Wednesday, July 30, 2008

To Shageluk and Back




Yesterday, I was back on the river, this time to the other village the diocese asked me to visit. Shageluk is about 10 miles east of Anvik, which means that in air miles it is not far away at all, but it was not just I who wanted to go. Laura Chapman Rico and Chris Cochren, my friends from Anvik, were eager to get to Shageluk before heading home, and so once again, T. offered his boat. We six piled in along with the puppy Princess and left Graying at about 3 in the afternoon. Although Shageluk lies to the south, you have to go north before you can go south again, so we began by heading north up the Yukon as far as the Yukon Slough. At the slough, you hang a U and twist and turn for 29 bends. The Yukon Slough then branches into two, the Holikichuk and the Shageluk sloughs, each of which twists and turns some more before emptying into the Innoko River on the way to Shageluk. To fly to Shageluk take about a half hour. To go by boat takes about 5 hours. It is worth it to go by boat.

Shortly after turning down the slough, we saw a black bear, but it did not linger long enough for me to get a picture. Hearing the motor, it turned and fled, reminding me that animals are hunted here. So I saw the animals as one on the early stages of a hunt would see them, as tracks, trails, nests and lodges. The place was full of life, but it demanded you look for it.

Moose Tracks




We stopped for a snack on a sand bank at the end of Yukon Slough. There were very fresh moose tracks, cut deep into the sand, as if the moose had been making some speed before leaping into the water. A wolf track beside it may have been the reason. We built a fire on the bank and ate bananas and pilot bread spread with peanut butter. After our stop, T. took us to see the remains of Holikichuk village.

Many of the people in Grayling originally lived there, but left after great floods in the mid 1960’s. They still return, however, to visit the old graveyard and remember. Only the shells of two buildings still stand. But where there is death, there is also birth, and T. took our little boat down a slough that was in the process of infilling and creating new land. The very shallow rivulet was thick with goose grass, which gave way to bright meadows with willow and silver cottonwood that looked like pasture country, except that no one lived there, no farm, no cow, only a river that was becoming a meadow that would one day become a forest.

The Innoko watershed is one of the least visited places in the United States. It is all Indian land and isolated refuge, roadless, too wild and fragile for cities, just miles and miles of trees and sandbanks, exposed roots, berry thickets, hidden places where animals live, mostly flat, but a few distant, purple hills, radiant clouds, one abandoned cabin, the hum of the motor, the company inside the boat, the little puppy Princess asleep beside me. We talked of many things in this emptiness that wasn’t empty at all, of God and growing up along the Yukon, the names of things and the story of the people. We arrived in Shageluk at 9 p.m. By 9:30 we were a congregation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

St. Luke’s is under the exquisite care of Jeanette Dementi. She leads morning prayer and runs a vacation Bible school each year. The walls of the church are covered with children’s artwork and the words to hymns. Chalice, paten and lectionary inserts were all waiting for us. I lit the candles, donned my stole and Maddie rang the bell. Fourteen of us shared the sacrament.



After that, we were invited to the IRA office to break bread and spend the night. My bed was a pair of sleeping bags and my camp pillow nested in a cozy alcove. As I was settling down for my rest, I was surprised to hear sirens screeching through the northern night. No, they were not sirens, it was howling. And so, serenaded by wolves, I fell asleep.

Like many of the villages, Shageluk is shrinking. The cost of fuel and equipment make it hard to maintain life. There is no running water in many of its buildings. The people who live there are welcoming and smiling and care very much to preserve their home and their traditions. The school currently has 12 students and 2 teachers. I see much that is good and beautiful and I said I’ll be praying.

We returned via the Holikichuk slough, past ducks, a northern hawk and a little tiny mouse swimming in the river. Mouse may be small, but her presence, both in life and story, is persistent. Mouse is a most decent creature, and she teaches children about values. T. laughed with delight when he saw her, as did I.

Shageluk

Sorry, folks, no blog today. The Rev was able to catch a slow boat to Shageluk, and will be returning to Grayling this afternoon or evening. Shageluk is only about 32 miles from Grayling as the crow flies, but the crow doesn't control how the river flows. It flows up, down, and sideways, and it's four hours by boat each way. The old iMac was not up to a river voyage, what with its keys falling off and no place to connect to the net, and so Carol's observations will return tomorrow.

-Jay Luther

Monday, July 28, 2008

Welcome to Anvik




Anvik lies 18 air miles downriver from Grayling at the confluence of the Anvik and Yukon Rivers. Christ Church is the oldest Episcopal Church building in the State of Alaska. It was built in 1894. Embedded in the stairs to the altar is a brick from Jamestown, Virginia, the oldest Anglican settlement in North America.

The Rev. John Wight Chapman served as mission priest with his wife May Seely Chapman from 1887 until 1930. He was succeeded by his son Henry who stayed through the 1930’s. Henry’s daughter Laura, who now lives in Los Banos, California still returns to Anvik in the summers to do vacation Bible school. Since I heard she was around, I was delighted when my friends T. and Abby offered me a ride in their boat. We went south under soft, gray skies.

