Return to safety

In August, my 15-year-old dog became infested with biting bugs that were neither ticks nor fleas. We had just returned from a trip that included a jet ride from Anchorage to Juneau, and I was sure Talus had picked up something devastating in doggie cargo.

The bugs were a quarter-of-an-inch long, with antennae and spindly legs. I pulled twelve off of him in quick succession, and they squished red with his blood. Talus had also spent a six-hour ferry ride in my car, and the kids and I suffered bites from an earlier life stage if we drove anywhere.

The vet set me up with a flea and tick medication but it didn’t work. Meanwhile, the bugs were multiplying. They covered my dog, the porch, and the tall plants around the house. We sent pictures to vets around the state; no one could identify them. I googled and convinced myself that they were an invasive species carrying a deadly, degenerative neurological disease.

“If you find one,” the website said, “don’t touch it.” I had already squished a hundred of them between my thumb and forefinger.

*

I have been sensitive to stress and anxiety lately. When school got out in May I took on all three of my kids full-time, and it’s more than a full-time job for one person. The brothers are into everything, and Avery only moves at one speed. Routines get us through the day and out the door, and various systems help me procure groceries, complete chores, prepare dinner, and get everyone to bed. But even the best day takes everything I have.

When things go wrong, I see that I normally function very close to my ceiling. During periods of overwhelm, I struggle with a permeating fear that I can not keep all of my children safe at the same time.

To make matters worse, the weather forecast called for an atmospheric river. I had no desire to repeat December’s deluge, when 48-hours of rain flooded our town and left me and the kids without power for 36-hours.

Talus was quarantined to the outdoors, but on one very rainy night (before googling) he slept in the Arctic entryway. A few days later, I found tiny bugs around the baseboard of my home. A larger life stage climbed the back of the house in droves. The siding, it seemed, provided an optimal environment for molting into their final, winged stage.

Ten years ago, I escaped to this one-horse town. I wanted meaningful work or no work, and I dreamed of the creative life. I needed a quiet, low-stress place close to nature to support my mental health. I needed to live low on the hog and be time rich so I could write away the days and spend evenings singing at the open mic. In retrospect, I was also drawn here by the uncompromised feeling of physical safety.

For me, this is the safest place in the world. Not once have I gotten up in the middle of the night to lock the front door; not even when my husband is away. Threat had to travel 1000-miles outside of its natural range to find me; and take on a form no lock can keep out.

When the bugs moved in, I felt an impulse to jump on the jet and take my kids back to Anchorage. Hard times, for me, have mostly come with a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. Being well-supported by parents, friends, and a wide circle of extended family has led me to trust well in the Universe’s intentions; but I’ve struggled to trust my own ability to work through daunting tasks. Running away from problems has always seemed like a great option. Let someone else be the hero.

But what of my home? My dog? The desire to flee and return only when the monsters are gone comes from a worn out and child-like place within my psyche. With practice, I recognize where thoughts come from, and choose to act only on those that align with my most whole-hearted values.

The right thing was to stay; but I needed help. A friend dropped what she was doing to hang out with my kids while I’ve vacuumed Talus, the baseboards, and the outside of the house. I taped the Arctic entry off like a crime scene.

That night, lying in bed, I gathered my courage and sank deep in to feel the fear permeating my body. My throat felt dark, heavy, and inflexible; like it was encased in rock. I could barely breathe. Every half-breath built upon the layers; laying more rock to crush my heart and churn in my stomach.

For every constricting thought, there is an expansive antidote. I needed water – both gentle enough to welcome in and powerful enough to move mountains. I imagined myself lying in a small but swift stream. It flowed clean and clear – over, around, and through me – and lapped at the terror until, slowly, it gave way. The water drew that energy out of me and left spaciousness in its place. The water slowed and pooled, leaving my body calm and floating freely.

*

I asked my husband to come home, but he was looking at a short weather window and a concrete pour scheduled for the next day. We brainstormed solutions. In the morning, I called my mom.

She listened, despite pre-coffee haze, as I told of my home infested with potentially deadly insects; that they were eating from my dog as if he were an all-you-and-your-offspring-can-eat-buffet, and I didn’t know how to get rid of them except to put him down. I told her of an atmospheric river on its way; that I was afraid. She threw work gloves, rain gear, and insecticides into a suitcase and was on the 11 o’clock flight.

On day 1 we scrubbed somberly and bug-bombed the car. I vacuumed the siding again and sprinkled diatomaceous earth around the perimeter of the house. I changed sheets and hauled clutter to the garage. The atmospheric river didn’t materialize but it was rainy nonetheless. I arranged another place for us to stay for a few days starting the following Saturday.

That night, I held my baby boys in my arms as I slept. Grandma slept with Avery; her pants tucked into her socks, sweatshirt tucked into pants, and hood drawstring synched tight. Only the smallest possible section of her face was allowed to peep through. We protected what we could.

On day 2, results came back from the state entomologist, plus a friend with a microscope, and a bug expert in Ohio. The unanimous verdict: Talus was covered in conifer aphids.

