Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hello, Malthus!

I always know when I'm really sick. A veil falls between my eyes and the rest of the world; I can see it but I don't care. The usual spark between my nerve endings and my vision is gone, my brain stops working beyond making complaints to myself, and my body moves as though it's made from slapped-together sludge. I don't care whether I eat or not. I don't want to read. Movies go unwatched. All I want to do is sleep and sleep, and then sleep some more.

There was no reason for the sickness that fell over me this week. I didn't have a cold and the nausea I felt was only a result of a severe and persistent headache. Almost every muscle that I could identify was in pain and moving took more energy than I thought I had. On the first day I was awake for perhaps seven of the twenty-four hours. Yesterday I walked to the supermarket for ginger tea and Kleenex and a bottle of Perrier. The walk nearly did me in and just might have if I hadn't picked up Thai takeout from my very favorite restaurant.

The special of the day was palo moo, pork chunks simmered with tofu and a hard-boiled egg in five-spice broth and served over rice with an incendiary sauce to perk things up a bit. Nothing had sounded good to eat for well over thirty-six hours until I learned that one of my favorite meals was available only steps away from my apartment. I came home, gasping a little from the climb to my three-story walk-up, put half of the food in a bowl and began to eat. I think it might have saved my life--or at least restored it.

Today I can see the damp grey-green world that extends beyond my window, and the shiny pavement that shimmers below me has an enticing cast to it. I want to go out--and I will--there will be Thai food in two more hours at Thai Curry Simple. And then I'll do what I always told my children to do when they began to feel better--I'll take a day to be bored before I leap back into life.

I'm approaching the danger bracket that is particularly vulnerable during the flu season--people 65 and over. I'm almost halfway to 65. "Did you get a flu shot?" a friend asked on Facebook when I said I was sick. No, I didn't.

And no, I won't.

In Alaska, when the wolf population goes down, the rabbit population goes up, and  up, and up. Then one year the rabbits get sick and many of them die. And then the cycle starts all over again.

There's a reason why natural predators exist. When they're stamped out, nature finds another solution to population control. It's not always pretty but it does the job.

As a country, we are living too long. My mother summed it up when she told me that she stopped living the way she wanted to when she left her seventies. Medical science has given us a vast lifespan, but it is an artificial extension, depending on far too many aids that make life irksome and truncated. I don't want that kind of life.

Gloomy old Parson Malthus had the right idea. Nature corrects population imbalances. It's no accident that influenza is becoming more virulent among the elderly. And that's not a bad thing.

When I can no longer be cured by a bowl of Thai food, it will be time for me to go to sleep. If my body doesn't take over, I hope those who love me will let me sleep forever. That's the way we were designed to go, not hooked up to breathing tubes and liquid nourishment through an IV tube. If it's good enough for the rabbits, it's good enough for me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

New York City Girls

The cliché “You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends” wasn’t true in Alaskan small towns. They were strangely interknit organisms made up of people with one thing in common. They needed to accept each other because they all needed each other. If a car went into the ditch, any passing neighbor would stop to help push it back on the road. If a house burned down, people who had very little shared what they had with the family who lost everything. If a woman needed medical care in a hospital, her offspring went to stay with another family. If a man needed a tool that he didn’t possess, he could borrow it from someone who did. It was a lot like Aldous Huxley’s Island without the Utopia.

My father was a gregarious man and he rapidly adjusted to this. My mother was bred from centuries of Maine reserve and she did not. When her house burned to the ground and each of her three little daughters went to stay with separate families; when she returned, with her burned arms that had been treated but hadn't yet healed, to a small one-room cabin that one of the bachelors had lent us to stay in for the rest of the winter; when the room became filled with cardboard cartons stuffed with everything from clothing to kitchen utensils to dolls that had been left on our doorstep, she withdrew. She lived in a little cocoon of loss, pain, and pride for a long time.

I was four and to me the boxes were like Christmas. I burrowed through them gleefully as my mother sat and tried to fade away. And I had another family to retreat to, a houseful of little girls.

