Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Fairbanks, Alaska, 1999:

I am having a luncheon out today on the deck of Pike’s, a popular local Alaskan restaurant on the river. I am with five women whom I don’t yet know very well, five women who are colleagues at the university where I have just been hired to teach creative writing and literature. These women are well-dressed, intelligent, and attractive, in that very distinct way that educated, independent, middle-aged-or-approaching-middle-age Alaskan women are considered attractive and, by that, I mean they are not “pretty” in the frail, feminine, doll-like ways that men elsewhere like their women. They are laughing and drinking Margaritas and Martinis and something called “Wallbangers” here in the midday late-summer sun, enjoying the time with each other in a way that tells me they have done this many times over the years they have been living here. 
I am trying to imagine that I might, in the next few months, come to be one of the inner circle of their friendship. I am imagining that I have something in common with them, with some of them anyway, though I cannot imagine what that might be other than the kind of genitalia we were born with. I am not like them, in some profound ways. They seem comfortable here. With each other. With themselves. They are a bit bawdy. And they throw back their heads and laugh loudly when they are amused. They eat like bears eat after a long winter, exuberantly, loudly, leaning over their meals, pushing the food in, smacking their lips. And they seem likable. At least, I am imagining that they are likeable. Infinitely likeable. And so, among them, I can imagine myself likeable too. Likeable, in some abstract, charming, womanly way. 
And while I am trying to imagine myself into their group – one of the “girls,” as they call themselves though they are well into middle age and beyond anything which could even remotely be considered “girlish” – the hot topic under discussion turns suddenly to the outrageous responses some women have to being “cheated on,” from going into life-long psychoanalysis to slashing the guy’s truck tires, to showing up at the new lover’s doorstoop waving a shotgun and shouting death-threats. They are talking about women they’ve known – friends, neighbors, sisters – who have reacted badly to being “cheated on” by boyfriends or husbands. It strikes me, sitting here among them on this end-of-summer deck by the Chena River, that probably none of them have ever been “cheated on” by their men. Otherwise, why would this behavior seem so unfathomable to them, so ridiculous? And though I have no interest in adding my own two cents to that discussion, I chuckle at that expression, cheated on, and I say that that it sounds so blasé, as if love were a board-game or a game of cards – Hearts, perhaps – at which one could cheat or be cheated. 
“Well, what do you-all call it in the South?” the youngest of the women, Francine, asks from across the lunch table, her voice drawing the words out badly like some actress playing a Southern character in a movie or on stage but who is clearly not of the South.  She is “tipsy,” or outright drunk. Her eyes have that loose-in-the-socket roll that happens after four or five martinis…her drink of choice this afternoon. She leans back, her petite sun-bronzed face half-hidden in the deck umbrella's wide shadow cast by the deck. Another of the women snickers at her syrupy Scarlett O’Hara accent.
Please. I have, for the record, never used the word you-all. But I can fence with the best of them when the occasion arises. And it seems to me that the occasion has, indeed, arisen.  I’m a newcomer to the farthest-north university in America, a woman with a deep drawl who can, all-too-easily slide into diphthongs and a genial demeanor which belies the blade-sharp mind kept hidden beneath the faćade of a rather ordinary face, a newcomer who, it seems, is about to be served up, du jour, alongside the main course and dessert: Southerner a la mode and Women-Who-Have-Been-Cheated-On-By-Their-Menfolk. So much for me imagining myself into this group of women-friends.  Fiends is more like it. 
“We-all call it being jilted,” I say, quietly, without so much as a hint of a drawl, studying my salad intently rather than lifting my eyes across the table to the shadows in which she is seated. I am certain, even now, that I can out-fence anyone, man or woman, who sets out to openly mock me or humiliate me. I have had a lot of practice at this. Growing up in the South, in that god-forsaken country of heat-riddled tempers lacquered over with propriety and good manners, my defense – my only worthy defense – was an acerbic wit and a lightning-quick tongue with which to deliver back, two-fold or four-fold, any venom delivered unto me.  Cast your bread upon the waters, scripture says, and Francine has cast it out. 
