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end of our road – later became Earthquake Park

Fellow Travelers: I wake up from the semi-hibernation of late December and realize January is well underway. On Friday the 4th, nearing midnight, a 7.5 earth shake rolls under the floorboards and sharpens childhood memories of the 1964 earthquake. Only my brother and I are still here, so I call him and we talk for two hours. I spend the rest of the next night writing.

March 27th, 1964 was an ordinary day, overcast with a trace of snow on the ground. The day is a series of pictures, vivid, 3-D View Master shots:Turnagain – a sprawling series of neighborhoods and dark spruce trees click our old flat-roofed house anchored on its hill above the pond click Clay Products Drive, Chilligan, Telequana – roads that seemed longer and more mysterious than they ever were click –

the trees in our yard, towering into the gray sky. There was a massive spruce, as dark as a cave beneath its lowest branches; my rope swing suspended between two birches; another birch tree leaning to the side, so that with a running start I could scramble half way up it without really trying; a choke cherry tree with tangled branches where we leaned poles and stretched out Visqueen to create rain tents.

Every recalled frame is drenched in color. We hadn’t lived in our house long: dark plum paint, inlet-clay bricks up the sides of the bathtub. I inhale scents of sourdough pancakes, coffee brewing in the percolator, the damp-brandy smell of chewing tobacco, and the the dense swirls of cigar smoke. Home.

Mom: dark glossy hair, red lipstick, plaid shirt tucked into the waist of her pants. Mom cradling our new baby sister and humming Stormy Weather. The quiet unlit house. A clock on the kitchen wall ticking. The rocking chair creaking. Jenn, serious in the way only babies can be, looking at each thing for the first time, memorizing faces, and then wondering what it all means.

My brother, three years older than me, and I played Parcheesi that day, and argued in whispers, because of the baby. We took turns gaping at Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, through a red plastic View Master. Lars was twelve years old and knew all about film and movies and was unimpressed when I said, “It looks like he’s about to shoot right into our living room.”

Lars was more interested in the body snatchers. When we practiced “duck and cover” at school he told me we were just getting ready. For what, I wanted to know. For the End, of course, or as he liked to put it, “Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.” Grownups were afraid of the Russians. And the Bomb. But I was more worried about those body snatchers, seed-pod people, and the Triffids – who looked like trees, but weren’t.

We were restless. It was wonderful to have a day off from school, but this Good Friday was too quiet, too long. We decided to head out to the bluff, to check out the cottonwoods there. In the summer, we called those trees the money trees because their leaves were as enormous as dollar bills. It was a good place to hike and feel shipwrecked without really being lost.

Dad, sandy hair ruffled, cigar clamped between teeth, said, “You two are coming to the store with me.” Why did he say that? We hardly ever went to the store with him. But on this day he insisted. Our black and white terrier, Tippy, was as disappointed as we were – he sat at the end of the drive and watched us pull away in the Ford, his head tilted as if puzzled by our sudden departure.

What happened the rest of that early evening seemed ordinary, until it wasn’t ordinary at all. We were in the Safeway store, just off Northern Lights, standing near a low bin of egg cartons. The air hummed with overhead florescent tubes. People chatted in that way that makes it hard to pick out the words. Grocery cart wheels wobbled over the linoleum. Dad had finished his cigar in the car, now he had an unlit stogie between his teeth, and it wobbled up and down when he spoke in that clipped way he had, which meant time to pay attention.

The floor swayed. Dad said, “Tremor.” There was a loud roar, like standing right next to a Flying-Boxcar, with its engines on full-bore. Louder. Then beneath my tingling feet, the concrete floor, coated with linoleum, rose up just the way sea swells would rise up beneath the boat when we traveled over to Seldovia, from Homer. The floor was like a wave of water and it lifted me easily two or three feet up.

Every can, box, and bottle in the store smashed to the ground. People screamed. I could see their mouths opened wide and their eyes bulging, but I couldn’t really hear them, instead I was hearing the end of the world. And the end of the world was the loudest sound I had ever heard. The whole store screeched and clanged. There was a deep grinding and thundering sound. I could hear it trapped in my ribs, traveling up through the soles of my feet, into my brain.

