Here’s a thing I wrote in 2016, and despite a lot of shitty events globally and incredibly dark mental/emotional states personally, pretty much sums up my year. Happy New Year, y’all. Here’s to 2017.
Once upon a time I built a house, made of wood and wool, and within that house I built a couch, a small couch, just the length of myself from tip to toe (a happy accident) and on a dark and stormy night (strange shadowdance of branches through the window at every lightning flash) I lay upon it.
Memory of other nights: streetlight shining in through slats of white plastic blinds, the wax and wane of headlights across dark shadowed walls. Blinking electric clocks, surreptitious screen shine of lover or husband checking their phone, sirens, low throb of bass from a neighbor or passing car, the click of a lighter on the front porch, soft woosh of the refrigerator door opening and closing. Green of money, not moss.
Loneliness like a hole in the world.
From the tiny couch I can hear, just on the other side of the wall, the steady dripdripdripdripdrip of water from the edge of the porch awning and small cascades and waterfalls coming down the trees. Rain on the metal roof is a staccato thunder echoing through the small space. A comforting loudness. Water is life.
This place I’ve found: silverglow through the skylight on full moon nights, fir branches reaching through the open window to rest on my cheek as I sleep, the soft crunch of deer hooves on the leaves, the hoot and call of owl and coyote all night.
Loneliness still but loneliness of an animal wanting to be touched, the longing of an alive thing that found life like a gift already unwrapped and given freely.
I’ve fallen asleep and a BOOM just overhead has me standing at the window before I know I am awake. The sky is starting to lighten and I can see trunks bend and branches thrash in the wind. I watch the trees and the trees watch me back. They seem to be enjoying themselves in this wild rumpus storm. I stay there for a long time, upright and swaying, one hand to the water-streaked glass, holding my place amongst the dancers in this moment between waking and sleeping, between dark and light, between human and other.
Wet moss green ferns rise reaching toward the shuttered sun shining behind grey clouds, water gone wild in the wind and the weather, awake aware alive alife. There is something here that we cannot feel without attention.
What if: it wasn’t something that had to be thought.
What if: it was only something that had to be felt.
What if: it wasn’t something that had to be decided.
What if: it was only something that had to be breathed.
I wake again at midmorning to a house gone green with tree-washed sunlight. Like being underwater. Outside the forest has stopped thrashing and dances gently. Golden leaves fall like snow. I hold my hand up to my face and watch the shadows play across my skin. There is a presence here with me that never leaves. Loneliness is a lack of seeing. Despair is a small grey room. The wild rumpus goes on with or without us. The dancers reach out their hands (webs of moss between their fingers). Will you reach back?
The Yazidi are a small ethnic/religious group that historically reside in northern Iraq. The Yazidi have undergone persecution for centuries, but recently have faced genocide at the hands of ISIS. In August of 2014 ISIS attacked the Sinjar area where most of the Yazidis lived. Many people had to flee to Mount Sinjar where they were trapped in summer heat without food or water. There were coordinated air drops of supplies from outside countries, but many people died on the mountain or in mass slaughters by invading soldiers. According to multiple sources, out of a population of ~half a million: 5,000+ people have been killed and 7000+ women and children have been kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. The majority of the population had to flee after the initial 2014 attack. Many are now living in refugee camps in Iraq, Turkey and Europe.
“The Yazidi community of Sinjar has been devastated by the ISIS attack. In its aftermath, no free Yazidis remained in the Sinjar region. The 400,000-strong community had all been displaced, captured, or killed.” from the Human Rights Council report.
The sexual slavery of the Yazidi women has been especially hideous. Girls 9+ and women were and still are sold privately and at slave markets. Older women not deemed sexually useful were killed.
“Captured Yazidi women and girls are deemed property of ISIS and are openly termed sabaya or slaves. ISIS made eighty percent of the women and girls available to its fighters for individual purchase, the apportioning being drawn directly from religious interpretation. ISIS sells Yazidi women and girls in slave markets, or souk sabaya, or as individual purchases to fighters who come to the holding centres. In some instances, an ISIS fighter might buy a group of Yazidi females in order to take them into rural areas without slave markets where he could sell them individually at a higher price. The remaining twenty percent are held as collective property of ISIS and were distributed in groups to military bases throughout Iraq and Syria.” (Human Rights Council)
From their page: “Yazda’s mission is to support the Yazidi Community in three main areas including Humanitarian, Advocacy, and Community.