It is about to be returned to her.
Over and over, Momma used to caution me: “Keep it up. One day the boys will think you’re a girl with nothing going for you but a quick wit and that will be your undoing.”
Better, I’d think to myself, than being a half-wit. Or a nit-wit. Or a dim-wit.
No wonder I wasn’t getting dates, she’d murmur to that no one in the room who she seemed to endlessly have these conversations with when I didn't seem to be taking her advice seriously. No wonder, she'd sighed to that no one, her daughter wasn’t being asked to prom. 
As if a girl with a mind was some kind of third rail. Electric. Dangerous. Something to stay clear of. 
“Well, we-all in the South sometimes say someone is cuckolded, though some of we-all know the term is rarely used accurately now,” I say, matter-of-factly, not in that voice of melodramatic commiseration that my mother has practiced, all her life, on me. I figure using we-all twice will send the message clearly: if you think you can out-mock me, if you insist upon making light of me or the decent, hard-working people from whom I come, then you deserve whatever sad fate befalls you on this deck on this summer day in the far north
She gets my drift right away. She has the decency to look embarrassed and to mumble an apology. In her own voice. Pittsburg, I think. Or Princeton. I can’t decide. But definitely a Northerner. A Southerner would have mouthed a wide “O” and declared that, Oh dear, she most certainly had not intended to insult anyone. My goodness no. Heaven forbid.
I take a breath and go on, reluctantly surrendering up – yet again – the fleeting dream of finding a few women friends with whom I might, occasionally, go shopping or share a pleasant luncheon or a phone conversation, someone with whom I might, at Christmas, swap secret-pal gifts or family recipes. Instead, I am wading deeper and deeper into what I know is going to be a terrible lesson in Southern semantics and etymology. And bad manners. I do what I always do: I leave the disappointment of the body and the spirit and I bore head-long, full-throttle, into the cerebral: 
“A cuck is, technically, a married man who finds himself the unfortunate victim of a sexually unfaithful wife. The word derives from the Old French word for the Cuckoo bird – Cocu + the pejorative suffix – ald: a bird with a reputation. Thus cuckold. The female bird lays her eggs in other bird’s nests, thus freeing herself of the burden of nurturing or caring for her eggs or feeding her hatchlings.”
I pause to place my butter knife alongside my plate and to wash the last bite down with a long sip of sweet iced tea. The Chena River moves along beside us, carrying on its brown back a duck and her ducklings. I toss a piece of crust into the water just to see the ducklings scatter and rush to gobble it down. Then I go on.
“Thus a married woman who was unfaithful sexually, made a ‘cuckoo’ of her husband who was, unknowingly, providing her and her potentially-illegitimate offspring with shelter and protection, much as a tricked bird does to the cuckoo’s eggs. Lately, the word’s connotations have broadened, though, to include any male (married or unmarried) in a relationship to a hotwife – a term most often used to refer to the unfaithful woman.”
They rather like that part, it seems. The part about a hotwife. And I can tell, by the nervous giggling around the table, they are also embarrassed by it, these women who have spoken openly – loudly – through the lunch, of religiously faking orgasms and of the fast-withering erections of their husbands and lovers who fall deeply asleep immediately after sex. 
There are some jokes all around the table about hotwife and Dierdre wonders aloud if that is where the word hottie comes from. Lilly, returning from the restroom, hears the butt-end of the conversation and the word hottie and asks, “Hey, are you talking about me again?” 
Laughter erupts around our table. They wink and laugh and nudge each other while Lilly sits there puzzled and a bit bereft after thinking she’d just scored the trick. That’s what they call it – scoring the trick – when one of them one-ups another with a joke or quick retort, when one suckers the other or makes the other the momentary object of ridicule or laughter. 
“What?” Lilly asks, wide-eyed, looking from one to the other of us, folding her cloth napkin into place again on her lap. “What, for Chrissake?”
