Lost in Alaskan Wilderness, I Found My Anti-Home

I’m not sure of copyright protocols for reproducing another’s words, but I’ve been struck by these below, and can’t resist passing them on. (Full disclosure: years ago I spent a single night in the woods of Denali, midway by rail between Fairbanks and Anchorage.)

 

Denali is a place with no safety net, no walls, no sense of enclosure or safety or intimacy or kinship.

Fifteen years ago, I rented a basement apartment beside the Wonder Bread factory in Anchorage, Alaska. After I got out of work, I stalked the edges of a nearby lagoon, swatting at mosquitoes the size of small birds, or headed for the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or the Chugach Mountains. It was summer, and hours of sunlight remained. I felt like I was getting away with something; I was living two days for the price of one.

My roommate borrowed an ancient Subaru wagon, and we learned to drive stick shift in one of the city’s many empty lots. On weekends we used it to venture farther, testing its last legs as we coaxed it up steep roads to various trailheads. I bought a cobalt blue Kelty pack perfectly sized for small women — still one of my most beloved possessions — and used it for overnight trips into the backcountry. I was restless. One evening I stayed out until 2 a.m. and discovered the sun was not actually setting; it was hovering.

Beneath all this traipsing was a jittery urgency. I had something to prove. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but it had to do with being young and a woman and Asian and petite, and on top of that rather sickly in constitution. Certain assumptions had followed me to that point in my life, assumptions about physical capability and self-sufficiency and individuality — more specifically, the lack of these traits. If I was honest, I didn’t know if these assumptions were true, but I was trying my best to make them untrue.

At the end of the summer, I set out into the vast backcountry of Denali National Park with my roommate and another friend, both women. It was my third time to Denali but my longest backpacking trip. We caught the bus that entered the park and operated along its single road. Two hours later, at an indistinct spot in the extreme wilderness, we hopped off and watched the bus drive away. From that time on, we saw no other person. Maybe my friends felt the sudden solitude as heavily as I did, but we didn’t speak of it. We stepped off the road and pushed our way into a thicket.

The other two carried tents and water and, feeling strong from a summer of backpacking, I hauled the thick-walled, bear-resistant container that held all of our food. Though we were on foot, we covered enough ground over the days that the landscape was in constant flux: tundra, lake, forest, tundra, mountain. We encountered moose, bears, caribou, Dall sheep and many a flock of dimwitted ptarmigans. There was nowhere we could turn to look away from the sharp, unending beauty of the landscape.
We followed glacial rivers and chose our crossings carefully. We searched for wider, shallower points, throwing stones to test the depths. We unbuckled our packs and positioned ourselves so the largest one of us — my friend, who at 5 feet 4 inches and 120 pounds could not exactly be called large — was upstream. Waist-deep in icy and forceful waters that tried to wrest us off our feet, we slid the soles of our boots one at a time across the rocky river bottom, taking perhaps half an hour to shuffle across a river 15 feet wide. On the other side we sat panting, massaging feeling back into our numbed legs.

We exercised what I thought was ample caution and shared a healthy fear of the forces of nature, and yet we repeatedly found ourselves compromised. We made camp near a sow bear and cub because it was late at night and there was a river crossing in the way. We discovered the truly terrifying properties of glacial silt, like quicksand. And then we got lost.

With trail hiking, the questions are limited: Is that the path? Which fork should we take? But in the backcountry, the questions are so numerous, so overwhelming, as to achieve a nearly rhetorical pitch. Forward or backward or right or left or any of the degrees in between? Where did that mountain come from? Will we ever see another human being?

The river we thought we were following on our map had dried up and vanished; instead we had mistakenly chased the twists and whims of a smaller tributary until it finally dawned on us that we had arrived at something of a plight. My friends became quiet. In the new, strange silence we scrabbled up and down mountainsides, tripping, turning our ankles, trying to find our lost river. We spent a good day and a half steeped in uncertainty, though that hardly conveys the viscous timelessness of fear. All we knew of time was measured in our food supply: One day’s worth remained.

