End of Summer



Kitchen window

Kitchen window

Jan and I are getting ready to leave for Carmel, California to attend our only child’s wedding. Finn is marrying Emily Basham on September 14.  She is a smart, strong and beautiful woman and they seem to be wonderfully happy together. This makes everything more beautiful in our lives.

 

Fall creeps slowly upon us as we pack. Our fucia plants seem to be the only things left blooming, yet the afternoon wind had knocked one blossom down onto the ground.  When we came back from Seattle two weeks ago a storm had knocked down most of the fireweed in our wild patch of garden and they had gone to seed, so now the wind blows their fluff  around in the dazzling light like fairy dust. Our cherry tree shows a few red leaves but there are still a lot of bright red huckleberries fat on the branches next to my office.

 

For those of you keeping up with the ongoing story of depression and the treatment I have been seeking, so far I am unequivocally positive about the results of the ketamine treatment.  I have far more energy and I do not have the compulsive thoughts of self harm that I once had right up to the moment I started to the treatments.  While I feel appropriate sadness, when I look back on sad events I don’t have the narcissistic impulses or the self loathing to take on more than my share of suffering. Yet I do have insight into mistakes I have made and how to handle things better in the future.  It’s as if my ego has shrunken down to some much more appropriate size than the swollen gout-like leg that everyone always had a knack for bumping into, especially when I kept thrusting it in their way. I have dreams I’ve never had before.  I think new thoughts. I have new energy but I am the same person. It is a strange phenomenon that I am still processing. 

Last flowers

Last flowers

 

I have been writing another Cecil book and am very close to the end of the first draft.  I hope to show something to my editor before Christmas.  My next book, What Is Time To A Pig is due to come out on February 4, of 2020.  I have just been asked to recommend writers for cover blurbs.  Do any of you readers out there have recommendations for writers to do a blurb? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  What Is Time To A Pig? is set in the near future seven years after President Trump’s re-election war with North Korea after the Koreans fired a long range missile that fizzles out over Alaska dropping undetonated warheads over Cold Storage. There is a radical group of Islamic Native Americans of the Second Ghost Dance Movement whose leader is named Ali Wild Horses and he wants to get his hands on one, he unfortunately enlists a helpless white guy named Gloomy Knob to help him and they both end up in nearby Ted Stevens Federal Penitentiary, when authorities discover there is one last bomb still out there wired to blow up any second.   Now everyone either wants to get it back or wants it to blow up and poor Gloomy Knob is being tortured for answers he doesn’t have.

 

So, who should I ask to blurb a book like this?  Names? Names?  Come on people!

 

Recently I have been reading a book on the American gun culture called Unintended Consequences which was given to a friend of mine who I based the character of Boomer in Baby’s First Felony.  He is a very smart and kind man but he is a very “from my cold dead hands” kind of guy.  I like him and I have been talking with him about what gun enthusiasts and non-violence guys like me, could do together to address senseless mass shootings.  It’s a work in progress so far. I believe he sees gun ownership as a foundation of individual liberty, and without that there is no sense in talking about cooperative social justice.  He sees that as a sham.  But we keep talking and I insist there is something we both can do to keep innocent people from being “bullied and slaughtered” (is how I put it to him) and he agrees with me, so we keep talking. 

 

His book is really long. I’m also reading Make Prayers To The Raven by Richard Nelson.  He was intending to come down to the wedding but he is very sick and he is down in San Francisco seeing a host of specialists.  I have all of his books and have read them all, but he has never signed a book for “Little Finny” as he thinks of our boy, so he signed a copy of Make Prayers for Finn and Emily as a wedding gift. I couldn’t help myself and started reading it again.

 

I love Richard Nelson, he is like a brother to me. Going out in the woods with him is like being with a Las Vegas comic and a holy man all in one.  He is so full of energy and enthusiasm he nearly bursts at the seams.  He cannot contain himself at the discovery of something new.  Yet he is reverential to the slightest, and smallest turns of beauty.  He can restrain himself when restraint is called for, by the decorum of the other beings, where I would just blunder along in my lack of awareness.  I have learned so much from his writing and from his example.  No, he is not perfect, and of course we are completely different kinds of writers and thinkers, we have differing opinions about a lot of things, but knowing him is one of the great privileges of my life and my admiration for him brims out of my heart and my brain.

 

You may know him from his Encounters radio programs, but if you want to know him for his more serious and scholarly work go back to the beginning.  I happen to love Hunters of the Northern Ice for it’s exquisite attention to detail.  You don’t have to take it all in but go back to it in pieces, as an investigator I have to marvel at how he saw things and recorded them with mostly his eye and his pencil. He writes about movement and action brilliantly.  You can literally put together how people hunted before snow machines and before the outboard motor became ubiquitous in the Arctic from the descriptions in this one book.

 

Some people criticize him for not showing the effects of colonialism on the cultures he was documenting. But that was not his brief.  He went there as a guest to understand their cultures before they became inundated by the outside forces, which I think he did beautifully and honestly.  To blame him for not noting the ravages of colonialism is like blaming the firefighter who goes into a burning building to rescue precious religious artifacts for not stopping to admire the flames.   

 

But don’t take my word for it, go to the library and pick up all of his books.  They are carefully and lovingly written and they are classics.  Hunters Of The Northern Ice, Hunters of the Northern Forest, Make Prayers to the Raven, Shadow of the Hunter, The Island Within, and Heart And Blood. 

Here is one of his quotes, and there are many that I love:

 

“As time went by, I realized that the particular place I'd chose was less important than the fact that I'd chosen a place and focused my life around it. Although the island has taken on great significance for me, it's no more inherently beautiful or meaningful than any other place on earth. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it's flat or rugged, rich or austere. wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received.” The Island Within

 

This book may be his most widely read and celebrated, but all of his books are worth going back to. His voice is more than his radio show’s enthusiastic call to participate in wonder, he is our true scholar and man of wisdom. These books should not be overlooked or easily categorized in favor of the easy or the popular. They are essential. Now more than ever.

 

More to come for all my friends soon.

 

Fireweed fluff blows

on the sunlit wind like snow:

summer is leaving.

 

 

jhs

 

Fireweed today.

Fireweed today.

Days After

Another hot day in Seattle.  My doctor’s appointments are done, and my brother’s wife, Linda Staley died on August ninth at six twelve in the morning.  She was a smart and beautiful woman, who grew up in Bellingham and went to Smith College. She taught English in Guatemala before marrying my brother fifty-two years ago.  Linda was kind and generous to me from the first time I met her when I was twelve years old.  She hosted more dinners than I can count and her kitchen was fun and full of lively conversation, about books, and politics, baseball, family news and always good advice. She knew me at my most foolish and yet I don’t remember any dismissive remarks or harsh words. We argued on subjects but always kindly, at least that’s how I remember it.  She helped me when I needed a place to live and she even typed some of my college papers. She was even considerate to some of my most trying friends when they passed through the Pacific Northwest.  She was funny and loved my brother and loved to tease him along with the rest of his siblings.  She seemed indispensible and now we will have to see.

