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…)
This summer, exactly one month before I got pregnant, I had a conversation with a girlfriend I’ve known for forever. There’s nothing quite like an old friend, is there? Not just because they are a constant, despite how frequently or infrequently your conversations might be but also, maybe most importantly, because they are there to remind you of who you’ve been and who you are deep down. While I’m glad to have lost touch with the party girl this friend knew me to have been, the one who was ready on any given Monday through Sunday to shut down our local bar, our conversation this summer brought me back to a me I had forgotten about.
As we talked about our lives that day, she reminded me of the Julia I once was: confident as all hell that I would be a mother of as many kids as I wanted. I had forgotten that my stock answer back in my 20’s to the question “Do you want kids” was always “Kids? Hell, I want a whole soccer team!”. 15 years and one miscarraige plus a year of “trying” afterwards, after watching countless friends “breeze” through (no, I know it still wasn’t easy) getting pregnant and countless others struggle deeply, that level of abundance we desperately waning. But hearing that reminder struck me. I texted her afterwards:
“Man…hearing you talk about how I always used to say I wanted a soccer team…that did something for me. I needed to hear from that youthful (albeit ignorant) Julia who was so damn confident. I’ve been stuck in a bit of scarcity thinking (‘Please just let us have one! Please!’) and that feeling of abundance, of openness is gone but today, I saw it again. Thank you. I love you.”
What to Expect When You’re Expecting or Trying #1: You Never Know Who’ll You’l Be
Whether pregnant or trying, you just never know. 20 something Julia would have told me not to worry, that I was destined to be a mother. 34 year old Julia felt each month’s passing, each grey hair popping up as a sign that maybe I wasn’t destined to be anything. I had watched friends go through similar situations to ours, joy, heartbreak, trying again and from the outside, it looked so simple. I just knew it would all work out for them but translating that optimism to us wasn’t as easy. Imagine wanting something so incredibly badly for your entire life, having it, losing it and starting back from square one again, never to know where you’ll end this time around. Like I said before, it’s a game of Chutes and Ladders.
The first time I was pregnant, I knew exactly who I would be. I had been planning for her for decades and that optimism (though tainted by not getting pregnant on our very first try) was there. I’d eat perfectly, exercise every single day and power through any feelings of nausea of hormonal rage. I’d be the perfect pregnant woman. Reality looked a little different, a little more like sleeping fitfully for 3 hours a night and waking up at 3 am to eat 7 packets of fruit snacks while manically organzing our medical supplies. A little more like feeling so nauseaous that the idea of exercise was laughable and just the idea of something sweet broke a tears dam I’d apparently built inside of me. I was exactly as I’d planned: perfectly pregnant.
This time around, I gave up my idea of perfection and just went for good enough. I ate what I could stomach which ranged from fruit to…fruit and carbs. Bread on bread with a side of bread? Yes please. My pants were tight within a week. The only time I felt a semblance of the nausea giving up was when I was eating so, I was often eating. Still, I was lucky enough to be sleeping like a damn rock for 8+ hours a night and felt OK enough to do a little exercise every day. Until we hit the road and all semblance of routine flew out the window of our tightly packed car. Donuts for breakfast? Yep.
Looking back now, yes, I wish I would have been “better”. Less sugar, more vegetables but when I put myself back in that place, the idea of a salad made me want to vomit so I have to be proud of any vegetable I got down, even if it was in pickle form. You never know who you’ll be once you get to whatever stage you’ve anticipated. I thought I’d be cool while “trying”. I was not. I thought I’d be “perfect” while pregnant. I was not. I was me, both times, and always. So, do your damndest not to judge others or yourself. We are all just doing our best.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting or Trying #2: There Will Always Be a Next Thing to Worry About
Like I said, I was anything but cool once we started trying. I’ve never been someone who can just sort of care. I’m all the way in, once I’m in and like a dog circling it’s bed for the perfect spot to snooze, it took me a moment to decide if I was truly ready for this thing I’d been wanting all my life. I am an overthinker extraordinnaire but, once we really sat down and made sure we were sure, I was ready to become a mother right then and there. It doesn’t quite happen like that. Enter: worry. Am I fertile? Is he fertile (something that took me WAY too long to ask. I immediately assigned blame to my reproductive prowess, or lack thereof. In the end, everything was assumedly fine on both ends BUT I encourage you to equally investigate both sides of the equation, should need be)? After becoming pregnant, the worry of fertility fell away and I felt completely at ease.
No, no, that’s not right.
I felt worried again. Was that twinge I felt OK? Was I working out too hard? How out of breath is too out of breath? When do I sleep on my side? What about the wine I drank before knowing I was pregnant? Did I ruin everyting??? Miscarrying fulfilled all those worst case scenario fears. It checked all the terror boxes.
This time around, for reasons I can’t explain, I did feel an incredible, overarching calm come over me once I knew I was pregnant. I knew deep down that everything was OK. When we went for genetic testing, I knew it was OK. When we went for our anatomy scan, I knew we were OK but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been completely terrified many times in between (and during each of those experiences).
In fact, about 1 week to the day before our next appointment (they are scheduled one month apart right now) I start to panic. Each appointment seems to bring us up to a milestone. First it was the first time we saw the heartbeat. Next it was hearing the heartbeat. Next it was entering the second trimester. Then it was the first kicks, felt on Christmas morning. Next it was seeing the baby in 3D (terrifying. The babe resembled more of a melted baby crayon since they were partying so hard in there). Next it will be entering the third trimester in the coming month.
With every milestone, I tell The Chief “This makes me feel better now” and with every milestone, he knows it’s only a certain amount of time before it wears off and I need another for comfort. The baby kicking has been utter magic. The baby not kicking as often lead me to tears, tears comforted by our midwife who reassured me the baby has plenty of room to head towards my back where it’s harder to feel the kicks for a while. Still, the worry, it’s constant and it never goes away (or so I’m told). Not when the baby is born. Not when the baby sleeps through the night or becomes a toddler and walks on their own or becomes a teen and drives away for the first time. If nothing else, this process has taught me that I am officially in control of…nothing. I think I feel the nausea returning.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting or Trying #2: Nothing Stays the Same
Before miscarrying, my cycles were a little wonky but overall, consistent enough. After miscarrying, they were utter insanity. Nothing stays the same. Once we conceived this time, my love affair with strawberries was constant for one month. Daily baskets of berries were my bounty of choice. I haven’t had one in months. The day my pants first felt snug, I felt enormous.
Now I look back at those pictures and laugh a big big belly laugh (which, I’m sure in a few months, I’ll think is laughably tiny again).
Yesterday my belly button looked like it was yelling a wide open-mouthed yell. Today, it’s starting to stick out its tongue as my inny, overnight is becoming an outtie. In month one, I couldn’t recall what a microwave was called (I called it The Thing That Makes Things Hot. Thank goodness my husband and I rule at Charades). I’d be mid-sentence, mid-meeting at work and suddenly pull all blanks, watching my co-workers stare at me from their screens. Now, my brain works pretty well, or perhaps I’ve adapted. Either way, nothing lasts forever. The fear, the peace, the certainty, the uncertainty, the pain, the calm, the worry, the wonder. None of it is constant, none of it is always or never. It simply is.
Wherever you are on whichever journey towards whatever your goal may be, know this: you’ve got this. You do. All of these lessons, they’ve been hammered into me by way of this specific journey, but they radiate out into all veins of our lives.
You never know, so don’t judge yourself or others.
Worry is a part of life. You can let it rule you or you can let it be.
Everything changes, good bad and in between.
Be kind to yourself along the way, it makes the path a lot easier to walk.
When to start planting in Alaska
Sometimes, you nail it.