The Yukon holds a great deal of natural history. It is shallow in many places, allowing sandbars to form which, under the right circumstances, turn into flat, willow covered islands. Near Grayling is Hot Dog Island, where the village goes to barbecue, swim and celebrate the Fourth of July. Another island, a little further down stream, is named after a well known ancestor. It is not uncommon to find fossils jutting out from high mudbanks. I’ve seen a number of mastodon tusks. At about six feet in length, they give one a sense of impossible hugeness and a world very different than our own.

Laura came down to greet us and take us up to the large Mission House where she was staying. Unlike in Grayling, the clergy did not live in the Mission House, but in a separate Rectory, which, alas, has now washed away. The Mission House originally held a boarding school for girls. It later became a girls’ day school, and still later a wilderness lodge. It is now largely a place of memories. As you walk up to the entrance, a sign advertises a café, a pool hall, and the Iditarod Trail Headquarters. One fully expects to find Holling and Shelley serving up Mooseburgers, but instead, we found the Rev. John and Roberta Hanscom from Anchorage. John is a retired Air Force technical officer. He transferred up from Sacramento in 1975 for a tour of duty in Alaska that turned out to be the rest of his life. He is now a deacon in the Episcopal church and hopes to be priested when the next bishop is chosen. With Laura was her friend Chris, also from Los Banos, who at one time repaired stringed instruments for the San Francisco symphony. Nicer, more down to earth people I have never met, full of the joy of welcome and good travelers’ tales.


John and Roberta

Laura, John and Chris toured us around the church, while mosquitoes served as clouds of witness. The church features chandeliers which burn both electric and candlelight, a pump organ, and an ambulatory at the back which also serves as sacristy. The acolytes’ vestments are red cotton long parkas or parkys, worked with gold rickrack.

We arrived back in Grayling in time for evening services. My first arrival was a little camp robber who wanted to check out the community hall. Camp robbers are gray jays, very cute, very mischevious. This one found a nut on the door sill, bowed its feathery head and was gone. Later, ten of us gathered for Holy Communion. I brought leftover communion to one of my favorite elders. The town was in a joyous mood. The firefighters are home at last from Redding.

This morning, the local youth all turned up for community service. The children’s program is being passed over to a new, young leader, who has never done camp before. She planned some splendid activities, did all the right permission slips, and tomorrow, at long last, the kids are finally going swimming!

I miss everyone. I never realized what a gregarious and restless little thing I really was until I finally made it to the bush. Blessings.






The cross marks where the old church and rectory used to be.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sabbath

Jay wanted portraits of the town puppies. I present to you Dallas and Princess.




Mostly, however, I'm using this day to pray, to ponder the mysteries of life, to find words to speak a truth that sits at the tip of my tongue, but remains teasingly beyond my grasp. Jesus may have said "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," but do the poor in spirit know this as enthusiastically as we preach it? In the Letter to the Romans, Paul assures his readers that the spirit intercedes "with sighs too deep for words." Our parable this week begins with a mustard seed. Sighs and mustard seeds, hidden treasures and pearls of great price. How do these small things fit when what I see most clearly is big trouble? When I'm feeling overlooked and insignificant, can a mustard seed sow comfort in my soul? Paul had an experience of God that changed his life and sent him into the unknown. The only way to preach the Gospel, say the people around here, is to step outside your comfort zone. Beautiful to say. A lifetime's work to live.

To Share Our Human Nature

“And when we had fallen into sin
and become subject to evil and death,
you, in your mercy sent Jesus Christ,
to share our human nature,
to live and die as one of us.”

I have felt those words go under my skin this past week. Redeemer was right. The only thing you need to teach is the Love of God. Walk in love. Love what is human. See us for who we are.

High clouds returned this morning. At 10:00 the temperature was still 47. Stopped by the post office where another letter from Dad awaited. Then I went to see Susan. There had been a death in the family a year ago today, and I wanted them all to know I had been praying for them. Over her fine, dark coffee, Susan told me about a friend she had met in California when the two of them were down there sewing for Steven Segal – I mean, wow! The friend was leaving for a ten day silent Buddhist retreat. Susan asked if I had ever done that. Someday, maybe. I know enough about Buddhist retreats to know that they are serious. One meal a day. Sitting for hours. Not like our elegant getaways at the Bishop’s Ranch, not at all. I told her that though I’m not sure I could keep quiet for ten days that I have a lot of time for Buddhism and that I was trying to teach our children to meditate, because it helped them find their own inner strength in the face of so much distraction and negativity. It takes two wings to fly the bird: wisdom and compassion. Love God, love your neighbor. Find happiness by praying that the sufferings of others may be lifted.

Not that I have suffered at all, but thanks to my benefactor for turning on the boiler. It is a blessing to have hot water.

