Learning from Slugs

We go home on September 15. This will be the latest I've ever stayed in Alaska. In my head, we will go home to 90 degree days and it will feel like mid-August: mornings will be pleasantly hot and pools will be open and the ice cream truck's creepy song will chime through the neighborhood at 2. September is good in its moderate way and for me it means our family is finally in the home we own in the place we have all chosen together. But I dream of August, knowing that we are missing it. FullSizeRender-32Like any fisherman's wife, I imagine our lives without fishing. If we weren't fishing, we could be camping. If we weren't fishing, we could pull the Swiss chard and peppers that grew huge this summer at home, the renters sending me proud pictures of the raised bed in our backyard. In the August in my head, I am wallpapering the baby's room now that we know she's a girl, and penciling sign language letters on the walls. As shallow as it sounds, August is the back-to-school time to hit up Target with well-reasoned abandon, and online just doesn't cut it. Zaley starts preschool the week we get back and I'm hoping there are enough uniform shorts left at Old Navy this late in the year that she won't look different than the kids who started on time.

I know that Alaska brings such beauty into our lives, I would mourn the loss of it if we didn't come here. And I also know that almost all of the things I miss (besides family and friends) are creature comforts and if we weren't fishing, well, we wouldn't be us. But still. The inner child in me wants what's mine, and sometimes, nothing here feels like it is.

Alaska is not easy. I spent this past week waiting. We ran out of Anna's medication on Monday--the anti-viral that stops the progression of vision impairment and other neurological delays. FullSizeRender-25Every time she cried, I wondered if it was something worse than usual, my over-active imagination conjuring microscopic versions of a spindly virus branching into the blood stream. Days went by. Anna cried out in the night as though startled, which she has never done. The slight rash on the bridge of her nose took on a deeper red hue. Profanity was used in reference to Accredo Pharmacy, where Anthem Blue Cross is making us order our medications. The woman on the phone from Children's Hospital Denver says, "Oh. You have the worst possible insurance for her condition. Parents with Anthem have switched even when they've almost reached their out-of-pocket maximum because Anthem is almost impossible to deal with." A 25-day supply of her Valganciclovir has a $900 copay. Let it be known: do not buy the Blue Cross Blue Shield Independent PPO.

At home, we could have driven to Walgreens the same day and picked up her medication. Here, the meds got sent to Anchorage (not close to Sitka at all), then stopped for 48 hours by airport security. I called Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage and, in true Alaska fashion, their phone number didn't work. When I called the specialty pharmacy who shipped it and UPS, they both transferred me to "Alaska-specific departments" because it's so hard to get things to us here. Meaning, it's easy for things to get lost.

Which is how I feel here on so many days. This place, since day one, has posited in me a profound sense of longing. And that longing is not just for home. It's a longing that sits, that has no proper goal at its end. It's a longing for everything and nothing, to be here forever and be here no longer. It is a longing for childhood and for future, for escape and for safety. Like the longing you feel at a music concert, in the midst of great beauty. A nameless thing. A gnawing. The longing of displacement, of no everyday belonging.

Problem is: my home is with my family, and my family is here.

FullSizeRender-31Today, when the raindrops are big and the wind is turning the leaves sideways, I keep thinking about a hike I took with five scientists about five years ago on an even more remote neighboring island. We ended up on top of a mountain just as a storm was stacking up against the ridge line. No one spoke up there. Everyone's hair was starting to piece and go wild in the wind. It was the most beautiful place I have ever been. Above the tundra line, Southeast Alaska spread before us in a collage of greens: jagged emerald islands cut through by teal streams, white snow drifts radiating with the magical blue given by glacial ice. It turned cold and the clouds began to leak. People rustled in their bags for waterproof layers. And we all sat there wondering when someone was going to say, "It's time to go home."

FullSizeRender-33This is something I cannot say no matter how bad the summertime gets. Luke says this year's fishing has been the worst he's seen--both the weather and the yield. I know this is the most difficult summer I've ever been through up here, and here we are, staying till the end. We only have a little more than two weeks left and today I feel like giving in. An airplane takes off and crosses the seven front windows on this house (warmed today by the heat since it's 48 degrees), and a big part of me wishes I were up there, closing my eyes in sunny relief when we finally lift above the fog.

On that hike five years ago, one of the scientists eventually did sFullSizeRender-29ay we should turn back and begin our 6-hour trek back to the cabin. He explained the Abilene Complex: how sometimes, when there's a group of people, each person depends on someone else to verbalize when the group has reached their limit. When no one speaks, the group keeps going, moves beyond their boundaries, encounters dangers. I can wager a lot of fishing families have an Abilene Complex, especially the closer they get to September. I do not need to tell Luke it's time to go home. He feels it, too.

We find things to do. We beg big duck eggs from a yard-tending neighbor. We suit up and walk, no matter the weather. We find the sign language alphabet on an almost forgotten playground. We build puzzle after puzzle. We even bring them to the brewery when Luke gets in and we only have energy for food-truck dinner.

And yesterday, Zaley and I entered a slug into Sitka's very own Slug Race. Ours was a short, fat slug that didn't move a millimeter. The quicker ones stretched their lengths out long, then waited for the rest of their bodies to catch up at a pace that was painful to watch. Slugs are deliberate things. They move towards what they want by way of rhythmic muscle contractions. They thrive in wetnes, hide when it's dry. They have light-sensing feelers and smaller nodes that pick up smell. They are hard to hold onto. And get this: slugs are deaf.

FullSizeRender-34While we were cheering for ours, a friend with two daughters spotted us, so we turned our attention away from the race and talked while Zaley jumped from rock to rock with the boats of A and B harbor bobbing in the background behind her. Because her husband is in the Coast Guard, my friend won't find out till next spring where they'll have to move to in early summer. I asked her if it bothers her not to know in advance where their lives will be spent. "I don't like to think too far ahead anyways," she said. "Makes my feet feel like they aren't under me." I like this advice and this image, since I often try to ground myself by putting my head too far ahead--I'm already thinking about Anna's first day of school three or four years from now, the differences she'll encounter beyond the look of clothes bought online or in-store.

Our slug didn't win. I don't even know whose did, so inept am I at attending to slowness. I've never liked waiting because waiting makes it feel like time isn't my own. But as I see Zaley grow--in bangs and in language and in overall being--I see that time can't possibly belong to me. If I were more like my friend, I'd stop thinking about waiting, and then I'd just be living. I recently reread a line by Ellen Gilchrist, one of my favorite writers, whose wisdom comes from writing as a grandmother looking at the mothers of today, and she writes: "In the end happiness is always a balance. I hope the young women of our fortunate world find ways to balance their lives. I hope they learn to rejoice and wait."

FullSizeRender-28 FullSizeRender-27Rejoice and wait, I think today, as Zaley is pushing a mini grocery cart through the store, excited about something in every aisle. People stop for her and they smile and they wait, even though her cart is so piled with her choices, she can barely keep the wheels going straight. I wait for her even though I have to pee and the baby is on the verge of screaming. In the car, she is victorious with her goods: a bucket of cashews, new lipgloss, a box of Lucky Charms. She looks out the window and says, "Mom. I like this rain."