of birthdays and ravens

My fifty third birthday is next month. As a middle aged woman, I’m supposed to regret my age; to lament my gray hair and wrinkles. I’m supposed to say I’m 29, and wink at you. But I don’t want to be twenty nine. About a month after my 29th birthday one of my most cherished friends hiked up a mountain, and fell 1600 feet on the way down. He was also 29. It was March 15th, the Ides of March. Beware the Ides of March, especially when you are twenty nine, which is the year that Saturn returns to the house it was in when you were born. Both of these milestones are about danger, falling down, rebirth or death. You survive or you change.

That morning we had shared a cup of tea, and enjoyed the warm morning sun, rare in Alaska at that time of year. We sat outside. He irritated me by throwing his tea bag down on the grassy lawn. I made him pick it up. He pointed at Mount Jumbo, and asked if I’d like to climb it that day. I was too busy, but made him promise to stop climbing when he got to the snow; he didn’t have the right gear for the slippery stuff. We hugged goodbye, and that was that. I never saw him again. Big sun that day, big moon that evening, stunningly beautiful. He couldn’t resist the pull of the summit. Up is easy. Down can be deadly.

He fell. I fell too in a way, introduced to tragedy, crushed to the ground by sudden unfathomable loss. It felt to me as if the forest and the dirt were cradling me, during the search to find him, which took 2 days. There were a hundred of us out there, calling his name, literally looking high and low. And there were ravens. Ravens have a reputation in Alaska, which is very different than anything from Poe or horror movies. They are the most brilliant of birds. In Southeast Alaska native culture they are creators, bringers of life and light, lusty, tricksters. Ravens guide hunters to game. They signal by “dumping their pack”, which is an aerobatic feat; a flip upside down in flight, grabbing your attention. You have to follow. The searchers up high saw ravens, felt drawn by the ravens. When they found him, there were ravens all around, but his body was not disturbed. Some say ravens assemble and grieve for their fallen. I like to think that they gathered around him to lament his loss and ease his passage. For days, weeks, months after, I felt like the ravens were following me. It was probably magical thinking. They are everywhere in Alaska. But they were a comfort, they made me less alone. In some mythologies ravens help the soul return to support mourners or right wrongs that were done during life. I would ask them, “Do you know Tony? Are you Tony?”.

So many times, when I’ve needed help or support, they’ve appeared. While doing field work, an unpleasant boss was berating me in front of my coworkers, I silently thought “help, help, help”. When I looked up, 2 ravens were flying toward me and one dropped his pack. Ravens have flown so close by my head that the air, pushed by a wing, slapped my ear. They razzle dazzle my dog, flying within inches of his head to make him jump. They shove French fries under roof shingles. Their mating dance is a fluffed up strut fest. Once when writing a song about my mother and feeling lonely, a raven landed in the tree above me, a very large stick in its beak. It proceeded to hang upside down from a tree branch, still holding the stick, swinging like a trapeze. With a squawk it let go of the tree, dropping crazily, releasing the stick just before hitting the ground, and flying away making glu-gluck noises. Raven voices are mystery, raven language a miracle.

Betsy dreamed that Tony had become a raven. Maybe he always had been one. She wrote the song, but I sang it with her. We sang about the raven and the wisdom, and the loss and the blessings of love and work and play, Raven exhorted us to “just be thankful for today”. When I was 29, my beautiful, free spirited, infinitely silly friend turned into a raven and flew away. He pushed me into an ongoing quest for myself. His fall put my feet on the ground. His death made life more precious, made me love my people better. Raven reminds me not to take myself too seriously; to keep it crazy, even when the world demands sanity and seriosity. Now, living so far from family and friends, in urban surroundings, where ravens are incredibly scarce, I have to draw on the divinity of Raven more than the actuality. I’ve placed myself in a grinding concrete-bound world, where people are much more likely to die from weapon fire or car crashes, than flying from a mountain top. I don’t want to be 29, I want to be present, right now, with all the bumps and bruises, mistakes and regrets and love that I have survived along the way. I fell too in that year, on that day, but I survived and transformed, becoming more of who I am, by the grace of love and with the help of ravens.

