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.





Losing People, Compass in Hand

6 10 2012

I’m holding a battered metal compass in my hand tonight. It says my writing desk faces southwest, and that the cat curls her tail northward. It doesn’t say which direction skirts despair, doesn’t guide the path toward hope. Folding it closed, I wonder what good a compass actually does.

*****

Longtime Hooked readers have heard references to my social worker days. From June 1999 to May 2005, I worked with homeless youth in Seattle’s University District. Though more years have now passed than I actually spent there, “the Ave” maintains a tight grip on my heart.

As fiercely as I loved “my kids,” I relied on a few things to carry me through. My colleagues, inspiring souls who shared the trenches as well as intense passion, gallows humor, and a devotion to harm reduction. Our standing “self-care” date at Flowers Bar on Wednesday nights.  A private ritual for grieving whenever we lost one of our kids.

The day came when these tools were no longer enough. Love wasn’t enough. Realizing that I wasn’t doing good work anymore – and that I hadn’t been doing good work for far longer than I cared to admit – I felt like I’d been mopping the ocean, only to be consumed by the undertow.

They say that you shouldn’t try to fight an undertow, so I let it steal me from the Ave. I gave in to the current until it released me in the Gulf of Alaska, returned to my original home and workplace. As I sought solace in familiar mountains, guilt and fear tugged at my raw edges. Guilt that I’d abandoned young people who’d dared to trust once more, after lifetimes of betrayal. Fear that I’d never get to know what happened next in their lives.

(If I’m honest? Fear that I wouldn’t know when yet another kid died.)

Back in 2005, I hadn’t envisioned a Facebook future. Whatever discomfort I have with social media’s ever-grasping tentacles, it’s been priceless for keeping in touch with transient loved ones. I can “like” graduations and family news. I can be a virtual cheerleader for sobriety, offer congratulations on a new job, and celebrate the day of their birth.

And I can receive messages like this one:

Hey it’s SR.
B passed away. He went missing 09-20. He was found unidentifiable on a blanket in the far corner of his mothers back yard yesterday. She said it might be months til they can identify a cause. We wern’t sure if you knew. Sorry.

*****

After all these years, my Ave death ritual remains the same. Alone in a dark room. One candle, crafted by an unknown inmate at the Monroe State Prison. One song, Leonard Cohen’s gravel promises twining through those dark places that candlelight can’t reach.

I will speak no more

I shall abide until

I am spoken for,

if it be your will.

When I try to sing through the tears, my voice crumples like discarded newspaper. Better to sit quietly and remember a young man who was just a towheaded boy when he first arrived on Seattle’s streets.

B came to the Ave as many kids do – gentle, tender-hearted, searching. A brutal introduction to street life stripped the trust from his blue eyes. He toughened up fast, forged a crusty exterior. Yet through all that followed – every sleepless night blurring into a series of sleepless days, every “Oi, oi!” hollered down the block and followed with a hug heartier than his increasingly thin frame seemed capable of, every mug shot gifted like a yearbook photo – the sweet in him still shone through.

I could never anticipate which fresh-faced youngsters would fling themselves hardest down the rabbit hole, but that’s just what B did. He ran his body like it was stolen. His years on the Ave came to a screaming halt in 2002, when prison closed steely arms around him. Despite my best intentions to be a supportive pen pal, new faces demanded immediate response to the same crises. I lost track of B.

Until 2009. A message appeared – Facebook, again. B wrote with warmth and clarity, proud to share the gifts in his life. Re-settled in his home state across the country, he had a job. A house. A wife and young daughter.

Then and now, I never know if my kids are honest about their well-being. Especially in a many-years-gone-by reunion like this. B knew I wanted to hear he was clean and healthy, and that’s what he wanted to report. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m told The Truth as someone’s living it, or “the truth” as they wish they were. There are reasons we tell the stories we do, and they all boil down to wanting to please and protect. If I hear lies, I hear them told with love.

Something changed. In 2010, B decided to return to Seattle. I worried – why dance on quicksand when you’ve already struggled free once? – and wrote overly parental lectures. This time would be different, he assured me. “I’m not the same kid I was, Tele. The plan is to be productive.”

Stories are subjective, but I couldn’t misread the color in B’s skin and fleshy cushion over his cheekbones. His hug was solid. Stable. Both of us equally out of place on the block that had once been our universe, we ducked into Pagliacci’s for refuge. I bought him two slices of pizza that he picked at. We traded stories of our new lives, doing our best to level a relationship that’d been built on a steep grade.