Sometimes, it feels more like you…tape it.
This year’s garden may have been put together with more Scotch tape than a kiddo wrapping her first Christmas present but it is finally done.
While I know you’re probably thinking “Julia, a garden is never done” I would agree but…to me, I’ve reached the finish line and from here on out it’s just lemonade and cookies and pats on the back from myself for another marathon complete.
Did I spread all the wildflower seed I’d intended?
Do I have enough soil left for potatoes?
Do I care?
OK, yes, of course but…overall?
Because, it’s done.
How to Garden in Alaska
While it’s a perennial mad dash each and every year (usually over a weekend) for some reason, this year posed instead as a daily dash, extending over weeks on end. The weekends I should have been planting, I was gone and gone again and the weekends prior had been too cold. Finally, the sun and I aligned our schedules. I was home, she was out and it was time to start planting in every nook and cranny of time that I could muster. This meant getting to work early so I could finish early so that after each 10-hour day, I would have 2 hours to plant, do chores and get dinner ready. This being the worst mosquito year I’ve ever had the pleasure of being here for, each two hour dash included a 20 minute block of time for mosquito preparedness. I’d put on my tall socks, rain boots, long sleeves and overalls accompanied by a scarf, a hat and copious “bug dope”, despite the heat. Still, my protection did next to nothing and each night I’d head to bed, bitten to oblivion. It wasn’t until I’d endured a week of this that I finally thought to ask The Chief if we had bug nets. “Yep! There’s one in my pack.” I rolled my eyes at myself and donned the iconic lewk.
A little more secure from the bugs, I jumped back in with new muster. They’d buzz about my net, a viable storm of mosquitoes and White Sox and Noseeums (No See Ums, get it?! Because they are tiny biting jerks you can barely see!) incessantly buzzing in my ears. “We’re gonna get you!” they’d whisper. Yet with my new apparel, they were only right about 50% of the time. I’ll take those odds. Yes, my neck still looked like a junior vampire couldn’t quite find the right place to dig in for dinnertime but there were no more black eyes from eyelid bug bites and that, my friends, was movin’ on up!
Still, despite my new attire and my schedule, I felt like I was wading through quicksand. After my two hours were up each day, I’d look around and feel as if zero progress had been made. Sure, I’d added copious amounts of nutrients and dirt and compost to the beds. Sure, I’d hauled all the bags between stations and felt as if my arms were about to come off of my body. Sure, there was some visible change but still, there were no plants in the ground and caring for my starts had become a full-time job as an aphid infestation took hold. Dish soap to the rescue! Sort of.
It felt futile but despite my frustration, I kept at it, every day and every day The Chief would come home and say “Great work baby. You are killing it. This is a lot.” Some days I’d look at my plants, struggling under the aphid attack or strangling under their root-bound empire and think “It’s too much. I’ll never get this all in. Maybe I should just bail on gardening this year” but then I’d think of my plant babes that I (and a friend, when we went to Hawaii) had been nurturing since they first awoke from their seeded slumber back when the ground was still snow-laden.
I couldn’t let them down now. So, I persisted and after two weeks of a daily dash and two weekends spent solidly soil-bound, it’s done!
A few days ago I my first nasturtium bloomed and two weeks ago, the first zucchini and the necessary accompanying flowers came to being. I pollinated the little green babes by hand and now see traces of the grand squash of summers past. The cabbage, grumpy as could be in their containers have been stretching their leafed limbs, settling into their new, much expanded, soil abode. Every day I look to see if the carrots have come up and each time try not to listen to the voice that says they should have been in ages ago because while it’s true, it doesn’t matter. They’re in now. Do what you can, little ones.
It’s not the family feeding plus overflow to give away production I had anticipated when I sowed those seeds all the way back in April and it’s not comprised of solely things I grew from seed. Still, without those few additions, I wouldn’t have the brilliant begonia or the punk rock black dahlia that reminds me of our wedding who greet me on our porch every day.
And, years ago, I would never even have considered planting an entire garden from seed. It’s wild the standards we start to set for ourselves instead of simply looking back to appreciate how much we’ve grown.
So, no, it’s not the “perfect” garden I imagined, whatever that means, but it’s a garden that, slowly but surely, came to being. This morning, The Chief and I shared the first snap pea from the garden. Even if it was all just for that one pea, it would be worth it.
In our world of constant and instant gratification, it’s easy to forget that some things require slow and steady work to pay off and in a place of scarcity for time and warmth, like Alaska, it’s hard to not just want it all right now. Just like when I’d train in the gym for a day and run to the mirror expecting immediate results, I caught myself walking past seeds I had just sown earlier that day hoping for some light speed germination. It’s a good check for myself, provided by this constant place of checks and balances. Growth, of all kinds, takes time. The second we gets too far ahead of ourselves, we’re brought down to earth but…earth is a lovely place to be.
May your process be slow and steady and ever forward, even if they require a few steps back.
P.S. So…how does your garden grow?
In 8th grade, I had a teacher who truly saw me. Despite the polished pre-teen veneer I carefully constructed, he saw what was underneath. In a poem I wrote in his class, I exposed a small crack in the disguise, though I think he had known long before the poem hit his desk. He had me read it to the class. The only line I remember is this: “Deep beneath my sugar shell, there’s the girl I long to be.” It went on to describe this girl, the girl I long to be: someone who wasn’t constantly worried or stressed or trying to fulfill the roles she thought others wanted her to be. He saw her.
Every Friday after that, instead of assigning me the class homework, he would assign me my homework: to take a bath and relax.
Every Monday, I’d look at the floor as I admitted I hadn’t done it.
Eventually, he let it go because he could tell, I think, that it was stressing me out that I couldn’t complete the “assignment”. Still, he would give me a knowing look every Friday and say “Be good to yourself”.
I think it embarrassed me that someone could so obviously see me, see what I needed to do: to relax. I was a perfectionist, extremely hard on myself, and under intense pressure to perform. How could he see that I was drowning under all of that? My sugar shell had cracked.
Over the years, things have improved…a bit. I’ve found my way into the bath to let the worry soak away but it creeps back in. When I’m busy, I think I’ve made progress, that I’ve truly learned to relax. Small chunks of time, like weekends, where I sleep a little later and read a little more fool me into thinking I’ve actually done it, I’ve actually relaxed. Then reality sets in. Like today.
Today marks the first day of my two-week vacation and instead of elation, I felt panic. What would I do today to feel accomplished? How would I know I was good if I wasn’t producing something of value? Earlier this year, I faced a similar conundrum when I had my first month off since I started working as a teen. In the past few weeks, in anticipation of the upcoming two, I’ve prepped for the time off, getting bills paid and loose ends tied up pretty so I could truly just relax. Not produce, not perfect, just relax.
This morning I realized I truly don’t know how to. The Chief agreed. In fact, he’s not sure he’s ever seen me do it (though he’s utterly certain I can). So, I’m setting to work these next two weeks: my mission? To learn how to actually relax. Thankfully, my body is already on the project as the exhaustion has finally set in and it requests my presence in bed (in lieu of a bath) with a good book. So, I’ve jumped off the production train. Now, which direction do I go?
I’ll let you know where I end up.
Wishing you and yours all the best in this holiday season.
With love and (hopefully) relaxation,
P.S. Thanks to you, Mr. B for trying to teach me to relax, even if I haven’t quite gotten there yet. I’m working on it.
P.P.S Have you mastered the art of relaxation or do you struggle as well? Share your story in the comments section!
I’ll admit it, I’m hell-bent on patterns.
