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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Can I Fix It? Yes I Can!

In the course of inevitable conversations about the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, discussion often turns towards the ten-thousands of people who foolishly chose to stay in New Orleans, despite repeated grave warnings, and a mandatory evacuation. Why would anyone stay?

Depending on who I spoke with, multiple reasons were suggested:
- Some cited poverty – a willingness to leave but a decided lack of financial resources to do so.
- Some suggested a lack of information, and perhaps the lack of an educated, historical context for processing what information was received. (Anyone who’s ever read Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm,” about a massive hurricane that struck Galveston, TX – as Bruce and I had – would have hit the high road immediately.)
- There were surely the contingent who asked themselves, “How bad can it be?”
- And the others who thought, “Well, we made it through Camille okay...”
- And also, “These things are never as bad as they predict.”
- There is also stubbornness, plain and simple, like old-timer Harry Truman who refused to leave Mt. St. Helens even when faced with the massive 1980 eruption that killed him and 56 others.

Certainly it was different for every person. We’ll never know all the reasons, though we can learn from their collective experience – better safe than sorry, especially for those of us who have children depending on our every decision. (I still cringe at a pre-storm interview I saw with the mother of a two-year-old girl who said they and her husband would be “riding it out” in their boat in the harbor.)

One particular conversation I had with a friend here in Anchorage gave me a bigger picture analogy to work with (I’m all about the “bigger picture.”) It wasn’t so much what was said, but who was saying it. The person to whom I was talking is not without personal weakness and fault. At the risk of revealing too many personal details, suffice it to say a great deal of brokenness and hurt are a part of this person’s psyche. This brokenness intrudes more and more into daily life, and, as it goes unaddressed, more and more loved-ones are being affected by it.

Many people in the southern coastal areas hardest hit by Katrina erroneously believed that they could “ride it out,” simply by mustering up the courage to do so, and perhaps because they had weathered difficult storms before. Despite all the technology we have to tell us when and with what force the storm would hit, people ignored the municipality’s pleas to flee from the danger, seek help and shelter elsewhere, refusing to acknowledge that some things in life are just too big for even the cleverest and strongest of humans to manage.

In the same way, my friend erroneously believes that internal wounds can be self-healed with enough determination and willfulness. I wish I had had the presence of mind to allegorize the hurricane victims during our discussion. Perhaps then a seed of something would be planted, perhaps positively guiding this person to seek help in sorting through the onion-layers of lifelong hurt.

Sometimes it is only through analogy and allegory that we ever truly see our lives clearly, but, even then, only because we choose to do so. Saying something at that moment might have done nothing at all.

I don’t think my friend is alone in wading through life wounded. Nor unique, is the idea that we can fix ourselves alone if we just persist, persist, persist. I think sometimes the wounds in our lives go too deep, and are just too jumbled together to be made sense of alone. Sometimes it isn’t even wounds, but an innate stubbornness and pride that cause us to want to trudge through life single-handedly, doing it ourselves. As a consequence, we can find ourselves emotionally, and often physically, alone.

I guess maybe I shouldn’t generalize so much. Not every person is determined to fly solo, but I certainly do, and with the self-isolating behavior I described in my earlier essay, “Puzzling Through Life,” I tend to try and fix myself, talk myself through things. I am ashamed to admit my weaknesses and brokenness.

When I was a much younger person, and I was still trying to figure out a successful way of communicating with the rest of the species, I, for a time, attempted to make contact by using a “wounded-heart” method. I thought if I appeared helpless and troubled, people would flock to my side, asking what was wrong, where did it hurt, and that by pouring my woes on others, intimacy would result. What I discovered was that this method works, but only in drawing a certain sort of person – the sort who is also hurting and helpless.

My friends and I would take turns wallowing in self-pity, and for awhile this was great, but as I got older I realized that all of us crying-out types were really crying-wolves, with the real issues completely overlooked. So consumed were we with self-centeredness that we were incapable of not only helping ourselves or each other, but incapable of truly having balanced and healthy give-and-take relationships with anyone.

As I matured, I gave up this method of friendship-making, but again found myself back at square one. How to engage in healthy relationships? Well, first of all, I needed to identify emotionally healthy individuals. Once identified, I had to tread carefully, sure not to scare anyone away by revealing any lack of emotional health on my part. When I discovered this method worked much better, and attracted some of the dearest people I’ve ever known, I patted myself on the back and did my best to bury my ugliest flaws from them. So now I’m at the other end of spectrum, still trying to figure out how to balance it all out.

I am at a place in my life where I recognize there are old wounds, but am not convinced they are bad enough to do anything about, other than privately acknowledge them. (There's a difference from a scar and a wound that is still oozing.) I’ll take my wounds out of their box every once in awhile, and sift through them, macabre mementos from the past, remembering them, sighing over them, trying to understand how they still affect me today, then put them back in the box which is safely kept under lock and key.

Because I do not see these skeletons intruding (at least not much) into my daily life, I mostly leave them alone. If my marriage was threatened, or my parenting skills compromised, then it would be clear the damage needed a serious repair job. Even though I don’t bring my brokenness to an institutional setting, I do use my faith as a tool to lube, oil and otherwise maintain my Self. I genuinely believe that in my particular case, this is enough. And why absorb resources from others who are more desperate than I?

What, then, about people, like my hurting friend, who do not have faith, or doctors and counselors, or friends they trust, to help? I think then, if the wounds are deep enough, it is like the breaching levees in New Orleans, the trickle becomes a flood, and the flood scours deeper and deeper into the ground, saturating and tainting everything. And there is the potential for the flood to be as “seemingly impossible” (to quote the governor of Louisiana) a situation to fix as there ever could be.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are not going to be able to repair themselves alone. It will take the effort and cooperation of millions of people in an unprecedented endeavor, to repair the levees, to the pump out all that filthy water, clean up the mess and finally, begin to rebuild. In order to rebuild, certain steps must be taken. It is a painful and difficult process; it can take a long, long time; and a great deal of resources. Such a job cannot be done alone.

The bottom line: it's hard for me to be too critical of the citizens of New Orleans who stayed. In my own way, in other less tangible realms of life, the same inner engine is similarly churning.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fiction: "The Jolly Postman"

Okay, here's the deal: this feels like a bit of a cop-out, because I wrote the following piece back in April. But I figured that somebody might be interested in reading one of the few fiction pieces I've ever produced. The context for this was a Writing Group assignment in which each of us got a postcard with a cartoon on it, from which we were supposed to get inspiration for a +/-1200 word short-story..

My postcard was called "The Jolly Postman" and aside from an actual smiling postman, also seemed to include characters from various nursery rhymes including Jack and Jill, a fuzzy bear in a striped tshirt, some bunnies and maybe even Humpty Dumpty.

"Good Lord, what am I going to do with THIS?," I wondered. Well, what I did is what follows. The gals in my Writing Group (Darlene and Kathryn) really liked it, so here it is (be kind):

Step on a crack; break your mother’s back. Step on a crack; break your mother’s back.

