writing 2020

Living in Rural Alaska: The Library (or Lack Thereof)

As a child, my mother always referred to me as a “voracious reader”.

I relished the title.

Voracious.

It felt energetic, powerful, and important.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Anenome flower

Like the first blooms of Spring. Hello, Anenomes!

 

I consumed books like I consumed pancakes: hungrily and with a happy heart.

As the second child of my family, born nearly a decade after my brother, I often felt more like an only child as I spent a great deal of time alone. Yet alone I never really was, not when in the company of the most steadfast of buddies: my books.

The local library was where all of these buddies lived and thankfully, by the time I was old enough to take myself on outings, we lived a mere 5-minute walk from this literary haven. It was a place of absolute wonder for me. I can still remember the room’s intoxicating symphony of smells all those books created together; pages worn by time, lovingly thumbed through over and over.

Walking into the library felt like a warm embrace, which I needed at the end of each school day. Life at a new school where I was the youngest student in my 3rd, 4th, 5th combination class, was inhospitable, to say the least. I was teased and taunted and spent most of my time in the nurse’s office pretending to be sick in order to be rid of my classmates.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Alaskan Malamute

Leto, you captured the look perfectly! Let’s get this pup an ice cream.

 

The library was my respite, my reprieve, the place where I could be nameless and safe as I jumped into the lives of the characters I read about. I spent most days picking up or dropping off books on the way home from school. My only deviation in between the library and my bedroom was a quick stop for ice cream. It was a routine I loved and figured I’d always have.

Then, we moved.

I realize now, more than ever, that ease of acquisition makes all the difference. Not being able to simply pop-in to check on my book besties as I was beholden to the schedules of others in my very young, very driver’s license-less state was devastating. Over night, the library was no longer a part of my day-to-day. With our move so too came a change of schools (and finally, the addition of friends!) as well as the addition of homework.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Best friends, 5th grade

Don’t be jealous of our outfits. Best friends still today.

 

Suddenly, reading was not solely for fun, it was also for work. As a slower reader, in order to get my homework done on time, the books of my choice were no longer front and center but cast aside, waiting in the wings.

As it does, the increase in schoolwork continued exponentially. By my last stint in college, I was reading (read: skimming in a panic) hundreds of pages every day. My late teens and early twenties found me reading less and less for pleasure and more and more for grades. That is until, schooling Gods sufficiently satisfied for the time being, I found myself a graduate. The passing of that diploma into my hand meant suddenly, I was free to read anything I liked.

The voracity returned.

Bookstores and the library became places I could actually utilize again, not just browse for “when I had time in the future”. The future had come. I made time for reading and my appetite returned, strong as ever. I’d spend whole weekends in bed with my newest book, lost in the tale, entranced by the intrigue of what would happen next. I even found myself a member of a book club, which was a truly sweet full circle: friends and books (and ice cream)?! Oh my!

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, California

Double scoop.

 

All was well.

Then, I moved here, to rural Alaska where the nearest library is 4 hours away, at best.

Luckily, the books here are bountiful. It seems I have found myself amongst a whole town of voracious readers. A book is always being borrowed or recommended or returned. I love thumbing through the pages, knowing a friend has also has sat up at night, unable to sleep for the curiousity of what lies ahead on the next page.

At first, the books seemed endless. The Chief very proudly introduced me to our own neighborhood library, also known as the old outhouse. Yup. You read that right.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Alaskan outhouse

Pretty cute, ain’t it?

 

Yet, after a few years, the pages of books I intended to read have already been turned. Thankfully, yet another resource lay at our fingertips: the local library, The Tony Zak.

A local resident (you guessed it! Tony Zak) left his house to the community upon passing and since then, it has been filled to the brim with community gatherings. We have held events for everything from community yard sales to the annual Naked Lady party (an amazing clothing swap) to Christmas dinner. It also is chockfull of books, floor to ceiling.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Rural Alaskan Christmas

First Christmas at Tony’s (circus games included).