Linda and Hugh’s bed where Hugh puts some of her keepsakes during the day.

Linda and Hugh’s bed where Hugh puts some of her keepsakes during the day.

 

Tonight the bed in her apartment is empty and the flowers which friends had brought are drooping.  I realized now that the white flowers I thought were lilacs were in fact hydrangeas.  On her deathbed, Linda knew the correct name of the flowers and gently set me straight. Today there are roses in bloom in the gardens, and that’s all I really know.  My brother, holds himself together with memories and lots of visitors, but sweaters in a closet, or finding a calendar she filled out for events in the future will ambush him with tears.  He thinks he can bear it. Then he knows he can’t. Then he is positive he must, and he will: the shadowboxing of grief, I suppose.

 

The six ketamine treatments were intense and tiring.  It’s hard to gauge their effectiveness.   Each infusion lasted an hour and was accompanied by about forty-five minutes of floating out of body experiences with compressed time confusion, rapid eye movement, sensations of insight, and hallucinations like pulsing color fields.  My head feels scrubbed clean now, and somehow enlarged, as if there is more room for possibility, more room for optimism.  The whole sensation may be ephemeral and I think I’m going to withhold judgment on the ultimate usefulness for depression, just to say that it hasn’t hurt me, so far.

            I read an interesting book called “The Overstory” by Richard Powers.  I just finished it a couple of days ago and have been thinking about it a lot. I absolutely loved the writing in the first quarter of the book.  I enjoyed how he put the trees in the setting front and center not only in the plot line but in the timing of the book.  Humans seemed like little bugs zipping around in another dimension of time compared to the ancient rooted wooded leviathans, and the whole issue of arboreal communication and “brain function”… if you will… and how they may enlist human beings as their proxies is a fascinating aspect of the story line. But in the end… I was let down by the lack of wit the characters showed. Only one of them showed any real uplift in their spirit beyond the adoration of nature… it was like spending time with a series of cult members.  But I won’t go on.  I recommend this book highly… if nothing more than the beauty of the writing and the things you can learn about trees.  Some say its in the running for a Great American Novel… possibly… but only if you are already of the faith, and I would make the argument that no matter how much discussion of science there is in the text that a leap of faith is necessary to fully buy into the motivations of the characters. 

Including her baseball signed my Edgar Martinez… who she dearly loved.

Including her baseball signed my Edgar Martinez… who she dearly loved.

           

But here again, is a case where I wish I could be chopping vegetables in Linda Straley’s kitchen, drinking wine after she and my sister had both read the book and Linda was spicing up her marinara sauce.  We would be looking at each other through the steam and laughing, batting our opinions of the book back and forth, she would correct me where my memory was faulty and I would come to learn something more from the text than I had ever expected.

 

Then we would sit down to eat.

 

Blessings be upon all of us, and all of you tonight with your families together.

 

Summer day, no wind.

Roses wilt in a hot room.

I miss you so much.

 

jhs

 

The Unexpected IS The Unexpected

August 3, 2019

 

It is a warm day in Seattle; I am sitting in only my shorts in my nephew’s apartment above his house in the Mount Baker neighborhood south of downtown.  Jan is reviewing a scientific paper on the couch while the Blue Angels fly over the lake.  It is Sea Fair weekend and the boats are tied to the log boom where her parents used to tie their old runabout where she and her sisters used to swim and horse around while the adults drank beer and watched the hydroplanes race.  Now it seems to be mostly fancy yachts out there and the hydros blast around the course on turbo engines battering the water at what seem to me to be unimaginable speed. We are some half-mile from the lake but the sound of the jets and the boats are piercing, yet we keep the doors and windows open to keep a breeze coming through.

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My nephew bought this house because he grew up in the old house across the street.  He played with his toy trucks for hours on end under a cedar tree that still stands on the corner.  I remember when my brother and his wife bought that house for thirty thousand dollars.  Now of course the houses in this neighborhood could not be had for much under a million bucks.  One sister still lives in a house five blocks away and another about nine blocks away in another direction.  They have talked about selling out particularly during Sea Fair, with the noise and all, but it is lovely here and with the mass transit getting around is easier.

 

The summer gardens are amazing, so many kinds of chrysanthemums, and roses, I stopped the other day on my walk and rubbed my fingers through the sparklers of lavender which were growing up on a sidewalk strip. Lilacs droop over wooden fences under streetlights, and even magnolias give off a warm scent in the evening. Walking back from a sisters house can seem like a stroll in a southern city.

 

My brother’s wife, Linda Straley, (I will write more about her in days to come) is sick, has stopped taking nourishment and recently stopped taking fluids.  She doesn’t want to prolong her life.  She has an inoperable bowel obstruction as a result of her cancer that she has been fighting for many years.  We visit her when she and my brother feel up to it.  She is gracious and kind to us as she has always been.  My brother fusses over her and she is a bit annoyed with him but then they both calm down and enjoy each others company.  They are a loving couple and have been a huge part of our big rowdy, loving and intelligent family. It is hard this saying goodbye.

 

I have had two of the ketamine infusion treatments so far and have signed on for the full treatment of seven.  The doctor and the staff are very professional and very organized.  I sit in a reclining chair I wear ekg monitors on my chest with my shirt on, I have an IV put in with a small gage needle so it is not very painful at all, I wear a blood pressure cuff set to an automatic monitor that takes my bp every 15 min. and I have an pulse and oxygen reading on my finger.  The doctor talks with me and tells me about the dosage and what to expect, then turns the lights low and starts the IV pump. First they give me a little anti nausea medication and some anti anxiety medication in case I become anxious.  I receive the ketamine for an hour.  The first fifteen minutes I don’t feel much at all then after the first blood pressure test I start feeling the effects, and by the end I feel a full floating, out of body experience, compressed time, the kind of false profundity you get when you are stoned. Though my memory stays good.  The nurse introduced herself to me and when she came in to check on me, more than half way through, I said,  “Jennifer, the doctor said the effects would be unexpected but did you know Jennifer that the unexpected, is REALLY unexpected,” which I thought was very profound at the time… but looking back on it now I think that feeling of profundity was a side effect of the drug.  Right toward the end I had the sensation that beautiful bugs were souring the inside of my skull and it felt really great and when they escaped through my ears and nose and eyes, I had a flying sensation, a real whoop di doo feeling of going off the top in a roller coaster sensation and the bugs took all of my anxiety out and away out into the universe into all time and space kind of thing.  A kind of a spinney Grateful Dead feeling.  But it lasted only a second.  Then the doctor was there asking me how I was.  Was I nauseated?  Had I been frightened?  No. No.  “It was just…. Interesting.  Very interesting.”

