Life Analogies

It's All How You Look at It



It starts out slowly…and gradually spreads until your whole life is clouded by this dream-like state. Like a dream, it fluctuates between just slightly odd to nightmarish…and then back again. You suspect that this is not reality, but none of your navigational systems work in this bizarre atmosphere, so you aren’t quite sure.


Some dreams can be very realistic—people act and talk like they do in real life, so at first, it seems so real. No one expects the beginning of a marriage to be easy, so of course conflict will come and probably neither one will handle it very well. But…it’s all so confusing. These aren’t really fights or squabbles or fussing over who forgot to do this or that. Just, one moment everything is fuzzy wuzzy perfect and the next you are caught up in some bizarre episode. You’re not quite sure what it is about or how you got there, only that you are caught in this terrifying storm of emotion. You never even saw the tornado approaching and suddenly your house just passed by and a tree nearly collided with your head. You must escape. NOW. But as always in a nightmare, somehow your feet don’t work properly or when you open your mouth to scream, nothing comes out. You’re trapped in panic.

Or to put it a different way…

He tries to load some highly complex program or throws malware at your system (because, let’s face it, we ALL have malware. It’s called being human in a fallen world) and you get:

>>ERROR<< System failure…aborting and deleting all programs…


Blip! Crap. Blue screen.
Control alt. delete.
Control alt. delete.


But it doesn’t work because he keeps clicking retry. He refuses to let your system shut down so things get very bad indeed. You bolt for the door, but he is much faster and stronger than you. It’s even better if he’s been trained in restraint holds and can incapacitate you in three seconds flat.

When someone blocks your way or actually physically restrains you from leaving something strange happens. If you’ve no idea what I am talking about, be thankful. If you can’t possibly fathom what I am talking about, try taking a fluffy bunny, bored cat, or wagging dog. You don’t have to hurt it or anything, just keep backing it into a corner and give it absolutely no route of escape and see what sort of reaction you get.

Something in your brain snaps. You go quite mad and turn into this frantic, clawing, screaming creature. Your reptilian brain kicks in the flight/fight response—both responses simultaneously. And then of course the other person feels very justified in restraining you because you are a raving lunatic and a danger to yourself and others. Then he can feed you some bullshit about being able to dial 911 and the paramedics would haul you off and hospitalize you or something. They would believe him and not you, because you’re clearly out of control and he is quite calm. He knows how all those systems work, of course. He’s always right.
Even when one storm has passed, the wreckage provides fuel for the next one.

“But you said x.”
“No I didn’t. I said y. You said b.”
“No…I said a.”
“Pft! No. You said b. I recorded it on my cellphone even.* I played it to my best friend. He thinks you’re a total %$#.”

But…I’m sure I said a…I’m pretty sure…I can’t believe I would say b. I know he said x. He did. I heard it. I mean…I think I heard it…maybe? I was sure he said x but…”

(*Strange that I never asked him to prove it and play it back to me. He probably would have blustered and said he deleted it already or something.)
You’re stunned and disoriented, stumbling around in some sinister forest with black, twisted trees whose branches keep snapping back in your face. You shake your head to clear it and somehow reorient yourself, but just as quickly another branch snaps back and stuns you again. You can’t see the sky, but no matter. There’s no drinking gourd to follow to freedom here.

And then, one day, you wake up.

A compass suddenly falls into your hand from the sky and you realize where the hell you are. It’s a bit of relief, but…not exactly terrific news.


It’s kind of like being trapped in the Fire Swamp, only, alas, there is no brave Westley to steer you. So you have to learn to anticipate the popping sounds before the bursts of flames and the telltale signs of lightning sand, and sleep with one eye open lest the R.O.U.S.’s creep up on you. Everything might be “ok” if you just never, ever drop your guard…


The insidious part of mental abuse is that it leaves no visible trace. No one would peek in the window and yell, “Run! Run now!” There’s no verse in the Bible giving it an escape clause. Marriage certificates don’t have to be renewed every ten years, so you can’t stamp yours with a big red NON-RENEWAL. Even inmates can get out on parole, but…


