Life in the Gray: After Sandy Hook

17 12 2012

I’m writing to you from a ferry. Seated alone on a midday crossing, staring into a muted seascape. Ocean the green of beach glass, clouds shushing the sky; land’s faintest skeleton peeks through sheets of rain. Whitecaps the only bright spots in this world. “Lots of sheep out here today,” one of our fleet elders would say about the turbulent sea.

This relentless gray depresses some, but I embrace it, a reassuring companion for my eternal ambivalence. It’s here in the gray that I struggle to balance a precarious tower of contradiction.

Contradictions like my relationship with guns. On auto-answer, I would’ve told you I don’t have one. You know who I am, sweeties – tree hugging, tofu eating, feminist fisherman and all that. I don’t like guns. I don’t want to shoot shit. I don’t need one to feel safe; they invoke the opposite in me. I don’t want any part of guns or gun culture.

But that’s too black and white for someone living in the gray. Of course I have a relationship with guns. Born and largely raised in a state where over 60% of households have them, how could I not?

Early childhood in Wasilla. My parents – like most Alaskans – hunted. One of our family stories recalled leg cramps hobbling my dad on a caribou trip. My mom packed him, all their gear, and the meat back out.

Being a deckhand. Until recently, most of the boats I crewed on had guns aboard. My mom. Single men. Family boats. Folks who regularly served venison and wouldn’t go to the beach without a gun as bear protection. The single time I’ve fired a gun was on one of those boats, urged to join my shipmates in target shooting a can tossed in the water. Wish I could tell you we retrieved the can afterward.

The August night that my teenaged self paddled to a Sitka Sound island with a handful of other deckhands. We started drinking on the way out, passing the fifth of Jager between kayaks, wasted by dusk. We told fireside stories of the kushtaka, Tlingit lore’s shape-shifting otter-man. Spooked by a shadowy tree, one of the boys pulled a handgun from his backpack. Began waving it around. The rest of us suddenly sober, another grabbed the gun and put it away.

Still a teenager. Midnight cruising the back roads of Washington farmlands. When headlights appeared in the rearview, the jittery driver reached for the glove box. A handgun inside. His paranoia, certain that the car behind was “after us.” Making it home, shaken by what could have been. A year later, learning that boy killed a man.

The land job I had, where shotguns leaned against the truck shop walls, casually propped alongside broomsticks. When the boss’s temper snapped, he’d grab the closest one, stalk outside, and blast starlings off the power lines.

The contrast of people in my heart. I’m on this ferry traveling to a winter reunion with fishing friends. Almost everyone there will be a hunter – including the petite young woman who recently shot her first deer, a four-point – except for Joel and me. I don’t eat meat other than fish because I choose not to eat what I can’t take responsibility for putting on my plate. I don’t like killing fish, but I do it as humanely as possible, with gratitude and respect. Most of these hunters share those values. They talk of “bad kills” – shots where the deer suffered unduly – with disapproval and condemn waste. I respect their connection to the food on their tables. I’ll be happy to see each of them, while avoiding the fixed marble-eyed gaze of bucks long since passed through our hosts’ freezer, Santa hats perched jauntily on ears forever cocked.

But this isn’t just about guns.

Contradictions like the sudden urgency with which we talk about mental healthcare after a tragedy like Sandy Hook, and the reality of how we respond to those struggling among us. The conversations that inevitably follow, where we talk about mental illness the way some folks talk about Africa – like it’s one uniform place, rather than a continent of many countries, ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures. Mental illness is that continent, inclusive of millions of us and a broad spectrum of diagnoses, behaviors, challenges, and triumphs. Contradictions like my hope that this will be the tragedy to reframe our nation’s priorities, that we’ll veer towards valuing and investing in others’ wellness, squared off against antipathy for a discussion that stigmatizes all people in need as the next potential assailant.

Contradictions like friends’ posts on Facebook, where we communally grieve, rage, and process.

“It is one’s choice to act in a manner that will bring pain and suffering upon another,” wrote one. “Sadly, there isn’t anything we, as individuals and as a nation, will ever be able to do about the actions another chooses.”

Another said, “We live in a culture that is more oriented to competition than cooperation, to power than vulnerability; to materialism rather than sustainability; to defense rather than inquiry; to self-interest and individual rights rather than concern for the whole.”

I didn’t have the strength to weigh in. What could I say that hasn’t already been said about Sandy Hook… and Oregon… Tulare County… Minneapolis… New York… Wisconsin… Colorado… Seattle… Florida… Arizona… Ohio… Georgia… and Texas, in 2012 alone? Words are such worthless fragments, too small and brittle for this size of grief. What would they even matter?

Blogger Jim Wright’s readers were anxious to hear what the fiercely spoken Alaskan – a gun owning, military consulting, Navy veteran – would say about Newtown, but he wasn’t having it. “I may have something to say later, but at the moment, I’m not going to waste my time – and it’s exactly that, a complete and utter waste of my time because absolutely NOTHING has changed since the last bloody slaughter, since the last time a bunch of kids were mowed down by the insanity that is America and its bizarre obsession with guns and violence and blood. Nothing has changed. Not one goddamned thing. Exactly as I said five months ago. We can’t even have the conversation. Both sides were already rehashing the same old arguments before the blood was dry.”

I have two friends who didn’t rehash old arguments. They embraced action. “The only response is to organize,” the one in Seattle wrote. “I’ll be hosting a conversation today at 3 pm about possible next steps for those of us who want to ‘do something’ about gun violence. You don’t have to be any kind of expert – I’m not.”

The resulting group has scheduled bi-weekly meetings, open to anyone who wants to be involved. If you’d like to be, visit the Densmore Working Group.