“Patterns?” You ask? Yes, dear friend. Patterns. And no, not the plaid and houndstooth of the world. No, no, no. Patterns! You know, the type of patterns that aren’t actually patterns at all but rather one time happenings we aim to replicate into eternity!
For example, The Chief and I have a really nice evening. We happen to have meatloaf for dinner. It happens to be Monday and suddenly…poof! Meatloaf Mondays are born. That kind of “this was good, may it always be so” type of pattern. I’m always trying to sell The Chief unsolicited tickets to my patterned events: Sunday Strolls. Take Out Tuesdays. Sweep Up Saturdays. Chop Wood Wednesdays. It seems I’m a huge fan of “always” and a downright devotee to alliteration.
And perhaps that’s OK, no? A little bit of organization never hurt anyone, right Marie Kondo?
In my search for continuity, I seem to “find” patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist.
So last year, when I had a downright banner year in the garden, I assumed (read: decided) that was how the garden would go from there on out. Perfectly.
All the warning signs that I was experiencing pattern blindness were there. Some of the best gardeners I know had quite difficult years last year due to pests or pole vaulting moose or the reason scariest of them all: the unknown. Eek! Still, despite seeing the ebb and the flow in even the best gardeners, this emerging seedling of a green thumb looked at my beautiful brassica bounty and assumed it would always be so.
Clearly, I’m not winning any Best at Living in the Here and Now awards.
As the season came to an end and I did my best to put up what I’d grown and as the snow came, I tucked in the garden until next year.
The year that should have been just as good as last year. No, better!
I get attached to “patterns” even when they’ve yet to begin, even when their outcome is unlikely.
Yet sometimes patterns pan out, like seeing the same first flower every year, year after year, once the snow starts to melt:
I “see” a pattern and decide it’s a downright guarantee and while that’s totes adorbs and all, it turns out that even though I can apply mandatory patterns regarding food consumption or chores to myself, applying those patterns to others doesn’t go so hot. Especially when that other is Mother Earth. Mama don’t play that game.
Or does she?
If you’re still wondering, I have photographic proof that she, in fact, does not.
My cabbages that grew big as beach balls last year seemed not to have gotten their return tickets to 2020. This year’s cabbages have made no suggestion that they might decide to head up, lounging instead as small to medium leaves acting as shields for more delicate crops in our rainy year. In fact, the largest cabbage I have in my garden to date is one I threw in the compost last year that somehow overwintered and came back to life as a triplet. I kid you not.
So, I stand corrected: one cabbage got a return ticket this year and petite as she is, she’s putting all her leggy, leafy brethren to shame.
So, clearly, this year, the year to beat the banner year has been a bit of a dud in some ways. Certainly, it started out with a thud. I started my seeds early, earlier than I ever had in order to get a jump on things. The world was (is?) falling apart (yet never fear, here are some tips to wait out the apocalypse) as we know it and food shortages seemed to loom in our future. Being a “mere” 8 hours from the nearest large grocery store, I hopped to it. I would provide for our family for the summer and the following months to come.
My seeds had another idea. Since people were running about all Henny Penny and seeds were bought up faster than you can say “The sky is falling!”, I recycled them from the year before. Normally, a girlfriend and I share an annual seed order because we are thrifty like that but this year, the seed stores were low and shipping times were prohibitive so we opted to simply reuse last year’s pups. Big mistake?
Or maybe the problem was that the soil was bunk or the trays had a funk or maybe 2020 got wind of our plans and decided to throw her doomsday fancy footwork into the show. Either way, germination wasn’t exactly my strong suit this year. I may not be a pro but I’ve been consistently able to get the finicky Delphinium to germinate so to not be able to pop up a nasturtium, welcome some kale or greet a snap pea? That was weird.
My girlfriend experienced similarly lackluster results with flowers and veggies that were equally old hat to her. A few weeks later, I went for another round, and luckily some of those who hadn’t thrived earlier popped into play. I had the basics and the garden would go on.
The spring sunshine, however, would not. We’ve had the rainiest, coldest summer I’ve ever known anywhere. Like Hawaii, we’ve had afternoon showers almost daily. Unlike Hawaii, we didn’t experience much in terms of t-shirt weather until July, and now, come August, we are back to winter layers that never even had the chance to get put into storage. So, needless to say, the slow start of the seedlings never found a helping hand in the weather and certain things show it.
While others thrive.
Though I may not be rich in sauerkraut from cabbages this winter, we will certainly have squash goodness galore. While my arugula itch never got scratched this summer, beautiful heads of red, butter and romaine lettuce led the charge into the salad bowl. Despite not a single snap pea coming to fruition, the climbing fence The Chief fashioned for me holds a plethora of sweet peas whose scent transports me every time I breathe it in. And further developments like the new stacking boxes he fashioned promise potatoes aplenty.
And while doubles were the wildest combo I’d ever seen my zucchini flowers produce, I was lucky enough to see triplets this year!
So, how does my garden grow?
In a way all its own.
Patterns, while consistent and trustworthy, leave little room for the here and now. I’m certainly not keen to give up some of them (Meatloaf Mondays forever. If you haven’t had meatloaf since the 80’s, I implore you to give it a revamp and another try. Thank me later) but I think, I hope I can make a little more room for the abstract to come and share its wisdom as well. Despite learning the lesson that everything changes (even your face time and time again (though hopefully not ever again in that manner ever), it’s still a hard one for me to accept. Yet, when I take a step back to truly see what change reveals, it turns out the picture is uniquely beautiful, every time.
It may not have been a replication of last year but this year’s garden was drop-dead gorgeous and super productive in so many other ways. The sun didn’t shine into the 80’s every day like it did last year but perhaps we were better off without the wildness a relentless midnight glow can bring. I didn’t buy a single flower this year, as I always have in the past and hoped my few starts would brighten up the place. It’s been the best flower year yet.
The garden didn’t produce in the same way as last year but it did in so many other ways and because the garden took longer to take off, I’ve found myself foraging more in the bounty that surrounds us. Picking fireweed blossoms and wild raspberries, mint, chamomile, yarrow, and more in our yard. Discovering the joy of Orange Delicious mushrooms, thanks to the teachings of a friend.
Moving away from the old made room for discovering the new, perfectly imperfect as it is.
A year’s passed and life has sure has changed. Last year I was up to my eyeballs in cabbage and greens. This year I find myself a zucchini queen. Last year I was prepping for a wedding, this year, an anniversary. Imagine that. Change. Despite the feelings of safety a pattern might elicit, trying to force it to stay finds us ripping at the seams. So, I’ll let go…
P.S. How does your garden grow?
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Confession: I have never been fishing in Alaska.
It’s a gasp inducing revelation, I know. Catch your breath, in and out. You’re going to be OK.
I come from fishing stock, a family where Alaskan salmon was so plentiful that towards Summer’s end, it became a bit more of a job than a joy to eat. Yes, I know how that sounds but as a kiddo, I didn’t totally appreciate the pink perfection of omega-filled goodness. I just saw filets for days and days and longed for a little variation.
Then, I grew up.
Five years ago, I met my person.
All I had to do was:
go to a Friday evening softball game.
There he was. Apparently, whims can work.
On the way to the game, I had felt so incredibly out of my element. I didn’t even know what to pack for an evening out, as evenings out for me in my oh so recent past had consisted of packing a wallet and chapstick and at the last minute leaving my jacket at home due to its cumbersome nature. In Alaska, my girlfriend guided me through stuffing my pack (not purse) to the brim with layers on layers upon layers, bug spray, a knife, water bottle, drinks, snacks, etc. All for an evening out.
Like I said: out of my element.
Until I met The Chief.