 

Now… is it effective for depression?  I’m sure it is too soon to tell.  All I can say for sure is that for years when I lay down at night I thought of suicide. It’s just a bad habit I have.  I think about killing myself to got to sleep.  Telling myself not to think about it doesn’t work.  But since the treatments, I don’t.  Why?  I don’t know.  Also… as a depressed person I would use any other sad situation, like the death of my sister in law to trigger my own depression.  Maybe it’s the narcissism of the depressed person I have talked about before, I also don’t know.  But now, I feel stronger, more able to love my brother and my sister in law.  Not to go into my own useless agony but to try and help them in a meaningful way.  At least to think of them in a more… what?... richer more sensitive way than what I was able to before.  Is that possible just because of the treatment?  Probably not… but maybe; because I know I am better than I was before, and better is better for those who need help, and if I’ve learned anything it is that my suffering does not help those who are suffering tonight.  So we will pick some flowers from her son’s garden to take in the morning, to sit and talk, and savor another sweet moment together as a family while we can, because that is so much better that useless despair.

 

Lilacs in summer

 sitting in a clear glass bowl

 beside your bedside.

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jhs

 

  

Summer Birthday and Leaving Home

Rain today after some beautiful days of sun. The fireweed are in full bloom but are bent over from the rain and the wind. The blossoms are thinning at the top and I’m afraid that when I return from Seattle in three weeks they will have mostly gone to seed. It has been a good year for the berries and we have enjoyed lovely jelly each morning. Up high on Harbor Mountain the blueberries are barely ripe while down here at tideline they are starting to grow soft on their stems. The buttercups are still cheerful in the green grass and up high the lupin hold bright pearls of dew most of the morning as clouds roll up the hills. Lovely summer and I don’t want to leave.

My poor brother is saying goodbye to his beautiful wife of more than fifty years. She is at her end of a gallant fight with cancer. My brother was an oncologist and suffers from too much knowledge, and too much of a need to try and save her. But there is nothing more to be done. My sister in law is kind, graceful, and elegant. She will be that way during this transition as well. Jan and I will do what we can to help.

My sister Martha came to visit for my sixty sixth birthday. Jan arranged her travel for my gift. It was a wonderful thing, we sat and talked and walked, picking a few berries and looked at the flowers. My sister is much smarter than I am, and I always enjoy talking with her and reconnecting. I love getting her opinions on books and the news and on the people in our lives. It makes me feel so lucky all over again to be the baby in a big family. Friends came for dinner and we ate a terrific meal out on the deck and when it started to rain we laughed and moved under cover, shoulder to shoulder cramped together in too small a space, which was all the more lovely as humming birds dodged and darted at my polka dotted balloons hanging under the eves.

I gave a toast saying only, “It’s been a tough year, and the only thing I’ve learned is this: love is the only thing that really matters. Thank you all for being my friends. Thanks especially to Jan for bringing my sister Martha who I love as much as life itself.” Which is true… and I drank from my bubbly water then we ate Italian Cream cake that Jan had made that very day, which made me cry with happiness.

On Monday I start my ketamine infusion therapy down in Seattle. I have no idea what to expect, but I have heard very positive reports. As I have said I will try to write about it as long as I am not tripped out or too exhausted. Why? I guess I want to let people know about these types of therapies and what you too should expect if you want to give it a try. Millions of people suffer from depression and most of them do not take up arms against it for fear that they will appear weak or whiney. I get that, and I understand. But it does not help. Getting help, helps, and I am in favor of getting help.

So stay tuned. I will let you know.

A male humming bird

landing on a red balloon.

Only love matters.

jhs

Hanging On

Mid Summers Eve 2019, Sitka

 It is a fine sunny day today after a few wet weeks. One morning the fog was so thick I could not see the cruise ship coming towards the dock but I could hear it approaching, closer and closer and at what seemed to be the very last moment before grounding on our beach it emerged from the clouds as large as a floating ten story hotel, (which is essentially what it is) right there before my eyes like a magic trick… or a great brown bear charging from the brush. She docked and began disgorging her passengers who bussed into town to buy their Tee Shirts and books and take their photographs of the Russian Cathedral while standing in the street, and ask their goofy questions about what the elevation is here and if we take American money.  I didn’t want a deep-water dock right down town. But somehow I don’t mind one three houses down.  I can’t see the boats from my house or office and very few tourists wander down here to take pictures of the ship.  Some people hate tourists and I understand that, but having been both tourist here in Alaska and other places I have empathy for their disorientation and discombobulation when they disembark.  I’m a worrier by nature myself, and without my wife I have a hard time orienting a map.

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Years ago I was walking through the historical park in Sitka in the fall and I met two young women who had come from their arctic village to go to Mount Edgecumbe High School.  This was their first trip so far south, one girl wore her traditional kuspuk and the other wore a beautiful new blouse and tight blue jeans and I must say a lot of perfume.  I asked them what they thought of Sitka.

            “Too many gusuks,” the perfume girl said, explaining, “white people,” and this I understood, then the other in the traditional gingham covering, said,  “And these trees… so big.. and they stink…” she waved her hand in front of her face. 

            This surprised me. Then I realized there were no trees of any size where she lived.  Certainly nothing like these old spruce and hemlock in the park.

            “And the dead ones,” she cupped her elbows in her hands, “The dead trees look like rotten meat… it’s horrible.”  She shivered. 

            I could clearly see the old rotted stump we were standing near disgusted her.  I considered that she was just teasing me or playing with me, making the most of my being a white man and so stupid.  But she looked honestly sick to her stomach and I gave here every chance to say “I jokes” but nothing came.  We talked more about Sitka and I tried to tell them about places they might enjoy: the gym, the library and the movie theater, the soccer field, and the grocery store where you could buy candy in bulk. I did not ask them about their village because I have found that new students to Edgecumbe get really sick of explaining to people about where they come from possibly too because they are often extremely homesick when they first arrive and talking about home to ignorant people who have never even heard of, and can’t pronounce the name of their home, makes them feel even more lonely and alone.  They seem more excited to talk about their own life’s new adventure.

 

It was probably thirty years ago that I met those girls but I think of them often.