Bucket Blessings

So, I’m taking a memoir writing class. I polished up my previous blog entry “Buckets of Sh*t” and presented it to the class. Here is what it looks like after I added and subtracted with the help of the class. They said to get rid of most of the boyfriend stuff, which is funny, since originally it was mostly about the boyfriend stuff! 

 

Bucket Blessings

I once lived in a small cabin in the bottom of an avalanche chute. It had a wood stove, a spring fed stream nearby where I gathered water, and an outhouse. Well, it wasn’t a full fledged outhouse, with a big deep hole; this outhouse was technically within the city limits, so it was more of a lean-to with buckets. Two of these were full to the top when I moved in, sealed with lids. 10 gallons of festering ooze. The previous tenant, who eventually became my sweetheart/man of my dreams/ex-boyfriend; promised that he’d come back and remove the buckets. This did not happen. I called the sewer department and explained my predicament. The sewer guy was sympathetic. Perhaps he’d heard the story before? Future boyfriend impresses woman with 10 gallons of pestilence? I carried the buckets, down the long, stumbly, slippery trail, placed them carefully in my car, and drove down the steep curvy road. A car full of explosives couldn’t be more nervous-making. I met the sewer guy, and we opened a giant access hatch (this was very cool, no odor, distant splashy sounds). We opened the buckets, which had been sealed for months. Abominable. Wretchworthy. The sewer guy was overwhelmed. There were f-bombs. I said “don’t you do this all the time?” He indicated, in colorful language, that normal sewage is benign, delightful in comparison. This was sticky. It was scary. He roared off in his big truck, leaving me with two nasty empty buckets.

Eventually I moved to another cabin. This place had an outhouse. A proper, old school outhouse, with a deep deep hole. It was a fading Cadillac of outhouses, a three-holer; two of normal size and a tiny one, custom made for a previous tenant’s Barbie doll. Someone had kindly left behind a piece of foam insulation cut into the shape of a toilet seat; a winter morning luxury. The view from this throne was sweet, looking down over the cabin and stream, trees and dripping moss. A northern goshawk had a feeding post right above. Marbled murrelet feathers drifted all around; one threatened species feeding on another. The trek to the necessary required a scramble up “the cliff”’. Once there had been stairs, and a functional floor, but now just rotting planks. I tiptoed on the better boards and never had a mishap. I was the outhouse ninja.

A few years later I found yet another lovely cabin in the woods. I called it the dollhouse and planted flowers all around. It was luxurious, with electricity, running water, a propane heater, and a composting toilet; which was indoors, with a floor. The problem was, you can’t really empty that tank all the way, or the composting stops. It’s like sourdough, you need starter. So, the guy before me had to leave his leavings behind (do you sense a theme here?). This wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the flying insects. The sleeping loft had a ceiling about two feet above my head. There were insects from the other guy’s droppings on that ceiling for weeks. The compost was off kilter. I bought a dust buster and had a nightly ritual of vacuuming overhead.

To you, from the outside looking in, some of this probably seems terrible. But there was beauty in all of it, or at the worst the opportunity to laugh really hard. How many people have lived in an avalanche chute? Well, maybe that wasn’t the best plan, but I survived, and it was beautiful. My outhouse on the cliff was a peaceful, connective place. As my surroundings have become civilized, I’ve become dissatisfied. Now I have indoor plumbing, but want more. I want tile. I want marble. I whine when the hot water runs out. Sitting in the outhouse was a satisfaction. I was present in the moment, present in the cycles of life and death, listening to the rain, and trying not to fall through the floor or freeze my ass off.

Little boat in a great big sea

Little boat in a great big sea.