Stricken with regret, you realize you must make the Fire Swamp your home and there’s nothing for it but to start building castle walls. Construction is surprisingly swift in these DIY projects. Within days you can have your fortress and a moat—with crocodiles even. You might put in a drawbridge…you haven’t quite made up your mind about that one yet. The sentries you post at every corner must be forever vigilant. They might be able to catch quick naps while you’re at work, but they can never really sleep. It’s exhausting though, and sometimes one of them starts to nod off only to be awoken by a whistling arrow shaving past his head. The alarm is rapidly sounded and boots rush to gather defenses. They have no weapons. They could, of course, if you permitted them to, but you prefer to keep clean the rules of war. There will be no boiling oil or raining of arrows on the enemy’s head, merely smoke bombs and magical explosions of vanishing mist. Distract and avert your enemy, try not to injure him. You will sometimes, of course. You’re not perfect. The fact that you never lower your drawbridge for him is injury enough…if he’s really aware of how far away you are. His perspective is quite tilted, you see, and he might truly believe the wisps of smoke that suggest that you are just very tired. Work is stressful. You’re not unhappy you’re just…so very tired.

Sometimes the castle walls aren’t enough. Sure, they keep him out, but they don’t keep the pain away from your heart. So you may begin (or lapse back into) some maladaptive coping mechanism. (*See E.D.) Eventually—hopefully—that will grow wearisome too. One day you will wake up and say, “Enough.” (After all, E.D. is just another abusive boyfriend in the end.)

That’s when things get really disheartening, because then the numbness wears off and you can clearly see how appallingly obvious it is. How tragically damaged and stunted his own life made him. You feel a twist of pity for him, but…would you lower the drawbridge just for that? I wouldn’t. I don’t.


Recently, I started to peek through the arrow loops and strain my eyes to see off into the distance. I’m not quite sure why. Do I really expect to see someone riding to me? I’m not waiting for some glorious knight on a galloping steed to rush to the rescue. (Bleh.) And still…I’m scanning the horizon…By now his horse would be plodding with weariness. Or maybe he’s on foot…that’s what took him so long. Just the thought of the lines of exhaustion and battle scars on his face makes my throat close and my eyes sting. How much worse if I looked down and actually saw him there signaling from below.


“It’s bloody freezing out here. Do you mind lowering your drawbridge or throwing down a rope at least?”

That would be excruciating because I would have to say,

“Sorry, no. See that man over there trying to catapult flaming missiles and heave battering rams against the walls? Well, he happens to be my husband. I’m so, so terribly sorry. Please forgive me. I tried waiting, for a really long time, but you see, I thought you were dead. I should have kept waiting. I’ve regretted it ever since.”

I know this and yet…I keep looking and listening for some signal out there. If I could just know he was out there, it feels like it would be easier somehow. Or if he really died…at least I would know.

Sometimes I wander around the internet, as if I could discover some way to send a message to an unknown recipient. I write stories to keep me company. (You never would have guessed that, right?) Some of the stories are in present day, so the characters send little texts back and forth. For some strange reason, seeing that font, that size, in print is a little bit too real. On more than one occasion I’ve taken my phone out and was startled to remember that there will be no message there for me. There’s no


Today was awful. I miss you.


There was a beautiful sunset this evening. I was thinking of you.

So I just swallow, hard, and slip my phone back into my pocket and send a prayer to God. “Please take care of him for me…wherever he is. And if he’s in heaven already, please help me wait to see him.”


They say, “Time heals all wounds.”

Well, I don’t know who “they” are, but they are full of crap.




To me, crying is something that is supposed to be quiet—silent if at all possible. Tears sliding down in the darkness, biting the edge of the pillow so no sound escapes. Alone in front of the computer with your hands clenching your skull, eyes squeezed shut to keep it in.

But when grief first explodes your reality, it’s just not possible. There’s nothing quiet or dignified about it then. Just wrenching sounds like some wounded animal while hands claw the mattress as if to dig to some escape from the unspeakable. Strange that it can last until the first pale colors of dawn creep across the room. You wouldn’t think that it would take so many hours to reach the point of complete exhaustion. At last you sleep.

But then you have to wake up. And there it is.