 

Still, I’ll admit, there was a part of me that missed a library like the one of my childhood. The smell of it, the sheer possibility of it, perhaps most of all, the knowing look of a librarian about to unearth in you a world unknown. Here, the selections have already been made by others, like rooting around in a friend’s closet. It’s delightful, but it doesn’t always fit. Sometimes, you need picked especially for you.

Aren’t there libraries in Alaska?

Certainly. Yet every time we go to Town, a leisurely stroll through the library is the last thing on our mind, despite both of our deep love of books (I’ve married a man who consumes books at a rate greater than anyone I’ve ever known. If my voracity is a 5-course meal, his is a non-stop Las Vegas all you can eat buffet. Get after it, babe). Amidst the hustle and bustle of non-stop chores, time to read feels very far away and a stop at the library would expel luxurious time we often simply can’t afford. Plus, then there’s the whole issue of actually returning the books. There was nothing worse to me than the disappointed look accompanying the phrase “Would you like to pay your late fee now?”.

So, I set to rest the idea of libraries for the time being.

Until one day.

“Oh, these? I got them from the library.”

“The outhouse?”

“No, the library.”

“The Tony Zak?”

“No, Julia, the library.”

Say what?!

It seems, my girlfriend had discovered an unknown magic portal to the library!

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Alaskan Buddha

Lead the way, Buddha!

 

As you may well already understand, though I certainly didn’t before moving here, Alaska is massive. Utterly massive. Yet this mass is inhabited by endlessly curious souls, industrious to the bone and so, they deciphered a way to satiate the need for knowledge: the mail.

Duh!

I don’t know why, but I had never thought of it as an option for borrowing before, just buying.

I got online and registered and immediately, it was better than I had hoped.

“Would you like us to curate a collection for your first order or order on your own?”

A curated collection? Yeeesssss, puhhhlease!

While I was able to request certain books, the librarian also handpicked books he thought I might like after personally calling me to discuss my interests. I felt like I was back in my childhood library, looking up into the librarian’s bespectacled eyes with admiration as she inquired to my interests: “Hmm…so you loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, have you read The Diary of Anne Frank?”. How special.

A few weeks later, a beautiful red package arrived with my name on it (for freeeee – insert Oprah’s intonation here – faaaarrrreeeee, people!). It felt like Santa’s giant red gift bag had been flown in by plane versus reindeer and they were all for us.

While the excitement was a little stalled by the Don’t Touch Your Mail for Three Days fun, once I eventually opened it, I was amazed.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Library books, Alaska

All dem books, plus a new rug from an oh so special friend! Love you, D!

 

Amongst the goodness was a letter to us from the librarian who had curated our shipment, a Mr. Giant (best name ever).

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Library in Alaska

Greetings, Señor Giant!

 

As fate would have it, I had also just received a shipment of books from my new job and those, like homework of the past, required my attention first (though they are much less like homework and much more like reading I would have picked for myself, luckily). Still, in the nights, I dove in. Building and gardening and fiction, oh my! My 8-year old self beamed with happiness.

I wrote an email thanking Mr. Giant for the bounty of goodness and, star lender that I am, asked for an extension ahead of time, realizing the work/life book balance would need more time.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Rural Alaska

Grandma, Mom, Julia, Frida, the radio, and books? Pretty good combo for this lass.

 

Soon thereafter, the books were mine for a month longer. Oh, happy days.

Who would have thought that in the middle of nowhere I would land, lucky enough to be surrounded by beauty everywhere and…

books.

Yet another return to childhood goodness, in the wilds of Alaska.

Happy reading, all!

With love,

from Alaska

 

P.S. What are you reading these days? Comment below to let me know!

 

Beneath the Borealis, Living in Rural Alaska, The Library, or Lack Thereof, 05:18:20, Life in Rural Alaska

My latest nighttime adventure. Loving it.

 

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Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, The Chesters of Alaska

Alaskan Puppy Love

Alaskan Puppy Love

A few years ago, I was talking to my nephew about our beloved dog Cinda. I was telling him how every morning, after her breakfast, she would set off on her neighborhood rounds. Around the ‘hood she would trot, bidding good morning and begging for treats, eventually returning home to stand guard of her kingdom.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Cinda in Alaska

My Lou, my love.