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This summer the buttercups have bloomed in and around the short greenery. Tiny yellow flowers appear almost instantly in the lawn after I cut the grass.  I find them cheerful and particularly happy little things, but a friend of mine grumbles and sees them as weeds that need to be eradicated. 

            “Jesus,” she said, “fucking buttercups.”

            The cherry tree outside my office window for the first time has born fruit.  Jan sat in a red chair with her binoculars and counted seven tiny cherries on the entire tree, amid all the other withered stocks.  A neighbor suggested that we cut the tree down and try again in another location. Forgetting or possibly not that this first effort for the tree has taken thirty-five years, a span of time we won’t be able to replicate. But this neighbor was ardent in their opinion, so hungry I suppose, for cherries.  

            It is a time for strong opinions. Last month at the writer’s symposium in Skagway there were tears and fist banging on the subject of cultural appropriation and who had the right to tell the story of history. There was a great deal of tension between those who felt powerful and those who felt powerless. While in fact, the distinctions seemed blurred to me and it felt that we were all very fortunate, and lucky in our circumstance, but perhaps that point of view was an artifact of my ignorance and lack of experience, just as my assumption that the tall trees around my home smelled “good,” or that we all… including the President of the United States, should know the difference between the truth and a lie, but perhaps all my assumptions about the world are naive. I feel naïve, and lonely often these days. Especially when I read the news.

The work of understanding this world is never done.

            I’m off to Seattle soon for psychiatric treatment. The doctors decided that electro convulsive therapy would be too dangerous for my vision and I finally offered that being blind would be too high a price to pay and way too depressing an outcome.  So I’m going to try and go forward with ketamine infusion therapy. I will try to write about it here if it is not too trippy or exhausting. 

            Until then I will be putting our house back in order after putting in new floors and remodeling the bathroom upstairs.  It was a huge job with great results.  (the forty year old carpet was truly disgusting) and the new bathroom has handrails, high toilet, and a shower that’s the envy of a high end spa. Where our old bathroom had a free bathtub from Raven Radio a toilet and sink we found on the side of the road.

            We will also spend the summer nurturing our buttercups, and our apple tree with three blossoms, and watching our seven cherries ripen: counting our luck, and cultivating what wisdom we can as we stay involved in the world. I will be writing a new book about my faithless detective Cecil Younger while, thinking of my readers, and those long ago girls, wondering where they are, hoping they are home somewhere, and happy.

 

Sunshine and north wind,

 seven cherries on the tree:

 Hello honey bee!

 

jhs

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"I'M GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THIS YEAR IF IT KILLS ME" My trip to Washington DC to see the Mountain Goats and John Brown.

I am in Seattle now to see a consulting psychiatrist about new therapies for my depression. We will be talking about zapping my brain with electromagnetic impulses or taking doses of horse tranquilizer, while under his supervision down here. That.. or I will go back home and keep at my new regimen of diet, exercise, prayer and meditation, and see if that keeps me going. But that’s not what I want to write about today… really… though it colors everything I write about. (all my readers know that my melancholy joi du vivre is the mood of all my dance music)

Seattle is beautiful right now, the flowering trees are in full bloom, dogwood, and rhododendron, even lilac. In the early mornings before the planes start hectoring the sky the birds are in full song in my nephew’s neighborhood. Downtown is another story where the homeless gather under the bridges in their tents the sidewalks flow with piss and more and more mentally ill work their strategy to get money from passers by, while they brush their teeth in public water fountains and fight each other for their territories to beg. Every walk downtown presents dilemmas on whether or how much to give. No amount of personal generosity will solve the problem, of course, some systematic large scale communal decision needs to be made, to help us all.

Jan was in Washington D.C. for a meeting about her new grant to help Native Students learn to address paralytic shellfish poisoning in their villages. Her grant will teach them the science of this problem which is the number one threat to their ocean subsistence food. They will learn the testing the causes, how to do the tests, and how the western science dovetails into their traditional knowledge of the resource . She is partnering with the Sitka Tribe and the Sitka Sound Science Center, bringing more than a million bucks into the community, that has a structure already set up to use it effectively. I’m so proud of her and her partners.

I went back east to be with her and I spent a day going to art museums with her. Jan’s Parkinson’s disease has slowed her down some but her enthusiasm has not dimmed a bit. The key is not to try to do too much. We just do fewer things and take our time. Do things we enjoy and enjoy doing them slowly and together. This has been a learning process for both of us. All we did the first day was walk to the American Portrait Gallery… it’s free. We wanted to see the portrait of John Steinbeck, but dammit, it was in storage. Our dear friend Nancy Ricketts has a wonderful portrait of her father Ed Ricketts by the same artists who did Steinbeck portrait and we thought they might be interested in Ed’s portrait as a companion piece.

The portrait gallery was a surprise with how it effected me, I had a personal reaction in seeing many of the “people” hanging there. Here’s an example. In the hall of the presidents every president is represented there, and there is a smattering of people throughout. But when when we got to the striking portrait of Barack Obama there was a long line and many people stood in front of the painting and either took selfies or asked the next person in line to take their picture with the painting… as if they were getting their picture with the actual man. I thought it was an amazing testament not only to the President but to the Artist.

From the National Portrait Gallery

From the National Portrait Gallery

One floor down Michelle Obama’s Portrait was hung and hundreds of people visited there as well and as we stood there nearly every person who came said the same thing that both Jan and I thought. “It’s striking, but it doesn’t look like Michelle,” and each person said, either, “Michelle” or “her” as if they were talking about a member of their own family.

In a way these people were members of our family, our American family. Also I loved that this museum is free. That is the way it should be, there should not be a fee to go see your family. This is our heritage. This is where we come from like it or not. Here are some of the people I felt “kin” to:

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Florida Natural History Writer

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Florida Natural History Writer

E.O. Wilson, Biologist

E.O. Wilson, Biologist

Toni Morrison, novelist

Toni Morrison, novelist

We all gathered around and took pictures of our various friends and family members. I have many more. I took a photo of Walt Whitman, John Brown, Tecumsa, Rachel Carson, Merle Haggard, Ulysses S. Grant, and Beyonce. When I left I knew the troubles of America, genocide, and slavery, the unjust wars and I felt the challenges ahead, but also I felt the force of greatness and possibility too. That’s what I think Patriotism should be, the mix of responsibility and pride.