Yazda humanitarian mission targets supporting Yazidi and vulnerable groups in the areas of trauma treatment for victims of enslavement, health care, case management for vulnerable individuals, humanitarian aid distribution, and Sinjar Outreach humanitarian project. Yazda partners with a group of leading international and national organizations to conduct its mission.
Our advocacy targets public and government awareness raising, recognition of the Yazidi Genocide by parliaments and governments, supporting Nadia Murad and other survivors to deliver their messages, documentation of the Genocide and accountability against perpetrators, establishing a future for Yazidis with safety.
Our community mission is a relatively new one and includes various educational, community development and cultural preservation programs.”
I know there is a lot of trauma and darkness happening in the world right now, and a lot of groups that need financial assistance. Any amount you can give will help, no matter how small. Thank you for reading, and for your contribution.
Philip Levine was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2011-2012. He wrote beautiful poems based on his blue collar life in Detroit, combining working class life with a depth of spirit that was often startling to read. He died yesterday. You should read Last Words and Our Valley and especially:
Picture Postcard From The Other World
Since I don’t know who will be reading
this or even if it will be read, I must
invent someone on the other end
of eternity, a distant cousin laboring
under the same faint stars I labored
all those unnumbered years ago. I make you
like me in everything I can — a man
or woman in middle years who having
lost whatever faiths he held goes on
with only the faith that even more
will be lost. Like me a wanderer,
someone with a taste for coastal towns
sparkling in the cold winter sun, boardwalks
without walkers, perfect beaches shrouded
in the dense fogs of December, morning cafes
before the second customer arrives,
the cats have been fed, and the proprietor
stops muttering into the cold dishwater.
I give you the gift of language, my gift
and no more, so that wherever you go
words fall around you meaning no more
than the full force of their making, and you
translate the clicking of teeth against
teeth and tongue as morning light spilling
into the enclosed squares of a white town,
breath drawn in and held as the ocean
when no one sees it, the waves still,
the fishing boats drift in a calm beyond sleep.
The gift of sleep, too, and the waking
from it day after day without knowing
why the small sunlit room with its single bed,
white counterpane going yellow, and bare floor
holds itself with such assurance
while the flaming nebulae of dust
swirl around you. And the sense not to ask.
Like me you rise immediately and sit
on the bed’s edge and let whatever dream
of a childhood home or a rightful place
you had withdraw into the long shadows
of the tilted wardrobe and the one chair.
Before you’ve even washed your face you
see it on the bedoilied chiffonier — there,
balanced precariously on the orange you bought
at yesterday’s market and saved for now.
Someone entered soundlessly while you slept
and left you sleeping and left this postcard
from me and thought to close the door
with no more fuss than the moon makes.
There’s your name in black ink in a hand
as familiar as your own and not
your own, and the address even you
didn’t know you’d have an hour before
you got it. When you turn it over,
there it is, not the photo of a star,
or the bright sailboats your sister would
have chosen or the green urban meadows
my brother painted. What is it? It could be
another planet just after its birth
except that at the center the colors
are earth colors. It could be the cloud
that formed above the rivers of our blood,
the one that brought rain to a dry time
or took wine from a hungry one. It could
be my way of telling you that I too
burned and froze by turns and the face I
came to was more dirt than flame, it
could be the face I put on everything,
or it could be my way of saying
nothing and saying it perfectly.
“It could be my way of telling you that I too burned and froze by turns and the face I came to was more dirt than flame.” I first read this poem four years ago as I was going through a crisis that I can look back now and say was a crisis of deciding, once and for all: do I want to be alive? And this poem was part of a torrent of support that came from all corners and dimensions, saying “Look. We have all gone through this too. You are not alone.” Thank you for that, Philip Levine, and blessings and love on your journey. What is remembered, lives.
It’s Shakey Graves Day in Austin, Texas. You can download all of his albums and a new one added today on Bandcamp. Pay what you will. Shakey Graves is awesome. Go, give him money, and get some amazing music.
