Monday, January 31, 2011

The Happiness of Community

    I have been reflecting on the importance of community and how it brings such joy and happiness to our everyday lives. We don't need expert studies to remind us that people need people, from the cradle to the grave. We have lived in the same neighborhood for 30 years, and have watched with interest as people move away, and new generations move in. What has remained steady though is the desire to connect with others and how these relationships grow over time. We have always enjoyed the benefits of neighbors being directly involved in our day to day lives. I don't know if this is typical behavior "outside" (of Alaska) or if it is a characteristic of living in a fairly extreme environment. There are five families in our neighborhood that consistently use social networking (Facebook) to announce gatherings, celebrate birthdays and showers, or just simply inform about the road conditions (sometimes we get "snowed" in). Community is created in part by the need to share, and to ward off cabin fever over the long winter months; and in the summer, when everyone is engaged in outside activities (even after work, the sun shines until midnight), people come out of the woodwork!  We have turned into surrogate grandparents to a family with four children in our neighborhood. When my husband snowplows their driveway, he is rewarded with a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies. They host potlucks and bonfires with music by amateur guitar pickers; we exchange vegetables after a summer's harvest, have game nights, hike and ski and mush dogs together, watch over eachother's homes and animals when we go on vacations, and just plain enjoy eachother's company. What I like most is the melding of generations, from little kids to folks in their 60's and 70's. Who has time...with work and raising kids, who has time to engage with their neighbors? Subtract the 4+ hours/day spent watching TV and suddenly there's time to knock on a neighbor's door and introduce oneself.
     I've just learned of the Happiness Project from friends via cyberspace; and of course, one of the most predominant factors in creating happiness is spending time with friends. Click on to learn more and start a happiness project in your circle of relationships.

    I'm memorizing a poem each month, and for Feb. I've chosen partial phrases from two that touched me:
                        The Days of Our Years        by J.F. Nims
                        It's brief and bright, dear children;
                        bright and brief
                        Delight's the lightening; the long thunder's grief

                        The Mandate            by St. Thomas Aquinas
                   Because of my compassion the sun wanted to be near me all night,
                        and the earth deeded her fields to me, and all in heaven said,
                        "We have voted you our governor; tell us your divine mandate."
                        And I did, and God will never revoke it:

                        Nothing in existence is turned away.

What is the relationship here? I like the "sound" of the days of our years; how brief in this short lifetime is the delight as well as the grief; and if we were to take a deep breath and think of the moments of our days, how ever fleeting still. In addition to the interpretation that no creature is turned away from the light of the Divine, I think of our responsibility to stay present and connected to ALL that is presented to us...the joys and sorrows, difficulties and delights, giving them equal weight and attention. All of this takes great vigilance, I know, but the cost of staying awake with a open heart is after all, the purpose of the journey.
Here's a lovely quote by Yeats:  "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure or this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Let Light Catch You

We are beginning to see the return of light to the land, more minutes every day creeping into our landscape, though the sun is still low on the horizon. I love the hush and quiet of winter, the soft sashay of falling snow, the joy of skiing on the frozen Eagle River.  But the return of light, ever so gradual as we heave ourselves out of winter every year is like seeing this transition for the very first time...astonishing. So I will begin this post with a poem by C. Muchhala...

I am writing to tell you about the moths
Battened on the windows;
                        Their dusty wings outlined
                        In the absence of light,
                        Their furry bodies yearning for the glowing coals I tend.
                        Over time, they learn calm
                        Press warm and pulsing centers to the glass.
                        Be still, they seem to say.
                        Let light catch you.
                        Some never catch on
                        And beat their wings ragged.