Just as I realized I could now wash dishes, two of my young friends arrived and asked if they might join me for dinner. I cooked up a pot of rice, vegetables and fish, quite delighted to have company again. Chelsey regaled me with sayings. If girls sing at the table, they will get lazy boyfriends. If food falls from your plate, or earrings from your ears, it’s because a spirit wants it. She showed me a spirit plate. A little goes a very long way. Spirits, it seems, are hungry the world over. Odysseus got into the underworld because he fed the shades. HH the Dalai Lama, who is advanced enough to be able to see hungry ghosts, always carries a little brush to sweep them aside without hurting them. The Northern Lights are alive with spirits. I know this is true. I felt them in the aurora over Greenland, looking at me from the heavens, like the passing ancestors in their beautiful blankets that I may or may not have seen crossing Meier Lake at midnight on the summer solstice in 2006.

The girls asked me if I would come back to them in the winter. I said that if God was willing, I’d be back for the Iditarod. They told me how they made gift bags for all the mushers and how they said prayers for Karen Ramstead when Snickers got sick at this checkpoint. I remembered the whole story so well that it felt like I was sharing real flesh and blood memories with them.

Called Anna Frank in Fairbanks and gave her a report of my doings. She told me to be sure and get down to Anvik and Shageluk. T. and Abby offered to take me down Sunday afternoon. We could do a service at 2 and be back in time for our service at 7. I plan to call Anvik in the morning and see if this will work.

There is definitely a cold making the rounds, and I am definitely still flirting with laryngitis, but I am grateful for another day and all my children. I took their pictures today for an art project Monday. Scroll down and you can see them. Blessings.





Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Mouse Mother

H. gave me another story. He told this one to all his kids. It is winter. A mouse asks her child to help with the work. The mouse child says he doesn’t want to. He runs off to play. He slides down a hill and loses his arm. He slides down again and loses his other arm. He keeps sliding and loses first one leg and then the other. Finally he loses his head. Sit awhile with this story.

H., who has visited all over the country, says that the lower 48 is just full of legends, too. Only thing is, nobody tells them. Perhaps that's because we're not ready to hear them.

Turns out that the drop in house prices is a California thing. The statistics are not by state, but by region, and California's housing drop has brought down Oregon, Washington and Alaska, too. What did you expect?

I’ve now been one full week in Grayling. The weather turned hot today. I don’t know if any moose flies came out, but the local yellow jacket did. I can now officially swear to you that they aren’t telling tall tales about the size of Alaska insects. Honest – he’s the size of a grasshopper. No buzz, either. He flies silent on huge burgundy wings, a dark thing with yellow stripes. Yes, he could make a moose jump. And he certainly did me.

One of my little girls discovered a weasel in the family smokehouse this morning, feasting on a fish that had “fallen” from the drying rack. She lives practically next door, and I thought I heard something sniffing around last night. In other magic moments with creatures, a little brown thrush led me through a path in the woods, flapping ahead, waiting for me to catch up, flapping ahead, waiting and so on, until we arrived at the main road. I seem to recall such little birds in fairy tales acting as helpers to the lost finding their way. According to local lore, when the little birds are all singing, it means the river is full of fish. The birds have been very quiet today. But then, so have the fish. In yet another feat of engineering, a crew came in and improved the airport road. This involved rerouting the creek and building a new bridge. In rerouting the creek, they made it much shallower. What was once a deep river filled with hundreds of fish is now a shallow river with very few fish. Humpies (so called because of a hump on their shoulders) come up the creek, spawn and die. You can see them down on the bottom, the current gently covering them with silt. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Last night, Susan was so kind as to make extra fish balls and fried rice for my supper. She told me that here eleven year old granddaughter likes them because they look like junk food, but, since they are really fresh caught, it’s stealth health. Tonight I feasted on Bel's ribs, macaroni and cheese and a fresh biscuit. I’m not sure I ever fully appreciated the gift of fresh food quite this much.

Since Kathleen was so kind as to give me her number, I finally called up Judith Lethene. Before moving down to Seldovia with her husband, Judith served as priest for the Lower Yukon: Grayling, Anvik and Shageluk. Like many people, she wondered what I as a Californian was doing in Alaska. I told her what you have all heard, that I love this place and its people. She said she wished that more people could share this love. H., who sees through me, says that I’m really here to receive a gift. I think so, too.

I’m going to bed early. Feels like the expected head cold has at last found me. Blessings.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Field Notes

“If you kill a spider, it will rain,” said Ashley at lunch, after she had merrily whacked one with her cup. Her little sister is afraid of spiders, which shows that even if you live amidst the splendors of nature, you don’t have to like all the wildlife. Bears are still around and I might have heard a wolf this morning, but it might have been the boys. The girls told me about another really unpleasant bug called a moose fly that comes out when it gets hot. It’s big and black and it bites. Fortunately, the weather has remained pleasantly cool, in the low to mid sixties so the moose flies fly elsewhere. In keeping with the old saying, we’ve even had some rain. I attach some cloud shots.