It may sound cheesy (but cheese is delicious so, whatever) but the moment I felt his hand in mine, sealing our introduction, I felt like I was home. That knowing touch was all I needed to dive head first into what would be the adventure my heart had yearned for: deep, lasting love. And so I dove, full of fear of the unknown, diving anyway. Just because a love is right, doesn’t mean it’s not scary.
A few weeks ago, I was going through some old posts and found this one: Love in the Woods: Year One. Our first anniversary. I’m a sap for anniversaries (clearly) and celebrate every chance I get and here we were, approaching five years. Year one beckoned me in. Who were we back then? I read along:
“I feel a foundation, now one year old, that has been strong enough to hold us together through all we have seen already.”
Reading this, I felt the heavy weight of a soothsayer, of a future known, already written, unchangeable. I simultaneously felt scorn for my naïveté and wanted to shield my unknowing self from what was to come.
At the time, I thought we had been through so much together. And for the time, at the time, we had. Joining our worlds, traveling, moving, parenting our pup, surgeries and sickness, all of it posed challenges, to our newborn love, yet forward still we went.
Thank goodness. Lucky we were for those small victories that at the time felt so large to prepare us, for we had no idea what was coming:
In half a decade, so much has changed from those early, easy days of love at first sight. We’ve lost more than I would have ever believed, had my soothsayer self tried to warn me. That base we developed early on served us well to weather the blows but cracks still found their way into our foundation. Grief has a way of encircling its victims, pulling them away from their pack, isolating them. Despite our strength, grief still tugged us into our own quiet worlds, away from one another, and we’ve had to fight hard to come back together. Fight to remember the ease of the beginning, to focus on the good, to love our base and nurture its cracks.
Such is life, such is love.
Right before our life flip flopped upside down, I was taking a pottery class. In it I heard about Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese technique where broken pottery is mended, not by using a clear adhesive but by way of a golden seal. Kintsugi translates to “golden journey” and is meant to celebrate an artifact’s past by illuminating its fractures, rather than hiding them.
Five years ago, our pottery was fresh from the kiln, the warmth of our creation made us feel safety we’d never known. Five years later, we’re a storied piece, alight with gold. Our golden journey hasn’t always been easy. At times, I’ve wished to simply cover our cracks, to go back to how we were when life was light and easy, but instead we must honor our cracks. We must nurture our simultaneously fierce and delicate love.
Five years ago, we celebrated all day. We at pancakes, went hiking with our Lou and toasted that night with champagne (the cork from which I still have) to our accomplishment: one year. Five years later, the day was far more utilitarian. We spent our anniversary day in a training together and came straight home to prep for a long work weekend ahead. Our celebration was quieter, smaller, a little less bubbles, a little more depth.
In this year, year five, we’ve seen loss but we’ve also finally felt the light return. The separate corners grief iced us into have melted and the ease we felt when we met, the inner calm has only grown. In this year, so much good has come:
We found our Leto
We had a magnificent garden.
Our marriage was blessed by an overwhelming showering of love that continues still to this day.
We stayed put all Winter and nourished our souls in the beauty that is this place that we live.
Another year, unique as can be.
Five years ago I met my person. The person who drives me to be my absolute best and who loves me at my absolute worst. The person who knows me so well he can tell I’m upset just by the cadence of my breath. The person who smiles ear to ear at every concert, who cheers me on even when I’m sure I can’t do it. The person who dove with me, headfirst into our love and swam with me, hand in hand.
Our beginning was something out of a storybook and thank goodness for that because it convinced me to pay attention to the gift that life was giving. It gave me the undying understanding that this is where I’m meant to be.
Diving into love isn’t the scariest part, it’s navigating the waters afterwards. It’s keeping your head above water, it’s holding your love up when it’s too tired to carry you. Yet, it’s worth it. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s messy, finding The Chief has set my heart at ease, it has brought me home, to our golden journey.
Cheers to love, always,
“Should I bring a hairdryer, or do you have one there I could use?”
This was the first of many faux pauxs I made in preparing for my initial endeavor into the woods of Alaska. It was met with a laugh from my girlfriend and an “I’m not so sure my inverter could even handle a hairdryer.”
So, that’s a “no”?
Don’t bring one?
And you’re sure you don’t have one?
I had no frame of reference for how silly of a question that was at the time. Despite the fact that my hairdryer-less girlfriend had told me multiple times that her only power source was a generator, the off-grid reality just hadn’t hit me yet. It seems I simply saw the on-grid amenities my life in California afforded me coming along on my adventure into Alaska.
My hair would be dry.
Cocktails would have ice.
Showers would be long and luxurious.
I knew some things would be different. I knew it was more laid back, more casual. I knew my girlfriend told me to only pack hiking clothes, a stark change to my normal heeled getup. I also knew, no matter how formal or informal the town was itself, I myself had the opportunity to show up as whatever me I wanted to be. I looked forward to the opportunity while simultaneously was a bit terrified to showcase my new makeup-less look.
Did I still pack makeup? Yep.
Did I get my hair done before going?
Still, in all honestly, before unexpectedly moving to the woods I thought that I was relatively low-maintenance. I actually hated blow-drying my hair but since living in Italy where one of my classmates informed me that I was called Lei Con I Capelli Sempre Tutti Bagnati (essentially, that chick who always has wet hair) I felt that I needed to try a little harder. In perennially put-together Italy, it was an indicator of poor self-care and sloppy timing (I also was often sick in my early 20’s too…coincidence?). It resonated with me.
And so, twice a week I would try to stay cool while I sweated under the obnoxious blowing heat of a hairdryer. Because I was not a fan but did it anyway (despite the fact that I rarely brushed my hair in between), because I wore some but not a ton of makeup every day, I still thought that I was low-maintenance.
Come as you are.
If Italy is the overbearing parent who cares just a little too much what you look like, Alaska is the fun aunt or uncle who just lets you play in the mud. So, for the most part, I’ve spent the last 5 years getting dirty instead of gussying up, wearing overalls and work clothes and jeans and sweatshirts with ponytails or braids instead of heels with fashionable versus functional fabrics with my hair in curls.
In California, despite the fact that I didn’t brush my hair much, I rarely stepped out without it at least looking “done”.
Going to the gym?
Hair was done.
Lazing around the house?
Pretty much done (ish).
So, when I moved to Alaska, where turning on a hairdryer could have blown up our inverter, my hair became a lot more un-done and I didn’t miss it one bit. Sometimes I brushed it, most days I didn’t, and away I went with 15-60 minutes more in my day than I would have had in California. Sometimes I’d twist it back into a bun to dry to give myself some beachy waves or pull it back into a ‘do of sorts but mostly, it roamed free or in a ponytail.
It took me two years and a little more familiarity with (and upgrades to) our power system to realize that, while a blowdryer was probably out of the question (and even if not, having dropped the habit, I had zero interest in picking it up again), a curling iron which drew little power could still take a few tussles with my tresses, if I wanted.
I used it once before it broke and I didn’t think about it again until this last year when I realized that since I was doing my hair for our wedding I would probably need to replace it. It took me 10 minutes and held through to the next day. I loved it. It was bouncy and celebratory. Then this Winter when we took our 6-month celebration photos in the snow, I pulled it out again. Another 10-minutes and voila! Fancy tresses.
It planted a seed, it seems because recently I’ve started thinking: I miss having a ‘do to do.
Throughout my 20’s I had countless variations on cuts and colors and suddenly, mid-quarantine (hmm…connection?) I started to feel like my long style-less locks were a little lackluster. Maybe I’d start dyeing my hair black again?
Hmm…that’s a commitment. Maybe brown? At a minimum I needed some layers, right?
Out came the scissors (insert extremely sinister background music).