I had spent large blocks of time with the Murto family from the time I was two and after my first stint with them I came home speaking Finn. Thelma and Arnie were both from Finland and if I wanted someone to pass me the butter at their table, they insisted I learn to ask in their language. They owned Anchor Point’s only café and they were rarely home, except for an occasional meal. The household was run by the eldest of their five daughters, who was probably twelve when I first became one of the girls.

Their house was in a large meadow that was a short walk from the shores of Cook Inlet and our playground was the beach. The older girls had work to do; the chores of the youngest were minimal—and since I was one of the youngest, the time I spent in that house was filled with finding shells and Japanese green glass floats on the beach or playing paper dolls in the upstairs bedroom. At night we younger children huddled together in a big bed and Ellen, who was eight, whispered bedtime stories until we all fell asleep. It was my favorite place to be, and when my mother came home with her first new baby the year I was two, I came home, inspected my sister, pronounced her very nice, turned to my father and asked, “Please will you take me back to Murtos now?”

There was never a question of whether I liked the Murto girls or they liked me. We were all part of the same family. So was my friend Johnny Howard, who stayed with us once in a while, or Gary Chapman, who lived nearby and whose proposal of marriage I turned down when I was five. And when we moved to the house my father built after the fire, my mother learned how to know the mothers of the children I was close to, in her own way—her mixture of kindness and distance.

Thelma Murto was a woman who worked outside of her home, which made her a sought-after cook when people could afford to eat at her café. as well as an anomaly in 1950’s Anchor Point. Johnny Howard’s mother was a delightful essence of pure tomboy with a beautiful smile; she and her husband Lefty seemed like twins to me when I first met them. Vi Chapman was a deeply religious Pentecostal who grieved that my mother’s Catholic soul was doomed to hellfire; she also made doughnuts and maple bars that she sold from her home kitchen. My mother learned to respect these women and like them too, but she had little to talk about with them besides their children.

I was a greedy reader by the time I was four; I had a dazzling memory and a parroted vocabulary. I was Anchor Point’s wunderkind, people used to come to our house to hear me read the newspaper before I had lost my first baby tooth. I would have been an insufferable brat if I hadn’t met Patty Stutes when I first went to school.

Patty could do everything well. She read as much as I did, she could draw beautifully, and she was a whiz at kickball. She too had a New York grandmother who sent Patty clothes from Manhattan and her mother often set her hair in ringlets, but even so, she ran fast, climbed high, and was absolutely fearless. Her imagination was as vivid as mine, and although I was a year younger, we became friends.

Our games were imaginary plots that we concocted from a single sentence; sometimes we could get the entire schoolyard involved in one for days. We were savage readers and often sat side by side reading companionably. Visiting Patty was wonderful because together we did everything I would do if I were alone.

Her mother had been a ballet dancer in New York; a framed black and white photo of her in her tutu and slippers hung on the wall of their cabin. Dottie was lean and fierce and very funny, specializing in the dry sarcasm that my mother loved. They were both exceedingly private and would probably have never have met if Patty and I hadn’t become friends. Yet they did—two Manhattan girls with brains and energy who knew that Alaska was where they wanted to raise their children.

Dottie and my mother were never as close as Patty and I were, but they were two women with a common language. Nobody can be quite as provincial as a New Yorker; different neighborhoods are different worlds and these women had  backgrounds that were gapingly dissimilar, but they had shared passions. Their infrequent visits must have been both nourishing and painful, since each of them was certainly at times profoundly homesick for the city that had shaped them. Yet finally, after years of isolation, my mother knew another woman who also loved ballet, music, books—and Alaska. Each of them watched their children grow into people they would never have become had they grown up in Manhattan. Patty and I, each in our own way small blazing comets, burned hard and fast. We never became the stars our mothers wished us to be.