Anchored in Slocum Inlet. Nasty weather today- rain, heavy wind. We are spinning in fairly rapid circles around the anchor. The gillnetters in their tiny boats are being thrown all about in the chop – makes me nervous for fall fishing in Puget Sound. Peaceful day – we left Gastineau at 3:30 a.m. and went up to Auk Bay to ice up the four Lynn Canal boats. Icing was harder today – had to do way more shoveling, with hardened ice and one boat after another. My arms were screaming. Made bacon, eggs and grits for everyone and then we came down to Slocum. I slept. Now the boat is silent. I’m watching the waves and fog out the window and looking through the chart maps. Earlier I was sitting at the galley table reading, Joe and Gwynne next to me and I looked up to find the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen coming straight out of the water between our bow and the shoreline. I went outside and the wind was so strong I could barely stand upright; it was flinging drops of seawater and rain at my face. It was so beautiful and wild, and I thought again about risk, and how the most beautiful, precious and sacred things are often only shown to you if you take on the risk and danger of finding them. If you make that sacrifice to the gods. I would never have seen the rainbow if I hadn’t gone to work on this boat, unexperienced, with strangers. The rainbow was full, stretching across our bow into the water on either side, and at one end bobbed a small blue buoy… the crab pot at the end of the rainbow. I doubt it could have been seen by anyone not in the harbor and I stood on the bow and laughed aloud at the secret, delicious magic of it all, the rainbow and the uninhabited green mountain behind it, the wild wind and rain, and the company awaiting me inside the cabin. All afternoon the wind has been groaning through the rigging as we turn and turn through the waves. We had halibut fried in Bisquick for dinner and then sat talking for hours. Now another night of sleeping soundly on the rocking of the water.
Last week, everyone was all aflutter that Fish and Game was going to open up the back end of Port Snettisham. A hatchery sits back there and the biologists believed half a million pounds of salmon were there in the water, waiting to go up the rivers to spawn. ADFG announced Friday that they would open the area on Sunday. We got extra ice and on Sunday morning motored slowly through the bay, a beautiful and quiet place, the mountains of the mainland and Snettisham Peninsula all granite and moss rising right up out of the water to ice and mist capped peak. The fog hung in long, thin bands across the water and clinging to the sides of the mountains. Boats were anchored near the rock walls, waterfalls pouring down into the bay just behind them.
You could feel the tension in the air and then it was noon and the nets spooled out behind the boats and into the water. A few hours later we watchd through binoculars as the pulled the nets back in and there we saw… nothing. A fish or two every few feet. Everyone was disgusted. The half million pounds of salmon had all disappeared up the rivers the day before.
We hung around the area for another 4 days until fishing closed on Thursday. The fog closed in. Most everyone left. On the boat we got bored, then antsy, then anxious. The name ‘Snettisham’ will forever be synonomous to me with cabin fever.
From the bow of the boat, I can see the lights of Petersburg sparkling red and yellow in the distance. We slide by Sukoi Island, a black silouette in the middle of Frederick Sound. My cell phone lights up- reception. Contact. I stand at the bow and check text messages as the cold wind slides by my face and we turn into the Wrangell Narrows. A few minutes later the captain angles into the small space at the pump dock and I lean out over the rail to hook the line over the cleat – too far – my foot slips in the Crocs I never wear on deck and I fall forward onto the rail with a thump. I catch my footing, hook the cleat, and tie off the line, my heart pounding. It was a minor scare but the worst I’ve had on the boat so far. I am careful. A few minutes later we all scatter for the evening. I climb up the slippery ladder and step onto the dock and am hit with the now familiar feeling of the ground beneath me seeming to sway. I get more seasick with this feeling on land than I ever do on the boat. I weave through the bright cannery buildings, the processors just cleaning up for the evening, all familiar faces from my time here as an office clerk last year. On the street I see the bright neon signs in the window of the bar and hear music coming through the open door. Town. Dry land. People. After taking care of some business at a friend’s house, I consider stopping in for a drink, but when I poke my head in the room seems claustrophobic and all the people unfamiliar and unwelcoming. I climb back down the dockside ladder and enter the warm, comforting confine of the boat to sleep soundly in my tiny bunk until we begin offloading at 7 a.m.