And, just at this moment, I think I might still have a shot at this women-friends thing after all, a thing I have not quite managed, not well anyway. Not even well enough. I, who have spent much of my adult life hung in a kind of androgynous intellectual purgatory. I who have worked mostly, and most comfortably, with men who are generally more comfortable with apparent intelligence and scientific observation and logic, men who are less comfortable with conversation about lovers and husbands and children and aging parents, and much less comfortable in the presence of emotions and intuition. 
Among men, I am often “invisible” as a woman, assuming my cerebral life, a life filled daily with facts and diagnoses and observable, documentable events. A logical life. A reasonable, practical life. Among men, it matters hardly at all that I am ordinary-looking or unable to flirt respectably or play coy or dress fashionably. I have a role to play in what they are trying to accomplish. Among men, I am a colleague in sheep’s clothing: nothing much to fret over. 
Among women, I am also relatively invisible, probably because I have concerned myself only marginally, if at all, with the things they seem to do with ease. Things like flirting, laughing at or teasing their men, like talking easily about taking lovers, like having sex, and all the thousand other things that fill their daily, ordinary, womanish lives: high heels and designer handbags, the perfect brownish-black waterproof mascara, face-lifts and nose-jobs, blow-jobs and breast implants.
I feel today like those Bonobo apes must feel at the Great Ape Trust, the Bonobos who were “rescued” from impending extinction in the Congo, saved apes whose closest ties are now with humans. They can communicate fluently with their human caretakers, using a lexicon board. They are well-socialized enough to share brief time with strangers, like the reporters and photographers and tourists and philanthropists who come to see them at The Trust. They are deeply-attached to their human caretakers. And, when I look at photographs of them, they seem shot-through with a profound sadness, as if they sense somehow that they are no longer a part of the ape-world and only marginally part of the human world. In limbo. In some place of no-belonging, hung between two opposing forces, longing like all get-out for something you can’t even name. 
I feel like that most days. Especially today, among these women. Sad. As immigrants and refugees are sad. Sad as exiles are who find themselves in a country where they cannot speak the language and so are thought to be imbeciles.
Maybe I could re-enter a life that is lived, easily, among my peers, among women; maybe I could relearn, even now, what it is to be back “in the wild” of being a woman. Maybe this shot at friendship would be enough. A good, once-in-a-lifetime shot.
And this is precisely when our waiter, a handsome man whose nametag reads “Raoul,” puts down my plate of beautifully-glazed salmon and roasted new potatoes, then faces me. 
“So," Raoul asks me in his heavy, Latin American version of English, "jou are from the South, so tell me: why is it that every time there is a love-gone-wrong episode in the South, the woman throws all the man’s belongings out in the rain and sets fire to his trailer?” 
That’s a cliché. It is. Tossed clothes in the bare dirt yard and a trailer in flames. Yes, it is. But it’s nevertheless true. Every salad fork at our table hangs suspended in mid-air. Lipstick-glossy smiles freeze on the faces of the women at this dockside table, smiles which are locked crookedly, off-kilter, under their aquiline, aristocratic-looking (some surgically-corrected) noses, odd smiles, faces which look as if some mortician forgot to place the corpse’s denture in straight before wiring the jaw into place for the viewing. 
And God only knows what storm-cloud is trying to move in over my brow. I feel the familiar throb behind my right eye where a full-blown migraine will take up residence a few hours from now. Stress: hair-trigger of the gun that’s going to one day kill me.
But what I do just now is smile up at Raoul, at his handsome-in-a-dark-and-exotic-way face which is looking down at me with such innocence and anticipation that it is hard for me to imagine that he is some young woman’s heartbreak-about-to-arrive. So I smile back up at him despite the throbbing behind my eye. 
Why not? It is a gorgeously bright day and I am best at this kind of smiling: smiling under duress, smiling in the face of insult, smiling in the face of being openly-ridiculed and publicly-jilted. Yes, that too, though I’d rather take a cup of hemlock than admit it. I’d rather my uterus fall out in the grocery store aisle than have to speak about that time in my life. But, if nothing else, I am mistress of a dazzling, toothy smile. So I smile. No matter what fate has brought to my feet. Or my table. 