Over a half a century from the time that Patty and I collided in a one-room school, we no longer write the long, news-filled letters that linked us when we were parted in childhood. We haven’t seen each other in almost forty years. But our mothers write each other notes, and visit occasionally, still rattling off stories to each other with East Coast speed, still making their sardonic little jokes, still laughing. They’re among the few survivors of Anchor Point women from the 50’s—still at their cores stylish New Yorkers with eccentric dreams.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter Again

Flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks is a route over mountains that jut below the plane like jagged, gleaming teeth. They stretch beneath the flight path for hundreds of miles and I have never felt anything but comforted by them. My father’s youngest brother lies somewhere among them. His plane was led astray by the Northern Lights and exploded in a ball of fire when it crashed into Mount Sanford. I never knew him; he was only a story that has always made me feel that these mountains are mine.

The land suddenly becomes a flat blanket, studded with lakes, with seams of rivers. In winter it is piercingly white and the dark ribbons of trees are soothing in that relentless light. Then where a river curves is an unlikely cluster of buildings that is Fairbanks, still an outpost long after the Gold Rush days.

The airport is small and the runway that the plane locks into feels like a landing strip out in the bush. When I walk outdoors, the cold air burns the hairs in my nostrils. The dry purity of it is almost like breathing bleach. Even in the soft air of twilight, when the glitter of the snow is muted into a deep blue tinge, the flat white is almost blinding. The cleanliness of it overwhelms me after twenty years of being away from interior Alaska..

It squeaks under my feet and I almost bend down to make a snowball, but my gloves are fashionably fingerless and the snow is too dry to pack into a shape. It turns the fading light into something magical; even at night the snow catches moonlight, the glow from windows, the beams of headlights and shines into the darkness.

It’s below zero but I’ve been much colder in warmer places. This dry cold is dangerously deceptive; frostbite comes without warning. Once I didn’t know my hands were frozen until I tried to open a car door and found that my fingers were wooden and useless. Unlike the damp chill of Anchorage with its knife-blade winds sweeping off the inlet, the winter cold in Fairbanks is seductive. It’s the terrain that Jack London wrote about in his classic short story, To Build a Fire. It’s beautiful right up to the moment that it becomes deadly.

I tried living alone in a little cabin with a wood stove the winter that I turned twenty. I scavenged wood from old mining sites until I’d taken all that was portable, My last fire was built from a long, thick plank that I’d dragged home. I had no saw so it projected from the small stove onto the floor. The next morning I packed my suitcase and flew home to my parents.

Heat is almost an entity in Fairbanks and people pay dearly for it. Alaska’s legendary high paychecks are devoured by winter heating bills and every place I went on my last visit was much warmer than the temperature I maintain in my small Seattle apartment. When I lived in my own Fairbanks house, I often kept the thermostat hovering around eighty. Inside nobody wants to feel the slightest hint of cold.

Outside the large window of my sister’s living room stretches a river that flows through downtown Fairbanks and off toward the mountains. In February, in town, the river is still flowing, open water. In the olden days, it froze so solid that when it thawed it often took out the bridge. Even twenty years ago, people rode their snowmachines on the ice of the Chena River. Now my sister says she won’t walk on it anymore.

The sight of a moving river in the coldest time of the year hit me hard as we flew over the Chena before landing in Fairbanks. For an Alaskan, that’s a sight as surreal and menacing as the melted watches in Dali’s Persistence of Memory. I push the image out of my mind with mental snapshots of stunted black spruce made lovely by the snow that covers their branches, of deep blue shadows caught in the tiny crevices of a snowbank, of all the beauty that I refused to acknowledge in the years that I struggled to leave Alaska.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How to Say Goodbye

The sun rose in a corner of deep scarlet sky the morning that my visit to my mother ended. Japanese tourists rushed to catch it with their expensive cameras; I stared at it wishing I could peel it away and stick it on the wall of my mother’s dark little bedroom.

Her room is narrow, wide enough for her bed, a folding chair, and an end table. A chest of drawers faces her at the end of the room, which holds her television, her Bose player, a stunning bouquet of tulips that my sister brought her, and photographs of her children. Little piles of books are on the moving shelf that’s attached to her bed and on the nearby table and a colorful reproduction of an Impressionist painting brightens one of the walls. The only window is curtained to keep out the sub-zero cold of an interior Alaska winter. This is where my mother lives.