So now you walk around like a zombie—only eyes, nothing behind them. You watch life passing by all around you and vow never to let it inside again. There is nothing to invite it into, just this empty, echoing chamber. In a bizarre way it’s liberating. You’ve just completely detached from everything around and you’re looking at it from outside of yourself. None of it really matters very much. All of those things that were so intensely important are worthless now. You’re hollow. It’s so uncomplicated.

Sometimes I look back on that point and I almost miss it. Isn’t that odd? There was something precious about a pain that big. As if it really mattered. Perhaps I believed that if it were bad enough, something would have to happen to reverse it. Life couldn’t just carry on.

But it’s not very long after that when you must push it aside and at least do a passable job of functioning in society. They’ll give you a free pass for a moment, but grieving people grow tiresome, and humans have a very short attention span. Just look at the evening news. Everyone gasps in horror at one atrocity in the world and three days later it’s fallen by the wayside. There’s a new one to speak of in shocked whispers. Your grief is quickly forgotten, by them. You must close it up tight in a box—at least from 8 to 5—and go through the motions of being normal.

After a while, it’s not so much of an effort anymore. Moments of joy tiptoe in quietly and you realize the sky can still be unfathomably blue and the grass can still ripple in the breeze like the waves of the sea. You might even go days—and then soon perhaps even weeks—without thinking of it, directly. But it’s still there. One day, for no particular reason, while you are just minding your own business, grief appears out of nowhere. A vehicle that was in your blind spot slams into you and you’re spinning out of control again.

Time doesn’t heal wounds—quite the opposite. When new pain comes it seems to have this cumulative effect. Each new laceration of heartbreak seems to slice even deeper. You thought you’d built fairly decent fortifications between your heart and that pain, but you are dismayed to realize that it was about as effectual as a house of cards.

I wish I could tell you that the rent in your life’s fabric really does knit together, but it doesn’t. True, nothing will ever compare to that first raw anguish, I can promise you that. God will begin to bring bright spots of joy and you will discover that you are not completely hollow after all. I can promise you that too. But grief never goes away; it just cycles back around again. The intervals in between may grow longer, but pain can still swoop in at any moment and snatch you in one breathless second. Sometimes you may even find yourself drawn to those songs that you had listened to, that are so intertwined with the grief that just hearing the first few notes causes that chill of pain to tingle across your scalp. I think that must be necessary somehow, to purposely open it up and let it bleed a little. That way, when pain materializes at your elbow, you can clench your jaw and blink quickly and say to yourself, “Later. This will hurt later.”

My songs:

“Shine” & “When the Body Speaks”—Depeche Mode
“Run”—Snow Patrol
“Rain”—Breaking Benjamin
“The Valley Song”—Jars of Clay (play it last)


Grief Revisited

June 2, 2015

I have escaped the perplexing labyrinth of a forest for a brief respite in the real forest. The fields and hillsides are so saturated with green that my desert eyes can scarcely take it in. They scan the display and try to fix it in my mind, to remember later. This is our homeland, but it could also look a bit like his. Wherever he is.

Tuesday we left the hayfields and woods to go to the coast. It’s not the sunbathing sort of beaches. I’m not sure what is even appealing about that when you could wander across wet, grey sand searching for pebbles (there are very few shells) and draw in the sound of the waves and look up across the misty, forested fingers of land beyond. Every time I go to a beach like that, I am on my quest for the perfect pebble. I know it’s out there somewhere. I’m not quite sure what it will look like. The shape and size must be just right to fit in the palm of my hand, smooth to the touch. The color must be something nice too, not flashy, easier to spot when wet by the sea, but still appealing after it has dried. I never should have left off looking for my pebble. Never, ever settle for less.

I’m sorry. I wish I had waited for you.

We’re going to try and find it Thursday. Somewhere there is supposed to be an obscure memorial with his name on it. I’m not sure what it could be. He didn’t die a hero’s death or anything, so what could it say? “In Memory of Idiots That Didn’t Have to Die”? I suppose it must be something rather more general than that. I’ve never even visited his grave. I was overseas when it happened. In some ways that was a relief because I could hurt in private and not have to see it on display in others. In other ways it was awful, because I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t qualify to be one of those grieving people over there and no one here cared. But I’m not the sort that has to stare down at someone’s artificial looking face to accept it. An email is believable enough.