I smile. And I dazzle. I dazzle like a cobra dazzles. I fill my lungs with all the air that the afternoon seems to have suddenly emptied itself of. I smooth the white linen napkin into place on my lap, though it has not shifted out of place, and I look up at this stranger, this handsome black-haired, raven-eyed waiter, Raoul, who is standing there, perplexed, in his best starched white shirt and black dress pants. I say in my best Sunday-school-teacher voice, sotto voce, “Raoul, I have been married five times, to four different men, three of whom ‘cheated on’ me, and I have never, ever burned down a trailer, mine or anyone else's.”
Raoul is leaning in now, his eyes widening in their sockets, his white shirt flapping in the dock-side wind like a flag of truce. Or is it surrender? He pretends to be horrified at first, then he grins down at me and pushes my shoulder in a friendly, kid-brotherly kind of way. 
“Oh, jou,” he says then, smiling down at me now, as if I have been teasing him. The five women around the table are, well, shocked, I suppose, and utterly speechless, though Diedre begins to cough as if she’s swallowed a small bone that has lodged itself in her gullet: not dangerous, but annoying. Like listening to a cat trying to hork up a hairball.
I am taking shape before them suddenly, a new and strange creature: a woman who has married five times, divorced four times; a woman who has never once – despite the myth that Southern women have a bent towards jealousy and hysteria – burned down a trailer, "mine or anyone else’s." A woman who will declare, publicly, that she has married many times, many men, and not look a bit chagrined about it. Or apologetic. I am a woman who has been "cheated on" and might admit it openly. A woman who might have very interesting things, dangerous things, perhaps, to say. I am becoming a woman who might have a reputation. I am becoming, in this moment, visible.
There is a moment when the world, as you know it, tilts on its axis and a new true north struggles to take up its place. The spinning intensifies, as if you have been sitting in a chair all afternoon, napping, fanning yourself, sipping strong juleps and then you rise too abruptly. Everything around you spins. A low buzzing begins behind your left ear and time halts on its long foot-path across space. It is the kind of moment when babies come into the world, the moment before they will either breathe or not breathe. It is the kind of moment where the preacher has asked if you’ll promise to love, cherish, and obey “till death do you part,” the moment right before you will – or you won’t – whisper I do. It is the kind of moment when anything is possible. It is the pregnant pause, filled with everything and nothing. It is the moment between the flash and the thunder’s rumble deep in the basement. 

This is that kind of moment.

photo courtesy of The Great Ape Trust

Note: All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the unintentionally-wicked

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Notebook Entry: Anchorage, Alaska, November 2008
I have heard something on the radio that has stripped me down again to raw muscle and sinew, all the way down to the inelegant underpinnings of being human, down to some raw, flayed-open part that causes a constriction in my chest. Under physical duress, I might’ve called this “heart pain.” But I am familiar with human anatomy and I know where the heart lies in the dark, damp ark of the human body. This is not that kind of heart. Not that kind of pain.
Many atrocities have come to light over the last years. What is one more? There is always some bad news traveling at light speed towards us these days. And telling myself this allows me to go on doing whatever it is that I do on any ordinary, sunny, sub-zero day here in Anchorage, Alaska. Things like driving up into the hills to get a wider view of my particular corner of the world, a view that makes my own personal sorrows seem small and womanish and of no real consequence when standing in a landscape that I know will endure long past the time I am gone down again to dust and ash. Things like getting a free turkey at the Fred Meyer for buying $100.00 of groceries this week. Things like going to teach a class of young writers tonight. Things like facing down my body’s slow and certain decay and the mind’s growing grief that I will have to leave all this too soon, too soon. Even about that, I have a tale to tell: I’ve had a fabulously-rich life, not a moment of it was waste, and I’d choose it all over again even knowing what I’d come to in the end. Every word of that tale is true. What was it Horace wrote and Dryden translated: “What has been, has been / and I have had my hour.”
I have had my hour.