I was tired of my nearly down to my buns one length hair. It had been with me through so much in the past few years and like The Chief (who asked me to chop off his shoulder-length locks this Winter), I felt the need for a shift.
Chop to it, little lady!
The first home haircut round went well but I ended up with a slight mullet.
So, I did what every good quarantiner did these past months and consulted YouTube (sinister music gets louder).
I settled on a couple videos on the same variation: the unicorn approach (hint: approach this mystical beast with caution. She’s not all sparkles and magic). Should I have settled on one video and one technique?
Nope. Two different techniques to one approach.
It seems this is how I approach most things. When searching for recipes I lookup about 5 variations and make one of my own combination depending on what we have available. This haircut would be no different. Unfortunately, I forgot that while most of my recipes come out “mmm mmm good”, everyone once in a while they’re a little more “meh”. Maybe I didn’t forget but I certainly ignored this fact.
One might say this is where the trouble started. One would be right.
You know when you go to the salon and your hair looks dope-tastic-fabuloso-put-me-in-a-magazine-straighaway right out the gate?! You and your new ‘do float out of the salon, Tresemme reps at your heels.
Then a day or so later the glow of the salon is gone and you’re stuck with a ‘do you actually have to do yourself that looks a little less stellar and more stale? It’s like buyer’s remorse…on your head.
In combining the two unicorn styles (double unicorn?! That’s even better than a double rainbow!) something went awry.
The shortcut that was supposed to cut off length while simultaneously making perfect layers. I came out the rainbow’s end with some serious layers and pretty much zero relief in length (think layers like steps in a large staircase or even better, multiple bowl cuts in succession). It was glorious.
Actually, it looked pretty darn good at first, I had that salon de Julia glow going.
Then, I washed it.
The “layers” were unveiled and out came the truth: another mullet! This time, uneven to boot! Kind of like multiple mullets…
Now, I will say that when I lived in Italy nearly 15 years ago, the long mullet (which I am currently rocking) was in fashion and in fashion years, it seems about time that it would have finally made it’s way to Alaska (if we were a phone, we’d be a flip phone in terms of what gets here when) so…maybe I was just in time?
I’ve spent the past month with a ding dong ‘do and some days it’s really bothered me. Some days I could care less. Some days, most days, it’s somewhere in between. I’ve gone through every iteration of change from how to fix it to absolutely hating it to liking it. I’ve decided on fixes (Should I just chop it all off? Should I attempt another go? Perhaps just some length this time. Maybe I should get bangs again?) and decided to wait. I’ve felt everything from remorse at my hasty chop job to total apathy about anything hair related.
I’ve gone from one extreme to the other, not only in the last month but in my lifetime. I’ve aimed to love the inside and care less about the outside and then watched myself struggle to maintain that as the outside changed. In the ups and downs and backs and forth, however, I did realize something: my self-love pendulum has finally started to swing a little more consistently closer to the middle than ever before, I just needed the extremes to find out. Before I moved here, I felt trapped by keeping up an image, I was far to one extreme. When I moved to Alaska, I felt like I shouldn’t care at all and sometimes faced ridicule if it seemed like I did (“why are you wearing lipstick?! Is that seriously mascara?!”. Yaaas boo, it is.) that made me second guess myself. The other extreme.
Spiffed up in CA, spiffed up in AK:
I’m somewhere in the middle, somewhere it seems a lot of us might live.
I’ve had women in Alaska ask if they could borrow my lipstick upon seeing me wearing it out one night or comment things like “I sometimes want to wear mascara too but don’t want to catch guff for it”. I hear ya, sister. I’ve also had friends in “the real world” who wished that they didn’t feel (as I did) like they had to put on a “face” every day. It’s ok to want to glam up or glam down. Your beauty throttle is up to you, boo.
I do care what I look like but I care less and I love myself more than I used to, and that’s something. I’m accepting that I do like a little spiff up now and then but I don’t weigh my worth by it anymore. I’m low maintenance to a degree, to my degree. My degree, that will pounce in a mud puddle all day long, but maybe have nail polish on while doing it. That’s me.
We can get purty, we can get dirty, we can find ourselves somewhere in between. It’s all just an outer shell to the inner you, but there’s no need to apologize if you want to revamp that shell from time to time, nor are you required to do so.
So, perhaps I’ll keep trying at the spiff up and pick up the scissors to try my hand again someday soon. Better yet, maybe I’ll finally get to see a professional (and to any stylist reading this, I offer you my sincerest apologies. To my California stylist, my hair and I miss you dearly) to help undo what I’ve done. Or…maybe I’ll just wait it out. Let the sun kiss my locks, let time grow them out, let the pendulum swing.
Winter pendulum, Summer pendulum.
It all depends on which wild hairs I get and which I listen to…the ones who chant “chop, chop, chop” sure have gotten louder while writing this post. The most important voice though, always, is the one that says “I love you, just as you are”. Slowly but steadily, I’m learning to listen.
With love (and currently, no makeup and a mullet),
What about you? Where does your pendulum fall? Got a quarantine cut or story to share? Share on, hair sisters and brothers, in the comments below 👇
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40 Below (Alone)
A week in Alaska, alone, at 40 below zero.
I awoke to the morning of January 3rd in this new decade to a very distinct quiet: I was alone. The Chief and our Third Amigo had ventured off to Anchorage for a supply run and so alone I lay, hearing only the breaths that were my own. It’s a strange feeling, that sensation, that moment of realizing the space someone warms and fills by their simply just being. That tinge of loneliness was enough to motivate me to get out of bed. As I rose, a new level of morning cold nipped at me. The temperature must have dropped.
Dropped it had to a brisk 25 below zero. Our Winter thus far had been a mild one at best, filled with more icy than snowy roads and a Christmas warm enough to don merely a dress with leggings and a jacket. We’d had quick cold snaps where the temps had dropped to 13 below but that was it. Winter light. Yet snap it did that morning into truly cold territory and with it came flooding back all that “cold” means.
First of all, don’t get me wrong, I am not suddenly immune to normal cold. The temps we’d had before were not warm by human standards, they were simply warm by Winter’s standards. Secondly, our cold out here is a dry cold with the rare windy day (though yes, there certainly is wind) which makes the cold a bit more bearable (and personally, I love the cold, which makes it a lot more bearable, for me).
Living in California for most of my life, the temperature never varied in a way that affected me all that much. Sure, we’d prep for storms and power outages but all in all, it was a mild fluctuation of predictable seasonal shifts. Certainly, some days I’d find myself ill-prepared on an unseasonably cold Spring day and have to rummage around in my car (read: my second closet) for another layer but all in all, there was always a newspaper to cover my head in a random rainstorm or flip flops to greet a sunny day. With relative ease and a modicum of preparation, I was typically able to meet the challenges of the elements.
Enter: Alaska. A whole new set of elements where flip flops and newspapers were unlikely problem solvers. For me, it’s been a beast to learn. Yet learn I have and learning I still am. However, just as I’ve learned, I’ve also forgotten as the tricks for one season don’t always blend into the next. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen temperatures of -25. I’d forgotten how it felt, what it meant. As I sat in front of our fireplace that morning, warming myself and our 40-degree house, the little things about life at 25 below started coming back to me. Like the quiet. It wasn’t just the absence of my husband that made the morning quiet, it was the cold. 25 below seems to be the threshold at which things start to get very calm, very quiet. A seriousness settles in.
It was Go Time.