 

He was amazed.

For her persuasive puppy ways? Her treat-seeking ingenuity?

No.

For her ability to get through the fences.

He evaluated her, a regal dog lady in her later years, and remarked:

“Oh wow, Auntie Juju! How does she get through all the fences?!”

Fences?

Of course.

He lives in a sweet little wooded area himself and is no stranger to vast open areas of land but even the largest plots of land still have fences.

In a town where I could probably count on one hand the number of fences I know of, I had completely forgotten about them. Fence-less life had become so normal to me that his sweet surprise brought me back to reality: these dogs have it good.

No fences, no leashes, sometimes without so much as even a collar to hinder their wild spirits, with millions of acres to roam.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Hiking in Alaska

13+ million acres to roam.

 

Cinda had it good and trick or treat her way through the neighborhood she did all the way up until she passed. So, when we found our new ball of fluff and welcomed him home, we assumed he’d have the same fence-less life.

Right?

Well, kind of.

The poor pooch came down with Parvo before I was even able to pick him up. Then, once he puppy powered(!) his way through it, we were sequestered to the house for 6-weeks. Never once did he go outside without me and always attached to a leash. This grated against his punk rock Papa who made Cinda wear a collar, which he dubbed her “City Clothes” only when we went to Town. Eventually, Leto’s quarantine ended, and off from the leash he went, collar-less, mildly leash-trained, and ready to roam.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Leto in Alaska

Leto, when he was just a wee one.

 

Free to be.

Until a few weeks ago.

Among the multitude of COVID complications, I never would have guessed that puppy love would have become a problem. You see, Leto is a lover. He’s one of the most social dogs I’ve ever known. He LOVES people, big and small (though he’s especially fond of babies). Yet in the time of COVID, despite his fence-less life,  physical contact with his neighborhood besties, both furry and fur-less (well, maybe just less furry) has been notably challenging for this playful pooch. No going inside for his good morning rounds, no fun. And despite his fence-free life, he’d never wandered farther than the neighborhood houses he knows. Until…

Puberty.

Oh, what a joy.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Alaskan Malamute Attitude

Whatever, Mom.

 

You see, just as Leto hit the prime time for neutering, COVID-19 swept in. Not only was our trip to the vet on hold due to travel bans, but our banned travels would have been futile, as our vet had gotten stuck out of state and wasn’t allowed back in.

While puberty was a bit, umm, obnoxious (think: newfound possessiveness over his body-length moose bone, constant grumpy face instead of the happy to see me puppy of the year past) it wasn’t any worse than anything we’d already dealt with from our little Leto beast. It turns out, however, that puberty attitudes were nothing compared to the next hurdle his steadfast testicle friends posed:

Puppy love.

A friend’s dog we’d dog-sat last year named Piper, is one of Leto’s favorite girlfriends. She chewed on his face so much that she gave him hotspots and still, he went relentlessly back for more. He was enamored. I would look out the window and there he would be, on his back with her dragging him by the neck through the mud. Leto was the ultimate pushover for her (are you also having flashbacks of your twenties right now? Eek!). The puppy love bug was strong.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Alaskan Malamute I Love You

Love bites.

 

Although they hadn’t seen one another in months, every time The Chief would return from seeing Piper’s Dad he would go crazy. Still, he stayed home. Until one day when he decided that if his girlfriend wouldn’t come to him, he would go to her. It was the farthest he’d ever wandered but I figured the isolation was getting to him and this behavior would be a one time blip on the radar.

Silly Mama.

You see, it turns out he discovered something on that visit, something I wasn’t aware of:

Piper was in heat.

His courting started coyly, with Leto greeting each early morning with a long and lonesome “Hello” howl to her. Unaware of the cause of the howling, I assumed it was just a new phase, he’d found his voice. It was cute and a daily reminder (though 13 hours early for the 8pm Howl) that we were all in this together, this quarantine life.

Apparently, the message wasn’t for us, nor was it getting through.