How many times have I broken my mother’s back?, the postman wondered as he ambled down the tree-lined sidewalk. Almost every day for the last 37 years, Harold Jolly had delivered other people’s mail in every kind of western Oregon weather, wearing every possible combination of federally-approved attire. He had worn out countless pairs of shoes; shoes he never used during his off hours. His off-duty shoes, meanwhile, had not needed replacing in a decade.

Every day, Harold toted his work-shoes to the post office in the same canvas tote bag, once a notable traffic-cone orange, but now faded to watery pink. His wife had purchased the bag up at the 1982 Timberlane Annual Frog Festival, the logo of which had gradually worn off from hard use.

Like most postal workers whose route is accomplished on foot, 59-year-old Harold was lean and healthy. Spring through mid-fall, his face, arms and legs tanned to a healthy-looking brown. During the remainder of the year, he looked only slightly less fit – the tan faded gold and his cheeks reddened from brisk winter air.

Today his shoes were new and his face flushed, and from all appearances Harold was at the top of his game. Yet, when the residents along his route happened to spot him walking down their street, they barely registered it, so familiar was his presence.

Mariel Hodges thought to herself, There’s the mail; it must be nearing three o’clock. I’ll need to get that pork loin out of the freezer for thawing.

Kaitlyn Chow bolted for her mailbox as soon as Harold flipped the lid shut, so eager was she for the latest issue of Seventeen. In her characteristic teenage way, she did not acknowledge the man who delivered her magazine.

Upon spying Harold through his bedroom window, Brad Stuppens disregarded the small inner-voice warning him that the three beers he consumed daily before mail-delivery indicated a drinking problem.

Harold noticed these people and others only slightly less than they noticed him, reflecting instead on his shoes. The new pair would be the last he would ever wear on this route. With only one week left until retirement, he anticipated walking away from the post office for good with the stitching still tight and the leather still creaking.

Golden sunshine dappled the sidewalk as Harold continued on his route, and for all the people he encountered outside this early spring day, none greeted him. Sure, he noticed the glances of recognition and the occasional polite smile, but he was only too aware that few ever spoke to him and none knew his name. He, however, knew every one of theirs.

Mail is a funny thing. Mail-carriers know a good deal more about individual households than their inhabitants dare to consider. Return addresses, addressees, postmarks, company names, all these things are pieces of a puzzle that after enough years, gives attentive postal workers a fairly decent idea of what happens behind closed doors and darkened windows.

Deliver enough mail, and one starts to recognize return addresses, even when the sender’s name is not actually listed. Some companies, like credit cards and mail-order distributors, own their own zip code. To the postal worker, there is no such thing as anonymity. Harold, privy to the hypocrisy and eccentricities of the average person, wielded a knowledge of the people along his postal route that none imagined.

April Hutchence received five different culinary magazines, but apparently didn’t do much cooking because on garbage days, Harold distinctly noticed the corners of countless frozen-dinner boxes straining through the garbage bags on her sidewalk.

Mel Stark and his wife Sharon received numerous letters from what appeared to be religious organizations, but Mel also received the discreetly wrapped periodicals which every postman knows contains sexually explicit material.

Heinrich Gonzales, who received a good many items relating to foreign travel and the medical profession he surely practiced, was also the recipient of a great many late notices from various payees and collection agencies.

It was approaching 3:30 when Harold finally rounded the corner where Hickory Drive turned into Drury Lane, the final stretch of his day’s deliveries. Sitting forlornly on the sidewalk of the gray brick house number 3325, six-year old Elliot Bering sat absently nibbling the edge of a frosted sugar cookie. Harold’s mind flashed to the Lego catalogues, Ranger Rick and Highlights magazines Elliot received every month. Elliot was an exceptionally friendly boy on an otherwise unsocial route.

Elliot’s front door was open and through it Harold could identify helium-filled balloons and children running about. Harold was able to identify Mary Lam, Oliver Duckworth, and the Hill twins, Jackson and Gillian, all other children living in homes along his route. Clearly a birthday party was underway, and Harold felt a conflicting flash of irritation and curiosity that the birthday boy was not among his guests.

Upon seeing Postman Jolly, Elliot sprung to his feet eagerly.

“Good afternoon, young man,” Harold bellowed in his most jovial voice, concealing his distaste that Elliot appeared to be waiting for fat envelopes stuffed with money.

“Hi, Mr. Jolly,” Elliot replied with great seriousness. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Yes, I imagine you have been. Sorry to say there’s nothing for you today,” replied Harold, perversely satisfied at not having anything to deliver in the boy’s name, and instead handing over a stack of miscellaneous bills and solicitations addressed to the Bering adults.

Elliot took the letters looking perplexed. “Um. I was waiting for you; you need to come inside.”

Harold now noticed Mrs. Bering standing in the front doorway, arms crossed and a bemused smile on her face as she watched her son.

Elliot continued. “My mom said it’s okay. We’ve got ice-cream cake and potato chips. Can you come?”

Surprised and suddenly chastened to be invited to Elliot’s birthday party, Harold was speechless. He had been thinking of finishing his route, and going home to weed his garden with his wife. Fried hamburger patties and store-bought potato salad were on the dinner menu. As suddenly moved as he was, Harold could not imagine an afternoon with a bunch of small children pinning tails on donkeys or playing duck-duck-goose. He struggled to find kind words of refusal.

Elliot and his smiling mother, waited.

“I’m sure you don’t want an old man at your party…” Harold started.

Elliot stared at him open-mouth, unsure and at a loss.

Mrs. Bering, stepped forward from the doorstep, interrupting, “It’s not Elliot’s party,” she explained. She descended off the stoop and walked towards them. “Elliot heard you are retiring and wanted to do something. The party is for you.”

“Me?” Harold was confused and looked around himself as if there was someone else the Berings were surely speaking to. And as he glanced about he noticed a good number of people looking at them. Some peeked out windows; some poked their heads out front doors. Others were trickling towards them: walking across manicured lawns, down sidewalks, across the street; approaching with casserole dishes, gifts and envelopes. All wore welcoming smiles.

Mrs. Bering – recipient of Cooking Light magazine and correspondence from the Distance Learning Department at New York University –appeared embarrassed and apologetic. “When you’re done with your route – I know you’ve only got this street left – if you’d like to come back, it would be great. Elliot insisted it be a surprise. He did it all himself. We’ve contacted your wife, and she said she’s notified your children – they’ll all be here at four; that’s when the party is officially starting. It’s a potluck. Your wife said you had no plans tonight – I hope it’s not too inconvenient…” She rambled on, clearly reading the hesitancy and disbelief in Harold’s face.

With a shock, Harold began to absorb what she was telling him, and thought, She knows I have a wife. She knows I have kids. She knows I’m retiring. I’ve never even talked to her before – how could she possibly know these things?

In the same way that over the years Harold had passively come to “know” the residents on his mail-delivery route, so he realized, had some of those people come to know him. Without dialogue, without much at all, they had somehow picked up the necessary cues over the years. All this time he had felt invisible and unappreciated, and now, here on Drury Lane, at the end of the street marking the end of his career, he finally knew otherwise.