If she could walk, she could get out of bed and sit in a living room that’s  banked with windows. Moose frequently come out of the trees to the deck and lick away the salt that’s sprinkled on it to thaw the ice. She could play with the small dog who presides over the house and talk to his owner, Marion, who’s a woman of style and opinions. In a room nearby is a woman in her 90’s who has lived in Fairbanks all of her life. My mother and she would probably find they have much in common, but they’re two of a kind, proud and private women. For each of them, their rooms are their castles.

My mother has become tiny. Her shoulders, which were always broad and strong, are little wings under her flannel nightgown and her arms have only enough flesh to cover the bones. Her collarbones protrude like little jewels and the legs she was always so proud of have become sticks, my sister told me. Her face is distilled to its essence—her glowing eyes and her smile.

My mother is ending her life not as she longed to, in her own dwelling place, able to take care of herself. But in some ways that is very fortunate for her. In her own house, she was surrounded by memories of what she could do and she hurt herself when she tried to do those things—walk to a cupboard, go to the bathroom by herself, stand at the doorway to give treats to my sister’s dogs. She is a woman of tremendous will and in her own place, that will refused to be quiet.

In Marion’s house, my mother is a paying guest. She receives tender and intelligent care, and in return, my mother does nothing to transgress the boundaries of the kindness that surrounds her. In a strange place, it’s easier to accept the limitations of her body. What is amazing to me is how lovingly and gracefully she has entered the end of her life.

My mother could choose to be bitter that only now is her family coming to her side, that during the years that she was still healthy, we all stayed away except for my youngest sister. Instead she’s chosen to radiate love toward all of her children who have come to her side when she has nowhere to run from us. The strength that it takes for her to embark upon a visit with people who have missed all of the stages that brought her to this bed, the energy that it takes for her to gleam her love toward us, the humor that glints frequently as she talks, all of this is the gift she gives to her daughters.

The largest gift is the example she offers of how to end a good, although often difficult, life. When we said goodbye, we both knew it was probably forever and my mother sent me away with a smile and more love than I deserve glowing in her eyes.

Monday, February 18, 2013


It was a Chinese opera, the sign said, and it would perform on Sunday, I went to the small building in the middle of the block marked Singing Club. The outer door was open but the inner screen door was locked.

A woman came out and told me it was at the neighboring Family Association instead. She led me there, up the staircase, and into a large room with folding chairs set up near a red-curtained stage. Musicians tuned their instruments, seated on chairs at the corner of the stage and at the other end was a raised corner platform with drums and gongs.

The front rows of chairs were ribboned off and that was where the woman took me, “No, no, no,” I said and moved toward the back, where a number of people were already seated. I took an aisle seat and looked at the faces around me. They were all Chinese, most of them over sixty, and they were dressed like people in a Beijing hutong, in warm, serviceable, and well-worn clothing. Only a very few women wore embroidered jackets in bright colors. Most of the men wore caps.

They all seemed to know each other and the room was filled with greetings and beckoning hands, palms down, fingers waving like floating seaweed. The front rows began to fill, with younger women who had taken pains with their hair and their clothing and men with good haircuts, whose outerwear was worn with dash. One man, tall and commanding, swept down the aisle in a well-cut trench coat. Another stood at the front, smiling and chatting in his Italianate sunglasses. Quite a few of these latecomers carried large, elaborate bouquets of flowers which were put together at a table near the stage door.

A woman asked me if anyone was sitting in the empty chairs beside me and took her seat nearby. “Do you have a ticket?” she asked, “I don’t. I live in Chinatown and saw the sign. This happens once every year.”

I told her I had done the same as she and that I lived in Chinatown too. The curtains opened before we could talk any more and a large gong commanded our silence.

A man and woman exchanged badinage on the stage and the woman near me leaned over, “They’re speaking Cantonese. Can you understand?”