Somehow, I ended up outside. I think Dad carried me. But there I was, standing on asphalt. All the snow and ice was now a muddy slush as the ground continued heaving and rolling. Across Northern Lights I saw telephone poles tilt over and snap back, like those inflated clowns you punch. There were balls of fire next to buildings and smoke in the air. The parking lot was full of people screaming. Five adults were clinging to a metal pole that looked like a flag pole. A woman was shouting, “They’ve dropped the bomb. They’ve dropped the bomb.” Someone else was yelling “JesusJesusJesus,” so loud and fast that it didn’t sound like swearing.

Dad, a World War II fighter pilot, cigar still in place, turned away from me and headed back into the store. Some people had been knocked down and stepped on as all of the holiday shoppers made a run for it. I watched cars, rolling back and forth in the lot like bumper cars, bang into each other and then bounce away. Dad escorted an older woman out of the store. He went back into the store, which was now dark inside. More people screamed. Windows cracked and shards of glass fell to the ground. The earth continued to shake.

Slabs of the partly frozen ground opened and closed, sawing back and forth. The world smelled like diesel and tires on fire, like copper and burnt popcorn. I thought I heard howling. Something exploded. Sparks shot up from electric wires that were flailing back and forth like liquorice whips, and then snapped loose.

It was too big for me, the end of the world. I couldn’t contain it. I wanted to be home, to see Mom and Jenn, to scoop up Tippy and tell him not to worry. The grownups continued to screech and the woman who thought it was the bomb, was now shouting that the world was ending.

Later, I would know that she was right for many people. Some of our very own neighbors, wouldn’t survive the 9.2 earthquake. Others, further away, would be claimed by vast walls of water, or lost in collapsing buildings. The ground would sink and rise, and people had no choice but to sink and rise with it.

We would do everything Dad said, because we knew that whenever things got really bad, that was when Dad became the calmest man on the earth. It didn’t matter if it was a charging grizzly, or one of our dogs nearly drowning in the Kuskokwim River, or our Cessna ground-looping, or the worst kind of news coming by telegram – Dad knew what to do.

We drove back to Turnagain, past columns of dogs marching up Northern Lights Boulevard, as if they were on a quest towards the mountains, past crumpled looking buildings, and gaping chasms, and toppled chimneys. The car bumped along Clay Products Drive. We slowed by a familiar driveway. Our next door neighbors stood in their yard. Mom was running down the road towards us, clinging to something red. It was Jenn, wrapped in a red and pink blanket, peeping over the cover at us. Dad jumped out of the car. He wanted to drive up to our house. Mom yelled, “Turn around here. Turn around. They’re gone. They’re all gone.”

And then we craned forward and saw that Clay Products Drive ended. The very road, that Lars and I were going to take out to the money trees, was gone. Most of the houses along Chilligan were gone, and so were the fences, the trees, and the swing-sets. Only a thick mist of snow hung in the air. Dad bundled Mom and Jenn into the car. We drove over the buckled roads to our Aunt and Uncle’s house, and then Dad returned to our neighborhood to help with the search and rescue.

Before the slow recovery even began; before the store owners put formula and baby supplies by the roadside for people who needed them; before the Guard supplied us with chemical toilets and bottled water; before we crossed the rope that cut off our road with the sign Condemned: enter at your own risk; before the vivid dreams of tower-high waves and bottomless crevasses; before sleeping in jeans, with a flashlight and boots next to my bed; before Tippy found his way home; before the hollow sorrow of knowing that there were children and grownups who would never be found: something reassured me.

My brother kept me from believing the worst. Lars – 8 mm filmmaker, collector of weather statistics, insulators, and Devil’s Club stalks, delivered the best line ever. Lars, who adored Boris Karloff, and knew every bit of dialogue from First Spaceship on Venus, and could make his voice sound just like one of the spooky children from Village of the Damned, spoke in a voice that carried over the wailing and crashing. He counter-acted the woman shrieking about doom, and judgment day, and all of us dying.