That night Jan and I went to see the Mountain Goats. This is our favorite band, and we have seen them all over the world. John Darnielle is the singer songwriter who writes all the songs and is the lead singer. He writes with wit and irony… or is it irony? His followers are devoted to the point of obsession. Jan and I like and admire him. He has written and very nice blurb for one of my books, he is a greatly admired novelist and I think he writes about disaffected youth much, much better than J.D. Salinger ever did, but his hard core fans can recognize his most obscure unreleased songs, only distributed on cassette or handed around by fans, from the first three notes of John’s guitar and sing every word right along with him. Men and women cry out “I love you!” frantically in cracked voices from the audiences of two or three thousand. And this for a relatively portly forty-ish year old man with a bowl haircut and, glasses who wears a sports coat on stage and sings in a reedy high register about Mexican wrestling, obscure science fiction tropes, and terrible, terrible break ups.

Imagine last Saturday in the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. the Mountain Goats were celebrating the release of their new album release “In League With Dragons” and John tells a brief story of driving through Iowa and he thinks of a story of a couple “saying horrible things to each other” and cheers start building from the crowd of about twelve hundred. He says when confronted with what to call the song he decides “the best thing to hope for these people is that they don’t reproduce… and hence… NO CHILDREN” then the crowd erupts and every one begins singing in a seeming full throated kind of bliss:

“I hope that our few remaining friends

Give up on trying to save us

I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot

To piss off the dumb few that forgave us

 

I hope the fences we mended

Fall down beneath their own weight

And I hope we hang on past the last exit

I hope it’s already too late.

 

And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here

Someday burns down

And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away

And I never come back to this town….

 

Again… in my life

I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife

I hope you die

I hope we both die.”

Now… I don’t chant at protests and I don’t really sing at concerts. I’m repressed and that’s not something I like about myself and maybe the horse tranquilizers will help me with this. But on Saturday night I watched the crowd. A young woman in a tank top.. maybe in her thirties. Ball cap on backwards, tattoos down her arms, eyes closed and singing her heart out, was raising her fists in the air when she comes to the “I HOPE YOU DIE, I HOPE WE BOTH DIE!’ part of the chorus, and I have to say… I get it. This is the love song that nobody else writes, this is undoubtedly the more common part of the love experience that John Darnielle gave voice to and there is a joyful aspect to just letting it out… but maybe it’s not really irony. See too his songs like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” There are reasons to be a crazy fearful misanthropes sometimes… at least part of the time and if you can’t let that part of you out what do you do with it? It festers maybe and blossoms into a real monster? I don’t know…

Much like my visit to the portrait gallery the experience in our nation’s capitol was a mix. I’ll end with a short anecdote. The next day before our flight we went to the Phillips Gallery and we sat in front of a beautiful Renoir and just looked at it. I was talking to Jan about how impossible in must have seemed to try and paint “light” and to see the relationship between color and light. When a beautiful woman in her late seventies came up and looked closely at the painting, Then she turned to us and asked us to look at the young man with the goatee who was looking down at the young girl on the right side of the painting. She said, he looked just like her great nephew. Then she said the sister of that boy was with her the last time she was here at the Phillips: her great niece. The niece was 24 and off to Africa to work for a relief organization and two days after their museum visit she was killed in the Ethiopian plane crash. This older woman started to cry, I rubbed her back and we talked about her tadgedy. The girl had left a museum magnet of the painting on the woman’s refrigerator and today was the first day she had worked up the courage to come back and look at the painting. She said… “I just wanted to talk with you to make a connection… and somehow share my grief.” Her name was Clair and both Jan and I said that we were grateful that she did. We asked if she would care to have a cup of tea with us, and she declined because she was meeting a friend of her niece in a few minutes. But we both agreed that we were glad to have met and that the only answer to loneliness and grief was human connection in whatever dose you can find it. Then she left us with the great beauty and our bitter sweet memory of her grief and our chance meeting. Much like all of my experiences lately, there is a melancholy joi du vivre to be had… and savored with each heart beat.

Windows are open.

One dogwood flower blows in,

like a telegram.

jhs

 

IMG_3331.JPG
This is not Clair’s boy nor her niece. I decided to protect her privacy in that.

This is not Clair’s boy nor her niece. I decided to protect her privacy in that.

STAYING ALIVE

It’s been a good spate of spring weather, cold but clear, and the sea has been remarkably calm, the herring are finally beginning to spawn on the outside coast long after the herring fleet has moved on, which is probably for the best. I cleaned up, fertilized, and watered our rhododendrons, and still only one is showing any blossoms. No hummingbirds are coming to the sugar water, and I’m struggling to find a steady pace writing the rough draft of my new Cecil manuscript..

I’m trying to come out of another low period, you’d think the sunny weather would help and though I like the sun my mood doesn’t always respond to the light alone. I walk and bicycle and watch my diet and that is helping but still the black clouds linger over my head like some old cartoon character who was popular in my parents day.

I gave a reading from Winter and Spring haiku books the other day, Norm Campbell showed his newest drawings and my buddies played some music as I read. I had a wonderful time and the audience seemed to enjoy the ten minute presentation. Then I read from my latest novel at smaller gathering and I chose a well written selection that was grim and it ran too long and when I got back to my seat all Jan said was “Too long… people got fidgety,” and of course that put me in a funk.

Writing is hard, it’s lonely too. I sit alone for most of the day now and I never really know what I’m doing, or rather, I never really know if what I’m writing is meaningful or clear to anyone else. But on the other hand writing the things that I do, in the way that I do is such a self-indulgent pursuit. I should really get out of my head and think of others more.

View from my office at seven thirty pm, this week.

View from my office at seven thirty pm, this week.

Jan’s book about Ed Ricketts is almost sold out everywhere and will not be published by Shorefast Editions anymore. They had published a her beautiful book before they decided to take on my Haiku books. I ran into this article I wrote for 49 Writers today and it made me happy.


John Straley: You Need All The Friends You Can Get

49 WritersDecember 17, 2015

Writers tend to be a whiney lot. At least I have been in my time, particularly when it comes to the subject of publishers: they don’t appreciate me, they are too big, they are too small, they don’t promote my book, it goes on and on and on…

The only time we truly love them is the first week after the acceptance letter arrives and then the complaining begins.

But the truth is without them we would be mostly obscure, untended weeds, growing wild on the internet. A good publisher takes us in, gives us a good trimming and dresses us up; they make us presentable and introduce us to the world. They also discover something inside of us, inside of our words that we might not have even known was there. They help us focus that quality and bring it to our readers. Of course after it’s done, we take all the credit, but the truth is, without them, without the editor or publisher who first championed our work, our words would have lain fallow in journals, or on blogs read by maybe a few dozen of our friends.

William Stafford once said that an editor is, “A friend who makes sure only our best work is shared with the world.” When I heard him say those words, I was a young man with a large collection of rejection letters and firm belief that there was a national conspiracy against my writing spearheaded by the editors in New York. I was stunned by Stafford’s sentiments that these people were my friends.