What I watched wasn’t what I expected to see. It was more like a variety show than a sustained opera; there was a man in Liberace-style clothing who was obviously making jokes, followed by a man and woman singing a long operatic scene. They and the following singers held books that they referred to frequently; there were none of the flourishes of sleeves and the well-placed footwork that characterized the operas I’d watched in Penang. This was like the singers I’d listened to for hours in Beihai Park, the old people seated in pavilions by the lake, sending out their voices for anyone who cared to hear.

The old man sitting across the aisle from me sang under his breath and kept time with the index finger of his right hand as two women took the stage. They were clearly the stars of the afternoon. The drums and gongs greeted them wildly as they approached the microphones and their voices were commanding. The older of the two was given a bouquet midway through her performance; the woman who had led me inside presented it to her after a break in the performance. The singer accepted it, cradled it in her arms, carefully put it at her feet, and continued to sing.

At one point my hostess walked down the aisle and whispered as she passed me, “Do you like it?” I nodded and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.  

And I sat and listened, overwhelmed with a strong sense of gratitude, that I live in this place, that I am allowed to come into a community and enjoy their music, that I am permitted to be among the old ladies and gentlemen of Chinatown. (Next year I’ll bring flowers.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Our house felt hollow when my mother wasn't in it. She was the one who brought it to life, always. She filled it with the smells of cooking food, with the sounds of instructions, exhortations, and plans. She was the compass and the spark of our family. When I left home in the conclusive change of a marriage, I dreamed about her for months.

It took me years to move away from the force that was my mother, and just a few minutes to realize that I hadn't snapped the fierce bond that has held me to her. I'd only stretched it, but not to the breaking point.

Part of me now is still standing beside her bed, reading to her, watching for her smile.

When my sister and I went into her apartment, we were surrounded by shelves and piles and stacks of books. Without her, they all seemed like dead paper. The rooms that had been her home echoed with her absence. 

When she is completely gone, the world I know will be an empty house for a while. The places she loved, the things that made her laugh, all of the memories that I have will help to fill a space without her. And I hope that she leaves me a tiny bit of the courage that allows her eyes to shine still, even as the rest of her dwindles.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Running in Place

When a person grows up moving, motion becomes an appropriate response to almost anything. I've always carried that farther than most--up until now when I felt restless, I moved to another continent.

Age brings many realizations to slow me down a little--among them, the importance of being near people I love, because life is finite. So now when I feel as though it's time to break the bonds of inertia, I look for a new neighborhood, not a new country or even a new time zone.

A person in my hallway has made my apartment a noisy little corner of hell over the past few months, erupting into bad music and loud shouts right around the time that the moon grows full. His last outburst was more upsetting than usual and I began to mutter "Who needs this shit?" as his noise kept me awake over a period of several nights.

Yesterday I went out to look at other places to live. The more I looked, the more I realized I like where I am. It's been a long time settling in, what with the bedbug invasion and a year without furniture--but what's kept me here is the sweep of sky that I see every time I look up from my computer.

I grew up with open sky all around me. It's what I missed most when I lived in Manhattan. When I can't see clouds and space and light, I begin to shrivel.

And I love what I see when I'm out on the street where I live--kick-ass old ladies who own the sidewalk that they inch down in their walkers, little girls who always sport pink clothing and know they are beautiful, men and women speaking languages that are out of Africa, an occasional raccoon in the very early morning. Of all the neighborhoods in this city, this one is mine.

So is my odd little efficiency apartment that is finally comfortable and filled with the bright colors that the cloud-filled sky makes me hungry for. It's warm, it's infused with light from two compass points, it's patrolled by seagulls every morning, and when I open the window, I can often smell the fragrance of freshly baked cakes or roasted pig.

If anybody moves from this building, I've decided, it's not going to be me.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Reading Under Difficult Circumstances

My father would go out into the world, visit friends, talk, and find things. That was how the horses came into our lives after we moved back into the hills and soon after  he found an electric generator in a household that lived near newly planted power poles. It was a gigantic monster that had to be started with a mammoth hand crank and looked as though it was a remnant of the Industrial Revolution.