For the first time ever since we’ve lived here, I was alone, in Winter, in Go Time temperatures. The cold temp quirks started coming back to me as I reached for my toothpaste, only to find it near frozen, the icy water with which I rinsed stunning my teeth, flushing the drain with boiling water so it wouldn’t freeze. Leto’s water bowl threatened to ice over as the floor sent up glacial tentacles that grasped me through my slippered feet. I made my first step outside onto The Ramp of Doom which let out a piercing pop as the frozen wood responded to my pressure, the crack all that much louder in the blanket of silence around me. Surprised, I drew in a quick breath, and my throat caught slightly as the freezing air hit it. The snow further announced my outside arrival, squeaking loudly with each step. All familiar signs of 25 below. In just one night’s sleep, everything had changed, the game was on.
The game? Stay warm, stay safe, keep your ship running smoothly.
I was the sole player and it wasn’t just The Chief who was absent. I was also officially more alone in the woods than I had ever been, in any season. All of our neighbors were gone and the closest help was miles away. Still, it was “only” 25 below. I’d done 25 below with The Chief, I could do 25 below solo. So, I spent the day running through mental checklists and chores to prepare for what I assumed would be a few days at 25, maybe 30 below. I chopped as much wood as my arms would allow (since we had zero chopped at the moment), pumped fuel, checked our systems and looked gratefully at the remaining three full buckets of water The Chief and I had filled before his departure.
As I checked chores off the list, I thought forward. The next day was a friend’s birthday and if I could get the house warm and my snowmachine going I figured I’d head out for an hour or two to toast her trip around the sun.
Mother Nature had other plans.
To keep my one mode of transportation in good working order, I’d been starting my snowmachine every day since The Chief had left.
Yet as the temps dropped, my battery, already on its last leg, couldn’t produce power enough to start the machine with the electric start (read: what dreams are made of). Plan B was the pull start but with such a large engine it was no easy feat. I pulled slowly to start, like stretching before a run (and to avoid ripping my arm out of its socket), then eventually full fast pulls. I pulled until I was nearly sweating (at 25 below!) but the engine wouldn’t budge. Knowing that a warm battery had a better chance than a cold one, I set out to pull it inside and charge it.
If only it were that easy.
Try as I might, I couldn’t pry it, bang it or will it free. It was frozen into place. My fingers cursed the cold as I cursed myself for having sent The Chief to Town with the only pair of heavy-duty gloves I had (in fairness, they were originally his and mine were nowhere to be found). Frozen from sweating and then standing at 25 below for an hour, I needed a break. I brought my aching hands inside to warm up and realized my next problem: warmth.
It was already midday and all-day-long I had kept the insatiable woodstove full to the brim but as I entered from outside, the temperature inside didn’t wrap warmth around me as it should have. I checked the temperature. The house was still at a stubborn 59 degrees. I looked at the wood I’d brought inside and realized my problem: wet wood. I did my best to remedy the situation by removing the frozen bark from all the warmed pieces but the water went deeper. In normal temperatures, I’d barely noticed the lack of heat this wood produced but as the temperature neared 30 below a feeling of doom settled in. Still, the house was cold but it wasn’t like it was freezing, right? I could manage. The dogs (we were dogsitting our beloved Kvichak), having made full use (read: a full mess) of the discarded bark told me it was time for a walk to take our minds off the cold (seems contradictory, right?) so off we went. We came back an hour later and before I knew it, the day had passed. I bundled up for bed, knowing the inside temp would further drop as I slept. In I crept to a hardened mattress (another thing I forgot happens in these temps: frozen mattresses!) in head to toe wool long johns, a sweatshirt, a hat and wool socks (exactly the opposite of how I normally sleep). I’d stoked the fire as much as safety allowed, hoping to buy myself a couple hours of sleep.
Come the ringing of my 4 A.M. fire tending alarm, not an ember remained in the woodstove and the house was down to 35 degrees. I was shocked. This wasn’t right. Our stove isn’t the largest but I felt like we’d been able to maintain a warm house and at least a 4-hour fire in the past without losing this much heat. I built another fire and sat brushing Leto (who had decided that right then, along with his best pal Kvichak, was a good time to start his bi-annual shedding) as I waited for enough coals to build up that I could again stuff the stove and get a little more sleep.
Sleep I finally did around 5 A.M., waking at 9 A.M., yet awake to a warm house I did not. Despite building a raging fire at the crack of dawn, I still woke to the bitter cold of our near-frozen home and again, not one ember in the fireplace. Something was different, a shift had occurred. I looked to every Alaskan’s Oracle: the thermometer.
It was 37 degrees below zero outside and 37 degrees in our house.
I needed to get on my feet and moving fast or this house would freeze, soon.
I think we call all agree that the difference between 25 below and 37 below is 12 degrees but the physical difference with each added degree below zero is exponential. Past 30 below, your breath doesn’t simply catch, it nearly chokes you with each inhale. Your woodstove isn’t just a resource, it is a lifeline and…things and systems start to breakdown, fast. Even the smallest hiccup can put the wheels of mayhem in motion. My first Winter, I grabbed a tote that had been left out in the Fall and it shattered in my hands and it’s contents spilled out, ruining half of them. The temperature had been a “mere” 28 below. We were way past that territory now.
Reality started to set in: this was no joke. I had found a rhythm in drying my woodpile but I had yet to find warmth. Try as I might, the temperature inside had not topped 60 degrees and had hovered for most of the day in the high 40s to low 50s. I texted the birthday girl to report that I most definitely would not be able to visit. Snowmachine aside, my 60-degree plight made leaving a no go. Even those who actually had a warmed house couldn’t make the birthday for fear of their house freezing while they were gone. Our house was already halfway to freezing. My girlfriend told me not to promise to reach out if I started losing the battle and things started going upside down on me.
I knew I was in a bit of a bind but having someone else say it shocked me further into action. This was serious.
I cherry-picked my way through my inside woodpile and the driest logs I could. The fire kicked up for the first time in two days. Things were looking up! Yet there was no time to celebrate. It was chore time.
I bundled up in my warmest clothes, protecting every inch of skin minus the very top of my cheeks and my eyes and went outside to get water. I lugged the generator over to our well. I was all set and ready to go. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t get the water hose to thread onto the well. The threads had frozen. I pulled out my lighter to melt the ice but it barely budged as the flame kept failing in the cold. I wrapped my hand around the threads but nearly ripped off the skin as it instantly froze. Next, I trudged into our makeshift workshop to find our propane lighter. Genius! 10 minutes later I finally gave in. It was too cold to flow enough to ignite. Finally, after 30 minutes of problem-solving and failing, I was starting to get cold and the running generator was about to run out of gas. I decided to go for it without the hose. Who needs a hose anyways?
I need a hose.
Without a hose, the water shot straight from the pipe about four feet in the air. I held the bucket above my shoulders trying to catch as much as I could (and prevent Leto from catching the stream he loves to chase), using one bucket to fill the other three. Within seconds I was encased in a frozen cocoon of ice from head to toe. After two rounds of running up and down the Ramp of Doom with 80 pounds of water at a time, the dogs constantly in my way, tripping me as I rallied myself upward, water was done.
Next, I needed to charge the house batteries. Easy. I’d just had the generator running. It was warm and ready to go…but, it was out of gas so I filled it up, started it up, plugged the house in and…our outside lights didn’t come on.
Still, before I could check if it was charging inside, I needed more wood. Especially in cold temps I always try to apply the waitressing technique my friend taught me early on: Don’t move empty-handed. Make every trip in and out count. I chopped a quick armload of wood to bring inside but on the last swing of the ax, I felt something pop in my shoulder. Pain radiated up and down my arm. I felt panic well up inside me. If I couldn’t chop wood, I really was screwed. Still, there was no time to wallow. I loaded up my other arm with wood and headed inside.