But what is their hour like, any one of those doctors and nurses, lawyers and students whose countrymen come upon them now daily or nightly, in stealth, who abduct them, who bind their hands and feet and then systematically torture and kill them? At 7:40 a.m. Alaska Standard Time, I hear of their last hour. Another thirty bodies have been found. Thirty. More than the students in my class. Double almost. Three times more people than those who waited with me in line this morning at Starbuck’s. Twice as many as the elementary school children who waited raucously at the corner this morning for the school bus.
Thirty. Gone now, just like that. And by “just like that,” I mean exactly like that: the reporter said that the instrument of torture was an ordinary household electric drill. How does the mind steel itself against that? What story can I tell myself this morning that will allow me to go on believing in the inherent goodness of mankind, or the mercy of God? What shall I say to myself that might allow me to go on today, or tomorrow, or the next, quietly sewing a collar-button on my husband’s dress shirt as if it mattered, or to stand idly drinking my coffee at the sunny window, or taking up my pencil to write?
Maybe because I am a writer, I force myself to imagine, somewhere behind my eyes, the whole scene of it. I try to fathom it, the picture of it, that kind of torture. I can imagine the burnt-out house, somewhere in the Middle East. I can almost see the faces of those who are being brought, bound, to their torturer and executioner. I can even imagine the face of that one - or ones: a human face. A face that resembles, in many ways, a kindly uncle or neighbor, a face not unlike my own. But every time I get to the whirring drill bit – to the hands of the man who holds it to the kneecaps or the soft temple of another person, every time I get to the fact of the waiting flesh and bone at the other end of the spinning bit – I recoil. My mind cannot enter it. My imagination refuses the assignment. The stage goes dark.
Yet, for all my failure to imagine it, it happens. Those thirty bodies are testimony to it: a grisly “body of evidence” which would stand in any court in this country and make of those dyings a crime against humanity.
What shall we call it, this act of torture-unto-death? How many bodies must be unearthed before we put some name to it? Thirty? Thirty, plus the one whose hand holds the drill? Thirty, plus the one who holds the drill, plus the one who turns, briefly, away?
This too is part of my hour here on earth, isn’t it?
Maybe I was right earlier, when I said that what I felt this morning was “heart pain.” Maybe it isn’t high cholesterol or high blood pressure or AIDS or smallpox or depression that is going to do us all in. Maybe acne and wrinkles and PMS and menopause and erectile dysfunction aren’t what is making us feel so bad. Maybe the Doomsday we’ve been so certain will come is already upon us. Maybe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have ridden through town and we slept through the thundering hooves.
Or maybe all those old doomsday stories got it wrong. Maybe the only thing we can tell ourselves anymore is that we are making, or have made already, a world in which we can no longer live and remain fully human and humane. Maybe the mind cannot find a suitable place to lay something like this in among the other memories and dreams without it affecting those, disturbing the order of the mind. Maybe something like this doesn't yet have resonance in either the brain's center for language or for sight. Maybe things like this are stored elsewhere in our bodies: somewhere far from where we might be forced to confront them: in the extremities, perhaps; at least the name seems appropriate. Or maybe there is no safe way for us to know, just know, and that's why we look away, why we resume – or try to – the daily, mundane rituals of our lives, to stay busy, to move fast, move past. Or maybe it's just that our hearts cannot bear the news from anywhere anymore.
photo courtesy of photos.com

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Sunrise over downtown Jacksonville
Once, when I was a young woman, I returned to my parents’ home - broke as a beggar, humbled as a prodigal - after having made a very brief foray into the “bigger world.” And by "bigger world," I mean a rented room and a temp job across town from my parents' house. I'd been working 12-hour days in order to pay my bed and board and I could see I was going to be on that tread-wheel to nowhere for a long, long time – maybe forever – so I swallowed my pride and returned home, knowing I would come, like others before me, to that Robert Frost moment: two paths diverging in a yellow wood. I would have to choose: 1) to follow my girlhood dream (of moving outward into the larger world, journeying through it, experiencing it, writing about it) and thus I'd be required to forsake life in the small, safe, Baptist community in which I had spent most of my days and nights until then, to really throw myself on the mercy of the larger seething, heathenish world I'd only read and heard about, or 2) whether to just stay put, as my family and friends expected, to take the “safe” road and accept some decent-paying secretarial or receptionist position there in Jacksonville, living at home and saving my money, maybe buying a second-hand car, until I'd “found a man” and married – though it was questionable whether anyone, including my parents, thought any man would be brave enough to “take me to wife” (as my grandmother so delicately put it).