When I got back to the states I never really wanted to visit his grave. What’s there isn’t the person, he’s in heaven. Some people think they can look down on us from heaven. I’m not sure how. Heaven is supposed to be wonderful beyond description. How could they be so filled with joy and peace if they had to look down on us, stumbling around in confusion and pain in a world full of the ruthless consequences of sin and stupid decisions?

To anybody reading this, there is one stupid decision I can tell you not to make. I don’t care if it’s uncomfortable or restricts you from throwing the perfect cast. Don’t be a complete idiot. Always wear a life jacket. Even if you can’t be bothered it matters terribly to someone else.

June 4, 2015

We found it today. It was so obscure that they were going to drive right past it, but I spotted it off to the side. When I walked to it, I scanned it quickly and turned away. His name was so small and blurred that I didn’t even notice it there amongst seventeen other names. They found it. I took pictures, some for me and some for people who can’t bear to go there. It just says, “In Memory of Those Lost at Sea.”

Then suddenly, standing there, fiddling with my camera and trying to find the right composition that would include the marker and the pretend boat next to it, I feel angry. I don’t think I felt angry before. If I did, I don’t remember. Thirteen years is a long time. And not. I’m angry at them.

How could you just leave him there on the deck and waste time fishing the other body out?

                How could you just leave him there, cold and wet and alone?

                He was still breathing when you went to pull the other body out. That man was already dead. Ours could still be alive today.

                How could you?

                The Coast Guard office is right there, a tiny white building that needs a new paint job. I could walk just a few yards and open the door and tell them that. I doubt the same men even work there now. It occurs to me to wonder what it is like for them. Do they ever wake up in the pale hours of the morning, haunted by that choice? They have to make decisions like this every day, and live with the memory of them, while everyone else has to live with the consequences. I know they know that. It can’t be easy.

So I stumble away to the edge of the water. There’s absolutely nothing romantic about that spot. Just broken chunks of asphalt sliding down to meet the lapping water. I sit there anyway, looking out at the graceless view. Nothing appealing about it. There is a wood chip mill just to the right of me, so there is the constant grind of trucks and beeping of backing up bulldozers. The air is filled with this wretched, sweet, rotten smell. I’ve never understood why paper mills smell so horribly. Paper is such a bland, inoffensive thing and trees and freshly cut wood smell lovely, but paper mills…You couldn’t pay me enough to live in a paper mill town. I can’t see how those people don’t all starve to death, nauseated by the constant smell of that in their nostrils.

The wind is unrelenting, battering and cold and the water that laps quietly in that bay is red and sludgy. As I said, completely devoid of grace and beauty. But I sit there, and let it open up a bit again, and let the tears and sniffing out for a little while, I’m not sure how long. Gradually I stop, and stop asking—begging—God.

God please, if he’s out there somewhere, let him find me somehow.

                I can’t bear this anymore. I need him every day.

                Somehow…let it be possible, even though I didn’t wait. Why didn’t I wait?

I know the answer, but it’s illogical and wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I know it’s because somehow this other death killed the hope of him. The signal out there was lost somehow. I tried to dial in the radio but there was just static. Still…

Why didn’t I wait?? Why didn’t I wait just in case? How could I have been so incredibly stupid and let myself be drawn in, relentlessly, until I gave up and settled for less. A less that dissolved into worse than nothing only a few months later.

                How could I have left him out there?

                Please God.


                I slowly turn off these taps. This can hurt again. Later.

I watch three cormorants slip under the water and bob back up again. They seem to be together, a little dark trio. Then I look up to the hillside above. So very green.

I’m finally ready to stumble back up through the rubble to the car where I hope I can just sit and not have to say anything. After a few minutes I will be able to tune back into the debate about which town to go to next and where to have lunch. I will be able to pull back into being just a basic person, on an ordinary day. We decide that we are going to leave the coast behind, but there is much more beauty to seep into my soul. So green. My brain can’t say that enough. A few more days to pretend I’m back home again and back in time and…I’m not going to finish that thought. I think you can figure it out.

I was recently told that my latest writing doesn’t have that glimmer of hope that the first pieces had. Sorry. I’m not going to lie to you with some Pollyanna drivel. I don’t think that would be particularly helpful to you if you are in this same place. I can’t pretend that I can see it yet. I know it’s out there, I wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t. God can see it and someday we will see it too. I’m not sure on which side of heaven that will be, but it will be someday.