Now I am sixty-two and I have published many things, including nine books of my own. I’ve had experiences from disastrous to profitable on the financial side, and stultifying to illuminating on the educational side. But recently I had the chance to work with a small press which was, like the accommodations at the three Bears house, “Just Right” all around.

First let me start off by saying that the best publishers are “book people”, and the best publisher for your project is the kind of person who enthusiastically shares your vision. My wife had an idea for a book, and Shorefast Editions of Juneau turned out to be the perfect publisher, because they shared a simular vision and they knew the territory of the book.

Jan Straley is one of Alaska’s pre-eminent marine biologists studying whales in the north Pacific, but as a student she walked the beaches of Washington State and picked through the tidepools. This was how she discovered the book Between Pacific Tides by Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin. This book became her treasure map, helping her to identify animals, not by scientific groupings, but by where they could be found on the beach.

Katrina Woolford Pearson, who runs Shorefast Editions, was born and raised in Juneau and has more than a 25 year history immersed in the world of books. She is a fourth generation Alaskan who is committed to publishing the literature of this place and she thrives on collaborative projects. She loves Steinbeck and the Ricketts/ Juneau/ Sitka connection. (Jack Calvin’s wife was from Juneau) You see? These are small details for a scientist and a publisher to share, impossible to predict but… it created a collaboration of seemingly unlike minds.

When Jan was just out of college she learned that the “Ricketts” on the credits for Between Pacific Tides was the famous “Doc” in the Steinbeck books: Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Sea of Cortez. Later, in 1977, after she graduated from the University of Washington and was working as a wilderness ranger in the North Cascades of Washington State she was offered a job as a biologist in Sitka and she jumped at the chance. After all, Sitka was the northern-most range of all the intertidal animals in her favorite book. Sitka was the frontier. She was going there even though she had just married a 24-year-old poet who was making his living as a horseshoer.

Little did she know it then, but in 1932, Ricketts, Calvin, Calvin’s wife Sasha, and budding anthropologist and world literature student Joseph Campbell, made a trip in a small boat up the inside passage from Seattle to Sitka collecting and doing research for Between Pacific Tides. The expedition ended in Sitka where the Calvins made their home. The conversations on the boat were wide ranging, including discussions of literature and native culture (Sasha was Aleut, her father was the Russian Orthodox Bishop in Juneau). They discussed how human beings and human intellect were somehow not the key to understanding the complex interconnectedness of all the life that they were observing in their scientific collecting. These conversations had a profound influence on all of them, giving rise to Ricketts’s very early philosophical musings on what would later become ecological thinking.

Campbell, of course, would go on to write the seminal works The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, and The Power of Myth. The themes of his work depended on his ability to break through the previously impenetrable barriers set forth by the Ivory Tower thinking of the time. This conversation began on that trip up the coast in Calvin’s small boat, the Grampus, where they meditated on the tidepools during the day and discussed the poems of Robinson Jeffers at night.

After the trip, Ricketts wrote a scientific paper on the effects of wave impact on intertidal life on the beaches around Sitka, which he described as being similar to the beaches surrounding his home in Monterey. This paper was never published.

So, in 2015, this was all it was: an unpublished scientific paper by a legendary biologist with an interesting backstory and a vague Idea for a book.

Then there was a dinner at the Channel Club in Sitka with Jan and Katrina where they discussed some ideas. Jan had an idea of additional essays and Katrina had ideas for who might be included. Jan suggested Katrina meet Nancy Ricketts, Ed Ricketts’s daughter who still lives in Sitka. At that meeting, Nancy charmed Katrina. She not only had a sharp memory but an archivist’s collection of photographs from her past.

Nancy Ricketts was with her father when he read the galley proofs of Cannery Row. He groaned at the oversized caricature Steinbeck painted of him, but conceded that “it had been done out of love.” Nancy wanted to add to the historical picture of her father who she loved so much; she wanted to show the world that “Doc” Ricketts was also a good father. Jan and Katrina agreed.

So too did they want to correct some misconceptions about Ricketts as a writer; and for that they contacted Katie Rodger, his leading biographer and also some of the leading scientists of intertidal life to add perspective on the research Ricketts had done.

Colleen Mondor was asked to write the story of the Grampus trip and I wrote an essay on the charisma of place to give Jack Calvin his due respect in the story. But the point I’m trying to make is, this all came together because of a good idea that was shepherded along by an editor and then made real by a good publisher willing to take a risk.

The physical book then took shape with the help of an amazing designer chosen by the publisher and an artist likewise chosen, all working as part of a team that shares a common vision. None of this happened from the top down. None of this happened from a strictly dollars-and-cents mentality. This happened because a team of people loved the subject and loved books.

Ed Ricketts was an eccentric man of appetites, a Renaissance man. No one book could contain him. Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska is an eclectic book and most publishers would not touch it. It’s science, and art, and oral history, but that’s what makes it a labor of love and a book that is anchored to the love of the world in which it is set. It is a beautiful thing, like a tidepool, like the stars, like the mind of the eccentric genius who inspired it.

All of this came together for us on November 28th in Sitka when the publisher, editors, writers, book designer, and Nancy Ricketts launched the book into the world. This was the most wonderful kind of literary event because it was not the celebration of a single person but truly a celebration of a place and an idea. All was gratitude and mutual love, Katrina expressed it, Jan expressed it and all I could do was chime in and then I asked Nancy questions about her Pop, which delighted the more than a hundred people who jammed into Old Harbor Books, to observe the culmination of this project and to celebrate Nancy’s ninety-first birthday. It was a lovely night that belonged to everyone. The gathering truly was like a tidepool or a cluster of twinkling stars, not one brighter than the others. Which again, is the way I am sure, Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin would have wanted it to have been.


Re-reading this made me happy because it reminded me that no good comes from being whiny, and good people who go through bad periods are usually still good people, no matter if things happen which hurt your feelings. Good books are still good books, and the community built around them still goes on. Jan worked hard on her book and Shorefast: Katrina Woolford and Collen Mondor made it into a beautiful thing. There is nothing to feel bad about in that.

I know Ed Ricketts would approve, of staying alive and continuing to reach out, continuing to make connections for this creative work, for the poetry for the business of Shorefast books, Nothing really ends, but everything changes form.

If you want to find Ed Ricketts: From Cannery Row to Sitka Alaska, you can find the last few copies at Old Harbor Books in Sitka. So too the haiku books of mine. They are beautifully made thanks to Sarah Asper Smith, Ben Huff, and Shorefast Editions. We will always be grateful to them as those books continue their journey out in the world.