At the end of our visit, B walked me to the bus stop. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a battered metal compass and folded it into my hand. “Here.” When I protested, he insisted. “No, dude, I want you to have it. So you don’t get lost.”

Two weeks later, B wrote that Seattle wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Once again, he headed across the country for his home state. Still searching.

We traded Facebook hellos here and there. Did I text him a random good wish this summer, during one of those rare moments of cell service at sea? Sounds familiar, but now I can’t be sure. Am I recalling The Truth that was, or “the truth” I wish had been?

*****

A friend and I used to co-teach “Homelessness 101,” training the University District’s new volunteers. Inevitably, someone would ask, “How many of these kids actually make it out?”

We could recite the answer in our sleep. Most of our program guests would find their way into healthier, more stable lives, but that meant something different for everyone. The routes out of street life were as varied and unique as the people taking them; there was no cookie-cutter method for “making it out.”

But tonight, darkness folds around me, broken by the shuddering breath of candlelight, and my faith is shaken. Squeezing B’s final gift, I feel the metal bite my palm. The placement of my desk, the angle of the cat’s tail, the position of north, south, east, west… All irrelevant. So many of us are lost, searching for hope, peace, purpose. A sense of self-worth, and the strength to surpass what we’ve been told about ourselves. Those directions – where do you find them?

I thought you’d found your way, B sweetie – I thought you’d made it out. If you’d held onto your compass, would that have helped?

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

B’s death leaves a gaping hole in a lot of hearts, and my thoughts are with you all. As you grieve, please ask for help if you’re thinking of hurting yourself. Contact Seattle’s 24-hour Crisis Clinic line at 1-866-4CRISIS, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Take care of yourselves, sweeties, and each other.





Remembering Isabella: 1924 – 2012

19 04 2012

Longtime Hooked friends may recognize Isabella Brady’s name from last summer’s story of a traditional foods dinner. Leaning on a walker, dishing slabs of moose alongside venison stew, the Alaska Native Sisterhood president commanded as much attention as the chewy texture of whale between my teeth.

I’d hesitated to post that story without Isabella’s blessing. Before we left town on a fishing trip, I printed a copy at the library and dropped it into the mail, feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time.

When we returned to town a week later, a gravel-voiced message awaited me. Isabella told me to call her. Exasperated with my nervousness, Joel asked, “What’s the worst she can say?”

Um… Don’t write about her, don’t post her photo – oh, and my writing’s a terrible bunch of cultural exploitation?

When Isabella answered, I stumbled through my introduction. She interrupted me. “I thought your article was outstanding.” Anxiety gave way to embarrassment, as she shared overly generous praise. This single sentence would have been enough: “I was having a real bad day when I got it, and it made me feel real good.”

*****

Our interactions developed around a directive: “Come to my house and have something to eat with me.” More commandment than invitation. Isabella liked to talk, and I was an eager audience.

She instructed me in making clam chowder, while describing the sharp contrast between her Sitka childhood and the North Dakota Presbyterian college she attended on $100/month scholarship. “Bring me the flour tin and a fork. College was like being a celebrity. Home was like being in the Deep South, for all the prejudice against my skin, but at college, it made me special. Are those potatoes gonna boil over? Mostly my classmates were disappointed I wasn’t an Eskimo.”

A woman of ferocious faith, Isabella began every meal with a thorough blessing. On our third visit, she asked if I was affiliated with a church. My response didn’t please her.

When I brought salmon heads from our final trip last summer, she recalled her boat-building grandfather, Peter Simpson, and her own fishing childhood. “We had a scow, used to buy fish from other boats at Lazaria and Shelikof. We’d collect sea gull eggs at Sea Lion Rocks, had to time getting out of the boat with the waves. I hated it – I got so seasick. My brothers teased me, they told me to eat bacon.”

She asked if I knew how to work a video recorder, still wrapped in plastic. “My friend sent it; she said I should record my stories.” We talked about the challenge of telling your own story, for all of the places that it intersects with other people’s. She spoke of her reluctance to intrude on others’ privacy, then shrugged. “They’re mostly all dead now, anyway.”

*****

On Tuesday, my feet bounced lightly down Sitka’s main drag, my backpack laden with a Tupperware of marinated black cod tips. After the meals she’d shared with me, I felt shyly eager to bring Isabella a gift of food I’d harvested.

A few minutes away, I pulled out my phone to make sure it was a good time to visit. A male voice answered on the second ring. I didn’t think anything of it. Isabella’s home was a hive: a constant flow of children, grandchildren, friends buzzing in and out.

“Hi, is Isabella there?” I chirped.

“No… She’s not here right now.”

