The Last Alaska Chronicle

Spirit Houses

(We lived in Alaska for some seven years, and I heard and told a lot of stories, many of which made their way into group emails to friends and family. It has always been my intention to turn these into a book, and they’re on their way after several incarnations as research papers and dissertation segments, and I believe they’ll make it, but not yet. I came across this one tonight, though, and it remains in its original state, and it made my heart turn over with love and pain. I’m pasting it in here “as is,” i.e., a group email):

Dear Friends,

I’m sure that some of you read the “subject” of this message with a smile, remembering the series of “chronicles” I sent when our family began this Alaskan adventure some six years ago. Others of you are new friends discovered along the way, and may fit into one or more categories of acquaintance: Sufis, Saybrook students and teachers, Alaskans both native and otherwise, professional colleagues, relatives and, maybe, none of the above, which is even better, since life would be too, too boring if all our friends emerged from the warp and weave of the subgroups we identify ourselves with. But whichever category you fit into, this is going to you because of an ongoing dialogue you and I have had, and because it is a kind of memoir of an experience, yes, but even more so, of a people in general, and of some persons in particular, known against the backdrop of a land which I know to be the most beautiful in the world. Some of you live here, and some of you have never been here, but have let me know that what I have sent through in this way has made you feel that you have been with us on this adventure, and so I hope you will want to read the final story.

Loosestrife Near Juneau, Alaska Courtesy of Becky Shuon
Loosestrife Near Juneau, Alaska
Courtesy of Becky Shuon

I suppose we waited too long to make the decision to return to the Lower Forty-Eight, if a growing existential lassitude is proof of the avoidance of the decision to take one’s next steps, but who knows?  That is what brought us here in the first place!  And it may well bring us back. Perhaps it had to be that way, although I’m sure for many, Alaska becomes home in every sense of the word, and despite our imminent departure, I believe it will always be that for us. In any event, I type this at my poorly balanced Mac, which desk I sold last week at the moving sale to end all moving sales. Whatever else can be said about Mother Alaska, she is just as remote as she ever was, and shipping costs are high and methods chancy, so when one leaves, one does tend to get an adequate return for funds invested in living well: a local antiques and collectibles dealer literally cleaned me out all in one morning; bought everything I was willing to sell and carried it out of my house. It was painful to let go of the things we’ve collected here, and not only will there be a new life, I have a feeling that we will always remember things that came into the old one briefly, but were too unwieldy to be the kind of baggage one usually takes away from an experience. Currently, we are worried about even being able to take our dogs back, one of which shared the trip out here behind the wheel of the car we towed to put on the barge from Seattle.  It seems the airlines now, however, have a rule that not only are terrorists not allowed on board, animals cannot travel in the hold unless the weather is predicted to be above 45 degrees. As the Alaskan winter wanes and the days grow longer, we can only hope that will be true, but in a place where the tulips don’t bloom until June 1, it is a worrisome thing.

But those are all just details, even if details are sometimes well-loved-and-traveled dogs. What this is about, tonight, is an attempt to briefly commemorate a life, one that began in an isolated fishing village and ended in what, in Alaska, passes for “suburbia.” If you read the former “chronicles,” you know how we got here, and you know why this has been an important experience to us, but if you didn’t, let me just say that what this has been about has been “life at the end of the road,” and the adventures of a family that wanted to do something different and found something, ultimately, far deeper than “different.” That is what Alaska is to everyone who comes here, and I would say that this is what it is about to those who were born here, too, because even the new Republican administration, which firmly intends to continue the process already begun, of turning Alaska into the same homogenous society the rest of the USA tends to present itself as, ignoring of its individuals, cannot change the fact that Alaska is a strange and mysterious archangel who winds the tendrils of her mysteries around her devotees in a death-grip which brings just that: death, whether of the ego or the illusions, or….life, as one might have hoped life would reveal itself, if only one were patient enough and brave enough to lean into it. I honestly cannot give words to what she has meant to me, I only know that I feel a deep pain and an even deeper joy in my love affair with Alaska. As some of you know, I firmly intend that these stories will one day become a book, and I once thought the book would be written here, but it seems that this will not be the case, and I tend to think that is as it should be, because I don’t think I will know what this all means any time soon. Anyway, there are too many stories to tell in an email, and each one of them is deserving of all the devotion and attention I can give it, because ultimately my Alaska stories are about a place and some people. I’ve had this feeling, for awhile now, that a large part of my particular purpose on this earth is to tell stories. A lot of you are familiar with Hillman’s ideas about “healing fiction,” a concept that has helped to cement my own impulse with regards to psychology: “Of all psychology’s sins, the most mortal is its neglect of beauty. There is, after all, something quite beautiful about a life,” and after all, the study of psychology is what I have given most of my adult life to, and a good deal of that has been figuring out exactly what it is–psychology–and how to do it. Psychology, that is. Ultimately, it seems to me, just telling stories is the best way to commemorate the beauty of a life and its struggles, and I will be telling some of these stories for quite awhile. I thought I’d tell one or two tonight, particularly the ones that got interrupted for one reason or another, and because it was in their interruption that I found the most poignant impression of meaning I’ve gotten from my own “Alaska experience.” These stories–vignettes, really, at the moment–are about people, but these people are about the heart of Alaska, the archangel of meaning for me for some time now, and some of them are about Alaska herself.