No birds singing now

where the rhododendron bloom,

in the rich, cold soil.

jhs

Two Desert Poems

Sonny Liston Considers The Ways Of Vanity From Heaven

 

Anna’s hummingbird

on a barrel cactus thorn:

his chest thrust out as if

he is sucking up all the oxygen

in the Universe.

 

He takes off buzzing like

a fighter plane stooping

out of the sun, proud

as Cassius Clay pounding me down

February 25, 1964…

Was that his vanity making

him do all that,

taunting me as he gave me that whooping

calling me a “big ugly bear?”

My mother raised 21 children,

and Ali finally died of Parkinson’s disease

didn’t he?

That didn’t end in vanity

did it?

 

I wonder now if beautiful creatures

inadvertently take the way of vanity

as I did in my life

flirting with pretty girls

in Casinos

acting as if I’ve read some

some book or another when

I’d only glanced at

the back flap

and

sometimes,

diving off

from a tall cactus plant

to challenge some tough opponent

finding nothing but my own reflection

in that flat, hard glass

right before everything

went silent.


Palm Canyon, after the rains.

Palm Canyon, after the rains.

Write here…

In A World Gone Generous (For my sisters Mary and Pam)

 

the adults settle in while the children fuss,

or stare straight ahead until they wiggle

into their dream worlds

waiting for the first words.

 

And the first words have always been:

“Dearly Beloved”

spoken to the children and friends,

spoken  to the spirits

who wander the shade,

lest we forget

that this was once 

an inhospitable country.

 

A thousand years ago

on this spot

were stones as hot as skillets

and fresh water as rare as an arrowhead

scuffed up from the dirt.

Those first people,

the Chumash and the Cahuillas  (ka wee yas)

are walking past us now

still desolate with thirst

and struck dumb in disbelief

at just how much there is

right here

right now. 

 

In the shade too, are those who

once loomed large in our lives

and didn’t understand us then.

They stand just out of sight,

their sun dazzled eyes seeking ours

knowing there is no currency

to their apologies.  

 

Dearly Beloved

when you spread your mud cloth on the sand

those thirty years ago

you would have no way of knowing

this day was waiting for you,

with troubled marriages

troubled children

troubled times

to live through.

 

But now

in your seventieth years

you are victorious

in the love

as perfectly suited to this earth

as rain

or cactus flowers

or your grandchildren

fidgeting to play

with the ghosts of the Cahuillia

children passing through. 

 

Those who didn’t understand you then

have no power over you now.

No referendum, no

law can change the reality

they are no longer a part of,

this is why their inconstant forms

shift from foot to foot

silently both wanting

and not wanting to come in.

And though they are not forgiven

we can if we wish, 

welcome them to take their place

in a new world made generous 

by this blessed shade

by this blessed company

and by your well deserved

and honest love.

 

 

 


Two Marys And A Rant

Frost lasts all day on the grass.  The daylight is lengthening into the afternoon and the sunsets have been long scarlet smeasr across the horizon, brightening up the world at the last seconds of the day.  Frost on the side of the road and yet I’ve been riding my bicycle into town.

 Today I got word that Mary Randlett an old family friend and artistic inspiration died at ninety four and so too, the poet Mary Oliver.  Mary Randlett was a northwest photographer who lived next door to my childhood home and I’ve written about her and her kids before.  She has many books and can be found in most northwest libraries.  If you see black and white landscape photographs that capture wet beach sand patterns, or rhythmic patterns of clouds shredding through dark forests, whether knowingly or not the photographer was drawing inspiration from Mary Randlett. 

 Mary Oliver of course was known as a spiritual poet who used nature as her muse.  More than almost any other modern poet her words were treasured by readers, kept on walls, above desks or next to beds as needed medicine when spirits sagged.  I only met her once for a week long symposium here in Sitka.  She struck me as a flinty New Englander, wearing her old sweatshirt and camp shoes with that certain flair, sweatshirt over a pressed cotton shirt.  She still smoked unfiltered cigarettes back then and she didn’t suffer fools.  She loved her, and her female partner’s privacy, and didn’t really want to be any movement’s poster child.  Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.  I’m not claiming to know her well. 

The view from my desk. Four o’clock pm.

The view from my desk. Four o’clock pm.

 I think these two Marys had something in common.   They grew up at a time when women were expected to be ladylike and they weren’t particularly suited to it.  They were more comfortable out in the brush, with muddy dogs, flopping out ahead and a notebook or a camera in hand.  They didn’t mind getting dirty and were happy eating whatever was in the refrigerator when they got home and getting down to work.  They loved the “warm animal of their bodies” and other people’s opinions about art or religion could rile them or infuriate them, but opinions about their manners or appearance or their “lifestyle” I don’t think they gave a fig about.  I knew Mary Randlett in the very early sixties remember.  I was young, but even then when she would take me sailing and strip down to her underwear and halter top in the tiny boat and scream “come about sailor” as canvas would fly and rattle… even at seven years old, I knew she was a different kind of adult. 

 If you are interested you can find Mary Oliver’s New York Times eulogy

here:

 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/obituaries/mary-oliver-dead.html?emc=edit_ne_20190117&nl=evening-briefing&nlid=4331107220190117&te=1

 Which… I think most of her readers will find condescending if not down right snotty.  Okay… that’s not fair… I found it condescending and snotty.  They described Mary Oliver’s work as having “a pedagogical if not homilectic quality… and because of its brevity found its way to having a broad audience… frequently being quoted by clergy.”  Then the writer refers to Bookscan numbers, indicting Oliver for the crime of selling a lot of books (along with Billy Collins)

 By the way, I am not opposed to difficult, or obscure words, in either reviews or poetry but not when the difficult or obscure word is not the appropriate word to use. I don’t think anyone who was approaching Mary Oliver’s work with an open mind would describe her work as “pedagogical or homilectic” unless they were just plainly trying to act superior.  Oliver loved to be direct and yes she came from a Christian background and she was making parallels between her experiences out in the woods with certain sacred or illuminating experiences that are referenced in homilies (the root of the word homilectic as I found when I looked it up.)  But using the twenty dollar word particularly at a time when her readers are grieving and going to her obituary is insulting to the spirit of Oliver’s work. 

 And yes… okay I’m ranting now… Oliver did want to teach us something about the world, (“pedagogical”) and yes… it had a religious theme.  But she did it so gently and generously.  She knew who she was writing for, she wasn’t some flower-child celebrity, she wasn’t Jewel, for Christ sake, she had great skill and she communicated her passion for the world she saw and loved clearly.  She gave her lessons generously, and you could take them or leave them and lots of people took them.  She could have hidden behind her vocabulary and her technique but she didn’t and I think she was brave in that, AND I hate to see the New York Times take one last fucking piss on her (and more importantly on her readers) in her obituary.