What to tell of my first 2 weeks on the water? How about the afternoon I took wheelwatch as we headed back to Petersburg from five days in Snettisham Bay. As the captain passed off the wheelhouse to me he said casually- ‘watch for icebergs’. We passed Holkham Bay and there they were, scattered across Stephen’s Passage, the unearthly glow of ancient ice shining in the distance. I steered the boat around them, never closer than a mile, giving them an unnecessarily wide berth. Too many viewings of Titanic. Not much later I saw a black fin cutting the water directly in front of us, and a moment later a huge killer wheel surfaced just below the wheelhouse window, not 10 feet from the boat. She was black and shiny like oil, big white patches over her eyes. Even in that quick moment of looking, she seemed to me to be intelligent, confident. She dove under and when I looked back, I saw her surface and dive again behind us.
The nights on anchor in this or that harbor, the boat swaying gently beneath us and the swishing, sucking, slapping noises of water coming in through the porthole. Or laying down for afternoon naps, the same swaying, watching the reflection of the sea sparkling on the ceiling of my stateroom, 6 inches above my head. When the boat is on anchor I fall into a kind of infantile total abandoment of consciousness, a black depthless rest unlike anything I experience on land.
Then there are the nights that we are running on the water, the diesel engine roaring beneath my head, the anxious memories of every story I’ve ever read about boats sinking keeping me awake until I fall exhausted into nightmare after nightmare about drowning.
The sunsets. Every night, the sunsets over the water and the islands. Orange and pink, blue and purple, even on the cloudy days it breaks through, always a vivid, startling display of color in the sky and shining across the water.
Finishing up wheelwatch a few nights ago just as the sun was setting at 9 p.m., I sat on the back deck to watch for whales. The sea was flat calm all the way across Stephen’s Passage to the mainland. The setting sun had disappeared behind the mountains but still shaded the water a deep rose, darkening to black. Across the expanse of water I could see, here and then there and then there, closer and farther away, the quick delicate flip of a humpback tail as they dove down into the deep water. For a moment the tails stood silhouetted against the dark mountains and the pink water.
Two nights ago, on anchor in Merrisfield Harbor, we were already in bed when a fisherman called on the radio, asking to offload. Five minutes later and we all stood on deck, fully geared in oilskins and gloves, blinking sleepily in the bright halogen glow of the decklights. The lights shine the otherwise inky black water a translucent green for the first few feet. I see a silver sparkle, and then another, and when I peer over the side of the boat I see a school of small silver fish, no more than 3 inches long – the salmon we will be catching in a few years- leaping for bugs on the surface. Their tiny fins flip back and forth at a frenetic speed and they all seem to hover there in unison, and then quick as a blink they are gone.
The work. Shoveling ice into totes, fast as you can, hurry the captain is waiting. Hacking at compacted walls of ice in the hold with a shovel or a sleek, sharp silver chopper. Tying up boats, learning to judge which cleat use, when to pull a buoy up to the bow, when to tighten the line and when to leave slack. Sorting fish cascading wet and slime covered out of brailer bags onto the sorting table, silvers with beady little eyes and metallic streaks in their tails, chums with arrowed tails and vertical stripes of black and yellow like bruises, sockeyes sleek and clean, pinks small and polka-dotted. We go quickly and I am usually still puzzling over the first fish when my co-worker is finished. Learning to never stand under the crane, always watch the heavy metal ball, don’t let it hit anyone in the head, don’t pick up a salmon by it’s tail, don’t lean too far over the rail when tying up a boat, don’t stand between the moving totes and the rail, watch your fingers, don’t fall overboard, if we start to sink wait until the water has filled up the cabin before you try to swim out.
The slow building of strength and competency. The small victories. The moments when it feels like all the strange, random experiences I’ve had in my life have given me the necessary skills to work on a boat. Clean the head? Sure, I used to be a maid. Cook dinner for us every night? No problem, I’ve worked in restaurants and lived in a punkhouse with a dozen people. The balance and grace it takes to jump around on the back deck reminds me of all those nights out dancing. My body knows how to move with rhythm and purpose. After 9 years of cannery work I am almost unphased by any kind of sleep or meal schedule. All those years in Portland with strange, random roommates make it easy to live in close quarters with strangers. All those years in the cannery making it easy to find the common ground and turn stranger into friend.
The compliments, sometimes direct, sometimes overheard. The quick, snapped chastisements. I remember every one and weigh them against each other like black and white chess pieces. Am I winning? Am I losing?
The moments when I feel like a dunce, a clown, a hopeless city girl who will never fit in in this world. Those moments happen too. But they come less and less often.