When you come to Alaska, be sure to see every Russian Orthodox church you can (there are only five or six), because they are beautiful and because, in some way, they symbolize the glory and the pain of those of us who came from outside and barged into the hearts of a people with no guile. Most dear are the “spirit houses” you’ll see outside the churches, sweet little abodes built to house the dead until the resurrection day, with windows for their souls to peer out of, and heaps of real and plastic flowers, plants and crosses, carefully tended by those who fully expect to see their loved ones again when they emerge. They are a good way to do death.Alaska_Russian_Orthodox_Church

When we were out on the Alaskan Peninsula, David and I flew, once a month, to the outlying fishing villages to offer “mental health services,” a term I find even more ironic than usual in these settings, because the varieties of tragedy and beauty in places that have only one store–the liquor store–and exist in the most pristine and heartbreakingly isolated settings most people will never see, form a backdrop for understanding that will continue to sear the heart eternally. I met Roland up in Wilson Lagoon, on the Bering Sea, with its fine black sand. He wasn’t a native, he was from Seattle; but he’d lived up there most of his life, fishing with his father; and when I knew him, he was mostly fishing across the Bering in Russia, although word had it that most of his earnings were going up his nose, given the lively cocaine traffic up there. He was the archetypal “wild man,” with frizzy, curling blonde hair to his waist and a beard almost as long. He had these electric blue eyes, and he adored women, including me, a very flattering thing to a middle-aged, overweight mental health clinician whose ilk was mostly viewed with suspicion and caution in those parts, and the minute he’d see me, he’d put his arms around me and ask me what I was doing that evening, which made me laugh, because what was there to do except walk on the beach or sit in the local cafe which, if the planes had gotten through and food had been delivered, might or might not be serving, although there was usually coffee to be had, with an opened can of evaporated milk waiting on the counter. One night, when he and I and the local village-based counselor, along with her husband and brother had spent the day trying to coax the cafe owner/cook out of her house and failing (she went into occasional depressions that caused her to refuse contact with society), Roland decided he’d cook for us all, and somehow produced an enormous platter of ribs, along with mashed potatoes and the usual mushy frozen green beans which accompany Bush meals. It was a great dinner there in the center of the closed cafe with the ceiling light shining down on us and shadows all around, seaspray clouding the windows, just the five of us.  I was the only woman.  At one point, I remarked to Roland, probably twenty years younger than me, who had been flirting with me outrageously and devouring his heavenly cooking simultaneously, “You really like women, don’t you?”

He spluttered. “Of course. I’m normal. What do you think?”

“No,” I said. “That’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about sex or anything like that, I just mean….you really like women, don’t you? I don’t think all men do.”

He got it. In the midst of the clamor of several hungry men eating, smoking and wishing they were drinking beer, men who didn’t consciously think much about the meaning of life, because most of their time was spent figuring out how to stay alive at sea or how to pay the bills when the Japanese usurped their fishing grounds and the harvest was bad, as it has been for many years now, Roland looked up quietly and said, “Sure. I’d go to war for you.” And at that moment, he told me who he was:  a noble, pure-hearted knight-errant of true honor and virtue who knew only one true thing.

A few weeks later, he went home to Seattle to see his Mom, and they found him dead in his house one evening;  a heart attack, they said, but Roland was only about 30, and we always figured it was cocaine. It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to have been with him even briefly, and I want to make sure his story gets told, although I don’t know much of it.  Folks up here, native or not, tend to withdraw into themselves when something like this happens, so I don’t know much, but I know this man would have gone to war for me (i.e., all women), and that is enough.