Lots of us were moving slowly today. I’m beginning to feel all the walking I’ve done. I haven’t gotten to bed once before eleven thirty, although I plan to make an exception tonight. I miss having a couch to stretch out on at the end of the afternoon and someone with whom to share a soda. I even miss the TV. I was quite riveted by it when I visited Shirley last Friday. All the supermodels look different when no one around you is trying look like one.

There’s a lot of coming and going between Grayling and Anchorage. The air was literally abuzz. I counted three planes today. Out by the airport, one boy was showing off his flint firestarter (cool) and two young moms were fishing in the creek. Some of the kids I’ve met call Anchorage home, but come out to the village for the summer to help their grandparents and to get in touch with their roots. It’s hard to put down roots in a city. I know. I’ve tried. Connections and culture, yes, but not roots. For that you need less pavement.



According to this morning’s Anchorage Daily News, housing prices have dropped precipitously in urban Alaska. A mortgage crisis and a fuel crisis are not a good combination when winter lasts seven months. I wondered, the last time I was here, if the north could sustain a California housing economy. Fortunately, there are no McMansions here. Houses in Graying tend to be small, with open floorplans that are easy to heat. They run the gamut between the simple and the elegant, but all that I’ve been in exude comfort.

I made a pastoral call this morning to pray over a man who, in the words of his brother in law, is real bad. After I saw him, I suggested we come back in the evening with communion. As we shared the bread and wine, I saw him sit up in his bed and smile, and my friends, there are few moments in life more blessed than that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On the Feast of Mary Magdalene

Temperature went down to 30 this morning. Fortunately, by the time I was out and about, the frost had given way to warmth. It did not, however, kill the mosquitoes who were seeking revenge for the weather. Cleared brush around the church. Heard an amazing life story from a beautiful old woman with two dogs, one of whom, "Misty" looked like a short coated version of Chinook. (For those of you unfamiliar with my life story, Chinook, Fairbanks born and bred, was my canine companion in high school and college and the one that got me into Alaska in the first place.) Delivered dinner to John down the street, walked down to the bridge with eleven kids, and spent the time I usually write getting my origami skills back up to snuff. A group of us went for a late night walk and watched outsized clouds gather over the river and burst open about twenty miles to the south. The Yukon flowed calm. A surprising outbreak of spiders, so I told everyone the myth of Athena and Arachne. The sun slipped behind the hill at 10 p.m. Days definitely getting shorter.

Our firefighters arrive home from Siskiyou County on Sunday, just when we have church. As a grateful Californian, I'm planning a Litany of Thanksgiving and a procession to the airport to welcome them home. Small world.

And now I'm off to bed. Blessings.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Monday

Here’s a picture of me and one of the chldren, lest you think I am making this up.


Haunted houses are quite the conversation piece. Having myself seen ghosts in Alaska, I’m hardly surprised, but of course some haunts are better than others. The red and yellow house is one of the better ones. I heard its story from three different kids. There was a pair of shoes that walked downstairs by themselves, and, in one version, actually landed on someone. This was a much cooler kind of visitation than the usual old grandfather who was nostalgic for his place by the fire.



Green gold light streamed through the birch leaves this morning. It was delicious to have the sun back. A cold wind was blowing, but a good walk took care of that. In a town that tends to rise around noon, I was surprised to see ATV’s out and about at 7:30. I attributed it to a burst of industry, but when Sue arrived at work, I got the real reason. The Tenana had arrived, towing a barge of heavy supplies. The shallow draught boats are able to pull very close to the bank. Offloading continued until lunchtime.


The Tenana is operated by Crowley Maritime, an old San Francisco company that at one time ran the Red and White Fleet. Members of the Crowley family went to our church back during the 1980's. When David developed Leukemia at the age of 10, I gave blood. I've preached several sermons about him, how having my blood in his veins joined us somehow. He didn’t make it, but down at the bank of the Yukon this morning I said a prayer for him. I imagined him, still ten, standing with me and looking with pride at his dad’s boat. As I said, haunting is not uncommon in the region.

After watching the barge for awhile, I set out towards the airport. I didn’t get far before my five year old friend appeared with her own plans for my morning. Day camp started this afternoon. We began with five minutes of meditation (which these guys do better than my own students, although they are so quiet that they can steal cookies during deep breathing without my hearing a thing!), half a Bible story and lots and lots of wild games: musical chairs, rock skipping, bubble blowing and hide and seek. The group started out as five and grew as the afternoon progressed. At one point, we had close to fifteen children between the ages of five and twelve. Later in the week I will start working with a woman to organize a more formal program to help them transition back to school, but for now we’re playing. I learn a lot when I play with people. As an educator, I am far more interested in helping people thrive in their world than I am in fulfilling standards. Wisdom is wisdom, and here it has much to do with wildness. Being wild is not the same as being out of control. At its best, it is beautifully disciplined, but as any mama bear knows, it must be taught.