Veterinarians hadn’t recognized the bugs, not because they were from outside of our geographical range, but because aphids don’t affect animals. They weren’t eating my dog; he had simply picked them up while wandering through the tall grass.Talus did have fleas; or he had until the medication kicked in. So there were fleas in my car but that was it.

Scooby-doo ending: The man-eating insects were actually normal bugs. Conifer aphids were shockingly unfamiliar to me considering that they live in my usual environment; much less so than the regular garden variety. Maybe because they live high up in trees? It was a generally buggy summer, and they must have been unusually numerous. For better or worse, I know a lot about them now.

Even after the benign end to my B-string horror movie, it took some time to calm down. The threat wasn’t real but the fear was. “Pretty soon,” I told a friend, “I plan to be laughing.”

*

What did I get out of this experience? Quite a bit, actually. Even as it was unnecessary, I’m proud of my perseverance and bug mitigation. I feel pretty cool for how I handled it. Also, during the high stress of summer I wanted to be somewhere else than with my children at all times. But, after 48-hours of living with an imagined threat to their lives, I don’t feel that way anymore. I love being with my babies.

Did I clean? Joyfully. Mom slave feelings were temporarily suspended. I washed every cabinet inside and out. I scrubbed play dough and mac & cheese out of chair cushions. I decluttered and purged. I waged an all-out war on the dust mites. I worked like I might never stop.

At the end of the day, I sat down with my family to a regular-kind hectic meal. It had been a while since I thanked the stars for everything I have. I looked around at my clean home and breathed in a bellyful of gratitude for my mom, my kids, my dog, my health, and the return of safety.

***

Deluge

Early December brought a downpour to Southeast Alaska that the National Weather Service described as a 1-in-200 year event. Twelve communities were affected in all. Haines suffered the most extreme damages with 6.62 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. There were landslides, sinkholes, roads washed out, loss of nine homes, dozens of people displaced, and two fatalities.

The rest of our communities hardly make news. It’s rain, after all. Y’all are used to that, right?

I’ve never experienced anything like it. On the second day, flooding begins. Gustavus gets almost 4 inches of rain; just under the 24-hour record set in October of 1994. Eleven inches fall in the City of Pelican in 48 hours. Eleven. Southern California is lucky to get that much rain in a year.

For these two communities, last month was the rainiest December on record and second only to October of 1978 for the rainiest month of all time.

My neighborhood loses power in the late morning. Someone from the utility company stops by all of our homes to explain that a transformer is underwater. They are waiting to see what additional flooding the high tide will bring. “Hopefully power will be back on tomorrow,” he says.

I love a good power outage. When I was a kid we lost power to wind storms all the time. Mom would get the kitchen glowing with kerosene lanterns and warm us with the blue flames of our gas-powered stove. It felt very pioneer. We ate cereal and listened to AM radio. Gusts to 60 mph. French toast sticks for school lunch. We suited up into snow pants and jackets and went to the bus stop. No big deal.

Fast-forward thirty years and I feel dramatically under prepared. My husband is in Juneau. I have a range top and a wood stove, but no heater and no oven. Without the booster I can’t text or make calls. We have water in the reserve tank but it will run out soon.

First things first. I make a batch of play-dough and dig through the Christmas decorations to find two LED candles and enough AAA batteries to power them.

I place one of the candles on Avery’s nightstand as I tuck her in at naptime. “This is your candle,” I say. “Keep it with you until the sun comes up tomorrow.”

During her nap I prepare for nightfall. I mix a quick soup, put out oil and popcorn, place an empty bucket under the downspout, scoot living room furniture aside to create a sleepover scene, prep the laptop and DVD, and gather thematic books.

Avery wakes up and walks out in her light shoes click, click, click. Pink and purple fireworks with every step. She is carrying her candle. “Mama?” she asks. “It’s 6 p.m.?”

She wants to know if it’s time for the episodes she watches in the evening while I put the brothers to bed. “Not yet,” I say, and we read Dinosaurs before dark by faux candlelight.

My ability to slap a silly solution on a somewhat serious situation is my strength as well as my weakness. Maybe I should dig deeper, plan harder, think bigger; but that’s not where my brain goes. If the kids are safe and happy, if I can manage to make this into another one of our adventures, then that’s good enough for me.

It’s time to drive into cell-signal land and call daddy. I load the kids into our old truck and brave the flooded driveway.

Photo by S. Neilson

I dial my husband from the library parking lot. For a few minutes everyone is copacetic but then Toren starts in with his metal-on-metal scream. My husband is irritated. “Why don’t you call me back when everyone is settled?” he asks.

I get out of the truck to tell him how it really is. That making this phone call took a journey. That all I’ve got to get us through the night is popcorn and light shoes.

Covid-19 makes this strange storm even stranger. At another time people would be visiting, playing games, and waiting together for the weather to clear. But for the millionth time this year, there is nowhere to go. So we go home.

All of us are dealing with multiple stressors: People have too much work or too little work; too much time or too little time; anxiety or boredom; friends or family. We have nothing left to give, but keep giving anyway. We get out of bed in the morning, get along with others, pay the bills, get some sleep, and do it all again tomorrow. It’s not our best work but it will have to do. We forgive ourselves. We call it giving ourselves grace.