To say that Alaska is what you make of it suggests unconstrained entitlement; it’s something the colonizers could have said. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Alaska is one of the last places in this country where you can wander millions of acres of land, doing whatever and sleeping wherever you please. If someone might have objected to your actions elsewhere, here he would simply never know.

All that summer, I thought I had ventured to Alaska to try on a different way of life, one that tested my self-reliance and competence. I wondered if I’d failed. Now, years later, I believe I was simply searching for a place I’ll clumsily call an anti-home. I mean an antithesis to my own childhood home — for in the backcountry I’d found quiet and stillness and the edge of happiness — but I also mean a place at odds with all notions of home. A place with no safety net, no walls, no sense of enclosure or intimacy or kinship. A place of exposure. It was not so much that I wanted to prove something to others, but that I had a question for myself: Who was I, in a place like that?

As we cut through the tundra, we began to ration our water. We passed the remaining bottle around. The water was warm and tasted of oatmeal, for we had poured what liquid remained of our breakfast back in. We slowed for my friend, who lagged farther and farther behind until we realized she was suffering the beginnings of heat stroke. We poured a little water on a handkerchief, which she pressed to her forehead, and made her sit out of the sun. There wasn’t space, I remember thinking, for one more worry.

 

When we staggered up a steep, windy hill and saw a pond — the pond we had been searching for — we started laughing, the kind of loose laughter that easily veers into crying. The noise must have been startling, but a lone caribou continued to eat from a shrub at the bottom of the hill. I charged, stumbling the whole way down. When I looked back, my friends were slowly sliding down the hill on their butts, plucking wild blueberries as they scooted giddily through the patches I had not even seen.

At last, we made it to the road. We collapsed on the dirt shoulder and waited to flag down the next passing bus, which was packed with clean-clothed people pointing cameras out the windows. My friend claims that upon finally arriving at the visitors’ center, I stood by the fountain filling and refilling my bottle and drank a half gallon of water­ without stopping. I don’t remember the thirst.

By the time we had scarfed down dinner at the closest restaurant — I remember potatoes and beer and a wide-mouthed gulping of food as much to do with relief as hunger — it was past 10 in the evening. It had started to rain. On the highway, steam came off the hot road, and it was so dense and dark that we could barely see a few feet ahead of us. We were driving 40 miles per hour, then 30, then 20. I pulled out our milepost guide and found an empty campground. We dug the sleeping bags out of the trunk and arranged them inside the station wagon, then settled in uncomfortably for yet another night in a place we did not know.

Has any place I’ve known well ever left as much of an impression as this place I barely knew? My father, from a poor family with five children, left his country on a scholarship to study a subject that did not interest him. He never outwardly dwelled on the home he’d left. My mother, on the other hand, missed the mountains where her family had farmed lychees. In our suburban house, she saved the seeds of any store-bought fruit that was particularly sweet, and pots of dirt lined our walls. Occasionally, a rickety starfruit tree would rise, never growing into more than a stick. There are people who look toward home, and others who look away.

For those who look away, I’ve wondered, does their home continue to whisper? To coax them into glancing over? Is it possible to find another place that fills your mind so urgently, so wildly, that your previous haunts and hauntings are a bore? I think so, for a time.

Chia-Chia Lin, August 31, 2019, NYTimes: author of the novel “The Unpassing.”

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A Poem: Among the Intellectuals

AMONG The INTELLECTUALS

            [Tony Hougland]

 

They were a restless tribe.

They did not sit in the sunlight.

 

Cloud-watching among them was considered a disgusting waste of time.

 

They passed the days in an activity they called “thought provoking,”

as if thought were an animal, and they used long sticks

 

to poke through the bars of its cage,

tormenting and arousing thinking into strange behaviors.

This was their religion.

That and the light shining through the stained-glass ancestors.

 

They preferred the name of the tree

to the taste of the apple.

 

I was young and I wanted to prove myself,

 

but the words I learned from them transmuted me.

By the time I noticed, the change had already occurred.

 

It is impossible to say if this was bad.

 

Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;

blind, really blind;

stupid, really stupid;

dry, really dry;

hungry, really hungry;

and you go on from there.

 

But then you also find

you can’t stop thinking, thinking, thinking;

 

tormenting, and talking to yourself.