At the end of an afternoon in nature, I chanced to read a government flier which offered training for Native Alaskans so that they might build a “sustainable” economy by investing in housing development and leverage. It was just incongruous. Debt a sustainable economy? What? This economy is perfectly sustainable as long as “investors” don’t come and plunder it. OK. You knew I had to rant.

At 7 o'clock, four more girls came over and we went down to the bridge where a couple of boys were shooting air rifles at unsuspecting grayling. Others were fishing with poles and showing off as only preadolescent boys can. Leaving them, we went off to climb trees and visit the bank to look for agates. We tried to play pick me up basketball, but someone had run off with the ball. So we sat and told jokes instead.

We're plotting heavy snacks for tomorrow.

It’s been a good day.

Sunday Services

"You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear," writes St. Paul in the Epistle appointed for Sunday (which we ended up not reading in church), "but you have received a spirit of adoption." I continue to ponder what this means in my journey of adoption into a native village in the far north. Didn't help that it rained all day. Fewer mosquitoes, but also fewer people out and about to meet and greet.

I began the day with worship in the Arctic Mission Church. The Arctic Mission is headquartered on 4th Street in Anchorage. Like Glide Memorial, it works with those who live on the edge, where darkness is visceral and stories of salvation vivid. Arctic Mission’s message is very simple: open your heart to God and God will transform you in ways that you could never dream. God really can rescue you from the grave of falsehood, addiction and despair. Creation may be groaning in labor pains, as Paul continues in today’s reading, but God isn't going to let us die in childbirth.

I went home to a delicious salmon Sunday dinner with the minister and his family. Janna sent me back with jars of homemade salmon as she could not stand the idea of my eating freeze dried food. Her husband showed me a video about an Inuit village in Pond Inlet, Quebec. Watching the transformation of Pond Inlet from a place of addiction, violence and depression into a place of joy was like watching the Acts of the Apostles in real time. Not only were the people healed, so, also was their land. The caribou returned. Also in the video was the story of Cn. John Turner, an Anglican missionary of the old style, who braved ice storms and drove dog teams over trackless wastes to tend his flocks. They are all remembered out here. Tom Cleveland in Grayling, the Chapman Family in Anvik; men and women who stayed with the people for years, learning their languages and walking their ways. Where did they go, the people wonder.

At 7 pm, I opened the community hall for our first service. Our altar was a card table. Chalice and paten were veiled by green felt with a beadwork cross. The altar book rested upon a willow basket stand made by a village woman. Never did find matches for the candles, but when seven children and three adults came through the door, the place lit up anyway. I felt great joy praying, preaching and celebrating. That said, I've got a ways to go before I hit my stride! Around here, the word is that we white folks talk too much. Too true and the Prayer Book service is nothing if not wordy. Raven agrees with me, I think, although you can never be sure with him. He was cawing up a storm when we came out after services.

I moved all the stuff for church over to the community hall in the rain, and moved it back in the mist. Now it is beginning to clear. Swallows swoop and dart before my window. When I stand on the porch they miss me by inches. On this Sunday evening, I sense your prayers in the air, and I send you all of mine. Being human, as Chris in the Morning said long ago on Northern Exposure, is a difficult gig. I've both sung and shed tears today. No one has all the answers. Precious few of us ever become saints. Still, it’s good we have those few around.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Growing Ears

Back in the distant time, Raven had to go away. So he told all the animals what to do in his absence. When he returned, he found that Rabbit hadn’t done a thing. Turned out Rabbit couldn’t hear. So Raven gave Rabbit the great big ears that he wears to this day.

I have been trying to grow my ears today and learn more about the people with whom I am living. Had coffee with Susan in the morning and a long visit with her father Henry at the end of the afternoon. Looking for Susan’s house, I found her dad's place by mistake, and when I went back to her dad's I walked almost the whole way to Susan’s! “What took you so long?” Dad asked when I finally knocked on his door. (He lives practically across the street from me.) “Would you believe that I’m getting lost in a town with two streets?” “Sure,” he teased. “You city folks can’t find anything without signs.”

Susan lives in a nice two-story log A frame with three little dogs. A spinning wheel sits in her living room. She and her sister spin quiviut. Quiviut, which is the soft undercoat of the musk ox, makes a yarn that is as soft as angora and a great deal warmer. She also sews furs. She asked me if I was one of those people who objected to furs. I said that I thought furs were excessive in California, but necessary in Alaska. I know from sled dog racing that nothing insulates a face from an arctic wind better than a wolf fur ruff. I actually like fur, but forego the pleasure because of where I live, just as I try to use less fuel, because I can and still live well. Life asks different things of you here. People need to be warm. They trap and skin the animals whose fur they use for slippers, hats and ruffs. This isn’t consumerism.

Susan and I had a long talk about the children. She asked me if I might be able to put together a kids’ program. I said I would certainly try. At the very least, I can slip a little learning into their summer play. And perhaps they can teach me about their village, the plants, the customs, the names of the birds.