I glanced at the afternoon sunshine and thought of the black cod in my pack. “Well, will you be there for a minute? I’ve got some fish for her that I could drop off.”

“Who is this?” the man asked.

I hesitated. “Friend” assumed too much; “smitten admirer” would be more honest. “My name’s Tele… I visit with Isabella sometimes.”

His quiet words hit my ear like small pebbles dropped down a well, as he explained that Isabella had fallen the day before. “She was Medevaced to Anchorage… We don’t think she’s coming home.”

*****

I saw Isabella once this spring, shortly after we returned to Sitka. She told me to make us some pancakes, supervising every step from her seat at the kitchen table, murmuring along with the stereo. That saved a wretch like me. She said how blessed she was, reflecting on the love and generosity that people had shared during her winter hospitalizations. She said that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Penny piles lined her coffee table, copper flashes amidst the endless papers of a lifelong leader still organizing from her living room couch. When she grumbled about needing penny rolls, I volunteered to pick some up at the bank. They’re still in my backpack, a rubber-banded stack heavy with accusation. Why didn’t I take them straight to her, right after leaving the bank?

Isabella sent me out the door with a small jar of sourdough starter. She promised, “Once you make your pancakes from sourdough, you’ll wonder why you never did before.” It’s in the Nerka’s dorm-sized refrigerator now. I don’t know anything about keeping starter alive, but I’ll learn. It’s what remains.

*****

Some people seem too powerful to die. Whether by the confidence with which they move through the world, the magnitude of their service, or the depth of what they’ve survived, they seem invincible. As if they glow so bright that they’d scorch Death’s grasping hand. Maybe part of me imagined that would be true of Isabella. When I saw Raven Radio’s Wednesday headline – “Native leader, activist Isabella Brady dies at 88 – I didn’t want to believe.

As a non-Native, I’ll never know the strength, courage, and hope that she provided to so many. The community is reeling, grief shrouding the Brady family, the Kik.sadi clan, and Native people throughout the region. I’ll never know the taste of their loss. I was blessed to spend a mere speck of time in Isabella’s company, a few afternoons far more significant to me than they would have been to her. And though I fear some may hear this story as self-absorbed, my experience is the only authentic place I can speak from, the only language I have to honor Isabella’s tremendous legacy.

In several grace-filled sentences, Mike Schinke said what I’ve spent pages struggling to convey. I’m thankful for his permission to re-post them here.

“A prayer of solace for the Brady family. A prayer for the health of remaining elders. A prayer for the perpetuation of Tlingit language and culture.

Let Isabella Brady’s life be a testament that one person can make a difference in the world. May her accomplishments inspire many to also make the world a better place in their own ways. She will be missed by many and her absence will be felt far and wide for a long time.”

Amen. Rest in peace, Isabella. My deep sympathy to all who are mourning.





For Steve Meier (The Aquila’s Re-Birth)

20 07 2011

This post was originally published on http://www.alaskawaypoints.com, on June 29,2011. This version has been slightly changed from the original. My apologies for the length; the man himself used a lot of words in his own storytelling, and I couldn’t do any less.

Our last trip’s halibut successfully unloaded, the Charity pulled away from the fish plant and quietly cruised down Sitka Channel toward the fuel dock. Ross and I were putting the deck back together when Martin’s astonished exclamations burst from the cabin.

“Holy shit – get in here, Sis!”

Martin has a strict no-halibut-slime-in-the-cabin rule. I called back, “I’m in my rainpants!”

“I don’t care; come look at this boat right now!”

He gestured at an oncoming vessel. “Tell me what boat that is.”

I squinted. It was a serious hulk of boat – steel bow poles speared the sky, a covered deck provided all-weather protection, and the pristine white hull was blinding in the midday sun. Identifying boats from afar is a point of pride to both Martin and I, but I was stumped.

“Uh…”

“You know that boat better than you think,” Martin said. “That’s the goddamn Aquila.”

My breath sucked in, and we stared at the passing boat as if it was a ghost ship. It may as well have been.

Beautiful day, beautiful boat

****

Joel and I were Down South when he got the call. We’d tied the Nerka up in Bellingham two days earlier, after running south with the Aquila. I watched as Joel’s face drained slack.  “Oh my god, oh my god,” he repeated into the phone. “We just made the trip down with him.”  Thoughts that were cohesive suddenly slid against the walls of my skull, as solid ground gives way under our feet after weeks at sea.  Steve Meier had died, and nothing was right in the world anymore.