 

Tony Hougland

(1953-2018)

From The New Yorker, Sept. 2, 2019

 

I think this poem can be read in conjunction with recent my post arguing that appreciation of what shows up in the world should be valued for its own sake.  Our highest calling is not to know this or that but to appreciate this or that, regardless of what we know of it.

 

The Primacy of Appreciation

I approach Biblical stories, parables, or narratives the way I approach the greatest literature and art.  Usually, I just read, pausing with one, skipping to another. I might return later. But what brings me back over and again to Biblical passages — say, in The Book of Job?  There is  no “divine urtext” here, deemed infallible by authority.  The passages are in the same general region as legend or folk tale: not true or false but profound, gripping, or if not, then dull. 

Not being true or false doesn’t deflate them. They maintain a vibrancy — full of wisdom and provocation, like a Beethoven Sonata, Van Gogh self-portrait, or Dickinson poem. They can be true to our sense of the world or reality without being statements about some independent reality. Their wisdom and provocation are, in a sense, self-certifying, resting on no basis other than their own immediate impact and appeal.

With the scientific revolution, starting in the 16th century, narratives are put on the defensive. Science gains authority at the expense of art and religion.  Factual truth-and-falsity and the authority of culturally prevalent values, become measures of importance and reality.  This leaves Biblical stories and other narratives and dramas out in the cold, versions of mere fairy tale or entertainment. They certainly can’t be verified by “Hard Facts” and they often seem to stand apart from, or challenge rather than reinforce cultural values. 

Yet . . . Our appreciations — neither knowledge of facts nor explicit embrace of values nor ‘mere opinion’ — give us a powerful and indispensable access to the world.  

We are moved by drama, liturgy, folk tales, or ‘stories my uncle would tell.’  This brings us close to pre-literate peoples. To be preliterate isn’t to be ignorant or barbaric. It’s to rely on something apart from book learning. It’s to rely on ‘an ear for things’  — the ring of a poetic line, the authority of a great-uncle’s voice, the amorphous sense of a generation or the sensibility of a region.  As ‘pre-literates,’ we attend to the stories of elders, companions, and ancestors, and to stories of and about culture heroes and literary figures, and to the sensibility of the streets or of high society. 

These stories and underlying sensibilities possess worthy standing until proven otherwise. They become displaced often through friction with another story or sensibility that acquires a more vibrant ‘ring of authenticity.’ Stories needn’t always be subordinate to articles of faith , to facts that might be true or false, or to values that might be valid or invalid.

Nuance and meaning are central in life. How diminished our world would be if nuance and meaning, conveyed in story, were set aside as frivolous distractions like casual summer reading.  When pressed to account for my interest in this story or that, in this parable or that, in this sensibility of the street, I don’t appeal to some impersonal fact or theory or customary value.  Often I can do little more than recite the  poetic line again, or tell the story in bits and pieces, hoping my would-be skeptic will hear — appreciate — the allure I hear.

We are knowledge-seeking creatures. We are equally creatures of appreciation. I appreciate things I often know very little about — a sunset or smile.  I appreciate music, art and narratives — novels or Biblical stories. They reside in a space of appreciation rather than knowledge. I become who I am through love, community, great art and rustling leaves — through webs of shared appreciations. Appreciations can grow without knowledge.

A world of multiple revelations just isperiod. Revelations-appreciated need nothing ‘behind them’ for certification. The profundity of a Dickinson poem is self-sufficient, resting on nothing deeper.   “God” often serves to block infinite regress.  God makes love of infinite value. We can’t ask, “But what makes God valuable?” “God is a ‘regress-stopper.’ Thunder-clap-Glory also blocks infinite regress. I needn’t find out what underlies that Glory.” It “just is!” You can’t, and needn’t, get deeper.

Appreciation is our primary way of being in the world. It’s responsiveness  to textures of life, textures displayed in stories and narratives, music and paintings.  In the region of appreciation the smile of a child can be more powerful than E=MC/Squared. Facts, theories, or values don’t give us the intimate radiance or horror of the world.  Narratives, grand, petite, or middle-sized, do this. 