Years ago I played a game with some friends. For 10 minutes we would each write about a phrase one of us had chosen. No editing, just write non-stop for 10 minutes and then share the results. Pretty simple, and much more fun than you’d expect. A favorite topic was “little boat in a great big sea”.  My entry was all about how it would be okay to die in the middle of the sea in a boat. I can’t remember why I thought this would be okay; maybe it just seemed poetic. I don’t remember much else about what my piece of writing either. What I do remember is that a few days later we were heading home and our boat caught fire.

It caught fire in the middle of Icy Strait, a large, sometimes treacherous crossing near the mouth of Glacier Bay, in Alaska. It was cold, so we were playing cards in the cabin of the fishing boat that we had hired to take us back to Gustavus in more style, comfort, and safety, than we were used to. I was kicking my wicked-step-childrens’ butts at go fish, when we all started to smell the terrible aroma of an electrical fire. That smell is not quite as nice as regular smoke, but more like the memory of heat mixed with nausea and burning lungs. We quickly ran to the stern of the boat while the captain opened numerous hatches, jumping in and out of these black holes, fire extinguisher in hand. We passengers stood there in the middle of some very big, scary, icy water. We counted life jackets and so forth. There were enough life jackets, but the dinghy on board would only hold four people. There were six of us. That meant if a real fire broke out, two of us would be in the water. Now if this were a Caribbean cruise, that wouldn’t be such a big deal… just float around until help arrived. In Icy Strait, as in all Alaskan Waters, you have about 5 very unpleasant minutes in the water before you lose consciousness. The two who got to be in the water possibly wouldn’t die, because help was at most an hour away and with cold water immersion you have a pretty good chance of being revived. But somehow, this wasn’t comforting.

Our captain had immediately radioed for help when the smoke broke out, so we knew someone would show up. It seemed like forever, but eventually our intrepid captain cut every electrical wire he could find, and stopped the fire from progressing. We ceased to be on fire. We also couldn’t move for a while, because the engine ignition required electricity. Luckily the captain was one of those guys who can do things and fix things (I love those guys), and somehow he convinced it to start manually and we were able to get going again.

At the same time, we looked in every direction and could see the white of bow wakes of the myriad boats racing toward us. In Alaska, people respond when someone needs help. Out on the water, everyone understands that the smallest mishap can mean tragedy. It was terrifying to realize that I could have died in a little boat in a great big sea, or in the water next to a little boat, or sitting in a little boat watching a friend lose consciousness. The reality was not so poetic, and I called out to whatever higher power might be listening that I didn’t mean it. I did not want to die in a boat in the middle of the sea.

Luckily, I’m not dead yet, so the story ended well. Still, it is a powerful memory, especially my feeling at the sight of all those boats headed our way; the love and gratitude I felt for all those folks running to help us. We are not alone out here on the great big sea. When the boat catches on fire, call for help. If someone needs help, run toward them. Next time you play writing games, write about napping on a warm beach.

ps… I can’t quite figure out how to put a caption on the photograph. This one is from years after the fire, just a day when hubby David and I were out having fun fishing with our great friend Neil, who is one of those guys.

Buckets of Sh*t

Three times in my life I’ve moved into rentals that included large quantities of other people’s excrement. I grew up in farm country in western NY state. I spent countless hours shoveling manure in trade for riding other people’s horses. I splashed through and fell in cow manure. I’ve thrown cow pies. As a dog owner I have picked up multiple dog lifetimes worth of dog poop. I used to pretend to eat deer and porcupine poop to make kids scream. I once convinced a US senator to smell bear poop. I’m cool with animal droppings. Still, as most of us, I try to avoid human manure whenever possible. Living in Alaska’s capitol was a challenge, rentals are rare and expensive, and come with unexpected costs. One must make compromises if one wants a roof and four walls while living a not very lucrative/alternative/fun-filled life.