He dropped into a squat and looked earnestly into young Elliot’s eyes. “Elliot,” he said, speaking the boys name aloud for the first time, though he’d known it for years, since the newborn boy received his first letter from the Social Security Administration, “I would be honored to attend. Thank you for this unexpected and wonderful gift.” Elliot’s face lit up in a gap-toothed grin. “I just need to deliver a few letters and then I’ll be back.”

Harold stood with a renewed heart – a heart aching with goodwill and humility. He patted the boy on his head, delivered a smile to the many faces of the people approaching to join the party, then turned away to hurriedly finish his work.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Danger of Dogma

Recognize the name Timothy Treadwell? His name is fairly common these days. He is the subject of a limited-release documentary film titled “The Grizzly Man,” by German director Werner Herzog. It’s a morbidly fascinating tale about a man who spends thirteen summers in the Katmai National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska before he is eaten by an anomalously predatory bear.

There is also a brand-new book about Treadwell. I started reading Nick Jans’ book, “The Grizzly Maze” in preparation for the film. I wanted to understand Treadwell from Jans’ uniquely Alaskan perspective, before I exposed myself to Herzog’s.

At least among Alaskans, I don’t think there is any doubt that Treadwell was foolhardy and a bit of a megalomaniac. But what I have really taken from the film and the book is that, in many ways, Treadwell’s journey is not unlike the journey many of us face in our own lives. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I found myself relating to and sympathizing with Treadwell’s boiling-over emotions and passions (though I can’t say mine are directed towards brown bears).

I admire Treadwell for his chutzpah. I admire him for his passion, but don’t pity him for his grisly death – he certainly knew the risks. What I DO feel a little sad about is his “lost boy” need for an external validation that he never sufficiently received.

When I moved to Alaska, I felt like I had finally found myself. Not unlike Treadwell, I felt like I was getting away from the frivolousness of society and the big city. Alaska is a place of glorious mountains, water, and wildlife. Its weather is a kaleidoscope of color and sensation. Here, for the first time, I have finally started to feel comfortable in my own skin.

For the first year or so that I was here, I desperately wanted to communicate how wonderful Alaska is to every person I knew. But despite the fact I have had a life-changing experience here, it doesn’t mean everyone will, and I certainly don’t need outsiders telling me that my experience here is a valid one. Where I go and what I do to discover myself is intensely individual.

I can’t help but imagine Treadwell on a similar pilgrimage. The big difference is in degree, and, unlike me, he proclaimed himself a non-religious sort of person. But, like so many of us do, all he wanted was to find his place in this world.

In my opinion, the real mistake he made was not realizing that the journey he was on was not one for the benefit of mankind, or even for the bears, who were already federally protected, but a pilgrimage for the benefit of Self. (By “Self” I intend a distinction from “Ego”.) Perhaps elsewhere in his journals and lengthy video-recordings he admits this, but it is not apparent in either the film or book.

Many, many people seek to understand Self and “purpose”. Timothy Treadwell thought he had made this amazing discovery. He felt he was “chosen,” special, unique. And, admittedly, he did something that arguably no one in history had done before. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to find one’s niche, for desiring to belong to something greater than ourselves. In his own way, Treadwell was doing this. I endeavor to discover my Self as well. However, I’m not willing to become another person to accomplish this end (as Treadwell did several times over the course of his life).

I have seen in my church, and in society at large, a renewed interest in “purpose” and “destiny.” Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” which I haven’t read, but understand the concept of, has been enormously successful. In my church, discovering one’s God-given talents and utilizing those gifts in both career and community-service, is a very big deal right now. Even Christians, whose faith should be their only necessary identity, feel like something is missing. (Those of us religiously-designated to be humble and self-sacrificing still covet celebrity and distinction, we just want it delivered in a holier-than-thou package.)

At one point in “The Grizzly Man”, Herzog makes an interesting comment. Throughout most of his movie he seems to reserve judgment about Treadwell, letting his viewers come to their own conclusions. However, on one particular point, Herzog explicitly disagrees with Treadwell. He explains that Treadwell was often shaken to discover that even far removed from civilization, things aren’t perfect. Treadwell wanted nature’s beauty and majesty to bear witness to its innate goodness. It was for this innate goodness, specifically as manifested in the most perfect of all creatures, bears, that he was willing to die.

In contrast, Herzog’s opinion is the world is a dangerous, chaotic, and murderous place. All creatures are desperate to live, and often do so at the expense of the lives of others. I agree with Herzog. The world, both sentient and non-, is indeed a murderous place.

You cannot be a Timothy Treadwell and endure the wilderness for the duration. Self-preservation means being willing to recognize danger and admit personal weakness. Actualization often means realizing we are small and insignificant, that we are breakable. But that which is easily broken and irreplaceable is also precious, priceless. However, when Ego inflates a sense of self that becomes bigger than ones circumstances, it becomes impossible to clearly see either self or genuine danger. Vision is blurred. Too much “success” among the brown bears puffed Treadwell’s ego as the expense of genuinely understanding Self.

Facing the wilderness of Self can be the biggest challenge of all. We are not naturally good and noble – goodness and nobility are choices. Left our own appetites, we are the savages in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies.”

Treadwell made a grievous error of pride, being unwilling to fully face his own inner turmoil. True change comes from viewing ourselves honestly, from going into the wilderness of mind and motivation, and realizing that the majority of what lies within is selfish and destructive.

The retelling of Timothy Treadwell’s pilgrimage provides a great deal of food for thought. The debate should be about more than whether Treadwell was a hero or a lunatic. Rather, we should be reminded that, he is a mirror for our own passions and convictions, some perhaps as illogical as Treadwell’s; some of which we would die for. Every person wants to be understood, belong, and live with purpose. Why do we believe what we do? Are we willing to have our beliefs challenged from every angle, or like Treadwell, do we turn a blind-eye to the danger of dogma?

Puzzling Through Life

During a recent visit to a friend’s house, I stumbled across a half-assembled jigsaw puzzle. A pot of freshly melted cheese-fondue could not have entranced me more. Ignoring Darlene, I bee-lined for the puzzle and we spent the majority of our visit working on it.

I have loved jigsaw puzzles since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, but since becoming a mother, have steered away from them (if you’re wondering why, then you’re either very stupid or have no kids of your own).

Finding another puzzler is like finding fellow alcohol-drinkers at church: you have to be a little furtive, but when you’re successful, it feels like a gift.

As a result of that afternoon at Darlene’s, the first ever Puzzle Day was scheduled at the house of a mutual friend. Our hostess, Anne, a woman of many puzzles and much generosity, provided delicious appetizers, pizza with garden-fresh veggies, and way too much dessert for the four ladies who attended.

Like many seemingly innocuous events in life, I had an epiphany about myself that afternoon.