Biblical narratives often invoke and deliver God and revelations of God. In my view, we don’t have God first as a fact, and then discover his/her revelations. We have revelations whose appreciation circles around a second narrative of their being propelled from a divine source. But appreciation does not await certification or authentication by a divine source.

As I see it, to worship God is to appreciate, kneel before, be ‘blown away by’ an endlessly revelatory world. Creation is not an event in historical time. It’s the endless unfolding of the beautiful, holy, and good, and the dark shadows of each. If we have no space for appreciation of beauty, glory, or the world’s darkness, we have no space for God or the Devil; no space for radiance or terror.  And this just opens the door to our being ‘blown away’ by Mozart or Van Gogh, and discovering in their revelations an access to reality.

 

Soul Pollution

There’s only a diaphanous membrane separating public pollution from soul pollution. The press chronicle offenses to decency; we have a right to know. Good citizenship means paying attention.  But a steady stream of offense numbs the soul.  The mayor of London is called a loser, a Democratic aspirant is called “low IQ,” a war hero is called a fool.  The list goes on and grows daily by leaps and bounds. The squalor is sustained. It pollutes public space, and pollutes the soul.

The press tracks the barrage. If this were a matter of a deadly tornado, we’d have two days of tracking and then we’d move on to other things.  But the political barrage has been non-stop for two years and shows no sign of letting up. The pollution of public space is also the pollution of inner space.

We can leave bar-room dust-ups and shouting, retreating to quiet havens. The soul needs peace and quiet.  We don’t need to return nightly, daily, to bar-room squalor.  Yet where is safe haven from the public pollution, and consequent soul pollution delivered daily, monthly – no end in sight.

The mind, the soul, can’t remain healthy under such endless assault. I wouldn’t live permanently over a barroom known for its shouted obscenities and audible fist-fights.  Yet there is no escape now from the pollution of political obscenities and fist-fights. Perhaps we can buy ear plugs that would only allow the intrusion of civil defense sirens. 

Inevitable Loneliness

I think loneliness may be inescapable, broadly speaking. I have a friend whose mother, at 85, told her two kids that her friends had all died and she had no wish to live longer; she stopped eating and her grown children ministered to her for the two weeks or so it took her to die.  She never said she was lonely without her friends, but I think that was the subtext of her decision to die.

Loneliness is also a byproduct of mobility — not just a matter of losing friends and relatives as one ages. Each time we move we are uprooted and challenged to cultivate new roots. If we don’t move around through a lifetime, our friends do. The new normal is losing friends and working for new ones throughout a lifetime, with loneliness peaking in the gaps.

Loneliness needn’t be a matter of disconnection from others. I feel lonely quite regularly even though I meet friends each morning at the coffee shop, have regular dinner dates and ‘text friends,’ a rock-solid weekly morning brunch, 3 musical violin groups, weekly choir rehearsals and church performances and coffee-hours, etc.  I’ve never had such a circle of supportive, gregarious and affirming friends. I have no space in my calendar to fit in more social events. For me loneliness co-exists with sociability.  Sociability is a boon, but not a cure-all.

Those who have been in a close domestic relationship will feel poignant loss and loneliness if a partner leaves, through choice, death, or dementia. A close breakfast and bedtime embrace can put a big dent in loneliness. But let’s not forget the couples who cling together without understanding or true sharing. An apparent bond can hide deep loneliness and unhappiness.

Apart from whether I’m with friends or happily coupled, my hunch is that facing my own death is a lonely business, anyway you cut it. If we must die, we must face loneliness.

Facing one’s own death is like realizing that all your friends are going to get on the bus and abandon you at the curb. Why are they leaving you alone?  Of course they have no choice. They must go on. And in an obvious way you’re abandoning them.

They’ll be lonely missing you, as they drive away and you stay put.  Even if they’re holding your hand at the bedside as you leave, you slip away from them as you slip toward death. The loneliness is mutual and inevitable.

Loneliness seems to be built into the fabric of life-and-death.  Like suffering.

 

 

Miracles

I pass on a story of despair and miracles, of real persons — of love, grief, and rainbows. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor and in his forties achieves international notoriety as an Israeli astronaut. You might sense a rainbow over his life, perhaps, a miracle, to have risen so from memories (at one remove) of death camps.

