wasn’t as normal as it had once been. If my phone wasn’t ringing at night and notes weren’t being passed my way through sneaky hands in class, I felt lonely until being alone was no longer a thing I was known for but a thing I chased away. Whether the interactions were vapid or meaningful, I didn’t much care. Either way, I was filling the space.
However, in my twenties (sound familiar?) I found comfort in circling back to my alone time roots. It took me a while to sort out being lonely from being alone but once I had divided the two, I fell back in love with the solo sessions of my youth. Yet, I also found myself in a relationship where trust was about as present as a watermelon in Winter and despite my new love of alone, I didn’t take the time for fear of what would happen when I wasn’t there. In an effort to control what I couldn’t trust, I spent the time I should have afforded for me, to recharge and reconnect, being available for someone else so they wouldn’t go elsewhere, which, of course, they did anyway.
So, as Saturn struck and I found myself newly single, I promised I would be different. I’d spend the time learning me and creating new habits to bring into my next relationship, which likely wouldn’t be for a long time.
As we know from last week, Saturn picked me up in a flurry and “returned” me to Alaska and to the furry man we all know as The Chief.
The thing about relationships in Alaska, or at least out in the Bush is that you will likely come together at light speed. The time you have to set patterns for what is to come happens in the snap of a shutter. Dating? What’s that? We met, made eyes and moved in within a week. Thankfully, I felt like I had circled heartily around this old pattern of dropping it all and neglecting myself in the months I had been single, I had been practicing listening to what I needed and I had established a baseline.
And thankfully, Alaska helped fortify that baseline in a strange dichotomy of keeping us closer than I’ve ever been in proximity and also forcing us apart.
Alaska creates the built-in breaks.
From the first day we were together, we already had a built-in break come the end of Summer (I had to go back to California and The Chief couldn’t yet leave). Sure I was worried to part, but it also felt natural and honest. We were solid already, we could handle it.
Plus, almost every Alaskan couple I know spends at least one month apart per year. This for me has never been the norm in a couple but it was a welcome surprise.
The built-in breaks.
Over the last almost three years, we’ve had many of these built-in breaks. I went to visit my Grandma last Summer and to meet my first friend niece this Spring for 5 weeks. Our time apart has built up on average to about two months every year, so why did The Chief leaving this time feel so big?
Well, for the first time, since the first time I set foot in those woods, I was about to spend more time alone, without a partner, than I had for the last decade, anywhere. For the first time, I wasn’t the one leaving, I was staying, in our tiny cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere, alone. Not only was I testing my love for being alone by being in a place where I could go days without seeing anyone, I also was in charge.
And then, it snowed.
In the hustle, bustle, shuffle of getting ready for The Chief to leave, we had neglected a few things on the property. The snow took care of that and by “took care of” I mean the snow broke and buried everything. Goodbye mosquito tent.
First day, off to a good start!
I was feeling really rundown from all of our runaround and so, since the weather forecast called for rain to melt away the 6 inches from the night before, I let the snow sit.
Well, if trusting the weather (wo)man in Alaska is part of your good plan, you might want to rethink your trajectory.
The six inches of snow melted slightly and then promptly hardened. Still, I thought, maybe predictions for tomorrow would be right.
More work for me.
By the time I finally gave into the tug of war between the weather and the weatherman, things were firmly frozen into the ground. I spent the better part of an afternoon chipping the now ruined mosquito tent out of the ice grave it lay in.
But, one good thing came in terms of work in this world of snow (I mean, in addition to the beautiful snowglobe I found myself in): sleds.
If anything makes hauling piles of roofing tin from one side of the property to the other easy, it’s hauling it by machine. In the week prior, since we don’t have a trailer, I had hauled all of it by hand. Carrying sheets more than twice my height in length over and over and over again had wiped me out and seeing them frozen into the ground had visions of shovels and grunting going through my head. Until I remembered the sled. I attached it to the 4-wheeler and hauled the day (and debris) away.
Snow, how I love thee.
So, the first snafus of staying alone had been relatively easily rectified and the test of being alone, really alone, had felt like no test at all. I’d even had invitations to meet up, poker nights to attend and when I really checked in, I realized that really, truly, I wanted to be home, alone.