What happened was this: we had to pick out which puzzle to do. This was a good-sized effort even for only four women, because there were aesthetics to consider, not to mention difficulty and size issues. While the other three women were negotiating a deal, I took matters into my own hands, grabbing a 750-piece puzzle in a smallish box that sported a painting of killer whales. (Anything “whale” – like fondue, puzzles and books – tends to arrest my attention.) Possessively clutching the box to my chest, I stood aside while the others made THEIR selection.

Ah, the conundrum of compromise. In the end, our hostess, Anne, didn’t get to do either of her first two choices; Karen had to settle for smaller, harder-to-see pieces; and Darlene had to try and relax with the knowledge that her two daughters, whom she’d had to bring, were close-by, playing upstairs in Anne’s guestroom.

While the others worked things out among themselves, I cockily got down to business. I didn’t have to relinquish coveted puzzle-pieces to anyone. Nor did I have to exert effort to maintain my chosen puzzle-territory. The Orcas were mine to accomplish and enjoy. Sacrifice not necessary. YES! The ladies laughed at me, citing this was typical behavior for an INFP (introvert/intuitive/feeling/perceptive personality-type).

So there we were: they crowded at one end of the long dining-room table, and I dominating the other. THEY discussed which direction to face the puzzle and who would have to work it sideways, while I did MINE right-side-up. THEY dumped their pieces on the table and started sorting for edge-pieces, while I daintily fished through MY box, keeping the remainder contained and tidy. THEY set up the lid in order to see the picture, while I, refusing to “cheat,” kept MINE face down.

However, what I eventually noticed, after patting myself on the back for completing MY border, was THEIR laughing and giggling. They found pieces for each other, teased each other for stealing, and discussed which part of the puzzle each of them was working on. When one had great success, the others were quick with congratulations. Naturally, I was not part of the conversation. They were hardly even looking at me or acknowledging me. They were having a great time, working as a team, WITHOUT ME.

I started to feel a little left out. A rush of self-pity enveloped me, and I thought to myself, “This is SO typical of my WHOLE LIFE: always on the outside looking in; never quite fitting in; the odd-man out.”

Then, a very quiet voice whispered unexpectedly back: “You asked for it. YOU were the one who insisted on doing a puzzle ALONE.”

The self-pity vanished when I realized this was absolutely true. No question about it. The nagging feeling of isolation I often feel in groups was, during that particular gathering, largely self-inflicted. Perhaps it always had been. Could it be that what chair I sit it, where I stand, who I talk to, had all played a part in this lifelong experience of being the odd-man out, the wallflower?

A combination of awkward conversational skills, low self-esteem, painful shyness, and nothing-in-particular-to-say have always made inclusion really difficult. At times, overwhelmed by my surroundings, I would give up and beat a retreat.

During parties, instead of sitting down among others and patiently listening to their conversation, I would study the spines of books located in remote rooms. Instead of asking “magic” conversational questions – What do you do for a living? Tell me about your family. What do you do for recreation? – I would be hiding in a corner observing and studying seemingly intimidating people.

Over the years, I’ve improved (though I still have relapses of tongue-tiedness). Since college, in an effort to better myself and overcome my social anxieties, I have studied extroverts, and other socially adept people, for clues as to how they manage to make friends and win confidences. Nevertheless, it has been an uphill struggle.

Self-discovery is a puzzle in its own right. Like the cardboard jigsaws I so enjoy, understanding myself has, thus far, been a piece-by-piece endeavor, thus far, taking the better part of 35-years. With the puzzle-night epiphany – that I am largely responsible for my own self-isolation – another piece of self-awareness fit into place. If I continue to withdraw from others, I need to realize that not only will I be lonely, but that self-pity is an inappropriate response to that loneliness. The point of a Puzzle Party, or any other social gathering, is not to be the boss of my own jigsaw, but to rejoice at an opportunity for fellowship and community.

Even though I made my discovery right in the middle of our gathering, I refused to do anything about it right then and there. I could have abandoned my efforts, destroyed my work-in-progress, sweeping the pieces into the box, and joined my friends. But I didn’t. Instead, I resolved to do better in the future and endure the present. I was not willing to admit to myself or my friends that I was wrong.

Par normal, no sooner do I have an epiphany in one area of life, than I realize there is yet another area I need to work on: pride.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Pests or Pets?

I’ve often compared my household to a zoo. In quiet times, there are eight organisms living here: two adult-humans, four child-humans, and two adult dogs. That's enough wild animals for anyone. Today, it felt more zoo-like than usual.

This summer, my girls entertained a bug phobia. (And I do mean “entertained” – I think they both found it very “entertaining” to defy me in such a round-about way.) Dutifully, I would send the kids outside only to have my laundry-folding attempts interrupted by blood curdling screams. At the height of summer, during those weeks with long, 20-hour days, bugs, particularly mosquitoes, are plentiful in south-central Alaska, so I listened to a great deal of screaming all day long.

Three-year-old Ellie was especially vulnerable, terrorized by the tiniest knat. She would demand to be let inside, clawing at the backdoor with one hand, clutching an bug-afflicted body part with the other. I would carefully examine her for blood or other damage, as any mother would, as she tearfully cried “BUUUUUG!” Of course, by the time she reached me, any ill-meaning insect would already be long gone and having its own post-traumatic-stress-disorder issues. (Bugs be warned.)

Let’s face it, though beautiful and deliciously mild, Alaska summers are short. Every second counts. Even so, after awhile it was easier to turn on the TV for Ellie than to encourage her to conquer her fears and get some fresh air and exercise. (Why does TV seem to be both the answer to and the cause of so many difficult parenting issues?)

Eventually, five-year-old Sabrina unwittingly gave me an idea that helped both girls control their fear, if not conquer it. As many young children do, Sabrina started collecting bugs. She kept them in a small cardboard jewelry box. I have no idea what kind of bugs they were, except to say they were black, winged, and the size of a grain of rice. Most often, they could be found outside crawling on anything made of yellow plastic, which in our yard constitutes a lot – the slide, the swing-set seats, and miscellaneous other kids’ toys.

Though we didn’t know the proper name for Sabrina’s bug, she called each one “Sally.” Exercising her innate motherly instincts, she provided grass for bedding and recreation. When I asked what her Sallies ate, she looked at me quizzically. Clearly sustenance was not part of her care giving. I warned her that all living things require food to survive. But the apparent demise of a Sally wasn’t overtly concerning to Sabrina. Philosophically, she would say, “I just keep her until she’s dead, then I find another one.” (This from a child who once dubbed a piece of scotch-tape stuck to the wall as her “hamster.”)

With the birth of “Sallies”, Sabrina’s encounters with bugs turned from terror to opportunity. (Really, this is a miraculous occurrence, given that “bugs” played a large role in Sabrina’s potty-training – someday I’ll get around to telling THAT story.)

Capitalizing on her sister’s change of heart, I was soon able to convince Ellie that there is a distinct and critical difference between “bugs” and “Sallies”. “Bugs” are frightening and fear inducing. “Sallies” are friendly and lovable (if somewhat revolting).

This concept has continued to develop.

