Essay

Returning from Alaska

Returning from an Alaskan retreat, I am different.

Nothing earth shattering and most likely not noticeable to most people I come into contact with.

Back home, the sky has not changed, the trees stand tall against the summer blue, and the grass is coarse from overdue rain.

Obligations, bills, demands, job – waited at the front door for the week to pass and my return.

Emails arrive in the overflowing inbox and the phone still rings.

Lines form at registers waiting for morning coffee.

But something is different.

I left here in a chaotic state, doubts of the pathway I built and have stayed on, despite the uncertainty. I was clinging to the next day or week, hoping that it will be different from today, that if I just hold-out, the answers and next direction will reveal themselves.  I had become complacent and stagnant.

How many years was I going to relinquish control of my path to outside forces with unknown names and unfamiliar faces?

Something is different now that my feet are on the ground here. What happened up there in the Alaskan wilderness?

I walk to the backyard and stand on the cement patio with coffee.  The morning sun rays begin to touch treetops and the golden glow is stark against the deep blue sky.  But I do not see this and I do not hear the ravens playing in the fields beyond the hill.

Lost in some thought I cannot place, my eyes close and I am back in Alaska with a river stretching to the base of distant mountains.  I am flying above glaciers and standing so close I can taste the cold.  I am riding an ATV through forest and open fields until I stand overlooking the river valley and and lose myself to the silence, the beauty, and the immense landscape.

That is what I see now that I am back home.  Now that I have returned from an Alaskan retreat, the burdens I left here with have been replaced with nature, tangible things I can see, touch, smell, taste.  Things that will my mind and push everything else out.  In return for this gift, I am more silent, thinking before I speak, and keeping more calm and control of myself as I attempt to cope with the present and push for a different future that I create.

 

Words and Actions – Revisited for 04/18/17

Rugged facial features and expressions, like that of mountain men in history books and legends standing atop the highest peaks and planting a flag for their country, shaped by the endless sun and arctic winds. He handled life and the people around him with the ease and care of a seasoned glass maker. It was extremely difficult for me to believe that was my grandfather lying before me, thin, frail, a skeleton of his former self.

As a child four or five years old, my mother divorced and we moved into my grandparent’s home, where she grew up on main street. Now after a few years, looking back on how life brought me to today, I believe this was fate. The moment afforded a chance for my mother and me to develop a bond, not only as parent and child, but with my grandparents. These bonds would stand time and distance, coming to fruition upon my grandfather’s passing. Time has not softened the heart which still yearns to hear his voice and the raw, unpolished words.

On April 17th, I stood at the foot of grandfather’s bed with him resting comfortably back home in St. Anthony. I did not know at the time that these were my last few remaining moments with him to talk, listen, and learn more of his life. For a man who would pass away the next day, he was his old and inquisitive self. His dark chocolate round eyes piercing through me were soft, but looking for something. Perhaps they were trying to find closure in the last hours. His face still had the character and unique features from years back when I helped him paint a brown wooden fence. I remember the backyard that always had the smell of baked breads, waffling from the kitchen where grandma was busy. A tall apple tree stood in the middle year after year, providing fruit and color. The tree reminds me of him: rigid, set in his ways, stubborn and able to withstand and overcome any challenge. Like the tree surviving a harsh winter, he had gone through many hardships and trials, with dignity and courage that stayed with him to the very end. Through his years, he did so many things, large and small, that have contributed to who I am as a person today.

While living on main street and adjusting to a new life with my grandparents and mother, I was obsessed with au gratin potatoes. They were the only food I ever wanted; breakfast, lunch or dinner, whenever hunger pangs took over. If there was none to be found in the cupboards, grandfather would take my hand and with no questions asked, lead me out the front door, into the car and off to the local Snyder’s on Central Ave. This kind of gesture was etched into my memory as his way of showing he loved me, without having to say the words.

I often built things with Lego, Constructs and Electra sets – typical toys of the early 1980s. These real-world things became reality as my imagination oozed into my fingers and assembled them, piece by piece: race cars with huge, spongy rubber tires and fast engines; cities of tall buildings and skyscrapers that reached for miles. Building these structures gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Standing in awe and knowing that the images became something concrete and useful. The expression on my face conveyed these feelings: my eyes were bulging with excitement and I would be smiling from ear to ear.

When I would finish a project, I would take it to my grandfather and he would look it over. His words “This is really good, you should be an engineer” pushed me to keep building and make the next one even better than the last. Encouraging words from this man became my motivation and heightened my desire to build more and seek his approval.