A few days after his howling Hello’s had begun, I got a call: “Leto is here” Piper’s Mom said. Miles away he had gone, again. I went to retrieve him and Piper’s Mom said: “I think she might be in heat”.

Oh.

No.

Still, to be honest, I didn’t think much of it.

Leto, on the other hand, did.

Transformed by the visit, his morning howls grew in intensity and frequency.

All

day

howling.

All

night

howling.

Our neighbors love us.

So, we brought him inside more often than not and listened for hours on end to his lonesome lullabies.

 

 

 

His once cute and mournful cries were now hoarse from exhaustion. He would howl so hard his voice would give out, howl so hard he would knock himself over.

It was lovely.

Working from home was even more lovely. I’d watch longingly as The Chief would set out for the day. “Bye! Let me know what life without earplugs is like!” I’d think.

Three walks per day still weren’t cutting it. When he wasn’t howling, he was sleeping from the sheer exhaustion the howling caused.

Finally, one night at 2 am, we broke. By 3 am, I had consulted every puppy resource I had and the verdict was out:

Good luck!

This won’t end until her heatwave does.

More good news?

Heats can last from 2-4 weeks.

Oh, joy.

It turns out that in comparison to the horror stories I read online, we actually had a pretty cush situation with our Leto.

So cushy, huh?

About as cushy as sleeping on a pinecone.

Two weeks and 74,000,000 howls later, we’ve discovered a semi-successful Ignore and Reward system but boy oh boy has working from home with a howling 1-year old Malamute been a pleasure. Thank goodness for the mute button in online meetings and noise-canceling earphones. Sometimes, they even work!

And so, in his first year around the sun, we’ve come full circle: quarantined again. Every move he makes is attached to a leash, except for the few times I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt and been sorely reminded that no amount of treats can dissuade nature’s call. Again and again, I’ve made the drive over to Piper’s house to retrieve him, tail wagging.

“Mom! So good to see you. Thank goodness you’re here. Can you let Piper out for me? We have some, uh, business to attend to.”

Two crazed puppies in love.

One night, he stayed under their stairs all night long. A real Romeo, you know.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Peek a Boo

One of his best tricks. Peek a boo!

 

Finally, we are staring down what must be (please, oh please) the last week of her heat. The howling, so loud it rattles the walls, has become ever so slightly less frequent and his manners have improved. He is, however, on a seemingly love induced hunger strike this weekend but, as I’ve been reminded time after time, this too shall pass. Leto has finally accepted his tied up fate (something we vowed he would never do to a dog) for the most part and has even become a bit of a gentleman on the leash.

A few months ago, at a Ladies Night, back when such things weren’t relegated to Zoom, I mentioned that Leto wasn’t as leash trained as I had wished.

Be careful what you wish for.

Despite the fact that we live in a leash-less, fence-less place, my goal had been to train Leto to acceptable standards. What were those standards? The Chief and I had different ideas of what acceptable meant and without an agreed-upon agenda, things got confusing for the young lad. Enter: puberty and things started getting messy.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, Shake it Off

“Shake it off, Mom” – Leto, in the lower left.

 

Lucky me, I got my wish, and training became a must, as did a family plan. Forced by the piercing cries of our oh so lovesick pup, we had no choice but to land on the same page and for that, I am grateful. I’m also grateful for understanding neighbors and for trees to somewhat bury his lovesong sounds.

Oh, Alaska, you sneaky beast, always lying in wait to serve us up the lessons we avoid best and need most.

Thank you.

Despite the frustrations of the last few weeks, the family fights and the utterly “I’m going to lose it” inducing cadence of his howls, Leto has provided us with an opportunity to grow as a family. I’m not saying it was pretty but it was worth it. Hopefully, someday soon, to the vet, we will go.

Cheers to you. May your unexpected COVID conundrums be few or if many, may they soon subside. Best wishes in these strangely trying times.

With (puppy) love,

from Alaska.

 

Beneath the Borealis, Alaskan Puppy Love, The Chesters of Alaska

Family portrait, minus the Fluff