Now, when an insect gets trapped inside the house, in order to promote its benignity, I refer to it as a “Sally.” This means, however, I am no longer allowed to kill it. It has been magically transformed from a pest into a pet. Hence the presence of three bugs currently residing in my house. One, a large, black horse-fly, has been dive-bombing my head for the past three days. (I guess I should be somewhat thankful I’m prohibited from killing it, because, before it was officially a household pet, I tried and couldn’t catch the damn thing.)

There is also the tiny crablike spider currently living on the space of wall above our kitchen cupboards. She’s been there several days, and moves from time to time – first above the sink, then to the area above the glassware, then making a long journey around the perimeter of the kitchen to the space above the formal china. The children needed to be reassured that the spider in this drastically new location was in fact the same “pet” as the sink-spider – whose name, incidentally, is NOT Sally, though I have completely forgotten what it actually is. (You CANNOT call an arachnid “Sally” – this is an unspoken but understood truth in our household.)

The third creature is an undetermined black spot twenty feet overhead in the topmost niche of our living room’s cathedral ceiling. The kids were once again concerned this might be a rogue “bug” in the house, but if only because of its inaccessible location I assured them it, too, is surely a pet.

Today, our household added yet another temporary pet to the zoo. This one, however, instilled much greater wariness into the girls, if only because of its excessive size. (The boys were typically easygoing and unfazed.)

Our next-door neighbors are lovely people who, in two years, we should know much better than we do (I can’t even remember their last name most of the time). These folks own an absolutely gorgeous Bernese mountain dog. (If you haven’t heard of one, picture a Newfoundland with the coloring of a rottweiler, with a long fluffy tail. Or see the picture located above.) Riley (I don’t even know if this is the correct spelling) is a couple years old, a spayed female, who is very smart and very social, and because four of her five owners are currently out of the state, with the fifth working all day, has discovered numerous ways of escaping her backyard enclosure in order to make human contact.

Last night, upon my return home from work at the gallery (http://www.stephanfinearts.com/), at about 10:30pm, I let out a bloodcurdling scream of my own when I opened the door of the Outback and there was this HUGE FACE right there panting at me. It was Riley, and we spent about 20 minutes of knocking and walking, trying to get her either back indoors or in her backyard. No one was home, but just as I was ready to give up and bring her into my own yard for safekeeping, the daughter of Riley’s owner (does that make her Riley’s sister?) came home, and Riley was saved.

Sure enough, this morning at 9:30am (I’d been downstairs for all of five minutes), Ellie said, “Mama, that dog is outside again.”

Sure enough, Houdini had escaped again, and between the knowledge there was no one at her house and we were having a severe windstorm, I dragged her into my house. (This was much harder than I’m making it sound. Though by the end of the day she was exuberantly bounding through my front door at the merest call of her name, that morning she must have thought was going to make horse-food out of her. She kept trying to wrench away from the grasp I had on her collar, and found her teeth a useful tool in doing so.)

Meantime, I discovered Riley is the perfect dog. My border terriers, Juneau (age 10) and Seamus (age 8 ½) are scavengers, bad-mannered and indolent. But Riley, though the top of her head was the same level as the countertop, was a perfect lady, never once grabbing the five-pound block of Tillamook while I made grilled cheeses, or jumping up on a single kid. She didn’t bark once all day (come to think of it, I’ve never heard her bark EVER). She knows all her basic commands and ceaselessly wags her beautiful bushy tail. She smiled so much that Jack, my seven-year-old, asked complainingly why OUR dogs never smile. Though she seemed uninterested in using the “powder room” outside, neither did she take care of business inside. She was a delight, always by my side, gazing adoringly at me with her mahogany eyes, and nuzzling my leg with her muzzle (as if she were a small horse.) She let Evan sit on her, Ellie feed her, and completely avoided a terrified Sabrina.

Of course, it’s always a stress to have a strange animal in your house - especially one that outweighs your one-year-old by at least 75 pounds. I made sure I knew where she was at every second, and never left her alone with my kids or dogs. But, she never once did a single thing that caused concern. I must admit, I am a little in love. When the owner’s daughter finally returned home from work, I offered to watch Riley the rest of the week, but she graciously declined.

I’d always admired Riley from a distance, daydreaming about having a Bernese mountain dog of my own someday. I am delighted to report that she is more lovely and delightful than I would have imagined. I am sad she won’t be with us tomorrow or the next day. The kids were sorry to see her go as well (though I’m not sure Juneau and Seamus minded – tough competition.)

Even though she only lives next door and I can see her any time, I will miss Riley. A dog like her is one in a million.

Oh well, back to my regularly scheduled zoo. At least I still have plenty of Sallies.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Voice

“I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” – G. K. Chesterton, "Orthodoxy"

I have been a Christian for 22 years, and in spite of the daily drudgery and difficulties of life, it has been a beautiful, otherworldly journey. Over the years, on many occasions, my faith has been challenged. Because I read a lot, I am exposed to a great many other belief systems and world-views. Many are appealing, many go a long way in debunking Christianity, and many is the night I have lain in bed wondering if I’m just kidding myself. Get real, there is no God. Right?

Then, when I least expect it, He speaks to me. I call it “The Voice,” this gentle prodding somewhere inside of me, sometimes a feeling, sometimes actual words, both of which are absolutely distinct from the inner-voice of self. The last couple of years, since we moved to Alaska, I have heard The Voice a lot more.

Over the years, my political or religious beliefs have morphed and changed as I learn more about the world and its history. Every few months, it seems, I have a spiritual crisis – a point at which I am sure my faith has been irrevocably shaken.

And then, when I least expect it, when I am drowning in doubt, a strange thing happens. The Voice whispers. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but it is as if a breeze were clearing a way through the fog, and for a moment there is absolute certainty in a real God that exists both in and outside the violent cartoon of daily reality. In the face of this certainty, the fog vanishes. But only for a moment, for it is this world I live in and am so deeply a part of. But I find that I cannot forget that breeze – the memory of it stays with me.

Imagine for a moment that God is REALLY real; really who He says He is. That doesn’t mean you have like Him, or agree with His ways. But imagine how knowing absolutely that God is real would change your life. Don’t you think it would? In the same way, glimpse by glimpse, my life is being changed.

There is something liberating and wonderful about really getting a taste of that reality. I have been liberated from the need to conform to a particular view of the world (including the modern church’s). I can get a tattoo, get my nose pierced, be a communist, swear like a sailor, and it doesn’t much matter. I am a delight to God here and now, even when I get drunk, enjoy a raunchy novel, or wish ill upon an annoying acquaintance.

Anyone who lives out their faith inside an emotional prison (as many do), or tries to drag others into that prison, is not only missing the boat, but completely misrepresenting God. That, at least, is my opinion.

Writers like Frederick Buechner, Anne Lamott, Donald Miller, Madeleine L’Engle, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis have blown my socks off – people who are melancholy, filled with self-loathing, have bad habits and carnal appetites. They are also people passionately embrace a God who passionately embraces them back.

However, the one aspect of the Christian faith that I can’t seem to fully accept is that of heaven, eternal life.