There are a lot of sudden deaths here, both at sea and on the road. Out there on the Bering, the line between the dunes and the sky is intermittently broken by little crosses decorated with those same flowers that adorn the spirit houses, to commemorate those who have died at sea. On the road system, the same little shrines are often seen on the side of the road, because there is a lot of drunk driving, and in a world where every town has only one road in and one road out, people get in a hurry, and “people” are usually the summer visitors, in this case.

Then there was Katherine. It is painful to talk about these people. She was “my” village-based counselor, meaning that I supervised her work, which is a laugh, because she did more and knew how to do it better than I ever have. Katherine was out there at the Lagoon with her family for many years, doing whatever it took to keep people alive and well, whether it was single-handedly detoxing a drunk with no knowledge and no means to do it (and certainly no “clinical permission”), figuring out how to get someone from the village to the native hospital in Anchorage before they died of a heart attack, or delivering a baby come into this world too early, where most women went to Anchorage six weeks before their due dates, leaving family and other kids because there was nothing resembling a doctor out there, although the cannery at Port Moller had a seasonal nurse practitioner, another man I simply loved. But that was another boat-ride or bush plane flight, and he couldn’t do everything.  Katherine came from a family of alcoholics; it was one of those stories that makes you grateful for your own, and mine was bad enough. A couple of years earlier, her brother had shot himself, and she and her other brother were in recovery for at least a couple of years before and after that, and still trying to figure out how to live with permanent grief. After finishing a course of studies through the Rural Human Services Program at UAF, Katherine had started correspondence courses for a Bachelor’s in social work at UAA, and she had three little kids and a husband who fished and evidently loved her and the kids, but he was gone a lot, and  the state couldn’t seem to get her any relief out there, and she was the mainstay of the clinic, putting up with a series of local and out-of-state nurse practitioners who told her what to do, but weren’t there for long enough to give her a rest after she’d done it, and way more than her share of anything else that presented itself, including counseling the unhappy and consoling the bereaved. I loved her, but I, too, left, and she wouldn’t talk to me after that. She couldn’t forgive me, I think, because I made the incredibly stupid mistake of telling her she could count on me. I tried to let her see that I’d still be on the line after our stay was up, but I guess she didn’t believe me, and I can’t say I blame her. I know her feelings of burnout and pressure were growing, and last winter, working temporarily in an Anchorage hospital, I ran into one of those nurse practitioners, one who’d spent a lot of time out there. I asked her how Katherine was, and her face froze. “You don’t know?” she said.

I froze, too.  “Oh, no…….” I murmured. She nodded.

“Last winter. She’d been drinking for awhile then. I heard her marriage was in trouble, and while her husband was at sea, she took his shotgun and did it. I guess they found her later.”

I wanted to die too, then. I kept thinking of how worried she was any time she left her kids, because she didn’t want her own mother near them: her mom was still drinking heavily, and she didn’t want her kids to go through what she’d gone through as a child. Although I heard pieces of the story from other friends eventually, I was always afraid to ask if her kids found her dead when they came home from school that afternoon.  I wouldn’t be surprised, but I was too much of a coward to ask.

After I lived in civilization again, there was Mike, the Native American man who had temporarily landed on his feet, after a lifetime of abuse from his alcoholic father, Mike who had stories to tell of running and hiding under the bed when his father was violent, of watching while his dad held his mother down and two of his friends raped her. Mike was labeled schizophrenic, and although I’m skeptical of labels, I guess he was, because he had medicated himself and suppressed his visions as best he could for many years, and had a lot of stories to tell of being homeless in Anchorage, and how the police treated Native people like him when they picked him up wandering the streets, overwhelmed with amazing, transcendent visions (which he had been told were bad, and he shouldn’t have them, but couldn’t seem to stop) and shivering from the cold, beating him when he threw up in the van on the way to jail. He’s still around, and I have always felt hopeful for him, because his visions were so beautiful; and when I listened to him, he once said, “You’re different from the others. You don’t think I’m crazy.” I had a rocking chair in my office, and after awhile, he let me hold him while he cried, and one day he even took off the dark glasses he always wore, and let me see his beautiful eyes. He put them back on, fast.

I talked to him recently, and he had two years of sobriety in AA, after nearly dying in a diabetic coma. His mother lives with him when she can stay sober for a few days, and she’s been sober for nearly a month now. She’s been a “street person,” too, for awhile now, but she made it clear long ago that she had no intention of stopping the drinking, because she needed it too badly.  He won’t let her live with him if she isn’t sober, though.