Christmas is a time for family and the chance to see the loved ones from near and far. I cannot remember the gift I received from grandma and grandpa that year as there were more important memories to take away and energies to focus upon. I cherished this last time to see him as he always was: the man of pride, character and dignity. Christmas also brought with it a lot of questions I needed answers to: reasons why, the purpose, that as a 17-year-old losing a part of me, could not comprehend and answer myself. How could this man of such strength and dignity be brought down by an illness, a life turned upside and spiraling so quickly?

In November of 1990, grandpa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He had limited time left and we had limited time with him. Was I just losing a grandfather? It was much deeper and more profound than that. I was losing a friend, security, and someone deeply loved; who helped me to grow and become who I am today; a person close to my heart and soul, who loved with no questions asked and nothing expected in return. This man, who raised me while mom worked, was the essence of the early stages of my life, planting seeds and giving advice that burned into my consciousness. He showed me how to care for others and love my family and work hard for what I desired out of life. I guess that is why his death hit me so hard and impacted the way I think and go from day to day. My thoughts are always in motion and his presence always alive and guiding. I must strive in the present with the few chances that I have and utilize all opportunities that I am given.

It has been 26-years since grandpa’s passing, and not a day is without thoughts of him, or I come across a subtle reminder. I cannot forget the day when I last saw him and he looked into my eyes and tried to smile. I could see his pain and suffering coming to an end and finally becoming free. Some of the days when I am weakest and in need of help, I look towards the sky and thank the universe he is looking down and listening.

Mountains and Ice

Recently resurrected the domain and website at http://www.mountainsandice.com that will focus on stories, poetry, photography and anything related to Alaska. Two poems were posted today for your reading pleasure.

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Nature – Stones

Do the stones we find on the shoreline, inspected closely before placing in a pocket for safe keeping, care that millions of years of effort have vanished?

We may live in nature, within its surroundings the forests’ cradling hands, but we must remember the cradling hands found us as they were here first, before we arrived as simple celestial beings.

Early October and the first snowfall through 30 degree temperatures, the leaves are still green and the grass is layered with a white coat. Gray rolling clouds ooze more snow as the winds toss individual flakes from rooftops and place them elsewhere in growing drifts.

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Time’s Plan

Another year on the calendar has passed and we celebrate. A celebration of accomplishments and of moving beyond events and moments we wish to forget and gain distance between.

But time has a plan for us. In the day-to-day scheme of life and the normal cycle, time is always moving forward. Ticking away at the same pace, always giving us 24 hours in each day to accomplish whatever we need to take care of. However, as a certain unit of time passes and in specific moments, we feel that time is going more slowly or more quickly. Does time change, or are we capable of controlling time, wrestling it back onto our path, the direction and plan we desire to follow?

I think at the end of each day, we and time set aside our differences, rest, and vow to continue the battle the next day. But what are we fighting for? What is our plan driving our actions, desiring some result, barreling toward some endgame? And what is left behind, what are the consequences, and who is impacted by our sphere of influence?

Regardless of time’s plan, and no matter what we do and the struggle we exert, time will visit each of us.

What we can do during the time we have, is to strive to become a better human than we were yesterday. To realize the sphere of influence we have on each other, and to make the most positive actions and results we can with the precious time we are given.

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Nature – Water, A Winter Perspective

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Standing upon the rocky ledge overlooking the crashing waves of the superior waters, I am taken away from here, while my physical body stays. The soundscape is filled with water, seagulls and tributary rivers. The landscape is gray and cold with whitecaps pushed inward. I kneel with hands clasped behind my back and focus my eyes away from that which surrounds and into the clear water washing onto the rocks, depositing a few, and taking some away.

Why are some rocks chosen and some left behind to forever weave back and forth within the crevasse they were left within?

And where will the chosen rocks be taken? How far out to sea will they journey before being deposited again? Will some be passed back and forth taken from shore to shore as they travel around the world?

The wind carries from the across the sea and penetrates my body through the skin, muscle, and bone settling into my veins. Each beat of the music I can see with my eyes closed is one closer to filling me. And I am taken into another world of light and music.

My put mind is put to sleep within the music carried by the waves. I no longer feel the cold splash when the wave hits the rock. I no longer feel cold. I no longer worry. I no longer feel tense. I no longer feel without purpose or place.

I belong here with the water. I belong within her arms, holding me close.

Time passes and I forget everything else and only have the water and rock in my mind.