After lunch, craving soda, I went over to the store and cornered the last six pack of Diet Coke. As it chilled, I went and cleaned out the church, bringing the lectern, Prayer Books, candles, cross and communion vessels next door to the community hall for our first service tomorrow. I returned to the store to pick up matches and brass polish at 2 p.m., but it had already closed for the weekend. One more difference in our ways of life. One I approve of, even if we may have unlit candles tomorrow.

During his 80 years here, H. has taught school and run traplines, brought in a great many fish, and before the days of ATV’s ran dog teams. We talked a lot about the Native Way and its relationship to the Church. He filled me in on a great deal of local history and tradition. “When Raven turns a circle in the sky, it means you’re going to see something.” Raven’s done nothing but hide from me today, though he had much to say during my morning walk.

I could say more, but I’m talked out and am not sure I’d get the names straight if I tried. I lifted up my eyes and saw an eagle cruising for fish on the river.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Meeting People



Note: Due to technical limitations (my husband's uploading the pix from San Anselmo), pictures will be posted after the daily blog goes up. Check back.

My Grayling winter wallpaper (posted on an earlier blog) has been a hit here. I'm not the only one who enjoys it when the Iditarod runs through. Have begun meeting people. Names, faces. In the morning I took a solitary walk, but by early afternoon I was dying for the company of children. And there, right around the corner, was one. She is five going on six and very excited about starting kindergarten with her best friend in the fall. At my request, she introduced me to her dog and a lovely creature we called Fluffy Wuffy who lives with her grandpa. She showed me her grandma's fish house and we counted swallows' nests. After that, she showed me her homemade swing and we both took turns propelling ourselves outward from the trunk of a birch tree. Then we were off to the store.

Even by California standards, prices in Grayling are very high. Gas runs $7.00 a gallon. Cigarettes will go up to $8.00 a pack on the 20th of this month. A box of Tic Tacs will set you back $1.45. People are worries about how high prices, especially transportation costs, are going to affect them. Out this far, you can't just ride the bus to Anchorage to save money. I was pleased to see that the store is well stocked. I can feed myself if I need to. And should I decide to clear brush from in front of the church of help plant potatoes, I will not lack sturdy gardening gloves.

At the store we met a friend. We three started walking down the north road, and that was how I met Abby M., wife of T., the pastor at the Arctic Mission. She was with her daughter Maddie and their puppy Princess. Abby studied Indian Health Care in the southwest. She worked as a nurse in Anchorage, but is now a full time mom (and librarian) to the two of her seven children who live with them here.

The Arctic Mission is the newer of the two churches in town. I looked inside this morning on my walk after I checked out St. Paul's. It is very welcoming. Meanwhile -- and remember that I had been warned -- the entrance to St. Paul's is so overgrown with wild celery that I must wait until the youth come with their clippers before we can hold services there. According to the local lore, you can predict winter snow depth by the height of the white wild celery flowers. They're up to my shoulders this year.



To get inside the church, I climbed over some building supplies, and wove a path through the brush to get in. Once inside, however, I was fully in my element. It is a beautiful little Episcopal Church, full of the fragrance of wood and wax. Beside the altar lie candles waiting to be lit. An old pipe organ sits expectantly on the left. Neatly stacked on a shelf in the rear are Prayer Books. I can feel the place waiting, holding a place for us.



Church and mission were built by a long term missionary whom I'll call Father Jim. He was an old school priest who believed his title entitled him to respect. I learned about Father Jim and others from an elder who dropped by the house this morning. He's turning 80 this year and is entitled to be reflective. We shared Episcopal Church stories. He's as full of questions about the future as I am. What does it mean when we say we're a church? I found a copy of the Anglican Digest. In it was a reflection that Hell is the ultimate personal achievement, while Heaven is letting others into your life. If that is so, Grayling is closer to heaven than many places. It is for me, because here I see so clearly so much that I don't know, so many connections that I have missed.

Meanwhile, my life on the computer is growing ever more tenuous. My Apple has the wrong ethernet card. The ladies in the office don't want me near their computers. I'm on Win 95 (by stealth) and my USB drive doesn't work. Non attachment. In today's world, non attachment means not being able to log on. The desert at 62 degrees north.

Went over and checked out the town library, open on Friday nights only during July. Once August comes, it will be open every night. I was so glad to see Janna again at the librarian's desk. We talked for well over an hour. She's wise in the ways of God. Also got some good bedtime reading.

The Grayling School is a K-12 with about 40 students. School will open the week after I leave. I'm hoping to meet some of the teachers during prep week. Tomorrow I'm going for coffee with one of the grandmothers to discuss the children's spiritual education. I'm already in love with them.

Tomorrow is also the big wedding in Anvik everyone was talking about on the way out. I'm going to see if I can hitch a ride on somebody's boat, but I won't be sad if I don't. Everything in its time. I may just be officiating at a wedding here.