Weird ganglia of electric wire and sockets filled our house. Eventually one evening my father cranked up the generator and we had lights and music on a functioning phonograph. The monster had brought us back to a semblance of 20th century comfort but it was a moody, capricious apperatus that could die without warning, in the middle of a sonata or the baking of waffles. Submerged in sudden darkness, my parents would scramble for flashlights and light the Blazo lanterns.

When the generator chugged and produced light, we all spread out over a large house but when the lanterns were lit, we huddled together in one spot, always reading. Beneath their glass coverings, the cloth mantels threw out a clear white light but it didn’t travel well so we crammed together, as close to the lanterns as we could get.

There was never enough to read. We fought over who would be the first to read Life or the Saturday Evening Post when our parents were preoccupied with something else. The Post had cartoons and Life was all photos, a television set bound in paper. Some of the best photojournalists in the world had their work on the pages of Life and it was always a wonderful surprise to see what they had to show every week.

By the time I was ten, I knew about Balenciaga, Princess Luciana Pignatelli, winter sports at St Moritz and bikinis on the Riviera. I saw the dark and horrible consequences of mercury poisoning and the incomprehensible cruelty of Little Rock. Renata Tebaldi, Sophia Loren, Richard Nixon, Robert Frost, the Shah of Iran, the beautiful flower-faced Queen of Thailand—I studied these faces and imagined their lives beyond what was shown in a few photographs and and a smattering of snappy prose.

Earlier, just when I turned six, already a gluttonous reader, a box arrived and I was allowed to open it. Inside were the six most popular novels of Louisa May Alcott, all for me. I read them and reread them over the next nine years, until their cheap bindings had disintegrated and the pages were loose-leaf. Long after their glossy, colored dust jackets were tattered and thrown away, these books were my treasures, my personal library.

Alaska had one bookstore then, the Book Cache in Anchorage, and my parents bought paperbacks there every time they were in town. Their purchases were all classics and philosophy; my father had left school when he was fourteen and the Depression hit, an event that made him a life-long autodidact. He may be the only person I ever met who read all of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that a salesman persuaded my mother to buy in installment payments one summer.

Snack reading came in boxes of paperbacks that were passed from household to household in Anchor Point and made their way to us even after we left town. Most of those books were pulp fiction with garish covers and yellowing pages, the cheap glue that bound them together already cracked and useless. Picking through them when they arrived, choosing the ones to read, was a big event in our house, almost as much fun as the monthly library boxes.

Alaska sent books into the wilds in cartons by mail. Each member of a family could tick off their preferences when they signed up for this service and librarians in the state capital of Juneau would choose books that would correspond as closely as possible to each individual reader. What was in the carton was always a surprise and we looked forward to this as though Christmas came every month.

Then the Anchor Point Community Club decided the town needed a library of its very own. They found space in an abandoned one-room school and men filled it with bookshelves made of rough lumber. Two women volunteered to keep the library open one day a week and they requested assistance from Juneau. They were told if they could come up with a core collection of one hundred cloth-bound  books as the genesis of the library and a group of people who would borrow from them regularly, they would become an official institution with books provided by the state of Alaska.

One hundred books in a community of ninety-eight people was a mammoth task. Books were either hard-bound treasures or ephemeral paperbacks. Nobody had the money to buy a new book to donate to something that might not ever come to fruition. And it probably wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for a man who had been a garbage man in Anchorage, who had a reverence for books. Any time he found a hard-cover book, he brought it home. By the time he retired, his collection was both motley and expansive. That became the nucleus of our library.

Once it opened, every week I would ride my horse on a twenty-mile round trip with two burlap bags filled with the maximum number that my family could borrow—sixteen books. When a storm blew in, I would spend the night at the house of a family friend. Otherwise I could make it to town and back in one day. Once winter struck, my sisters and I would go with my father when he went to pick up the mail.

It was always special to enter that room full of books, even though many of them were so old and battered that they were almost unreadable. When the books began to come from Juneau, the librarian displayed them with pride. Their shiny covers protected with plastic gleamed among the shelves of unjacketed and rejected books. The highest accolade the librarian gave as she showed us new additions to the collection was, “Look. It’s a brand new book.”