Click: I am standing in a parking lot. The earth bucks and shudders. Faces are ashen, mouths distended. Lars stands in a puddle of slush, his arms extended, his head raised towards the darkening sky. Beams filter through the clouds and spotlight his face. He smiles, waits a beat, and then says, “It’s Fantastic!”

I think of people experiencing the devastation of earthquakes, tornadoes, massive storms, tsunamis. I mourn the loss of families, sometimes entire communities. I admire those who survive, who dig-in, shore-up, and tell their stories.

-jljl

Fellow Travelers:

Knee deep in revisions. Hard at work on an essay that keeps eluding me. Too little sleep. Not enough caffeine. Snow covers our pumpkin that just a day ago was shivering in its orange skin under clear chill skies and a full moon.

And I find myself drifting just the way I drifted in third grade, eyes drawn inexorably to the window, with its hint of freedom, of mystery, and a view of the few scraggly spruces huddled on the playground – forest ghosts wedged between tether ball and monkey bars.

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Some of the best ideas: mental blueprints for forts, stories about bedraggled lost children and shipwrecked families, UFO sightings, and observations about fellow students and teachers were made in that semi-suspended state of mind. Paperback books and piles of Halloween candy.

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So now, enraptured by down-swirling snowflakes and chimney smoke that nearly reclines on the cool gray air – I drift once more, wondering about this and that. Memory: sometimes it seems like a moist slab of clay. Laid down. Ready for imprint. A place to make a fossil of this day.

A favorite word from long ago: Concatenation. Read it in Edgar Allen Poe. Things linked, woven together.                                  Memory: Concatenation.

Trick or treating in the dark, flashlight beams forming silver webs over the snow, boot prints filling in as wind skirled across unlit roads, turning into tracks wonderfully monstrous and utterly unknown.

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Happy Halloween,

jljl

Fellow Travelers:

 

Twenty three seconds. Enough time to shout a few words. Enough time to attempt what the human mind can never pull off completely: REWIND! Pulling into the driveway, thinking about a story that needs to realign itself, wondering what we will end up making for dinner tonight, thinking about my brother and hoping everything is going okay for him; I arrive just in time to see my husband leaning into his Honda CVR. He seems to be in the middle of cleaning it out. Suddenly. Suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. The car disengages, the open door slams into M., he is dragged down the driveway so quickly that I have just enough time to be startled. I am leaping out of my car. He is laying on the driveway and the Honda continues its trajectory, the front driver tire rolling up his right side. I see the wheel turned. I see the whole vehicle rise then fall and continue out into the street. I am yelling, wanting to push enough air out of my own lungs to summon help, not sure what volume I am achieving, then punching in 911 on my cell phone and trying to make sense of what just happened as I run to where my husband is laying, a thick muddy tire tread on his dark blue sweater. I am shouting his name and probably shouting into the phone as well, address, pertinent information. A Good Samaritan stops, puts a hand on either side of my husbands head, tells me and the 911 operator that he has ski-patrol first aid training. And Marty is talking. He continues to be aware and cogent as we ride to the hospital in an ambulance.

 

My love is okay. The freak accident cracked ribs and mangled a leg. And barring any complications, it appears that M. is going to be fine. It could have been so much worse. Everything could have altered forever in twenty three seconds.

 

Life does that. We all know it. We all have experienced those tragic or fortuitous seconds where we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a lot in life we don’t get to control. As a kid walking away from a major earthquake that swallowed up the houses of a good number of our neighbors, as a family member crawling out of our ground-looped airplane, as a sister losing a sister, as a daughter losing a mother, a father: I have come to realize that life has a way of pulling the rug out from under us.

 

And I hear my Dad’s voice rasping out the title of book, whose phrase he adapted to suit his own hard-crafted philosophy: tough trip through paradise. And that is what it is: the spills, the terrible consequences of gravity, and geology, and poorly paved roads, a sniper’s bullet, and cancer. It is a tough trip. It is paradise.