That probably sounds like a strange admission, considering many people profess their belief in Jesus in the hope that they will live forever. It’s like heaven is the only real reason anyone would be religious. Agnostics argue that people choose religious belief out of fear of death. Well, I am as afraid of death as the next person, and my initial reasons for believing may have had something to do with fear, but that’s not why I believe now.

In all this time, I still have a difficult time believing in heaven. It just makes so much more sense to me that when we die, that’s it. Yes, God is the Master Creator of the universe and all that, but I guess, that is good enough for me. The idea that there is more – I can’t wrap my mind around that – it’s too good to be true. And you know what they say…

Critics of Christianity wonder, how fun could heaven be? Eternity is a long time to play harps and sing hosannas. (I agree.) Don’t we need a little bit of bad just to remember how joy and happiness feels? If heaven truly has no more sorrow or tears, then how will we know we’re happy?

As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t say all that much about heaven. Ultimately, we’re probably not meant to know a whole lot – perhaps God doesn’t want that to be the basis for our believing in Him.

In any case, there are, out in the world, a great many books about heaven. I have only read a few, most notably “The Great Divorce,” by C. S. Lewis, “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Journey to Heaven,” by Mark Twain, and “Phantastes,” by George MacDonald. Now, if you’re familiar with any of these books, you’ll know all of them are fictional fantasies, allegorical, and in Twain’s case, very tongue-in-cheek. Probably not the kind of books one should use as bases for a doctrine of the afterlife.

Oddly, when I read these books, there were things that jumped out at me, things that seemed achingly familiar. It felt a bit like déjà vu. Certain images and pictures had a certain “rightness” about them. I have never had this experience reading anything else. I’m not sure what it means, but I am tickled with an impossible hope.

Perhaps, somewhere deep in our minds, God has woven memories of a place we have never seen, but for which we have been imagined. It is but the merest thread, tiny blurred pieces of a massive mosaic, but nonetheless, a promise. My conscious, thinking mind cannot conceive of heaven, but somewhere, in a place inside of me that exists beyond my conscious control, there is understanding.

The Voice stirs the sediment of my mind, breathing understanding into my deep parts; an understanding beyond words, invoking a rest that is supernatural.
I’ll end this monologue with a question that surfaced after reading Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.” It will probably raise an uproar, but I am curious for input. Where exactly – and I mean specifically, spelled-out – does it say in the Bible that you have to be ALIVE to accept Jesus Christ as savior?

Thursday, August 18, 2005


I love books. I love reading. That is why my blog is named “Alaska Bookworm.”

My mother tells me my first sentence was “read-a-book.” I can believe it. I never quite feel complete without a book close at hand. (At the moment, the two I’m currently reading – “The News from Paraguay” by Lily Tuck, and “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley – are about five inches away.)

Before I had children and was still working a desk-job, a colleague with three kids of her own warned me, “Once you have children you can kiss reading good-bye.”

In one of my few moments of steadfast determination and resolve, I refused to heed this warning. I now have four children and it is probably fair to say that everything I do – housework, relationships, hobbies – centers around getting in as much reading time as possible.

A year ago I started keeping a reading journal. In the front part, working towards the back, I jot observations about the books I’m reading. In the back, working towards the front, is a list of the actual books I’ve read and the month I finished it. At some point, somewhere in the middle, these two trains of jottings will meet, and the book will be full.

Between August 2004, when I started my journal, and July 2005 I read 81 books. This summer, between May and July, I read 30.

My top recommendations for the year are those books which either affected me emotionally or I thought particularly memorable. In no particular order, they are:
v “Winterdance,” by Gary Paulsen
v “Plan B,” by Anne Lamott
v “Shadow Divers,” by Robert Kurson
v “Ordinary Wolves,” by Seth Kantner
v “Riding the Bus with My Sister,” by Rachel Simon

Ten other especially good reads for the year include:
v “The Shadow of the Wind,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
v “The Plot Against America,” by Philip Roth
v “Robbing the Bees,” by Holley Bishop
v “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson
v “Blindness,” by Jose Saramago
v “The Meadow,” by James Galvin
v “Fluke,” by Christopher Moore
v “The Forest Lover,” by Susan Vreeland
v “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” by Susannah Clarke
v “The Bone People,” by Keri Hulme

And finally, some books I had a hard time getting through, for various reasons:
v “Evenings at Five,” by Gail Godwin (a disappointment, because Godwin is one of my favorite authors and I was eagerly awaiting this book)
v “The Great Fire,” by Shirley Hazzard
v “Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination,” by Helen Fielding (I loved “Bridget Jones”!)
v “Holy Fools,” by Joanne Harris (I probably won’t try another book by Harris)
v “Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenreich (I loved the concept and some of her experiences were interesting, but I didn’t find her “experiment” convincing – too much cushion. Instead I would recommend “Random Family” by Nicole LeBlanc.)
v “The Mermaid Chair,” by Sue Monk Kidd (I liked “The Secret Life of Bees” – for more fascinating info on bees, see “Robbing the Bees,” by Holley Bishop)
v “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” by Tom Wolfe (I really like Tom Wolfe and really wanted to like this one, but it was just long and painful to get through. However, the upside is that Wolfe, as usual, offers a penetrating and thought-provoking, if not totally convincing, look at contemporary collegiate life.)

During the past year, I have started getting books from the library rather than the bookstore. This became necessary when I realized I’d been spending at least $100 per month on books for years. I must have been buying six books for every one I read. I tried to economize by hitting thrift stores and library sales, but it didn’t help – I only got more books for the same amount of money. I haven’t made an accurate count in awhile, but I figure I must have at least 1,000 books in my “to read” pile. Seven years ago, when Jack was born, there were only about 25. Now I’ve also got a library pile, but it only has 10 or so. With the deadline imposed by library due dates, there is more pressure to read faster, hence the 30 books just this summer. Almost all had due dates. Psychologically, I can’t make myself read my owned books until the library books are gone. (Harry Potter #6 was the exception.) IT WILL NEVER END!

I’m thankful for my family who forces me out of my little “book-world” and back into reality (such as it is). I am not sure why I love books and reading so much, though I suspect it’s genetic (I’m adopted and neither of my parents read much when I was growing up – how else to explain it?).

I’ve known a few other bibliophiles over the years, and am heartened to know I am not alone in my compulsion. Overall, reading is an inexpensive hobby (especially if you use the library!) and a great opportunity to experience the world and all that is in it. I credit my somewhat out-of-the-box personality on being challenged by others’ personal experiences and world-views. Like my reading-journal, with its simultaneous front and back entries eventually converging in the middle, a diverse diet of books brings balance to life.
My ultimate dream? To one day see my own name on the spine of a book.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I Should Be in Bed...

I have to chuckle a bit. Setting up a blog was a fantastic way to establish some framework for my writing and journaling. I have written more in the past two weeks than I have in the past three months. This is a good thing.