By then, I'd been dreaming for years of another kind of life: a life traveling, a life of the mind, that solitary life with writing and good books at the center of my life, of living by my wits “out there” somewhere beyond the city in which my family lived, in order to search for that one place I believed I would know when I came to it because everything about it would allow me the opportunity to be who I felt I was becoming: that place I'd finally call home. It would be, or so I told myself, a place where I'd come to know my own worth in the world, a worth I could discover for myself as I went through it, something apart from the way others saw me and imagined me, when they thought about me or noticed me at all. To stay in that town of my upbringing, to remain invisible there in the well-mannered, deeply-Christian South, to try one more time to be a respectable member of that Southern Baptist family and community in which I’d been raised, well, that would mean I would have to give up my dream, that I’d have to just open my hand and let it go for good there was no way to make it happen there in that place where the Good Book was the only acceptable literature, where any attempt to think and write creatively against or outside of its premises was suspect, was akin to the “lie,” and all devout Southern Baptists can tell you who the Prince of Lies is.
As I was weighing what it would cost me to go, or to stay, (otherwise known as throwing myself a rather loud and mournful pity-party), I turned to my Grandmother Fleecy, who was someone I felt would kindly tolerate my whining and complaining and not hold it against me or think me any more odd or foolish than I already was.
"Maybe I could do it," I said to her finally, in a fit of frustration, in a bout of sudden cowardice, "Maybe I could just settle down with some local boy and have a passel of children and raise them to be good and godly and upright citizens like mama and daddy did with all of us. But maybe even that dream isn't something I can really pull off. Not me. I mean, look at me. I'm no prom queen: who would want to settle down with me? I'm plain and bookish, and my strongest attributes are a quick mind and a sharp tongue. How many times has someone pointed that out to me? What makes me think. . . ."
It was then that my grandmother slammed her hot iron down on the iron rest and narrowed her marble-blue eyes at me. It caught me by surprise, that shocking vehemence with which she'd interrupted me.
“Be careful, girl,” she said, “lest you linger too long in Babylon and forget who you are.” Then she picked up the iron again. She spit on it to make sure it was still hot enough for a good crease, as if it might have gone cold in the brief circle of her inattention. The spit sizzled hotly and then dissolved into a quiet last hiss.
I didn't know how to respond to her. She was always speaking in odd metaphors or allusions, most of which I couldn't unravel, even when I tried to. I snapped myself up so straight then that my spine hurt. My mind went still. Vacant. She nodded at me then, with what seemed, to me, a kind of satisfaction, and took up her steamy work again as if she'd never left off doing it, pressing down hard on the starched collars and cuffs of the dress shirts that had been delivered into her care, laundry she took in twice a week from other women more well-off than she was, married women and widows who brought her their washing and starching and pressing work which added another two or three dollars a week to the $57.00 Social Security check she lived on every month. Out of that meager portion, she paid her own rent, walked to the store and bought her coffee and meager groceries – the corn meal and sugar and eggs for the cornbread she'd make, the white ball of Coats & Clark's tatting thread, the thick cream for her morning coffee, the buttermilk and corn meal, the little bag of birdseed for her parakeet, Tony, one in a long line of parakeets she'd always named Tony – and her "smokes," her single carton of Winston cigarettes per month, her one and only vice if you don't count the True Confessions magazines stashed in a brown cardboard box under her bed, the box my mama found after my grandmother passed. I still recall with a kind of morbid delight the little gasp that escaped Mama before she pressed her hand to her sputtering mouth, and the look of horror that crossed her face when she opened the box flaps and found those hoarded back issues of True Confessions, embarrassed by the lurid titles – "He had his way with me and then went back to his wife" and "Pregnant and Unmarried: My Story" – and the only-slightly-provocative cover photos of young women in heavy, movie-starlet make-up, sporting some deep cleavage. She'd told me to take "that trash" to the trash where it belonged, meaning the dumpster at the end of the block.