Where do we find purpose and our place besides nature? Does nature know that we seek it to find comfort and to unravel the twisted and confused human mind?

Often, I wander along the shoreline with delicate steps on the wet rock with singular purpose of not slipping. I think to myself, do the rocks mind I am stepping upon them and using them to reach a goal?

Far out at sea a ship strikes a balance with the waves setting a course to minimize the rocking and its presence. What does the water get in return for this relationship? Perhaps it is the prevention of another spill of crude oil or the rusting remains on the ocean floor. Then what causes the fury that does sink ships? Perhaps it is nature’s last breath, the final push over the edge that she can longer take.

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Nature – Land, a Fall Perspective

Evening approaches the valley shielded under the canopy of oak. The colors change from green began a week ago and today the carpet has become red. A southerly wind rattles the dense forest, shaking loose leaves and small branches. Other than nature it is quiet and calm. I come here for the quiet and calm. Peace abounds as the shadows like a blanket settle over the landscape.

I ride past open fields of golden tops swaying in the wind. The setting sun cast long is bright to the naked eye, but warm, beautiful, and peaceful.

I ride the single-track dirt trail through an immense soundscape of birds calling, squirrels foraging for nuts, and the blue jays singing.

I witness the last preparation of bees. One by one they take flight with cargo, like helicopters slowly leaving the earth, and into the setting sun. Evening dew settles upon the elongated grass, capturing the last rays of light.

The butterfly visited me today. Within the back trails under the coming darkness, the color of wings pushing the air creating a vibration captured my attention as it crossed directly in front of me.

The setting suns light scatters with the thin white clouds occupying the evening sky.

I continue to ride and the trail ascends before flattening out, bringing me between field and placid waters clinging to the last light.

The transition of summer to fall contains a new color palette as greens give way to red, yellow and orange. Flaming red maple leaves fall from the sky as I look up, standing in the middle of the trail.

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Nature – Delicate Relationship

There is something dramatic and something many times larger than us. What surrounds and embraces us with reluctance because we are there within its midst.

The thrill of venturing into unknown and undiscovered lands, into unnamed glaciers, lakes with undisturbed shorelines, trails and elevations unknown to maps, lives within us. I desire to truly experience wilderness, the way the scene unfolded before God’s eyes and the final touch of a masterpiece, with unfettered air breathed when emerging from primitive shelters, built by hand from what the land offered and gave to them. Where does this experience lie in our time? Is there some far away land, hidden under tussocks fed by glacial streams, within a mountain’s shadow? Who or what holds this experience secret, and pristine? Does it even exist anymore? It might remain an elusive chase and game, an experience we live and die by in our dreams, the end game we pour our heart and soul into.

Why do we chase that experience so close to our fingertips, yet the feeling, the tingle, so elusive? What is encoded into our bodies and our DNA?

What is the most pure, and at the same time, most simple experience we as humans, can learn from? It is time spent alone, with your hands as survival tools, sustenance found while roaming the free land, water down the hill at the creek, ripe berries dangling in the morning sun reflecting dew, fallen trees and dried bush to make the evening’s fire.

The cold water lifted from the high-tide runs through the clenched fist. The eastern wind passes through the outstretched arms and fingertips. The ancient trees reach for the sky with entrenched roots that have withstood time, storms, and worse, human intervention. What all of these elements have in common is their resilience and ability to thrive without humans, and the unfortunate consequence of dying at our hands.

Who is to adopt and change in this sometimes toxic relationship?

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John Haines is Calling – Fables and Distances

As nature becomes essential to daily life and getting through the chaos, I have been thinking about John Haines.  Some of my most-often used quotes come his book “Fables and Distances” and so I have started reading it again and am reminded the impact his writing has had on my outlook in life.

Fables and Distances: New and Selected Essays

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Photo credit: Dorothy Alexander

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Trees and the True Home

The solitude and calm of a northern MN forest is an inviting and welcome break from the city. Pine trees gently sway in the autumn wind and the sun casts tall shadows beneath the crystal blue. This place is a refuge for animals and people and a delicate balance plays out each day.

We are but guests here and with time we are consumed by the trees and the earth to become one and the same.

We are but caretakers here tasked with preserving what is natural, what is instinctual, and lessen our impact.

We are blessed to be here and the reward is absolute silence, snow covered pine needles, whippoorwills, evening visits from coyotes, elusive bears, soaring ravens, and the ritual of becoming ash and returning to the sky, returning to home.

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