 

The paradox might be expressed as falling with style, or getting back up again when you can, it might be the musical score for the weddings and funerals an individual attends over the years, accompanied by the deep sense that it is time to pay attention, to savor the light brush of a kiss that is a part of everyday, to keep a keen-eye but at the same time worry less and laugh more.

 

Twenty three seconds. Enough time, when you escape by the skin of your teeth, by the dint of angles and the curve of the earth, to say thank you.

 

 

-jljl

Fellow Travelers: There are so many ways to look at time: peering through a ViewMaster at images drenched in color; finding old photographs and slides– marred by decades of dust; folding and unfolding memories like brightly dyed cloth.

Broken Field

What is it this time?

This field,

this lea as supple as the waist of night?

Mines,

snares,

the cellar-breath creeping over vines and feet, the paths and

beats of things that

walk, creep, wail and weep.

Learning is an old script in our tired brains,

we are shrinking, forgetting, aiding and

abetting

our

own

demise.

Our fathers were told by theirs, if they survived,

it’s hell, no one leaves

and returns the

same.

As if grieving by rote,

woven by threads as

red as blood, as

mysterious as

dusk battered into

whispers, as elegant

as blades of frost – the old

men say,

we are lost.

Retrieve yourselves bit

by bittersweet, feet curled into

claws, mouths into beaks;

taking one last sugary sip of

spring

air.

Ravens scan

the broken field, find

shining trinkets

attached to

snowy bones,

recover the husks of bullets,

and rings as round as once,

as round as the abraded moon,

then hurry home.

 

 

viewing the quick sunset through a laundromat window

Tired by an unsaid

trouble,

the woman smooths a percale

frown,

shakes down a static sheet,

combs through

the tangled

heap, coming up

with matching pairs.

She stares down, without seeing,

eyes opaque, unblinking,

hands:

worn knuckles,

rough edges,

a tight ring.

Perceiving only valleys

and rills,

and seams,

and hills and

broken buttons

and

emptied

pockets and

crumpled

shrunken

color,

folded into a carnival fan.

jljl

Fellow Travelers: Best first date ever.

In the autumn of 1972 harmonious anthems and edgy ballads roll across uncut Idaho lawns, pour from the open upper windows of rental houses, and seep into the warm night air. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young articulate longing in “Carry On”. That song forms a backdrop for a rambling conversation that ultimately leads to a plan of action.

The ride down to Lewiston is as easy as sticking out our thumbs while swaggering along the road, our shoes kicking up a brittle swell of leaves.

We arrive at the train yard late in the day. All nearby residents are inside their quiet homes and I feel like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, prowling through neighborhoods and wondering about the lives of people salted away in those rows of houses.

A tawny full moon is on the move, gilding the entire sleepy edge of Lewiston with silver. Unlike Alaska, darkness and warmth occur simultaneously and I keep tipping up my chin to gape at constellations so bright they prick a white tattoo behind my eyelids.

We clamber aboard a motionless boxcar, which seems like cheating. But I don’t care once the engine churns and the whole line of train cars groan, then lurch forward. We are underway.

My friends are like an odd assortment of brothers – each of them wiry, impossibly young, so sure of themselves that, regardless of the odds, I feel safe.

Incalculable miles rumble beneath iron wheels, then the train slows and stops. We are swallowed in darkness, but it is a spangled darkness. The moon follows its slow arc, seeping into black shrubs, and gleaming over a still wide curve of river. We hop off to stretch our legs and gaze at the scenery, which appears to be Middle Earth painted on velvet.

I wander closer to the water, drawn by its almost inaudible current. This reverie ends when Kim whoops and the train clangs, its own metallic lungs exhaling. Everyone is on board but me.

“Hurry up!” you call. I am so scared that I’m laughing and yelling at the same time, and running hard. McClintock howls, motioning to me with both arms, like a man on the tarmac trying to guide in a plane with no pilot. Shit. I’m not sure I can make it: clear the side gravel, execute the leap, and land in the car. Crosby and Stills seem to be harmonizing in my head, “rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice.”