*Note: Visiting  ‘home’ was so powerful that I realized I couldn’t go back to that blighted, rainless pit nor the life I had there. I am home now, for good, under the green trees and (mostly) overcast drizzling skies. Ahhh… There is no comparison. Dorothy was right. I see the hope now. Life is not a whirling kaleidoscope of joy, but the air is clearer. There is a new future.


God’s Presence

*Note: I wrote this years ago to a hurting friend, a penpal from another country. It was a very special letter, so I hope he wouldn’t mind. I put it in here with the thought that it might help someone else out there, who doesn’t have someone to confide in. The language was simpler than my usual style so I spiffed it up a little bit. You can still hear the faith and security in the voice of that very young woman/girl. I believe it’s an important message for any hurting person to hear.


Dear Friend,

I will tell you two things that happened to me and I hope you will understand. I have tried to tell a couple of people about them, but they didn’t really understand.


The first is difficult to explain. Perhaps it would even sound ridiculous to most people. Maybe only God understood what it would mean to me, but that is the important thing—He understood. It will be easier for you to understand if you feel the way I do about God’s creation. Looking at the green of the trees against the sky and the delicate, fleeting beauty of wildflowers means so much to me. When I’m in nature I feel so much closer to God and so much more at peace. This often makes it very hard to live where I do. The desert can be very harsh and the imprisonment of our cinderblock wall suburbia can be incredibly bleak. It’s especially discouraging for someone who loves gardening the way I do. Working in the garden with my hands in the earth, helping things grow, is like feeding my soul. Yet it often seems pointless to try and garden in this harsh climate with dirt like cement and a brutal sun. Even my best efforts often had disappointing results. (I’m telling you this because it’s important for understanding my story.)
I was going through a difficult time during my first years in college—the dark valley, really. I can’t quite explain why. I only know that I was drained and hopeless every day. Back then I never suffered from insomnia, so at least I could sleep. But when I woke up it was like everything hit me again. For a few blessed hours I could forget…and then I had to face another day. Most of the time I just wanted to give up and die. Sometimes I would come home from school so exhausted and desperate that I would take all my clothes off and lay deathly still in bed, wishing I had the guts to swallow a bottle of pills. That’s how bad it was. I couldn’t trust God at all. I didn’t believe His goodness was for me anymore. I was very bitter and tried to shut Him away.
One day life seemed so utterly bleak—such a dark pit without even a pinpoint of light—that when I came home I just fell to my knees and cried. I begged God, “Let me go.” It seemed impossible to believe anymore and I was too tired to even try. I begged, “Let me go.” I didn’t just mean I wanted Him to let me die, do you understand? I wanted Him to let me go—completely—and drop away into the pit of hell, because I just could not believe anymore. And then the phone rang. I couldn’t answer it. I couldn’t care less who it was; I just stayed on the floor. But after a little while I got up and, I’m not sure why, listened to the message. It was from my mom.
Now this is the part that no one can truly understand. Yet even now I can hardly speak or write about it without getting choked up. I wish I could make people understand! It was such a stupid little thing, but it meant everything. Only God knew what it meant to me. I listened to my mom’s excited voice telling me, “I was talking with a lady at work and she has all these violets. They’re growing into her lawn and she has too many. She invited us over to dig them up, and put them in our garden.”
It sounds rather silly, doesn’t it? But it was violets! I love these tiny little forest flowers with their little purple faces that smell so soft and sweet. Only God knew how much I loved them. It sounds so insignificant, but it meant everything to me. When I heard that, I just fell to my knees and wept because I knew it was from God. It had happened right then, when I told Him to go away forever. It was like He said, “No! I will not let you go! Not ever!” It was a message sent that only I could understand—nobody else.
The other time God made His love so vivid to me was after He had pulled me out of the pit of depression (and E.D.) again a few years later. I was walking along in the forest talking to God in my head and thanking Him for all the times He had rescued me. I was thinking of how far I had fallen, down into that pit of despair. I thought I had hit the bottom down there in that dark mire. I was thinking of this and I heard His voice. I swear it’s true. It is the only time I ever heard it—just once. It wasn’t loud, but I knew it was Him. I was thinking of how far I had fallen and this soft voice in my head said so clearly:
“I never let you fall that far.”
And I realized it was true. I had thought it was completely unbearable, but…in a flash, my mind’s eye could see my hand as I was falling and then a great hand caught it and held it tight, to keep me from falling all the way down. I have seen people fall all the way down and some of them never came back up, but God didn’t let that happen to me. I had told Him I hated Him even, when I was in that much pain, but still He wouldn’t let go. I think of these verses for that:


“The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong, because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.” (Psalm 37:23-24)
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from whence shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:1-4)
“For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity.” (Proverbs 24:16)


I hope you understand why I wanted to tell you that. Lots of people say idiotic things to you when you’re hurting. They can’t seem to speak to you in plain human. They lapse into sickening Christianese and say things like, “Well, you just need to have more faith. You need to pray more. If you were reading your Bible everyday like you are supposed to, I’m sure you would experience more joy.” Scarcely anyone has the honesty to say, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I am so sorry you’re hurting. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any answers, but just please believe that God is still there. Because He is.”
Very rarely do people have the courage to be authentic enough to say, “I don’t know.” I would have given anything to have heard that when I needed it. But no one ever said it to me. So now, more than anything, I would like to be able to say that to someone else when they need it. I would like to be that friend that I never had because then the pain would have been worth it, to help somebody else. It wouldn’t have been a waste at all.


*Note: Seriously, I promise you I will write more new material soon. I’ve had some of these snippets in my folder for years and I’ve always wanted them to see the light of day and be appreciated. (Well, I can guarantee the first part of that, you’re in charge of the success or failure of the second.) I can hear how young my writing voice sounds (bleh!), but overall I am still pleased with the piece. I hope you will be too.

I love Alaska because Alaska, is well, ALASKA. The name—just saying it, it has this feeling, this taste. I tried to explain what it was like to some people once. I said, “Have you ever been in love? You know the way you feel, every time you hear someone say that person’s name? Your ears prick up, and you snap to attention. You can’t help it, you eaves-drop.” Well, that’s how it is to me. I hear someone like five miles away say, “Alaska,” and I hear it. I whip around and start listening. I have to bite my tongue to keep from interrupting this total stranger. I want to lean over and announce, “I’m from Alaska, you know. Just ask me. I’ll tell you anything. I’ll talk for hours.”

I wish I could show it to you. They don’t have real mountains down in Arizona, in the lower states. We Alaskans say the “lower 48” or more often we’ll say “outside.” Outsiders don’t understand us. We’ll say to another Alaskan, “Yeah, I think this winter I’ll go Outside.” They look at us like, “And? Doesn’t everyone?” Because we don’t mean we’re just stepping out the door. We mean were going to get in a plane and fly over Canada to the rest of America.

But down in Arizona, people say “mountain.” I look at them with pity. “Mountain? That’s a hill.” Because everything is bigger up there. In Arizona, people will look at a tiny trickle of water in a dry ditch and call it a “river.” Heck, we had huge, wide tongues of water flowing through our land, and those only qualified as a “creek” by Alaskan standards.

But I wish you could see it. The mountains, big and icy. All silvery purple. They wrap all around Anchorage, hugging her, like a mother cradles a baby. Big and safe and protecting, like the hand of God cupped around you. That’s what I grew up with. Everywhere you looked, there were mountains on all sides, until you got to the inlet. And in the winter, when the sun would be setting, (at three in the afternoon.) the snowy mountains would turn this glowing pink. They call it “alpenglow.” And in the morning—long, dark winter mornings—I would look out the bus window and see the sky turn this glowing blue, but still pricked with stars, and the huge jagged mountains would be silhouetted against it, like a black paper cutout.

Naknek was the first place I went to work when I went back. To get there, you leave the Anchorage airport, and leave the big jets and take this little plane. It skims so low you can watch the ground below you. Softly rolling tundra, emerald green, sprinkled with bright blue pools of water. Scrubby, twisted black little trees and hedges of willow.