Our first service will be Sunday evening at 7 p.m. I've been inviting folks to church. Never thought in my life I'd have the chance to do that. Blessings.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Journey to Grayling

Everyone in this part of the Interior has heard that California is burning up. The subject came up at the airport in Aniak, where I picked up my connecting flight to Grayling. I was amazed that our news could travel this far out. Later, when I checked in at the Grayling tribal office, I learned that the reason everyone knew about the fires was that people from this village have been sent to California fight them. The world is more connected than we suppose. I am deeply moved.

I spend so much of my life in California imagining myself in Alaska that by the time I finally get here, it is like being met at the airport by that little part of myself that is always here so happy to see the rest of me. Parker Palmer says that the point of life is to live “divided no more.” It makes me wonder how much of myself and others I simply ignore when I am rushing around being busy. Vacation time, traveling to new places, forces one to slow down and think about what matters. It matters to me how we live and how we treat one another. I want to do better.

Yesterday morning, we gathered at the Snow City CafÈ to celebrate Emma Klitzke’s second birthday. Chocolate chip pancakes are a Klitzke birthday tradition and Noah and his sister feasted on them while Paul, Sarah, Kathleen and I caught up on news. Emma’s a little wild woman. Noah remains a whimsical, old soul. Redeemer Chapel at Meier Lake, too, has gone through some changes, with Stations of the Cross now lining the trail that Elliott, Katie, Meredith, Mike, Cody and Cameron worked so hard to build. You did not bear your cross in vain, dear ones.



After breakfast, Kathleen and I visited the Anchorage Art Museum and walked through a fascinating exhibit of Yupik technology. The Yupik live to the south and west of Grayling along the Yukon and Kuskokwim all the way to the sea. They are a hunting culture. All their implements were beautiful, decorated with faces – men always smile, women always frown, raven’s claws and wonderful whimsical creatures that represented both fear and delight. We learned to sew a waterproof seam which came in handy when my suitcase broke and we had to repair the zipper! In the afternoon, the rains came. I don’t usually like rain, but having seen none since March, its soft drumming on the roof was soothing. We sat indoors, eating, sharing our photos and pondering things. Her sister had sent her an essay about ANWR. It was long and detailed, but one of the things that became apparent at once was that people like me don’t know much about the petroleum industry, nor does the petroleum industry know very much about me. We simply assume things. We project our own anxieties and shortcomings upon the other. Tree huggers are hypocrites. Oil people are pompous and narrow minded. What stereotyping. Kathleen works on the slope. I hug trees. We are best, best friends. If allowed to be free, intelligence seeks other intelligence, heart seeks heart. We are one body, says St. Paul.

The rains stayed all night and were still falling this afternoon when Kathleen and I at last said good bye. I boarded a Beechcraft twin engine prop for Aniak, a village hub in the southwest interior and she went home for some much needed down time. It was relaxed in the Frontier Flying terminal. People knew each other and shared news of city and village life. I met Josephine from Grayling, flying home after a visit with her brother and sister in law in town. Another man was talking about getting his daughter a good education, about making sure she was grounded in good values, secure in the company of good friends. Someone else remarked that George C. would be flying us today. The person next to him nodded approvingly.

I had been reading about a school in Peru where all the students were encouraged to look at one another’s papers during a test. The author writes, “I was puzzled to see all the little desks pushed together and teachers encouraging students to cheat! The school principal patiently explained to the dumb gringo that the kids were helping each other find the answers! ‘We want to overcome poverty,’ she said, ‘but if we are going to move up, we will all move up together.’”

Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. I pondered it as our plane rose above the cloud layer and I could no longer see the land below. The wheat and weeds pick up right where the parable of the sower leaves off. As all those seeds that have avoided birds, shallow soil and thorns are germinating in the good soil, Shadow Walker comes along and throws in a bunch of weeds just when I’m not looking. Happens all the time. I do well. It goes to my head. Giftedness turns into self-importance. In a polarized society where oil companies don’t talk to naturalists and Democrats don’t speak to Republicans, where rich and poor view each other with suspicion and cultures make all kinds of assumptions about what constitutes wisdom and skill, it is easy to say that the weeds are external, that good and evil are distinct, and just rip off those weeds, but the fact is, in the parable, the wheat and weeds live in the same field and their roots are all tangled together, which is to say, I’m a mixed creature. If I try to deny or pluck out the weed part of me, I’m denying myself, no less than Peter denied Jesus in the garden. Later on in Matthew, Jesus will remind us that a house divided against itself cannot stand, which is exactly what I do when I pretend I’m something I’m not. The parable teaches me not to try and sort this out, just to let it grow. Have faith. God will sort it out when the time comes.