All my grandmother's widowed neighbors had stood at their screened front doors or on their little porches as I'd made my way to the dumpster with the heavy box and they had called out to me in tender voices as I passed by, "How're you doing, baby?" and "How's your daddy and momma?" and "We sure do miss Fleecy around here."
It had surprised me a little, my grandmother's remark about Babylon. I didn’t think she even knew scripture, much less knew it well enough to be able to talk about Babylon as an allegory for Jacksonville, Florida, or for the larger South into which we'd both been born and had lived in all our lives. It had surprised me also because by then I knew how she had pretty much given up her own life in Louisiana, years before, to follow my young father to Jacksonville and, eventually, to help care for my brother and sister and me after our biological mother had packed up and left one afternoon, running off to chase her own dreams, though no one could guess what those were.
What about my grandmother's dreams? Surely, she'd had them. And I doubt they'd included the life she'd ended up with: leaving her sisters and mother in Shreveport, following her only son to the big city, care-taking her grandchildren, taking in ironing, living in a two-room subsidized apartment. Surely, she understood the cost of that decision in a way I couldn't yet imagine. And hadn't she once been a champion fiddler, winning awards, playing alongside some of the South's famous musicians? What had happened to that life, and when? When had she left the wildness in her and entered captivity in Babylon? What came to mind just then was the Old Testament scripture where the captive had written once, mournfully, "By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept, for thee, Zion." I knew what it meant to long for something, but you could hardly call my life a "captive" one. But my grandmother. She might know all about such a thing as being led away from home and lingering too long. And what part had I – or her love for me – played in all that?
I don't know now whether it was out of guilt or fear or just some recklessness in me that I inherited from her, but I did set out, almost immediately, following that flawed, sometimes-failed map my old dream had become. For almost twenty years, I followed and followed the changing routes along that map until I ended up in Alaska with my own four small children, in the golden heart of the last frontier, on my second marriage – a kinder marriage than the first – and still with little to show for all my journeying or my dreaming about writing.
It's curious to me that the way there – wherever "there" happens to be – is never as straight-forward as the traveler thinks it will be; it's almost always more of a long, convoluted meandering, or so it was with me, through the many tangled wildernesses of a life with children, life as a home-maker, life as an ordinary woman, life as a nurse, and that woman's not-so-ordinary life with – or without – husbands. For 8 of those years, I worked nights on the graveyard shift, tending to the wounded and sick and dying. During those 8 years, I surfaced like a strange creature each morning, from darkness into the day-lit world, and some mornings I didn't even recognize my own face in my mirror, much less be able to recall my old dream. I might even have lost that dream entirely for a while, so weary was I from the long days and nights of work on the hospital wards and raising children and keeping house and all they'd each required of me. What I had to show for that old dream wasn't much: an old trunk half-filled with daybooks and notebooks in which I had been faithfully writing down what I noticed, what I heard, what I felt and thought as I moved through the days and nights and days of my very ordinary life.

I’ve circled back to Alaska many times now, first Fairbanks, then Bethel, then stateside again to finish my BA and MFA, then back to Fairbanks again. This last move back to the "wilderness" was, ostensibly, for a more practical reason: to take a job teaching at the university, a job with attendant perquisites, like having a regular salary and medical benefits and a retirement plan. That was what I told myself and it was what I told anyone else who asked, back then, what had brought me to the "last frontier," because holding down a job is important. It buys you some freedom from worrying about how you'll eat or where you'll sleep or what contribution you will make to the world. It makes you, suddenly, visible. It makes you, suddenly, matter. I wish I had a nickel for each person who, over the years, looked at me with a kind of wonder or astonishment as I spoke in my heavily-accented drawl then asked me, What brought you all the way to Alaska?