He’s married. Their lives are rain-bowed by children. He dies in the spectacular Columbia space-craft reentry disaster. The world grieves a hero. Rhona plummets in despair.

There is slow recovery from this catastrophe. She raises her now-fatherless children with warmth, attention, and affection. You might sense here a second miracle and rainbow.

Impossibly, six years later, her eldest son, a young air force pilot, dies in air-borne military maneuvers. Her second plunge. Grief laid on grief. She struggles that love for her remaining children can breathe. It does. A third rainbow, third miracle.

This Job-like story of unimaginable loss and survival is also a story of love. I listened, riveted, as it spun forward, nearly out of control. It was as if the shattering, healing, horror and grace were my own.  

Years later, before her youngest child is fully grown, this heroine of survival and hope, discovers she has terminal cancer at age 54. At first, she clings to faith in a miracle. She wills to shoulder herself into survival, if for nothing else, for the sake of her children. God will grant that.

But that hope is dashed. She dies even as the glow of love for her children abides. At her bedside they return that glow. To save her children excessive mourning, she requests cremation and no funeral ceremonies. The last words of this story are love, miracle, and rainbow. 

The outlines and detail arrived in the mail from my muse, Tami, who delivered words like these above at the commemorative gathering for Rona Ramon, who died December 17, 2018.

I’d like to let the tears arise, as they please – not increased by instigation. I’d hold another through these tremors or afflictions.

Or sit by them as comfort—witness, as I’d hope, to things both deep and strange. Where eyes are turned to pearls of tears and back to eyes again, More lucid but more misted than before.                                                                  

                                             ~Postcards Dropped in Flight, E. Mooney

 

Kibbutz and Kids

When I first heard of Israel, it was a place you could join a kibbutz. That was in 1961. I didn’t actually leave for Israel until 2011. At Oberlin College, I ate at a socialist cooperative residence and dining hall.  We did the work. “We” for the most part were students from NYC left-wing Jewish backgrounds. A WASP, I was attracted to the rebellious culture of New York Intellectuals.

Later, one of my friends went to Israel to hold “encounter groups.” Arabs and Israeli’s talking at a kibbutz would bring peace. She liked working the fields and singing folk songs at night.  Later, she married Herbert Marcuse.

I was soon teaching in California and forgot about the kibbutz.  But in 2011, I was on a plane to Israel to be with a kibbutznik.  Tami Yaguri is the granddaughter of a man who came from Ukraine in 1914. In the ‘20’s he formed a kibbutz with 8 other young men. They acquired several square miles near the ruins of an Arab village, “Raju.” With statehood, the first Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion, pushed for citizens to take on Israeli names. Tami’s grandfather took the name “Yaguri” in recognition of the local kibbutz.

There were more than 40 Kibbutz in Palestine by 1930. This was at the start of Jewish settlement — people mostly from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Most were secular and cultured enough to read Marx or appreciate Mozart. Golda Maier, came from the Soviet Union, first to Minnesota, then to Israel. She and Amos Oz are Ashkenazi Jews. The culture supported world-class classical musicians – Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, among others. Most Holocaust survivors are Ashkenazi. In the early decades after statehood was declared, Ashkenazi (Eastern European and Soviet Jews) represented 80% of the population and were leaders in politics and culture. The first prime minister came from a kibbutz. Today television hosts dress informally. This is a holdover from kibbutz culture.

When you arrive in a new country, its people can blend together. In a Paris Metro, your dominate impression might be, “these are the French.” Subtleties of class or ethnicity escape you. I still can’t tell, by looks alone, important differences among Jews on the streets of an Israeli city. There will be Israeli-Arab Citizens, 20% of the population. There will be Arabic-speaking Jews, Sephardi from Morocco, Libya and the Mediterranean, and “Knitted Yarmulkes,” West Bank settlers since ‘74. Orthodox Jews are identifiable by their dress; Ethiopian Jews, by color. Politically, the secular Ashkenazi have been in decline for the last 50 years. The right wing grows and grows. They resent the Ashkenazi, now a minority. Many recent Russian immigrants are right-wing and relatively indifferent about whether democracy should spread to the West Bank. They’re just happy to be out of Russia.