            When I was a little girl, about 8 years old, I was caught in an unexpected moment of radiance.  My mother had packed me a sack lunch, and I crossed the school yard to a nearby woods to climb a towering old oak tree. The sky was gray and quiet.  I climbed up to the highest branch, got comfortable, my back resting against the main trunk, and ate my lunch while savoring the wide flat landscape of my central Michigan home. I peered down at my girlfriend’s house, tucked neatly in a nearby subdivision.  I could see my elementary school, and the steeple of St. Matthias Catholic church, where I attended mass every Sunday with my family.  I could see the tops of other trees, and thought about monkeys, how wonderful it would be to swing from tree to tree, observing all the action below.  And then without warning, the tree started shaking as a sharp wind funneled around me and the leaves began  twirling on their branches.  I sat erect and gripped the trunk, afraid.  And in the next moment, another surprise.  Sunlight burst  through the clouds and poured through the foilage. I felt the warmth on my face and arms, and I remember laughing out loud at the sudden strangeness of this event.
            As an adult, I often find myself looking for the light, sometimes while in search of shadows.  While visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico, I woke early one morning and drove up to Hyde Park just to see how the light danced on the adobes, how the golden glow of dawn created shadows on the smooth rounded corners of the clay buildings. And after dark one night, I went on a search, alone, for the great Rio Grande River gorge.  With directions from the innkeeper at the hostel, I set out in my rented car, descending rapidly from the mesa, and wound through narrow dusty roads bordered heavily with sage brush.  With windows rolled down, I savored the sweet smells of sage, pinon and pine in the dusty air.  Gradually, the route began to climb up again. I drove on, twisting and turning up the narrow rutted road until I heard the murmur of rushing water.  I had found the gorge.  Standing in its mist, that small fear of the night that often hangs in the background of my mind was dispelled.  Again the light caught me; the moon’s light so brilliant that the rocks and river shone like polished silver. 
           Maybe we don't have to search for the light; maybe all we have to do is remain open and aware of its presence, even in the depths of winter. I have a dear friend who actually  considers herself a "light worker". Everywhere she goes, and whomever she meets, she first sees the dwelling of divine light, in all things and in all people. That is her habit of focus. What a wonderful way to view life, as though you worship and revere all that is given, like the tiny mustard seed of faith shining even in one's darkest moments. 
          Though we still have plenty of winter left this far north, day by day the light is returning and I am once again, astonished.  If you would like to feel en-"lightened" by my friend's poetry, visit Lizette Stiehr at
See you next Monday.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Good Eats and Reads

  Who knew I could actually learn to love kale and turnips?  Thanks to CSA's like Full Circle Farm located in the picturesque Snowqualmie Valley of Washington state, we can enjoy fresh organic fruits and vegetables straight from the farm, which is wonderful during the long cold months of winter (though you can order year round).  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and these well run farms provide the best food for health, sustainability, and stewardship of our lands;  click on for Washington and Alaska deliveries, or Google Community Supported Agriculture to find a farm near you. They provide recipes right in the box so I have been turned on to many new vegetable dishes previously left un-pondered, like Cauliflower and Kale with Mustard Currant Dressing,  and Hot Swiss Chard Artichoke Dip; and the Cumin Lime Rub for roasted corn has, frankly, changed my life! Who needs salt?
  We spent part of the week at our cabin on the Copper River, where the temperature hovered at 39 below. Exhilarating! There is still a long lead in the river (meaning it's not totally frozen), but the air was so cold that a hefty mist rose in swirls off the moving water and a lone black wolf was spotted skittering the opposite bank, no doubt searching for sustenance. Being holed up for days means you can get a good deal of reading done, so I devoured Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems Volume Two. Stanley Kunitz's blurb on her anthology: "Mary Oliver's poetry reads like a blessing; her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations." Since I spend so much of my time in the natural world, I am moved in a profound way by her ability to so deeply and artfully connect the human heart to the radiance and simplicity of animals, plants, water, sky, dirt and all things elemental.  She tops my list for one of the most celebrated poets in America.  I'll end this post with a simple poem of my own:

I woke this morning with a poem on my lips
 and my second thought was,
   Wow, my first waking thought was an unprovoked poem
     That’s never happened before
       And my third thought was thank you, Mrs. Brown (English Lit. Junior year)
        for teaching me the value of memorizing and learning by heart
         And my fourth thought was from now on, I think I would like to learn
           everything by heart                                           
             and my next thought was uh oh, I forgot to feed the dog last night
              and then I was irretrievably lost in thought and settled on:
               ...what’s for breakfast?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Memoir Notes on Alaska

Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.  These words were uttered by Lew Wallace, the governor of Territorial New Mexico in 1878, and the author of Ben Hur.  From my experience living in the north for over thirty years, I concur the same holds true for Alaska.
            People yearn to test themselves here, push the envelope, create something unique.  The drive to realize an unborn creation, whether it be a new business, a new way of thinking, or an “unclassified” way to solve a problem runs deep.  Many folks have learned to rely on their own resourcefulness rather than run to the “experts” for advice.  In other words, most of us simply don’t follow implicit directions.
            Take the “Snowbank Drive-In Movie,” for example. Watch a movie on a snowbank?  In Valdez, the Chamber of Commerce organized a movie night where the flick was shown on a gigantic pile of snow.  For $2 a car, folks piled into a parking lot, and watched “Back to the Beach” while the local radio station broadcast the sound track.  Pretty crazy.  And how about the dog and kitty cookies made from left over chum salmon, successfully distributed to animal lovers nationwide?  Just another wild entrepreneur’s dream come true. 
The typical Alaskan doesn’t need his idea to be proven to work elsewhere.  He just tries it and finds out.  One guy in the village of Pt. Hope hauled the fuselage from a downed cargo plane onto his land and built it as an addition to his house.  I call it the “airplane house.”  By transforming the cockpit into a fully operational entertainment arcade, he had kids coming and going, playing an assortment of pinball machines and video games; a meeting place for some good clean fun while making a little money on the side.
Much of this creative resourcefulness can be attributed to necessity.  I've seen plenty of pack rats who throw nothing away, and their yards are littered with rusted hot water heaters, snow machine parts, bikes and trikes and wood piles, old iron weathervanes, tires, and just about anything you can think of (a sink from an airplane?) weathering under tarps of all shapes and sizes.  Let’s see, we should be able to fashion a solar green house out of these scraps, I mean…treasures.  Or maybe just weld pieces together into a sculpture to decorate the front yard.
Or we can blame the Alaskan’s creative resourcefulness on the landscape.  After all, the landscape doesn’t simply request, but demands one’s attention.  The miles and miles of exquisite raw open country crack open a space inside us that stimulates the creative juices.  Alaska is so grand, so magnificent, so overwhelming that it intoxicates the imagination and forces one to create.  Makes an artist out of an accountant.  
In a land so vast and wide, people have room to reinvent themselves.  Dreams are pursued in a matter-of-fact way.  People don’t ask why, rather, why not?  Why traverse the 700 mile long Alaska Range by bicycle, slogging through bog and brush, muscling over boulders and glacial ice?  Why not? Why chip ice off glaciers and sell it by the bagful to purists half way around the globe?  Why not?  The reasons aren’t too complicated.  Nothing’s impossible; anything is do-able if you set your mind to it and don’t stray too badly on your calculations. 
            So they say it failed in Boise.  The idea just didn’t stick in Boston.  But this is Alaska, where dreams come true.  Joseph Campbell once said, “follow your bliss”, and I suppose this can be done no matter where you live.  But the chemistry has to be just right and in this neck of the woods, more often than not, it is.  Click on for stories about the Great Land.  See you next Monday.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


The light is returning to our world here in Alaska, the new year beckons change on the horizon (we are gaining 5 minutes of light per day). I cannot readily see the sun on the horizon, mind you, as our home is nestled in the Eagle River valley between rising mountains but the meandering river below is frozen, and ready for ice skating! I have been reading about how to induce a meander, letting water do it's work of chiseling new paths and like a river, there is a grander purpose in our lives than simply reaching the final outlet. I've explored mine a bit and it continues to evolve. But for the new year, here is the intention I'd like to share with you.
1). For one year, I will become aware of my breathing, starting with moments in every single day where my mind goes to my breath, feeling, sensing, becoming aware of my breath, and lengthening the inhale and exhale. Why? Because awareness of breath takes one out of the constant bombardment of thoughts, slows down your actions, brings you into the present moment, creates spaciousness in your body, and is a VERY HEALTHY practice. Voila!
 2). I will memorize a new poem every month. Even before creating poetry, it is taught by many teachers to copy works of art you love; there is great value in memorizing; it makes you "embody" the words and fills you with the intent and meaning of the poet and/or your own interpretation. It may make you laugh, or cry, or feel happy or other words, emote. Good for the soul. Click for more.

January 2011 Poem:   Wanting Sumptuous Heavens, by Robert Bly
     No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
     And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
     Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
     Heaven to be, and God, to come again.
     There is no end to our grumbling,
     we want comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven.
     But the heron standing
     on one leg in the bog
     Drinks his dark rum
     all day,
     and is content.