Inside, the fire near dead after an hour of chores, I stoked it with new wood as I felt my cheeks start to melt from the comparative warmth of the house. The splatter from the well water had hardened where my eyelashes and my upper cheeks were exposed and immediately my skin started to burn. Still, there was no time to worry about that either as I looked to the batteries and saw that the house was not in fact charging. Just then, the generator started to angrily rev up and down.
After two days of failing to heat our house, struggling with water, countless near falls up and down the Ramp of Doom from dogs underfoot, an aching shoulder, a burning face and now a generator not producing power, I was starting to lose it. I checked everything I had learned about malfunctioning generators and found no culprit. It felt like my little world was starting to, to quote my girlfriend “go upside down on me”. Was I losing the battle? I called The Chief for a pep talk and just hearing his voice made my eyes well up with tears.
“You’re doing great. It’s hard, babe. Really hard.”
The tears threatened to spill over when at just the right moment he followed up with:
“Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.”
Deep breathe I did and I was back. I did have this. I could do this and with a little persuasion, I finally picked the easy route. There wasn’t time to troubleshoot the generator right now. I grabbed our backup and brought it inside to warm. Then, I headed to the woodshed and cherry-picked the best, most checked pieces of wood I could find (a check in a round of wood suggests it’s drier than one without it) and painfully chopped my way through it. Finally, hours after I had bundled up to start chores, they were finally winding down. The new wood fed the fire with gusto and an audible difference in the flames let me know this fire would warm us, which was good because, in the time I’d been outside, the inside temps had sunk again to the ’30s and the outside was near -40.
An hour later, the replacement generator hopefully warm enough, I suited up again for the outdoors, now in the early dark of dusk. In all the frustration earlier, I had forgotten I would need more fuel so off I went to fill another 5-gallon jug. In the cold, the fuel hose had frozen into a kinked position through which no fuel would flow. Again I de-gloved and warmed it as best I could with my bare hands. Finally, the fuel started to flow. I filled the generator and finally after about 20 pulls it started.
I went inside and saw it was producing power (the generator was the problem, not our inverter or batteries, as I had feared) and all was well.
Then, the lights went out.
The generator had died.
I quite nearly lost it (again) but (again) outside I trudged. Luckily, the generator had simply stopped because it was cold. I finally got it started again and this time it took. Cautiously, I went inside. Consistently it hummed.
A few hours later it was nearly 7 pm and the house was finally above 60! I was simultaneously exhausted and elated. At that moment, a next-door girlfriend newly returned from Town (I finally had neighbors again!) texted.
“Champagne? It was for the birthday but I think we should celebrate from afar.”
By the time she came over the house was still a bit chilly but my cheeks were on fire. The frozen water from the well had burnt the top layer of skin, like a sunburn only from cold: frostnip. Thankfully, good conversation and bubbles distract from welted cheeks. The healing powers of girlfriends, eh? I felt rejuvenated and accomplished. I had made it! As she left, I realized what I hadn’t made was dinner (or lunch). I settled on the dinner of champions (or maybe just this momentary bachelorette): pasta with butter (sorry, arteries).
Chalking the day up to a success, I finally fell into bed again after midnight. The house was near 70 degrees and with a stuffed woodstove and belly, I fell asleep.
The 4 A.M. wakeup call felt extra early the next morning. Groggy, I remembered that in our conversation the day before The Chief had asked if the bricks in the top of the stove had ash on them (meaning that perhaps that buildup, in addition to wet wood was adding to our heating issue). Since the fire had been going steadily since he’d asked I hadn’t been able to check. Yet, despite a full stove 4 hours earlier, there was no trace of heat. Now was my chance. I cleaned out the wood stove that was dense with ash and checked the bricks. Soot fell from atop them as I tugged them out, simultaneously realizing I had no idea how to get them back in. A few tense minutes later, everything thankfully was back in place and again. I started yet another fire and headed out into the -39 morning to dump the ashes.
By 4:30 I was doing dishes waiting for the fire to catch. The reservoir of water we use to fuel our faucet had frozen so I did my dishes in a basin, careful not to let any water trickle into our homemade plumbing and ice up. At those temperatures, water freezes almost instantly so even small amounts can take us out of commission fast and the last thing I wanted was to add slop buckets back into our life. Finally, the fire established its coals. I stuffed it full and opted for a few more hours of sleep.
I awoke to yet another morning of a near-frozen house, a woodstove without coals and completely dead batteries but it was ok. I may not have had it totally dialed but this situation wasn’t going upside down on me. Finally, caught up enough on chores and the house warm enough to be able to step away for an hour, the dogs told me how we would fill our time: a walk, at 39 below.
Despite being constantly in my way, they had been very good sports through it all but the stir craziness was starting to hit. Even though they are both Northern breeds, even they can’t stay outside long in those temps if not running and so had opted to be inside, in the way. Thus, we all needed some outside time. I covered my frost nipped cheeks as they amazingly pranced unphased by the cold, minus a lifted paw here and there.
The Chief phoned to tell me that they were delayed and wouldn’t be home that night but would return the following day. Two days before I might have panicked at his extended absence but I didn’t. I had done it. I had made it through 40 below, alone.
The next morning, the cold snap lifted. The thermometer read a mere -12 outside and I finally got the house to near 80 degrees. I love when it’s cold and the house is warm at the difference reaches nearly 100 degrees between the inside and outside. At the coldest of 40 below and the house in the ’70s, the day before the difference had been over 110 degrees, something that still just makes me laugh in awe.
In true Alaskan fashion, things didn’t quite go as The Chief had planned for departure but he was determined to make it home. By 3 A.M., I finally heard our truck roaring up the driveway. After hugs and hellos and unloading the truck of perishables and making and tending a new fire, we were finally both back to bed, cozied up at 5 A.M. An hour or so later I felt The Chief rise from our bed and heard the familiar sound of him stoking the fire. An hour after that, groggily preparing for work, I went downstairs to find that despite the again dropping temperature, the woodstove was alive with glowing coals.
My brain did a joyful backflip while my ego simultaneously sighed. A strange juxtaposition. I was overjoyed for The Chief to be home yet at the same time, it meant I was no longer the lone soldier protecting our castle. After 15 years of living alone in the woods, The Chief’s internal alarm clock awakes him immediately when temperatures drop. Having lived 4 years in the woods with The Chief, I think my internal clock would let me sleep through icicles forming in the house. The Chief has (almost) always beaten me to stoking the fire in the night. The sighing part of me was the part that wanted to continue to better hone my instincts. Yet other parts of me, like my shoulder, celebrated the help.
I’ll always be 11 years shy of The Chief’s Alaskan experience but come the opportunity to have my own, I did and I survived. Looking back on the week alone, I realized how far I had come in 4 years. I’d probably never even have noticed the wood was wet my first year. I certainly wouldn’t have known how to troubleshoot the well or the generator or even how to dress for the elements. Sure, there were hiccups, there were things I could have done better (and will do better next time) but the most important is that looking back, I can see how much I’ve learned. I’ve learned how to care for myself in the middle of nowhere Alaska, in the middle of Winter, alone.
The Chief’s help doesn’t negate my learning. Divvying up labor doesn’t mean both people aren’t capable of either task or that one is more or less important. Resting my shoulder so it can heal doesn’t mean I’m giving in, it means The Chief is stepping in to help and just as The Chief helps me, I help him. His presence doesn’t mean the learning stops and just in case I forget what I’ve learned, I’m sure Alaska has many more trials and tribulations up her sleeve to remind me.
I’m not sure what was in the air or the water or the stars this October but for some reason, the month brought with it many confessions. From candid to long-hidden, confessions came from dear friends and new friends alike, as if the month held a sort of truth serum that all of us had unknowingly drunk (for, of course, I had confessions of my own).