In 2013, I went to Israel to live with Tami Yaguri, who was born in Kibbutz Yagur, just south of Haifa. I joined her in a town just north of Tel Aviv. We made many trips to Kibbutz Yagur, and a few time folks from there came to visit with us. 

The Kibbutz is still thriving – the tents are long gone. It’s now common to work “in the outside world.”  The spirit thrives in communal dining, and a pervasive neighborly spirit. Kids visit each other’s families and in high school can move out to live together in their own apartments. The head or secretary of a Kibbutz can be a man or woman and is elected for a fixed term. When it is over, he or she circulates back to what was most important, the dignity of skilled labor. Luxury items or having more than your neighbor used to be unheard of. Consumerism today is muffled.  Early on, children were raised communally, on principle, and as a practical holdover from the time when working in the fields, cooking, and accounting required all hands. One or two women were trained to assume the professional job of child-rearing.

In the early days, evenings, ideally, were for folk dancing, singing, and reading Marx and Nietzsche. Idyllic. The settlement was socialist in the sense that community came first, and community would be egalitarian and based on skilled labor, not on competition, consumption or careerism. 

I have a picture from the ‘20s that shows a rocky hillside with a dozen two- person tents. That’s how the first arrivals lived. The first real structure was for children. There were periodic conflicts with surrounding Arab settlements in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Kibbutznik, men and women, were armed for self-defense. Today, all Israeli’s have mandatory military service. The militias opposed the British, who took over with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. Teenagers learned to handle rifles. By the early ‘40s the kibbutz sent soldiers to oppose the Nazi, then worked underground to oppose British rule. With the declaration of statehood in ’48, they fought off immediate invasion from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The kibbutz movement is not what it was. But when I visited Kibbutz Yagur, or they visited us, the imprint of communal living was still striking – to me.  At gatherings all sit in a circle – not kids off to the side, not adults chattering in clusters of two or three. There’s no table with a head or a foot. No adult holds forth as if in charge. Equality crosses generations and spreads among all.

Youngsters roam within the circle and are engaged by any adult, not just their parents. They’re comfortable roaming. They don’t cling to parents (though the tiniest are held by mothers or fathers). Watching them as an outsider, it’s not obvious who are their parents. During secular holidays there are tables (rather than a circle). The traditional readings for the holiday in question include all. The youngest may struggle with a script, but no one is impatient.

Activities meant to involve everyone start up. A narrative might be written out and copies passed around, relating some phase of Kibbutz or Jewish history. Adults and kids take turns reading, even as the youngest barely hold their sheet of paper right side up. The children seem quietly self-confident and eager to have a place in the circle. Parents aren’t impatient. They learn to value words, value stories with “object lessons,” and value group participation among equals.

I think Jewish intelligence — Marx, Freud, Einstein, and Buber are superstars here — rests on these practices of attention to children. When religious education is at issue, there’s not a list of creeds or beliefs. There are stories, and when a child asks a question, the answer is another story. Questioning and individual interpretation are the model. The Talmud is laid out for conversational interpretation. The center of the page holds the original text streaming top to bottom. The wide margins to either side hold a first and second round of interpretation of the central column. Story, interpretation, and interpretation of that interpretation embody the model of endless discussion.

I have an Israeli friend who spent a semester at the University of Chicago where her husband was doing graduate work. She would meet regularly with other mothers and their pre-school kids at a local park. Once a girl ran up. She was abruptly told by her mother, “Go play, we’re talking.” My friend was shocked. Israeli kids would not get dismissed that way. Their voices count.

Two other angles on the prominence of family quite apart from the traditions of a Kibbutz.  It’s not optional whether you visit the cemetery on the anniversary of a death in the family — every year.

Also, the American nuclear family — parents, siblings — is not of primary importance. For example, if there’s a “welcome home” gathering for a youth returned from a trip abroad, the entire clan within driving distance will attend the celebration. It’s the extended family: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles that counts. It’s beyond question that all will be present for birthdays, a ‘welcome home,’ or any other occasion for celebration.