I guess it just seemed simpler, cleaner somehow, or less complicated, to say that it was the job, the teaching that brought me to Alaska this time. As much as I like my work though, it isn’t really the work that brought me back here, and I can see that now. I could see it then, but I didn't yet have the courage – the "gumption" as my people call it – to tell anyone else the real reasons that I returned to Alaska over and over.
In those days, I could not have said aloud to anyone that I came back to Alaska again and again because something bigger than me is here in this place and I sense it, something more ancient than humanness, something inexplicable and, at times, terrifying. Solitude is deep here. The dead of winter is a still and, sometimes, lonely place: the physical world’s manifestation of the lyric moment. And about the time you grow accustomed to that isolation and quietude at the heart of a Fairbanks winter, summer staggers in with its chronic light. So much light.
There are things in Alaska that will run you down, things that will kill you and eat you and it won't be personal; it won't be anything beyond sheer animal hunger and need. There are things here that can do you in, in the blink of an eye: like losing your way in a snowy field in a night that's at -50 degrees; like the heat going out in the night while you sleep; like the drive to town for supplies or medicine in a winter white-out; like an avalanche; the snow covering the crevasse that you can fall into and not be found until spring; a week-long blizzard that buries the well-traveled road; the unexpected Chinook and the pond-ice cracking in places where, just hours before, you had firm footing; the upward heave of permafrost on a winter-slick road; the cold brakes that do not "catch" and the bull moose who has suddenly stepped into the icy road in front of you. And more. Much more.
How could I have explained to anyone that coming to Alaska means you acquire a staggering new sense of scale, that you suddenly see how small and fragile and brief even the largest life is, or that this is a place where you cannot avoid, for long, the stern and unyielding confrontation with your own failures and regrets. And any writer, any woman, who won’t do that – who won’t look steely-eyed at herself and at the more difficult and unnerving tendencies of people around her and of the disinterest of the “natural” world around her – well, that woman probably doesn’t have much to bring to the table, whatever that particular "table" is, whether work or friendship, whether teaching or marriage or writing.
Again tonight, my grandmother's warning comes to me from that long-ago day at the far other side of this continent: Linger too long in Babylon and you'll forget who you are.
It is simple, maybe too simple, in the larger literary and commerce centers of this country, to be seduced, to come to believe you are more, worth more, than you actually are. You can become convinced, by the contests and awards and books published, convinced by the honorary degrees and titles and endowed fellowships and the grants, convinced by the generous blurbs of more-famous writers, convinced by all of those things that you belong there, in Babylon, that you are one of its charter members, its citizen by birth and longing.
I have traveled a long way, in my life, to know who I am. It is, I am finding, a largely circuitous journey, from the deep South to the farthest north and to the South again. And back. When I go somewhere else for a long time, when who-I-am and who-I-am-becoming begin to slip from me again; when the glitter and glitz of Babylon has convinced me that I am not ordinary as rain, a simple woman – like so many others – trying to make sense of a complicated life; when whatever newest Babylon I have entered, actual or imagined, turns its bright lights and smoky mirrors on me and I begin to go invisible again; when the alabaster palaces and well-engineered monuments of that place shimmer before me, when that Babylon brings its great appetites to my doorstoop and sets its hungry look on me, then I come home, to Alaska, to pitch my small tent again in the shadow of something larger than myself. Larger even than Babylon. I come home again to something wild and intractable and far beyond the seductions of the modern kingdoms that can lay a writer to waste and then dump whatever remains of her at the curbside like Monday morning's trash.
It may well have been some unreasonable dream, some youthful fantasy, some "romance" of the last frontier, that brought me here all those years ago, but I suspect it’s the tidal pull of needing-to-be-true to whatever and whoever I am in my deep heart's core that has kept me circling here, to this one place I have come to think of as home, a home that I can return to, again and again – as easily as others return to the hometowns of their childhoods – coming home again to that solitariness in which I can live and write honestly, even in the first twilight of the Shadow of my own Unmaking that will step forward, wiping its hands on its apron, opening its arms to meet me, welcoming me home again, for good, one day in the not-so-distant future.

photo courtesy of photos.com, collection of Anne Caston