In this growing age of online versus in-person, of creating personas based on snapshots and moments in time, it’s easy to assume that another’s life is just how he or she portrays it: downright near perfect. That’s not to say that across the board, we all simply share the good times and hide the bad. I’ve seen plenty of Instagram feeds with hilariously relatable “fails” or beautifully honest posts. Yet overall, the online personas we often see showcase the best of the best of the very best sides of all of us and sometimes, I think that too flows into our in-person lives.
I think the truth is catching and it caught like wildfire. The truth serum must have been drunk at a gathering of gals early on in the month and from there it spread. That night I learned “dirty secrets” (that were neither dirty nor did they need to be secrets) that made me feel…
Since that night, I’ve aimed to honor that honesty and spread the good word: we all have things we think are odd, weird, ugly, bad or boring when it comes to ourselves but unearthing those hidden weirdos, bringing to light what you consider bad might just make you feel a little bit of good.
And so, in that honest vein, I bring to you: Cabin Confessions, a sort of mini-series within BTB to keep the truth moving through us all, self-included. May it spread your way and help you to feel a little better, brighter and lighter. Or, just a little more normal.
Cabin Confession: Putting Up
Sometimes it feels that upon moving to Alaska, you’re supposed to have already learned all of the “Alaska Skills”.
Chop wood? Of course I can!
Fish? Sure, old hat for me!
Garden? Duh, easy peasy.
Survive in the woods? Yesireebob!
The list goes on and on. The truth is, when I moved here my first Winter I scored about a wobbly, uncertain 1.5 out of 6 on the list above and the above just breaks the surface. Heck, I didn’t even know how to dress myself (and in truth, when the weather changes these days, I still find myself wondering how I did it last season). So, when it came to Putting Up (a term I had never even heard before) I felt my familiar “friend” creep over my shoulder. Hello, Overwhelm.
Four years later, I still feel that sense when it comes to Putting Up food.
What is Putting Up?
Canning fish, pickling cucumbers, drying herbs, making sauerkraut, freezing bulk garden goods, etc.
Basically, to Put something Up means to harvest and preserve something you’ve bought or for more Alaska gold stars, something you’ve grown or harvested (typically in the warmer months), so that you can enjoy it for the colder months to come.
Confession: Nope. Not for me.
Certainly, some Putting Up I fell in naturally with. I love harvesting, though sometimes I have trouble with the follow-through if the follow-through involves more than drying. Thank goodness for tea!
Yet, for some reason, putting up fermented foods has always made me feel more put down, by myself. The phobia I had discovered in California didn’t suddenly melt away upon moving to Alaska (I must have missed the Alaska Newbie Handbook), it froze solid. I can’t tell you how many cabbages I’ve bought at the store to make sauerkraut or kimchi that ended up moldy in the compost. Wasting food out here, where the nearest grocery store is 4 hours away is a serious no-no. Sure, food going to waste happens, but it’s often more of an accident; someone gifted you something you couldn’t quite finish or you had to leave for a few days unexpectedly and your refrigeration failed in some way. It’s not often because you have been staring down your food, too scared to fail and thus too paralyzed to do anything with it, that it goes bad. This year, to ensure I’d really learn the kraut craft, I grew my own cabbages.
The pressure was on but it was ok because this year I was making sauerkraut, no matter what.
A few days ago, I peeked at my last harvest of cabbages, 5 beautiful cabbages I had been lovingly caring for since starting them from seed in April. Watering, feeding, guarding, admiring every day, watching grow bigger and bigger…
They were rotten.
I’ll give myself a slight out to say that food storage in a tiny cabin where the temperature fluctuates between 90 and 40 degrees almost daily is a challenge but…I had also procrastinated for almost a month since their harvest. Sure, there had been an unexpected Town trip and well, I definitely needed to deep clean the oven…twice. I had procrastinated them into oblivion.
* I did, however, eat these first babies up!
My last harvest of beautiful cabbage babies met their end in the compost, joining the many before them.
Not only was it disappointing in the sense that all this time and energy had gone into this food that now lay spoiled before me, not only was it disappointing to have lost 5 good cabbages which could have made endless meals if not kraut, but the disappointment that again I had failed after 6 months of preparation was almost too much to bear. I was so disappointed…in me and I didn’t want anyone to know that I had, yet again, failed.
Thankfully, The Chief was in the next room, a few feet away to hear the sigh.
“It’s OK, we just won’t let this happen next year. It’s OK, Julia. Plus, we still have one cabbage left!”
Oh great, one more cabbage to stare me down as it degrades.
Yet, instead of going down that path, I remembered honesty. I told everyone about my ruined cabbages and as I listened to others lament about kraut cold feet or pickling paranoia I suddenly felt better. Not in the misery loves company way because they were no longer miserable as I was, in the way that I felt I could (finally) get over this, as they all had.
The last cabbage left was a behemoth of a babe that my girlfriend had grown this year. She is an epic gardener (you can read all about it here) and after a dinner date at her house this Fall (read: 2 hours out, 2 hours back. That’s an Alaskan dinner party, if I’ve ever heard of one!) she gifted me one of her gargantuan gals.
I may ruin storebought cabbages and I may ruin my own, but I wasn’t going to ruin hers.
Finally, the answer was “Right”.
Three weeks later.
Meh, better late than never, right? I had been battling this fear for years, three lousy weeks weren’t going to take me under this time (plus, I had some gentle nudging from a friend, moving me slowly but surely along).
So, three weeks later than I had planned on doing something with her cabbage, I finally did.
1 Quart for experimenting
1 Big Bowl of Potluck Coleslaw for Poker Night
1 Big Crock
later and the enormous cabbage was finally gone and…
Kraut is on the way.
I’ve psyched myself up time and time again to do the Putting Up I dream to do here but time and time again, I’ve found myself talking myself down, stressing the details, deciding I’ve failed before I’ve even started and thus, never begun. Perfectionism sure is a sneaky beast that robs you of entering new experiences with lightness or confidence, if you enter into them at all. Yet step by step, uncertainty by uncertainty, I moved forward this time and I owe it all to honesty (and certainly to some truly non-judgemental love from The Chief and friends and to my furry Leto, who sat on my toes or watched me squish cabbage the whole way through).
Opening up about my own shortcomings, or things I just see as such, has helped me to see how normal they are. Certainly, mine may not be yours. You might be scoffing at this little backwoods cabbage waster but I’m certain there is something for you too. Some half-finished project, some goal yet unmet, some hidden habit that you feel guilty or sad or embarrassed about. The good news is: you don’t have to! Who knew?! Feeling bad provides little impetus for change. Feeling bad leaves the cabbages rotting and the sauerkraut supply still empty. So go and tell your tale of your closeted self, whoever that may be. Chances are, the person you tell might really, truly need to hear it and I guarantee you’ll feel better.
Best wishes to you and to all of your quirks and flaws and beauty that make you who you are. You are doing just fine.
Cheers to you.
Cheers to honesty.
May it spread to you and yours and beyond.
With love (and sauerkraut),
P.S. Do you too have a fermenting phobia? My friends pointed me towards Nourished Kitchen, The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and searching Facebook for helpful groups. There are many salt to cabbage ratios but one tried and true method I’ve heard (and tried) is to make it as salty as the sea. If that’s too vague for you, I totally understand. Let the professionals guide your way, it’s not as scary as I thought. I promise.
P.P.S Beneath the Borealis has been featured on Feedspot’s Top 30 Alaska Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2019. Thank you, Feedspot! I’m honored. Check the good company we keep here: Feedspot’s Top 30 Alaska Blogs
This post is dedicated to Danielle. I love you. Thank you for always encouraging me to keep trying new things in the kitchen and beyond.