In Aniak, four of us boarded a single engine Cessna for the fifty minute flight to Grayling. Our pilot was a good looking young man named Bryce. I wondered what called him out to these parts. One could certainly ask the same of me. I’m sure I saw a black bear just outside town. We flew over miles and miles of little green fields, just like the little green fields that so delighted Jay and me on our first and only trip together to London. Except that these little green fields were completely uninhabited, wild, stretches of green surrounded by natural hedgerows; glistening pools of meltwater. It looked very cultivated, as if Nature, left to her own devices, loved beauty and line and symmetry. The fields followed straight lines and in some of the sheltered fields, young spruce trees were growing. I wonder if agriculture was influenced by all this, if England’s little green fields are in fact tribute to her wilder past.




We touched down on a gravel runway and the village chief was on hand to meet me. He dropped me off at the Tribal Office where I have been since 4:30. I am locked in safe and sound for the night. I had a simple dinner of dried fruit and nuts and freeze dried sweet and sour. From time to time a walkie talkie comes on – people checking in on one another, making sure that all is well, call your mother, passing messages.

Tonight when I say my prayers, I will pray especially for the young people who are fighting my fires. I am grateful to be here. I have many questions and so very much to learn.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Coming Back to Earth




















Later, when I can find the words, I will tell you about what may be the most beautiful four and a half hours I have ever spent in the air. For now, just some pictures: the eastern horizon at about 9:45 at night as we flew over where the cruise ships go; Canada at 10:30 p.m.; the peaks and glaciers we crossed over on our descent to Anchorage. Coming into to Anchorage still feels like coming back to earth after a long exile deep in inner space. I cannot live inside my head in this place. No, that is not true. I do not want to live inside my head here.





















Kathleen lives in a splendid house. We are having the good time that only best friends can have: walking the trails, talking about God, culture, books, and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It is the perfect prelude to the more sobering work that awaits in the village.



















After a late breakfast, we went down the Seward Highway and hiked a trail overlooking the Turnagain Arm. A bald eagle rose in the air not fifty feet in front of us. Later, we encountered a little vole along the way, who tucked herself into the brush and let us contemplate her. See if you can find her – she’s a good camouflager. Magpies chattered by the bridge and the ravens were bothering the swallows – probably going after eggs, but who knows? Later, seeing a commotion by the side of the road, we pulled over and there was the Ram o God himself, holding forth on the rocks. The guide books proclaim that wildlife may be found less than five miles out of town, but this was the first time I encountered it in such profusion.

After an exquisite Thai lunch, we went to Campbell Creek – a huge urban preserve with a science center, an old WWII military airstrip now used by firefighters, miles of sled dog, ski and bicycle trails and a group of grizzly bears who take a swipe at unwary athletes from time to time. In the Creek we saw three huge salmon in their dark red spawning phase. Cottonwoods were showering everything with their puff balls. In Marin County, the cottonwoods pollinate in March. Cottonwoods have one of the largest ranges of any tree, growing all the way from Mexico to just south of the arctic circle. Birches, alders, aspens, wild roses, and daisies added to the green. The fireweed is just beginning. As I finish writing, wild geese are honking. I saw a flock of them at Potter Marsh, glistening under the reflective northern light and I could not help but wonder if they too had come north from Oakland for a summer closer to earth's ancestral home.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Flying North

The town of Grayling, Alaska lies about 300 miles northwest of Anchorage on the west bank of the Yukon River as it curves down toward the sea at Bethel. On the east is the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, home to 130 species of migratory waterfowl over its 3,850,000 acres. Grayling lies in the Yukon-Koyukuk Borough, a large swath of the interior that stretches from Grayling in the west, all the way up to Arctic Village in the northeast which borders on the far more well known Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.



Grayling is a village of about 200 people, spread out along the bank of the river. Here are two images: one from Google Earth, the other from the Iditarod sled dog race which shows St. Paul's Church. Graying is a checkpoint in odd numbered years when the race follows the more difficult southern route.


















All this is to say that on Monday, July 14, I am on my way to Grayling to serve as a parish priest for a month. The interior villages of Alaska are some of the most interesting and little known parishes in the Episcopal Church. During the early years of this century, missionaries, many of them nurses, braved isolation and harsh winters to share the life of the Native Alaskans. The Natives, for their part, found the Bible a reliable sacred text, as its stories were proven true in their own sacred traditions. Both Alaska and the Ancient Near East told of a great flood that overran the earth and an ark that saved the animals, although in the North, the raft was built not by Noah, but by Dotsen' Se, Great Raven. Jacob's ladder is paralleled in the story of "Eagle Man who Carried People Far Away." In another story, Dotsen' Se is killed by a chief who finds him nothing but trouble, but who is forced to repent and aid in Great Raven's resurrection. These are deeply true, earth and heaven based stories, just as our own faith stories are about the meeting of heaven and earth in the patriarchs, Balaam's ass, the prophets, the animals of Bethlehem and the Christ are true.

I go with a heart filled with gratitude that people yet live who know the land like a lover. I go with great humility because I know very little about life on the land. I ask your prayers. In turn, if I am able, I will post reports about life on the River, on the living waters of the Yukon, on my ongoing search to discover what does it mean to be a church, and my encounters with the real people whose lives have changed me in the reading of them.