When I first got to Naknek, I spent a lot of time just walking these hills. The tundra is spongy; it feels so neat to walk on it. It springs back when you step on it; it gives you this springy walk. From a distance, the tundra looks all the same, just a mossy carpet. But if you look closely, it’s fascinating. Hundreds of different kinds of plants are all living together. Tiny little plants, too many kinds to even imagine. And when you walk over the rise, if you are really quiet, you might spot a beaver in one of those silvery pools below. See his little nose push a V of ripples behind him, before he sees you and slaps his tail. And you might see swallows swooping up high and skimming down low across the water. They love it, you can tell. There is such a sense of joy in their flight, as they swoop and dive. And as you walk along, you’ll see little tufts of white cotton grass, blowing in the wind, like fuzzy little heads. The natives say that when there is a lot of cotton grass, it will be a good salmon run. I don’t know if that’s true, but there was plenty of both the last year I was there.

At first, however, there are no fish. You get shipped up to this place. Joining the cannery, it’s like volunteering to be a work camp prisoner. They shuttle you out there like Jews on a train and don’t tell you anything. You have no idea what you’ll be doing, and you just have to sit there and think about it. You know it’s going to be hard, but other people have done it. You keep telling yourself this, so that you believe it. But right at first, you aren’t quite sure. “What if I can’t handle this?” you think. “What have I gotten myself into?”

And there is nothing to do. Nothing. Because the booming metropolis of Naknek has exactly:

1. One general store with everything from fish bait, to fabric, to oranges, (for like four dollars a pound!)
2. Three bars
3. One tiny library, (rarely open.)
4. One really bad pizza parlour.

That’s it. And there’s nothing to do but wait, who knows how long? The salmon are running this show, and if they don’t feel like showing up for two weeks, well you just have to wait. In Naknek, there are three things to do when you aren’t working:

1. Sit on a log.
2. Get drunk.
3. Walk around.

Since I didn’t much care for the first two options, I walked around a LOT. But sometimes I would join the people sitting, staring, nothing left to talk about, because they’ve been doing this for eleven days. I sit down on this big log and breathe in their second hand smoke. Some guy from beach crew comes by. He thinks he’s hot stuff, because he’s on beach crew, and so always has work to do and gets to drive forklifts around.

“Hey girls,” He leers. “You’re doing a great job of holding down that log. Ha, ha.”
He winks, but we just stare at him. That joke was kind of funny, the first time, but we’ve probably heard it 46 times by now.

They have a white board in the break room, (Insiders know to call this stark white room “mug-up” because that’s where all the cannery workers crowd together, dripping with rain, to drink stale, hot coffee.) On this board some cute person draws a sad-face and writes: “No fish = No $.” Ha, ha.

And then, finally one day, the first tender pulls in and everybody cheers and dances.
“Hurray!” We yell. “Work!” And we all watch with fascination as all these knowledgeable, nonchalant fishermen whip their ropes around and tie the tender against the pier. We all crowd around, grinning, to watch the silvery fish bodies haul up.

But, two weeks from now, when we are sitting around on the dock at break time, and we see a tender pull up, nobody is going to sing. We’ll all want to throw rocks and shout “Go away! No more fish!” Because as long as there are fish in the holding tanks, you work.

Now, every morning, you haul your dead body off of this tiny hard cot and shove your legs into cold, fish-smelling jeans, (The laundry person washed them yesterday, but they still smell like fish.) And shove your feet into clumping rubber boots and run down the windy, usually rainy, hill to clock in and gear up. And then you’ll work and work…maybe, if you are lucky only until 10 or 11 p.m. This is an “early” day. Most people figure, there is so much night left, why not go out and get drunk? Big fun. Spend the rest of the night heaving in a ditch somewhere and then the next morning staring at all the rushing fish guts sliding in front of them, and turning green. No thanks.

But most nights, you will work until maybe midnight, when you hear a horn and someone shouts which means the last fish has left the holding tank. Almost done, and then only an hour of clean-up, hosing down the floors and sweeping every single stray salmon egg down the drain. And I mean every little, itty bitty egg. If your boss Diane, this tiny little female body that secretly holds a drill sergeant’s personality, sees even ONE egg, you will have to hose down the whole floor all over again. And now, at last, you can haul up the washable gear, a big huge sack bumping on your back like some kind of sick Santa Claus. And THEN, you get to take a shower…oh, heaven…and fall into bed.