But somewhere in the back of my brain there was this hope that I would be THE new blogging phenomenon. How crazy. Several times a day I check my blog to see if anyone has left a comment. Only my good friend Lisa, and who encouraged me to start blogging in the first place, has ever left me a comment. Thank you, Lisa! My other good friend, Kaylin, who also suggested I blog, at one point said I'd gain a following. Ha! Bless you, K. You almost had me believing it for a second!

Nevertheless, my self-worth does not reside in how many hits I get. Right?! It feels good just to visit my own blog several times a day and bear witness to the fact that I am recording tiny fragments of my life, so that at least I won't forget what happened during the last week (an all too common occurance, I'm afraid.) I get to reread events from the past several days of my life and fondly reminisce, "Ah, I remember THAT!"

Meanwhile, I have plans. BIG plans. My clever husband (www.occasionalfisherman.blogspot.com), who managed to hack the html code for the embedded song on my blog, may also be able to figure out how to write the code for one of those "counters" that record hits. THEN I will know about your visits even without comments! Ha ha ha! (Maniacal laughter.) The future awaits.

(Bet you can't tell I've been working on a bottle of wine tonight, can you?)

Monday, August 15, 2005

Flowers from a Friend

I am so glad summer is almost over. My four children - ages 7, 5, 3, and 1 - can be very trying when “blessed” with their combined presence 8am to 8pm, seven days per week. Because I am an introvert, engaging with people, even my own children, is an emotionally draining experience. Usually by the “witching hour” – 5pm, when dinner preparations have begun in earnest – all of us are tired, hungry, and cranky.

Tonight was no exception, and when, despite my daily, morning pledge to resist my innate desire to holler, while on my way upstairs to change perpetually poopy Evan, I thundered at 5-year-old Sabrina for playing dolls on the stairs.

Sabrina burst into hysterics and ran away. Already guilty, when I saw the raw, oozing sores on Evan’s butt from yet another skin-burning poop, I started sobbing as well.

Nothing is ever simple when it comes to kids; one disaster leads to another. As I rinsed Evan’s privates under the tub faucet using tepid water, which is gentler than stinging wipes, I started to pray. Aloud, crying and desperate, I begged God to help me, imploring Him to maybe, just a little bit, supernaturally restrain the three other kids when one is in crisis. All four kids got an earful of my words and tears. It’s the least they deserve.

Now, I know that the same God who allows my household to fall apart is also the same God who allows unimaginable tsunamis and genocide to occur, so I know that supernatural intervention is not usually in God’s character to grant. But I also know that God is compassionate, so when, in the middle of begging and pleading, my husband walked through the front door holding not only a bouquet of flowers but a greeting card, I knew without a doubt that it was Jesus Himself holding out those flowers and those words of love. (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten a “just-because” card from Bruce in the past ten years, so take my word for it, it’s more than a coincidence.)

My tears redoubled in gratitude, and poor Bruce didn’t have a clue what he’d done.

So, once again I am reminded what my head has long-known to be true, but what my heart daily forgets: God not only sees everything, but He knows everything. He knew I was going to have a bad afternoon, and, for whatever reason, saw fit to step out of the ether during a moment of heartfelt petition.

God doesn’t miraculously manifest Himself every time I ask Him to. I can remember many times when I implored Him to become flesh for just five minutes so that I could touch Him, smell Him, see Him, and He remained discouragingly silent.

But until I realized that the whole purpose of “the church” here on earth is to be the physical manifestation of Christ (sadly, as a whole, we do lousy job of it), I always missed it when, through other people, those prayers were answered. I have, I think, grown somewhat in this area, because the moment Bruce walked through the front door tonight, in the middle of my brokenness, I saw God and felt His loving presence.

The conclusion? I will continue to have meltdowns, I will continue to get overwhelmed and struggle with my temper and my emotions, but God loves me, hollering and all. He is always there, watching me and encouraging me.

You may be curious about the content of the greeting card “He” sent. In a nutshell: every day spent with me is as thrilling as “cafeteria-pizza-day” was in elementary school. Wow. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Getting Creative

Last spring I tried to start a novel. I had an idea that inspired me to type 50-pages during a week in which I could barely be pried from the computer. I was consumed by my characters, who came alive in my mind and heart, and I felt, finally, that I was becoming A Real Writer. "So this is how it feels," I wistfully imagined, thinking about favorite authors and how they make their masterpieces. "Maybe I can do this, after all!"

I was so excited about my story that, at the end of that first week, I shared large excerpts of it at my writers' group, which consists of two other female homemakers with young, school-age children. They listened politely. They were encouraging. They compared what I had so far to Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

Wow, compared to Austen! Fantastic!

"So," one of my friends (I can't remember which - I've tried to block it out of my memory) carefully inquired "your character, 'Oscar,' he would be like a Mark Darcy/Colin Firth kind of protagonist?"

"Yes," I admitted.

Both ladies started snickering.

And who, they wondered, would be the source of inspiration for "Elliot," brother of Oscar?

"Orlando Bloom," I sheepishly replied.

I'm so transparent.

In that moment I realized that what I had written is worse than Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele - not only was it horribly written, but, to top it off, borrowed, stolen, completely lacking an authentic voice!

Humiliated by the self-mockery of my first novelistic attempt, I put my digital writing-implement away and tried not to think about my apparent failure as a writer.

That was two months ago. Clearly, I am starting to come out of this slump. I started to emotionally recover only a week ago, when one morning I stumbled upon an illustration in a children's book that I suddenly knew must be painted in the upstairs hallway.

This is only the third mural-project I’ve ever undertaken. The first was in the mid-1980's, and the subject was the Duran Duran album cover, “Rio”, a painting by the then wildly popular painter Nagel. The next one was close to fifteen years later when I copied a Sandra Boynton illustration from one of her children’s books onto Jack’s bedroom wall.

Had I given them a choice, my kids who would probably have begged for Star Wars tie-fighters or Barbie-movie characters. Horses are my choice, a concession that they may be the only horses I ever come close to "owning." And instead of painting in a bedroom, which would probably have incited a civil war between the warring factions of my children, the hallway seemed neutral ground.

The paintings lack proportion, but surprisingly, this doesn't bother me. I've long since realized that few things in life are properly proportioned. Not my painting, not my writing, not my marriage, not my kids, not my relationship with God.

It feels great to be creative again. The downside means I'm getting less reading done. May through July I averaged ten books per month, which with four small kids is not easy task. I had to work hard! It also means I set myself up for interruptions. I hate being interrupted - it is one of those things that most easily causes The Red Mist to float down in front of my eyes (but more about that later.) But for all its disadvantages, creativity enlivens me, takes me deeper within myself to a place of restoration and peace.