This endless rain at the end of an endlessly rainy year taxes whatever stamina remains. I wonder what kind of resiliency I have left. Six p.m. finally comes. With Avery plugged in and the brothers asleep, I sit down to eat soup and reevaluate. A generator, I think. Tomorrow I will find a generator.

Just then, a neighbor rolls up with venison steak, fun lights, and a generator. Turns out my husband made a few calls of his own, and Covid-19 doesn’t stop everyone.

Photo by S. Neilson

Sometimes we have what we need; other times we don’t. Maybe resilience lives in the community collective: A place where even when people are tired, someone has the energy to make a difference, knows what to give, has the right thing to give, and the truck to get it there.

*

The evening begins anew. We eat and play. I run the generator for a bit of light and comfort before turning in. “You might hear me up in the night,” I tell Avery. “I’m adding wood to the fire. Call Coo-ee! and I’ll come tuck you again.”

The pounding rain keeps me awake. I remember another time, far from this life, when I pretended the wind rattling my metal roof was the Southeast rain and let it lull me to sleep. This is not that rain. For the first time, I wonder what constitutes a monsoon.

Daylight makes everything better. I pack everyone up and drive to a friend’s home where I sit on a couch, drink tea, and feel normal. People joke about their new lake-front property. The power comes back on.

But the rain continues. After three days the volume drops to a normal sort of torrential angle-rain that continues through days four and five. On day six my friend H texts me: How is it still raining?

After a week, the sun comes back out. My husband flys home. We cut a Christmas tree. I ignore the wet things haunting my crawlspace. M spends three days evicting voles from our garage.

The New Year offers an opportunity to exhale and celebrate all that we have come through. With the last full moon of 2020, I spend a quiet moment letting the past year go and making room for the year to come.

Resilience sometimes shows up as a reserve: A full tank of gas. Love handles. Money in the bank. Good health. People who pick up when you call. A shiny new degree. An adequate resume. A reliable vehicle. The padding we hold onto for tough times.

But rather than a fullness, resilience might be a space. A capacity for looking ahead to a challenge and wondering, How might this change me for the better? In lean times a reserve can be exhausted. But a space can grow and deepen forever.

I talked with a friend in Haines today who parents an almost 2-year-old from before sun-up to long after sun-down. He is also remodeling a kitchen, emotionally supporting his partner who is a pandemic-era medical professional, repairing his home after national disaster-level flooding, and with each day addressing that relentless question, What’s for dinner?

“It feels like a little too much,” he says.

Yet I know this man to be highly resilient. Even under stress, he loves. He knows his gifts and gives of them generously. He cultivates an attitude of gratitude. Kindness is a prerequisite. Play is a priority. He lives by values, rather than resolutions.

Resiliency requires imagination. It says we must not expect life to behave predictably and we must not despair when everything crumbles. There is always a new chapter waiting; another chance to rise from the ashes. What is the point of living as less than we are?

On the brink of a new tomorrow, resilience is resisting the urge to rush back to the safety of everything you’ve ever known. It is singing our sorrows with lifted voices; even if we can’t carry a tune. It is the courage to look out over the edge, and fly.

Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

*

Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

*

I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

*

As everything changes, a place remains

Change is a usual theme around Gustavus, Alaska. The surrounding mountains have all been rolled over by icefields. Each generation sees the disappearance of its own tidewater glacier, and another hikeable ridgeline that becomes overgrown by impassable alder thickets. Though today, as I walk a familiar trail through the Sitka spruce trees, I am grateful for the way this place stayed same over the years as I changed.

Fourteen years I’ve been walking this trail, catching and eating salmon that run in the river down the way. The friend with me, hiking in his waders, changed with time. Then I married and came here less often, with a husband to bring a backpack full of shining fish home to me. But I see that the river still riffles in the same places, and I trust that come summer the fish will pool by the same rocks that we, and the black bears, know.

Walking this trail feels like the best parts of going back to my parents’ house, where posters of James Dean and old ski heros still hang on my bedroom walls. All of that time, swoops of old man’s beard have hung from these same boughs; angel wings have sprung from the same wet logs.

I moved here when I wanted the world to stop spinning, so I could lose the feeling of never being enough. In this place, I thought, I will just be in love and sit back and be satisfied. And it worked. You were enough for me.

But we’re starting a long slow move to Juneau now. I could kid myself into thinking it will be the same when I come back to hear the wrens’ songs and raven wingbeats in the air. But that’s not how life works. I will only ever belong to one place at a time, and we are trading wild spaces for fancy jobs and well-beaten hiking trails, and I will lose my sense for whether coyotes have been digging voles out of the strawberry fields lately or not.

I am not exactly leaving because I want to; it is just what is happening. I’m sad to go, but I’m not exactly leaving against my will either.

Because when a person leaves a broken world and comes out here, they heal. I have more to give now, because of you. I have to go back, because I am going back. I might not be able to fix a single thing that is wrong with the world, but I won’t turn away from it either. I will look every flea bitten dog square in the eye and say, ‘I see you.’ If there is muck and mire, I will exist in the mire.

If I stayed, Gustavus, I would never have felt all of this for you.