The first week flew by. I had been working online from home and had gotten behind so, I spent most of my days tidying up outside and typing away inside until finally, it was the day before The Chief was to arrive home. I decided to haul water that night so I could do dishes and shower and have the place all tidy and ready to go in order for his arrival the next day.
Out I went to the well, bundled against the cold and started it up.
I looked down at the feet after feet of hose at my feet from which water wasn’t spewing as it should be and put two and two together: water in a hoseline + freezing temperatures = frozen hoseline = no water.
One might think I would have learned this lesson last year when we returned to the Summer set-up frozen solid but alas, no. I had run the pump, turned it off, and promptly let it freeze.
And so we (I had to check with our other well owner to make sure I was taking the right route) disconnected the Summer set-up and brought in the smaller hose that would be our Winter set-up, to thaw.
The next day, ice chunks finally defrosted, I prepared to get water, but on my way to set it up, I brought the already warmed generator outside with me. I always try to multi-task when heading outside and that day was no different. I placed the genie on its stand and the six water buckets from my other hand on the ground while I quickly got the generator started.
Ten minutes later I was worried I had flooded the engine. I then spent the next ten minute trying to remember where the spark plug was in order to see if it was wet, indicating that the engine indeed was flooded. No such luck, well, no such wrench, at least not that I could find, anyways. After looking up seemingly endless and unhelpful YouTube videos, I finally gave in and asked for help.
Over to the neighbor’s house, I went, for the second day in a row with a problem.
Two hours, disassembly, correct socket wrench, spark plug checked and changed, gas drained, new gas added, oil added, fuel treatment added, ether sprayed, spark arrester removed, ether again sprayed, reassembly and we had troubleshot everything we could think of. It wouldn’t start.
Until, one last pull and…
The neighbor and I cheered and then he returned to his project I had stolen him from for the last two hours and I returned to mine: water. I attached the Winter set-up and…tadaa! Water, sweet water, was flowing freely. I took two trips inside to fill the shower and under the sink and the water on the stove and then three more trips to haul all six buckets inside. Finally, I was done. The generator was fixed, the yard was tidied and no more snow accidents would occur and the house was full of water so dishes could be done and showers could be had and…
it was already six o’clock. The day had disappeared like the Winter sun and The Chief was due home within the hour. The choice presented itself:
Dishes or Shower.
I think we all know the route I chose. And just then, as I started the hour-long process that is bringing in the shower curtain and the frozen tote I shower into to defrost and pulling up the stairs and setting everything up, just then, the generator stopped.
I had to laugh.
You see, there’s always something in the woods. Something always breaks, something always stops working right when you need it most and my ten days alone was no different.
And so, I did what I could: nothing. We had exhausted all options. It was a project for another day. I got in the shower and let that hot water laugh me through it.
The Chief came home just as I was finishing and amidst our happiness to see one another the dishes and the generator weren’t such a big deal after all.
I had survived, in the woods, mostly alone for the first time ever and a few things were made very clear:
I realized that yes, I truly do love time alone, with all of my heart.
I also realized that my system when The Chief is home is not all that different from when he is not here, which means that I am in fact living up to my wish for myself: to do what I need to do for me, whether I’m in a relationship or not.
I realized how grateful I am for the built-in breaks Alaska forces upon us. Of course, I love being around The Chief, Alaska sussed that one out already by putting us through our first Winter together in a tiny cabin with trials and tribulations aplenty but I appreciate the forced time apart. It makes it so you get time alone before you need time alone and so instead, you just miss one another. I adore being with him and I appreciate that we are able to separate and then come together again, even happier to see one another than usual.
This time alone journey I think has finally come full-circle once again and perhaps has found its resting place in the security of a peaceful relationship, with me and with us.
Thank you, Alaska, for forcing change on me even when I am hesitant to move, in shaking me up in conjunction with Saturn to toss me about and land me right where I need to be: in a place that challenges me and changes us and forces me out of my comfort zone time and time again. But please, don’t make the built-in breaks too long, O.K?