It will be interesting to me to see how consistently I write in this blog and how often I paint on my mural. Knowing myself, at some point the rollercoaster will slow to a crawl while it painfully clicks and clacks its way to the top of yet another mountain. Until such time, I will enjoy this rush, and I hope you do too.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Our hike today at Thunderbird Falls, my four wonderful kids. Clockwise from upper left: Jack, Sabrina, Evan, and Ellie. Posted by Picasa

Random People

A man walks into a store. His hair is unkempt and oily. He wears a t-shirt and shorts, both hanging off his lanky frame. A backpack is familiarly slung over his shoulder. Wide, bewildered eyes scan the merchandise of the store. He is a contrast in opposites – his disheveled and unwashed appearance cause him to look homeless, but his clothes while rumpled are clean, and the collegiate lugging of the backpack suggests middle-class, upper-educated. It is only then, that one notices his hands. They have no digits whatsoever, not the merest stump. His hands are fingerless palms, with five small black holes at the end of each, and there is an ugly yellow crust around each dried, marrowless bone. These are the hands of someone who has been recently and unspeakably ravaged, and it is then that two things become clear – why he appears misplaced, and that he is incapable of harming anyone, for there is no weapon he could wield even if his intentions were malignant.

I alone am manning the art gallery when this young, haunted man comes in, and I simultaneously curious, compassionate, uneasy, and reassured.

While studying and discussing the gallery’s artwork, I notice he does not check to see if I am studying his hands. In fact he seems courageously unaware of them. I find am not all that interested in his hands, but curious about his emotional reaction to some glass pieces. I am deeply concerned to show this art appreciator kind, unbiased attention, but feel that successfully closing a sale on a $500 piece would somehow compromise him. Though it is not my business as a salesperson to know how a person finances their collection, I cannot help wonder why this man says $500 is in his budget. How is that possible, I wonder? I also wonder how he keeps his backpack on his shoulder – shouldn’t it slip off at some point, for his shoulders are thin and narrow? Velcro, perhaps? Later, I deliberately do not offer a business card. How would he take it from me? I am not brave enough to put it in his pants pocket myself.

It is only in leaving that he graciously volunteers his strange appearance, when I ask where he is from. Though I remember few specifics of his description, from what I understand he is from California, and some time during the last year he was in what he describes as a “climbing accident.” Severe frostbite caused him to lose all the fingers on both his hands and all the toes of one foot. He only got out of the hospital some time in the last month. The yellow crust and exposed bones suggested as much. But here were the words that caused me to ache the most – he said, “It was a stupid mistake, my own fault; I should have known better.” I never learned what that mistake was, for his eyes had filled with tears and he quickly departed. This is a man who I, I hope wrongly, intuit will flog himself the rest of his life over a rash lapse in judgment.

I imagine he will never look at snow or mountains in the same way again.

Can you imagine a life with no hands? To not be able to take a business card, to open a backpack, to drive a car, much less deposit money into the fare receptacle on a bus. How do you go to the bathroom? How do you write? How do you do anything?

What I witnessed was a man deep in the process of grieving over the loss of his life as he knew it. After he left, The Voice suggested I pray for him. I did, and I felt that this moment of begging for someone else’s peace and healing was the sole reason for me to be at work that night.

Today, another brilliantly warm and sunny August afternoon, Bruce and I took the kids on a hike to Thunderbird Falls outside of Eagle River. It was a short hike, less than a mile, but it was through a birch forest, so I made sure Bruce had the bear-spray. For once I encouraged the kids to have temper tantrums and argue loudly. Though we had on our hiking boots and Evan was in his backpack, it was a hike I probably could have done in high-heels pushing a stroller. The trail was well-groomed, well-traveled, and wide, winding behind a small residential development. But for a family with four small children, it was reassuring to feel safe, knowing that even the most populated and densely built areas of Alaska can host roaming moose or bear.

On the return trip to the car, I was much more relaxed, assuming that figures moving in the distance were in fact other hikers and their pets, rather than a belligerent grizzly. We came upon a family group of mahogany-skinned, India-Indian-looking people, making their way up the trail, one at a time, with a good ten paces between each. The last in the group was a beautiful 60ish woman in a sari, with a huge diamond stud in her nose. Since I got my own nasal diamond stud, I find I get along very well with Indian women, whether pierced or not, so when she beamed at our four children, we stopped to chat with her.

During our brief conversation she told us that she was in the southern part of India last December when the terrible earthquake and tsunami hit. She retold how she was in the bath during the earthquake, and how the water had sloshed. Having been in a moderate-size earthquake while bathing myself, I could picture this exactly. Though she commented on the phenomenon to her husband, he noticed nothing. She said it was about 3 to 3 ½ hours later when the wave hit. They were 1 ½ kilometers from the beach when it happened, but the refugees flooded past them, and they told of 12 to 15 children that had been swept away. She shook her head over the loss, and said it was interesting that dogs ran from the beach and were saved. These poor unfortunate children were not.

She said many of the brave residents of that place are doing well rebuilding their lives, but that they would never look at the ocean, a source of livelihood and beauty, the same way again. Nor will I, to be sure. Because she and her husband currently reside in England, we gathered she had been back in India, her homeland, only on vacation. Even England, with its recent terrorist attacks, will never be the same again.

I, who have recently been so consumed with frustration over my stir-crazy, summer-bound children – their mess-making, their fighting – have forgotten that literally within arms reach are people who have been gravely afflicted. Physically, I am strong and healthy – I have all ten finger and all ten toes, as does my husband. I remember when Jack as born, after a very difficult, exhausting and damaging labor, asking if my baby had ten fingers and ten toes, as a way of asking, “Is he okay?” He was and is, as are the other three babes. We are living in a place that seems blessedly removed from the turmoil of the rest of the world, even as our many military folks are deployed to Iraq for dangerous tours, and their precious wives and children are left behind. I remember when the tsunami first happened asking a friend, who knows many well-off, retired folks, who I assume are more likely to travel than the average bloke, if he knew anyone who had been in any of the tsunami-affected areas. He was surprised the by the question, that I would think he might be touched personally by something so far away. I was surprised that he was surprised. The world is shrinking, and, as Thomas Friedman argues in his newest book, it is flattening as well. If I ever doubted that world events touch us in the relative paradise of Alaska, today proved my initial assumption correct. The events of the world, large and small, are but a conversation away if we bother to look and listen. I feel blessed that I am feeling braver about looking and listening. I feel blessed that I live in a place where it is quieter and I can more easily hear both The Big Voice and the smaller voices, and that I am learning –ever so slowly – to be brave enough to listen.

Let’s be honest – welcoming the pain and grieving of the world, when all we wish to be is complacent and safe, is a difficult thing. But what I’m seeing is that it is against the darkness of loss and death that the beauty of life is best illuminated. I cannot fathom the courage of traveling around the world, the way this Indian woman and her husband are – but they do so not even a year after witnessing a tragedy that arrested the self-centeredness of the world for more than a brief moment, and mere weeks after terror found its way to London. I am touched by the bitter melancholy of a man who has lost his digits and is made wistful and teary-eyed at a hand-blown glass bowl – the ability to still be moved by beauty and art when his life is clearly lost in the muddy murk of the unknown.

I am writing this now not because there is any great moral I wish to impose, but as a testimony to what I have seen. To those people who I have passed on the street, with whom I have had the privilege of exchanging a few words – this is my memorial to you – those few words we shared not only matter, but I carry with me and will continue to ruminate on for a long time to come.

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