Once, and this is no exaggeration, I fell into bed at 3:30 a.m. and my alarm was set for six. But only once. You are so sleep deprived, that even if they let you sit down, you couldn’t, because you’d fall asleep. Which is bad, because, if you have to use the toilet, you have to sit down, and might fall asleep in there. And if you try and read anything, you’re eyes will see about three words and you’re out. So you read your mail standing up, or if you have a crazy sense of humor, you read it out loud amongst all the crowded elbows at the lunchroom table. Chris did this. He could make his grandmother’s letters sound so funny.

In the egghouse, (That’s salmon eggs, not chicken eggs), we got to listen to music and could talk to each other across the belts. There was less noise here. I would have hated the canning line. You have to wear earplugs and even then you can still hear “Chink, chink, chink, chink!” banging in your head for hours. Even when it stops, your ears are still hearing it. I had to work in the canning line twice, and praised God for my job in the egghouse. In the egghouse, we would tell our life stories… there were hours and hours and days and weeks to fill. After a week, though, you run out of things to say. So we’d play games. I invented a game and everybody loved it. It’s called, “I’d Rather Be.” You start with the letter ‘A’ in the alphabet, and you have to think of something you’d rather be doing in someplace other than the cannery. Extra points if you can say the whole sentence beginning with that letter. A winning sentence for ‘A’ might be:
“I would rather be Admiring Awesome Alaskan Alpenglow in Anchorage with my Attractive and Affectionate Amigo, Andy.” (Ok, I cheated this time, I had a Thesaurus.)

And then the next person has to do this with “B.” We played this game a lot. Then, Lori’s boyfriend, Nick, and Shannon’s boyfriend, Mike, came up with their own game. It was called, “The Evil Elves Game.” You had to tell them a wish, and then everyone else but you would consult each other and come back to you. For example, on my turn I said “I wish I wouldn’t be lonely.” And the Evil Elves consulted and came back to grant my wish. They say, “Your wish is granted. You will never be lonely because you will go crazy and all the little voices in your head will keep you company. Ha, ha.”

I know, it’s twisted humor, huh?

(Oh, my goodness! I just realized! My wish came true! Ahh!)

But that’s what it was like at the cannery. And do you know? Sometimes I miss all that. I guess I didn’t mind anything, just to be back in the Northland.


I was born and raised in Alaska. In the north. It is in my veins. Probably, if you put a little drop of my blood under a microscope, you would see tiny salmon swimming through it. And when I had to leave Alaska, well, it was like somebody I loved died. I would never say that of course, to someone else. I would never say, “Gee, Bill, I’m sorry your mother died. I know just what it feels like. Why, when I left Alaska…” Because Bill would probably want to punch me in the nose.

But to me, that’s what it felt like. Like something had died. Like some doctor had ripped out all of my insides and sewed me back up with cotton stuffing. It took forever for me to feel anything again, and even now and then, it still gets to me. It sounds stupid to a lot of people. “It’s just the outdoors. It’s just the view out of your window. What’s the big deal?” But to me, it’s a big deal. I don’t belong in the desert. I never have.

It’s like some Sci-Fi movie when a space ship crashes on some alien planet. After a while, all the other humans start building a colony and having families. But this one guy can’t do that. He keeps tinkering around with the smashed up bits of their old spacecraft. He’s trying to build another one.

“Come on,” the others say to him. “Mars isn’t so bad. The red rocks are really quite attractive.”

But he just looks at them like they’re crazy.

“You don’t understand,” He says. “I’ve got to get back HOME.”

And I’m like that guy. I’ve even tried to fly my little make-shift space ship a couple of times and it keeps crashing. I’d get so frustrated. I’d even get mad at God.

“No,” He says. “It’s not the right time yet. Not there. Not now.”

“When?” I yell. “Hurry up!”


*Note: Update: I am back in the homeland. Not Alaska, but back where I belong, near family and even salmon fishing. I know that sometime in February I am going to look up at the sky and say, “Come on, please? Can you at least let us see the sun so we don’t forget what it looks like?” But then I will remind myself how far I’ve come. If you gave me the choice between going back there or being waterboarded, I would not hesitate with my answer.

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