My first adventure in excrement was a small cabin in the bottom of an avalanche chute, yeah you heard that right, that I rented for $450 a month. It had electricity and a wood stove, a spring fed stream nearby where I gathered my water, and an outhouse. Well, it wasn’t a proper outhouse, with a big hole that could eventually be filled. Nope, because this cabin technically was within the city limits, it had a bucket. Well, several to be exact. Two of these buckets were full to the top, and covered with lids. 10 gallons of festering ooze. The previous tenant, who eventually became my domestic partner for seven years, which says a lot more about me than it does about him, promised he’d come back and remove the buckets. This did not happen. What does one do with 10 gallons of crap? I’ve always been a pretty law abiding person, so illegal dumping didn’t appeal to me. So I called the sewer department. I explained my situation to the guy on the phone, and he was amazingly sympathetic. Perhaps he’d heard this kind of story before? Future boyfriend impresses woman with 10 gallons of pestilence? We arranged to meet at one of the giant cement hatches that lead directly into the sewer. I carried the buckets, one at a time, carefully down the long, steep, stumbly, slippery trail, placed them in my car, drove down the steep curvy road, to the hatch. Excitement. Luckily it wasn’t rush hour. A car full of explosives couldn’t be more nervous-making. I met the sewer guy, we opened the big hatch (very cool I have to say, no odor, distant splashy sounds). Then, we opened the first bucket. It had been sealed for months. Any of you who have experienced the aroma of anaerobic bacteria at work will not forget it. It was abominable. It was wretchworthy. It was a science project gone terribly wrong. The sewer guy almost lost his lunch. He was almost screaming with disgust. There were f-bombs. I said “don’t you work with sewage all the time?” He indicated, in language most foul, that normal sewage is nothing like the stuff in the buckets. Normal sewage is benign and pleasant in comparison. We had to shake the 5 gallon buckets upside down to get them to empty. It was sticky. It was scary. Then, how to get rid of the buckets? He wasn’t going to help me with that. I had to put them back in my car. Luckily I had garbage bags. But I couldn’t put them out by the curb for the garbage men. I drove around with these seriously horrible buckets and no legal means of getting rid of them. They were hazardous waste. I should have taken them back to their original owner and left them in his driveway, but like I said, I had romantic inclinations. So I double bagged them and put them in a public dumpster. Back then Juneau had an incinerator, so I think it was the safest choice. My father never let the future boyfriend live it down.

The second time, I moved into an incredible, totally off the grid cabin. This place had an outhouse. A proper, old school outhouse, with a deep hole; very luxurious in comparison. Well, no door and not much of a floor to speak of, but so infrequently used over the years that there was really no aroma. It was built appropriately far from the nearest stream, which meant that in order to use it, I had to scramble up what I called “the cliff”, a stupidly steep hill that required a bit of technical climbing. There had once been stairs, but now these were just a few random rotting planks. Speaking of rotting planks, the outhouse had once had an intact floor too. I got good at tiptoeing on the better boards and never had a mishap. I felt like the outhouse ninja. The love interest (see previous paragraph about buckets) wasn’t so lucky. He went through. Happily, or sadly, depending on how you look at it, he did not actually land in the pit, but caught himself just before falling to the depths. This was a fading Cadillac of outhouses. It was a three holer; two of normal size and one installed for a previous tenant’s Barbie doll. Someone had kindly left behind a piece of foam insulation cut into the shape of a toilet seat; the height of outhouse luxury, as any of you who have frozen your nethers in winter can attest. The view was lovely, sitting there looking down over the cabin and stream, trees and dripping moss. There was a northern goshawk feeding post right above, and marbled murrelet feathers all over the place. One threatened species feeding on another. My dog, Monkey, loved the outhouse. She would happily scramble up the cliff with me, and drop her tennis ball down the hole, then stare at me, waiting for me to go get it. That says more about her than it does about me.