 Also… I like Jewel. I just think Mary Oliver was a way better poet, (Jewel a way better singer and guitar player) and I will stand on any Bar in Alaska and make that argument to all comers.

 Okay…  That’s it.  I will probably regret that… but…I’m an Alaskan and I spend too much time alone. 

 I have not seen Mary Randletts obit.  But I expect it will be more celebratory and more kind.  At least I hope so. 

I hope you all are well. 

 

Cherry tree, winter

with frost covering the ground.

Our hearts are fragile.

 

jhs

CHERRY TREE IN WINTER

After a storm blew through the sky cleared and the temperature warmed up.  The wind shredded what few leaves had remained on the trees. The storm also tipped quite a few garbage cans along the road so the ravens and crows had quite a holiday, as the wind created a carnival theme with the plastic bags and soggy coffee filters in the trees or flattened half filled bread bags out on the pavement.  Most of the bears have snuggled down in their dens up high but if it warms up enough they might stumble down all drowsy to feed on the orange peels and apple cores along the roadside.

 Jan went out in her skiff yesterday when the wind was blowing from the east to put out a recording buoy in the lee of the island to record the songs of the male whales still hanging out in the Sound.  It’s possible the feed has been so thin this summer that more whales might want to stay in Alaskan waters rather than spend the energy to swim to the Hawaiian breeding grounds where there is very little or no feed.   But the urge to go to warm weather is strong and whether wise or not they will often go.  This may be why the calf rate is down and the whales are dangerously thin in the spring. 

 All the while we charge ahead toward the Solstice.  Soon enough the earth will tip the other way and we will gather more of the sun’s light here in the Northern Hemisphere a few minutes each day.  I look out at the cherry tree and I can imagine it aching for warmth, for the sap to begin to flow and the increase of sunlight to begin the regeneration of leaves. 

Cherry tree out my window at four thirty pm.

Cherry tree out my window at four thirty pm.

 But of course I’m projecting. I forget that there are places where people revel in winter’s arrival. Where white snow against the blue sky is a joyful time of year. The time of sledding and skiing, fires in the stove and cooking meat in the pot, bread dough rising.  Hunters returning with their sleds: mechanized or pulled by animals.  For these people the early days of Spring or “Mud Season” is a somber, depressing time of year, when the crusty snow melts down into muddy ruts and the trails bog down and for several weeks it’s not good for travel by any mode of transportation, and then the bugs hatch.

 But summer will come with travel on the river and the fish charging up the current.

 My doctor tells me that I have done pretty well this year with health kick 2018.  The various medications I take are doing their jobs.  My numbers are good, weight and blood pressure are okay, but I may have to travel out of state for mental health treatment.  Something called “trans-cranial electromagnetic stimulation,” which is what they do nowadays instead of electroshock therapy for difficult to treat depression.  Apparently, I am a little like this cherry tree in winter, I appear to be losing my life force…I yearn for it but I have none in reserve. 

 This is different than having nothing to live for.  I have a lot to live for: Jan and Finn, my work, and all the beauty in the world, the books I haven’t read yet, the music I have not heard.  I want to live.  But there is a melancholy that inhabits me as if I have been left out in the cold somehow which robs me, sometimes… during my low periods …to have hope in the return of Spring.  My medication keeps me alive and awake, but nothing more.

 Millions of people suffer from this same thing and millions of people treat it in various ways: diet and exercise, meditation, philosophy, religion, healthy patterns of social interaction, unhealthy patterns of interaction, service to community.  I have tried all of these things and find them all useful but the older I become I find the power of the Cold and Darkness as I’m calling it here, to be coming stronger every day.

 I often think about narcissism and the role that plays in the disease. Like alcoholism, depression may be caused by a neurological programming problem in the sense of self… or the ego.  I have gone to Church and pursued “giving my self to a higher power”.  I have found that living for others, and giving gifts is quite useful in breaking out of the crushing lows.  Meditation and exercise that drives the ego out of the focus of the mind clearly helps.  Gift giving that expects nothing in response, is quite useful as long as it doesn’t resort to the manic. The poet Theodore Roethke used to mail a gross of golf balls to the Pope and to President Kennedy when he was in a manic high. 

 Lucky for me I am not bi-polar.  I just have the lows. “Intractable, treatment resistant, unipolar depression” is what my psychiatrist calls it.  “Just pull up your fucking socks!”  is how my Father described it.

 And before we start in on my poor father.  He was a good man.  He was an alcoholic but he did that to self medicate for his own depression.  He was hospitalized when he woke up in his early forties and he couldn’t stop crying.  When he came home I remember he sat in front of the windows of our house with a drink in his hand for hours at a time and just stared out at the garden. 

 But he was never violent.  He said some terrible things, but he loved us and was very clever and funny almost always. My mom drank too much and was maudlin when she did, but she had a genius level IQ and read two or three books a week.  I think my dad was intimidated by her intelligence and he loved her dearly until the day he died.  Beside some verbal cruelty I never suffered any real abuse. I was lucky and had a mostly productive life with a wonderful education. We were rich in our little world, but my father suffered from genuinely debilitating depression.  I believe my grandfather did too, and my great grandfather committed suicide. I know much less of the stories of the women in my family, who bore their burdens in silence as so many did. So, how much of my depression did I inherit and how much is situational: Jan’s illness, my losing my eyesight, the loss of friends and normal foolishness of life?  I don’t know.  Other people suffer much more than I do. Hundreds of millions of others…  but the fact that I don’t live in Yemen or am not a twelve year old boy soldier during the Civil war at Shilo,  doesn’t really help me when I’m standing on a bridge in Juneau on a cold and windy night thinking how much better it would be to kill myself away from home so Jan wouldn’t have to deal with the body.

 But I won’t kill myself.  It is murder.  Even if it weren’t me, I would never kill Jan’s husband, or Finn’s father.  I wouldn’t kill Nels’s, or Terrence’s friend.  I wouldn’t even kill Katrina’s former friend, the man she won’t speak with anymore.  I wouldn’t do that to them, because it’s selfish beyond words, and even if I am a narcissistic prick, I’m not a murderer.

 But I am a writer, and I find explaining things to be a comfort.  I had a friend who went to hear the Irish writer Ken Bruen read in New York once and someone asked him, “Your books are pretty depressing, why is that?” and Ken Bruen said, “You think I’m depressing, you should read this guy from Alaska, John Straley, Jesus, talk about depressing!” 

 So… everyone has a voice I suppose, I thought I’d come clean about it a little today, besides I don’t think my books are THAT depressing. 

 


In this grey world 

        the frozen cherry tree

 dares not bend.

 

 jhs