Yesterday, I was foolish enough to let Maggie, our Golden Retriever, out to run in the woods. When I heard her barking hysterically, I realized I had miscalculated, and there were probably moose out there. Sure enough, she was standing at the edge of our forest, telling a Mama moose and her baby, in no uncertain terms, just what she intended to do with them, if she got half a chance. They gave her an occasional baleful look while grazing, but were otherwise unimpressed. It took about two hours of steady, hysterical barking, rooted to the spot, before they ambled away.

Linda lived up in the woods outside Wasilla, and she had one of those “addresses that wasn’t really an address.” She had running water by the time I knew her, something most homesteaders in Alaska don’t have, and she and her profoundly retarded daughter were doing pretty good, although her career as one of the biggest “growers” in the Mat-Su Valley was cut short when, one day about seven or so years ago, marijuana became illegal. One day, a well-known and respected grower. Next day, a felon, in need of “treatment.” We loved each other, and she began to make sense of her scattered thoughts while she was treating me and I was constantly uplifted by her spiritual rapture, when she would suddenly seem to go into a trance and spout something that sounded like holy scripture, but always reminded me of things I’d forgotten.

“You KNOW,” she said to me once. “I can see it in your eyes. You KNOW.”  I hoped she was right, but I was pretty sure she knew more.

In the village, a couple was eaten by a bear one night on the way home from the bar. The villagers are still getting over the sight. It was Spring, and it does happen.

One of David’s clients, also on the way home to the dump he lived in, after an evening at the bar, crawled up in some old machinery and put his hands on the controls and froze to death. This was in Valdez, where they get at least 300 inches of snow each winter, 400 the last winter we lived there.

Alaska: where there there are five men for every woman, each of them complete with gun, pickup and dog. Where there is a publication called “Alaska Male,” replete with ads, in case you can’t find them yourself. Alaska, where the “odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

Alaska: where you can homeschool your kids and the government will help you.

Alaska: where Seattle is your backyard, and you can shop at Ikea or any number of supermarkets and have your purchases floated down to you at the local fishery.

Alaska, particularly Valdez, where by February, you could climb out your second floor window into the snow, if you wanted to, and folks had to shovel their roofs. We were on the road system by then, though, and went to Anchorage, 300 miles away, whenever we needed to and had the time and money to make the drive. If Thompson Pass was open, the eerie silence of miles and miles of the cosmic emotion called mountains was a heart-and-soul message that stilled the mind. Tsaina Lodge was open on Easter, and one year, looking for something we were used to, we had an exquisite, gourmet brunch cooked by generator and complete with champagne, sitting in the log lodge at trestle tables, next to the bar numerous locals were draped across, listening to honky-tonk music loud enough to rattle your teeth.

All these stories, and for the last few, I’ve been thinking, “people will think this is a story about alcoholism and addiction,” and I really didn’t intend that, but this is Alaska, and if you go all the way to the end of the road, there’s usually a real good reason for it, and there’s a lot of that up here. One of the ancient Sufis–I forget just which one–said, “To see God you must become nonexistent,” and it seems like there are a lot of people up here who can’t figure out what to do about what they see when they encounter that cold, bleeding face.

For these last couple of years, we’ve had a little house outside Wasilla, which is about as Lower Forty-Eight as it gets in Alaska, and it’s a different kind of vision here, because everyone is trying to be normal, i.e., situation-comedy, middle-class normal.  We even have a Homeowners Association that regularly gripes at us about our dogs, after years of forgetting where we put the leashes and having them warmly welcomed by and paraded across the lobbies of elegant hotels.  But these efforts at normalcy never entirely work, and Alaska remains as weird and peculiar as it ever did, and high-speed internet and the new Pier One haven’t really helped either. There is something about this place that brings one face-to-face with reality and in all this space and all this loneliness, there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The dark winter months make you crazy, and the long summer nights make you manic, but the fish are clean enough to rate the “organic” label, even though the Halibut are bottom-feeders.  Cabin Fever is rife by January, but the hotels are cheap then.

Meanwhile, we are headed to FloridFall-Alaska-07-014a, of all places, to regroup and hang out with my very elderly father while I finish my dissertation and we try to peer ahead down the highway and figure out what the next leg of the journey is. The thing is, the airlines have a weight limit, and we are heavy with all these stories and all this reality, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out where to put them or how to make them any lighter. Someday, post-dissertation, I will get that book written, and I hope you’ll acquire a copy (if need be, I’ll send you one), because I need people to help me carry them, and we all need to carry each other’s. After all, you are all co-authors.

The beginning.

5 thoughts on “The Last Alaska Chronicle

  1. Mary-Aman

    You write so beautifully Amidha. Thank you for your sensitive and thought provoking sharing. I love the images you have shared too.

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