The third rental I had in which I inherited other people’s poop, was a lovely cabin in the woods. It was luxurious with electricity, running water and a propane heater. It had a composting toilet, which is really great. You use the toilet and crank the crank to aerate the contents of the tank and allow it to compost. The final result is dry and fine and odorless and suitable for fertilizing flower beds. This was a very big step up from buckets or an outhouse with a rotten floor. The problem is, you can’t really empty it all the way, or the composting stops. It’s kind of like sourdough. The guy before me had to leave his leavings behind (do you sense a theme here?). This wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the flying insects which moved in during the time the cabin was empty. If you don’t moisten and turn the compost frequently, other decomposers move in to do the job. This is all part of the glorious cycle of life and rebirth, which is hard to remember when poo-flies are landing on your face. I slept in a loft with the ceiling about two feet above my head. The insects from the other guy’s droppings gathered on the ceiling for weeks, until I could get the toilet working properly again. I bought a dust buster and vacuumed the ceiling nightly. Eventually it all balanced out and the bugs were gone. At this point in my life I had wised up, and had no romantic inclinations toward the owner of the excrement. Every so often I would carefully carry a tray of compost through the cabin and out into the woods.  No smell, non-toxic, legal, way better than buckets.

So why this lengthy exposition on excrement? Not quite sure. Am I a better person for handling all that crap? Probably  yes, as I like to see silver linings and stuff. I’m not easily ruffled by things of the natural world, and if I can handle copious quantities of human poop, I can handle most other things. Since my outhouse years I’ve become a nurse, a profession with more than average access to stool, as we say in the biz. One thing I’ve learned from nursing, poop is easy, you can always clean it up, everyone is always happier when you do. Shit happens, the world is always better when we clean up our messes. We inherit a lot without really knowing what’s in the buckets. I understand being in love with someone who isn’t as great as he seems. Just like in politics, a guy who cleans up nice and says what you want to hear might be handing you a bucket of shit. Maturing as a species means we stop having to like these guys. Maturing as a species means we clean up messes and plan ahead to avoid buckets. We move on to better systems that allow us to live more comfortably on the planet.

Am I showing my age if I call it a blog?

I have been trying to convince myself to write, regardless of whether the product is any good or not. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about life and death and love and happiness and health and wealth and all that stuff that we think about, especially at mid life. I’ve been facing health concerns that are more of the chronic variety and less of the orthopedic result-of-doing-something-ill-advised variety. Up until the last year or so, my adventures in ill health have been more related to acute stupidity rather than chronic. Then I started to show my age, at least on the inside. Driving three thousand miles across the country in a compact car with a dog a cat and a husband, starting fresh in a geographic area that is definitely not my proper habitat, far from all my friends and previous pursuits, and facing the cold ugliness of working in institutionalized health care caught up with me. On my fifty second birthday I had a hypertensive crisis, and instead of going to a lovely Italian restaurant we went to urgent care. I’m not looking for sympathy, just using this experience as a mile marker. In the past, my trips to the hospital were inspired by things like horses falling on me. Now it is more nebulous, Happily getting ready for dinner and then my head wants to explode.

 

So, I’ve started running and eating better and trying to lose weight. And I took a job that pays significantly less, because it is a happy situation where I am valued, and when the last patient leaves around 5 pm, I am done for the day. I spend more time with my dog and less time feeling sorry for myself. Financially I’m kind of a train wreck, but I think I’m further away from a stroke, so that is nice.

 

It is a weird thing, this getting older. I still feel like the same person on the inside. I still feel like I can do anything, like I am strong and capable. I am trying to remember what possessed me to leave my hometown over twenty years ago. I am trying to remember why I stopped living off the grid in Alaska, and why I felt like I needed to have more money. I was pretty satisfied reading library books by candlelight, splitting wood and peeing outside. Actually, I do remember the reasons why. I was always at the mercy of landlords. It was cold and dirty. And then there were the outhouse debacles. But still, I had so much time. I took long hikes. I slept a lot. I played my guitar all the time. I wrote songs. They weren’t very good, but I wrote them. I had so many friends and so much fun. Because I couldn’t really afford to pay money for anything, I was really creative about everything. Now I still don’t have money for some reason, but the creativity has gone out the window, and I spend a lot of time on line playing mahjong. So I here I am trying to write. Later on I will try to play guitar for a while. Then, I’ll admit it, I will probably watch TV and play mahjong. Balance in all things, right?