The train surges forward with a greater velocity than I anticipate. Now, everyone is yelling. PF Fliers skid over the loose berm. You lean out of the car, one hand grips the rusted sill, the other extends outward. “Johnson. You can do this.”

You are the one person I have avoided looking at all night. I don’t want my secret to show through. I don’t want you to know how all of my seventeen year old vows of I’ll never fall in love disintegrate when you laugh, when you shuffle along like Chaplin, or recite Bashô on midnight golf courses.

Your hand closes around my wrist and I jump.

-jljl

Fellow Travelers: Writing is collecting. A curve of beach, an alley that angles into the night; an overheard conversation: these are revisited with words, re-purposed with ink or the late night, Hopper-like luminescence of a keyboard. At times I think that such combing is about the search for answers, yet I find myself far more entranced by questions than answers. And so I pause between asphalt and sea- grass and contemplate the ravens contemplating me as we collectively laugh and swoop down for a closer look.

Front Street

 

Beachcombing Kotzebue

Ice blubber; pale blue punk ice chunks

of the jigsaw sea ram up

on

the pebble shore.

Rotting boats, old molars on the coastline,

dissolve.

Flattened cans,

lidless cans,

cans with the labels labored off.

The tide tangles nets,

and

bone

white floaters heap with uncoiling ropes,

spilling and wet.

From the short pier, people bunch up catching herring –

who even laying dead in buckets blow

kisses.

Dry mud puddles brim with: snow-machine carcasses, nubs of wood

ends of wire, candy bar wrappers, caribou fur.

Skinned pelts sprawl on beach stumps,

rocks suddenly shine in the just

open water where floes grind

and creak and gulls

fall

up

clattering

and keening.

All at once cast iron tugs, anchored to snow-banks all winter,

have slipped from sight and we each drift to the place

where land reaches open sea, where light

shines

on

light.

 …

-jljl

Woosh Kinaadeiyí spoken word fire.

Fellow Travelers: Savoring open fires; talking until northern dawn tints the edge of a forest as dark as the pupil of an eye; leaning close to the miniature cities and statues carved by fire, shaped by ash, illumined by coals; gathering words up and letting them go: campfires have cast glowing shadows across decades of my life and in their collective flickering and recalled warmth I count myself fortunate to have listened to the late night tales and murmurings that are unique to such perches in cool evening air, near a crackling flame.

Me and dad hanging by the Bering Sea.

Mom and the gang around Unalakleet fire.

a recollection

On a length of bone, is inscribed the scrimshaw of memory. Recalled, collected, picked with ripe blueberries on a fragrant slope beneath vees of geese and slants of bright cool light: memories.

The wooden stalks of rifles, the tang of leather straps, cigar smoke,

and the forget-me-knot haze of tundra, are touched, and scented, and seen again.

Gutting fish by an ice chill stream, waiting for the float plane to land – I listen for the distant hum

that may be heard today, or tomorrow.

Walking beneath roofs of green, lit from above, between banks of fern and stands of devil’s club, watching the fresh water otter dive under and pop up next to the canoe, her body a sinew of laughter beneath the current as clouds waltz across the lake-top.

This is the silence of wild sound.

And tracks sink into the muskeg, while mosquitoes simmer and wood smoke curls.

Ravens perch in birches, peer at us through a yellow cascade of leaves, swoop into collect anything we drop, and comment in voices: half-cussing, half-song.

Our parents, between towns, between arguments, between traffic and booze, anchor our tent beneath

the late autumn sky, then around midnight tug us out of sleeping bags and urge, “Look.”

Mom, cradling the baby below an Aurora Borealis, adds to the ink of memory: written into my skeleton, the dense fluid pressed from devil’s club berries, and the charcoal stubs of an old fire scribble away. That dye never dries, and the reverberations continue, until I recognize the stars as mine, and years, decades, miles later I name the space that defines everything, the place between raven wings.

 -jljl