We were in a code group with Steve for 5 years, lucky enough to spend our salmon seasons trolling alongside the Aquila. Every group has an undisputed highliner, and Steve was ours.  If there was one fish in the ocean, he’d catch three.  Salmon, halibut, ling cod, dungies; the fishery didn’t matter.  Steve was a driver, out there to harvest, and that’s just what he did.

Unlike some highliners, Steve was humble.  When one partner asked if anyone was catching, Steve reported what he had. The partner joked, “Oh, you don’t count!”  Steve came back all offended, “Whaddaya mean?”  The rest of us knew exactly what was meant: if any of us used Steve as the bar that we measured our day’s success against, we might as well go find land jobs.

There’s an entry in our 2007 log, “We beat Aquila Steve today!!!”  Three exclamation points; it was that big of a deal.  He congratulated us that day – “Yeah, you had a good day” – then came back with a vengeance, thoroughly whupping up on us the next.  We shook our heads, knowing that was the natural order of our group’s universe, and imagined him chuckling to himself.  “Heh heh heh.”

Lots of trollers get stuck in a geographic groove, a mental force-field blocking them from venturing too far west, nosing too far south.  Not Steve.  He would go anywhere, try anything, if there were fish to be caught.  He made us all bolder, better, than we would’ve been without him.  We’d have followed him to the ends of the ocean, just for the pleasure of going there with him.

Steve was honest in a way few people are.  He liked you, or he didn’t; he agreed with you, or he didn’t. Either way, he’d let you know. We counted on hearing at least one good “Steve rant” over the radio every season, and man, there were some doozies. With the uninterruptible power of a keyed mic in his fist, Steve was a gale that couldn’t be stopped. So many can dominate a conversation with their views, but few can step back and poke fun at themselves afterwards.  When Steve finally wore himself out, his tempo slowing down and volume mellowing, he’d pause with a self-conscious chuckle.  “And that’s enough out of me for today.  Heh heh heh.”

Here’s the thing about Steve: he found deeper value in people than their differences, focused on the common ground he had with folks whose beliefs he was worlds opposed to.  He told one of our group’s more conservative members, “You’re way over there on the right, and I’m way over here on the left, so we should just talk about fishing.”  And that’s what they did, with mutual respect for each other as fishermen and friends.  “He tried to save me when we first met.  That didn’t go too well,” Steve remembered with his deadpan delivery, followed with a signature smirk. “I did find myself saying ‘fuck’ about every other word around him after that.”

Ferocious as he was, Steve was strong enough to admit his wrongs.  When Joel crewed for him out of Crescent City, he and the other deckhand were packing crab pots from the storage barn to go down to the boat.  They decided to work together, each on either side of a pot.  Steve showed up, took one look, and laid into them.  “What the hell is this?  You’re gonna take all goddamn day doing it that way!  Every man to a pot!”  He ran over to the barn, grabbed a pot, and rushed it over to the trailer to make his point.  Slamming it down, he slowly stood up, hands immediately going to the small of his back as he surveyed the scene.  “Jesus, these are heavy.  You guys must be fucking tired,” he said.  “Keep doing it the way you’re doing.”  He went gingerly back to the truck, nursing a tweaked back that would give him trouble for the upcoming days.

There was no one like Steve Meier.  That was evident at his memorial, where fishermen from all up and down the Coast crowded a North Seattle backyard. One after another, we told stories of this extraordinary man. He’d inspired many there to face their battles with alcohol; everyone agreed, “If Steve could get sober, anyone could.” He’d bailed deckhands out of jail, tried to help young men whose struggles he surely saw his own young self reflected in. One fellow crabber, a mountain of a man, curled his fists and wept openly before the crowd. “At least the sea didn’t get him.”

As devastating as his sudden death was, the thought of illness weakening his body and spirit was worse.  Joel said it best: “Death would have to sneak attack Steve, there’s no way it’d be able to take him head-on.”  Head-on… How Steve lived every moment of his life.

****

The Aquila glided past, her new captain lifting a hand in acknowledgement of our stares.  An unexpected relief swelled through me. “That’s not Steve’s boat anymore.” A beautiful boat, one he’d be impressed by, but not one that wielded the power to gut-stab me when we pass it on the drag.

It’s hard to believe this is our second season without Steve. He’s always with us – smirking from a photo at the helm, constantly memorialized in dock conversation. I walk by the Aquila and can’t take my eyes off of her. Turns out her new owners are a real nice couple. That helps. Seeing the care they’ve poured into making her their own, that helps, too. The raw edge of loss shifts into a quieter, gentler pain.

But Christ on toast, we miss you, Steve. We’ll conk some kings for you, old friend.








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