The friend in Sitka didn’t waste any time, either: “I am sure that many of you are as furious, outraged, devastated, and so, so sad about the Connecticut shooting as I am,” she wrote. “I feel so strongly that SOMETHING needs to change in our nation, our states, and our communities. My personal step towards a solution is to invite people to a letter-writing campaign this Wednesday, December 19, at 6:30 pm at the Larkspur to send letters to our state senators, representatives, and president. The goal here is to do SOMETHING proactive to reduce these violent incidents.”

If you’re in Sitka, drop by the Larkspur Café, 6:30 to 8:30 pm, to participate. Those outside of Sitka can join in, too. I’ll be writing my letters in solidarity from Bellingham.

There aren’t a lot of easy answers here in the gray, but one sunbeam voice breaks through. My friend Laura posted this resource from Mr. Rogers, advising parents how to talk to children about traumatic events. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Good advice for all. May we look for the helpers… May we be the helpers. I’m thankful to have friends setting the example.





On Speaking Up: Why I Support Occupy

6 11 2011

My mom recently saw an online photo of her daughter, protest sign held proudly high. “Oh, gawd!” Part embarrassed laugh, part groan; her response revealed a long-internalized instruction to be quiet and polite.

Those were the prevailing lessons of my childhood, too. Be nice, be discreet, keep a low profile. Easy values for a painfully shy, awkward kid to swallow. I didn’t recognize their consequences until later in life.

Be nice… For years I denied my need to write, afraid that sharing my truths would infringe upon and hurt others.

Be discreet… Far too often, I failed to speak out against unjust actions or words, choosing to fade into an accommodating background rather than standing up for those in need.

Be quiet… I didn’t know how to speak up when an adult put his hands on my 14 year old body.

In my early 20’s, I made a new friend. A woman who never wavered in her commitment to speak up for herself and others, and showed not a single iota of fear; I’d never known such a ferocious social justice ally. Words fail to express what a life-changing mentor she was, but I studied her every word, gesture, and action with awe. When she gave me this hand-painted Audre Lorde quote for my 23rd birthday, I felt that she’d bequeathed an invisible sword and shield upon me. That she’d blessed me.

I can hear some of you shifting in your seats. “Fine, Tele, whatever; what’s this got to do with fishing? I come here for the fishing stories!”

Fair enough. The point is, it was a slow, painful journey to learn to use my voice, and I still fall short. Most recently, I’ve been adding my voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement. A march here, a rally there; a no more to my bank and a hello, new team to my local credit union.

But some friends have frowned, “I don’t get it. What’s the point?”  There’s no shortage of articles on the global grievances propelling this movement, so I won’t reiterate those here. Instead, I’ll offer a few of the more personal reasons why this particular fisherman chooses to lend her voice to Occupy.

Because I’m in a high-risk profession that depends on my body’s ability to respond to the work’s demands, yet I don’t have health insurance. Because all summer long, I fantasize about the consequences of a single wrong step on a slippery deck, or one thoughtless moment with a knife. Because I’m surrounded by fishermen who spent decades spurring their bodies to clean faster, haul harder – there’ll be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead! – as if death was the only thing that could get in their way. None considered arthritic, gnarled fingers, froze-up knees, carpal tunnel that vined its wretched way from wrist to elbow to shoulders that didn’t move anymore, anyway. Few considered fishing’s absence of a 401(k).

Because I’ve heard critics grumble that those people should just get a job, dammit, and earn their way like the rest of us. But I have a job, and everyone in my circle has a job, and I’d challenge any one of those critics to give our job a try for a single day. Because we don’t work – we worship at a lurching, leaping altar of 18 hour days on our boots, no awareness of our stunning surroundings because all we see are the jewel-glistening entrails of the fish splayed open before us, immediately followed by the next, and the next, for what seems like weeks on end. We know the taste of fish madness, when we’re so sleep deprived yet still have to move so fast that we move beyond exhausted and fall into delirium, where we nod into our cold plates of spaghetti and drop into our bunks, our faces stiff with fish blood because it’s a choice between staying awake to wash or go to bed and we just don’t give a damn.  Work is our religion, and we are glassy-eyed zealots.

Because I’ve seen the tragic results of fishermen whose intestines knotted into bowlines of desperation and clove-hitches of silent fear, as they told themselves that maybe they’d find the motherlode, if they’d just fish tougher, drive themselves harder. Maybe they’d be able to make that boat payment, or pay that fuel bill, or send some money home, if they got lucky this one time. But too often, this one time included a nighttime run where they just couldn’t keep their gritty eyes open any longer, or winds shrieking louder and waves grabbing harder than they’d anticipated. If they got lucky, they only lost their boats.

Because the Nerka is only one boat, but we depend on a massive support system to remain in business. Diesel mechanics, fiberglass workers, metal fabricators, gear manufacturers, processing plants and cold storages, freight shipping, grocers, restaurants, and you. For us to make it, entire communities need to thrive.

Because my family’s well-being is directly linked to yours. Because I don’t clean every fish to bloodless perfection, handling each with care and precision, just so my neighbors can’t afford to buy them. I want you to be able to enjoy this gorgeous, heart-healthy wild salmon. I want you to take pleasure in preparing a meal, sitting down with your loved ones, and when you bite into that first, sunset-colored flake, I want your eyes to close in reverence and your lips to curl in delight. Because every day on the ocean is a gift, and I want to be able to make a living while sharing this gift with you.

And that is why I support Occupy.

Alaska Represented, Occupy Bellingham, 10.14.11

And you, sweet reader? Does speaking up come easily or hard for you? Where are the places that you use your voice, and where are the places you falter?

Special thanks to you, SB. I heart you.








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