Saturday, August 20, 2016

Fishing as a metaphor (or is it a simile?)

I sit suspended, floating in the dark water, and I wonder what is underneath. That's part of the allure of fishing. There is life - an entire ecosystem - in a world we cannot see. That unknown is also what makes me equally nervous. Fishing is a lot like life. You cast out, never knowing what might hit your line. Will it have barbs? Teeth?

I've been fishing a lot this summer, and it has me thinking about what the attraction is. As a girl, I went fishing with my dad often, so having grown up with it, I never questioned why we did it. We went fishing in so many places: Lake Erie, the Atlantic, this very lake. He pulled many things from many different bodies of water, from bluegill and sheepshead to giant red snapper, eel, and shark.

My dad, older brother, and me after a deep-sea fishing trip in the Atlantic
I have recently acquired his tackle and fishing gear - so much tackle! Fishermen. Always chasing the next best thing, that perfect piece of fake bait that will catch the big one. Incidentally, my dad was also a salesman. And a risk taker. He could convince the dead to buy life insurance. And he was always chasing the next best thing, even if it meant taking risks.

So, what is the attraction?

It's the unknown. The unknown can be scary, but it can also offer an elixir of hope. The unknown can yield the perfect fish. Fishermen are gamblers, ever hopeful, optimistic, hedging their bets that the next cast will bring luck.

Then, there is the waiting, and here's where fishing becomes therapeutic. In that silence and meditation-like concentration, time stands still and all worry and thoughts dissipate like ripples over the lake. The mind settles too in that quiet space. It's so quiet, it's almost deafening. This silence. Sit. I learned to be still from fishing, my first moments of quiet meditation floating suspended in time on a lake, waiting patiently for a nibble.

And then it happens. A ripple of movement reverberates up the thin line, up the pole to my fingertips. I pull back. The hook embeds. The catch. I reel in, pulling back every few seconds to ease the journey from water to air. My pole bends, and it's like Christmas. What will it be? Is it big? Will it have barbs or teeth?

I recently caught a foot-long crappie from the lake by my house. As it surfaced from the dark water, I reeled excitedly, my heart pounding. Its giant mouth emerged first, gulping great heaves of water and fighting futilely against my hook and line. Its big eyes bulged. This "man vs beast" moment is so primal, and I think it's also what keeps fishermen coming back for more. It's survival that clicks in, even though I can buy whatever food I need at the grocery store. It's a deep, innate instinct that hooks us into sports like this. And, the fish also primal, fights instinctively, a drive thousands of years old that says: no. Fight. Stay alive.

That drive is so strong in fish, their bodies so primal, their hearts keep beating for hours after they're dead. This phenomenon is shared by other creatures, such as turtles and frogs. Long after that crappie was dead, its head cut off, gutted and its body in my freezer, its heart kept beating hours after. If you're brave enough to place the heart next to your own blood vessel, like on your wrist, it will continue beating for hours, syncing up with the rhythm of your own blood flow. This drive to live, to survive, to keep moving forward.

I inherited many things from my dad: his tackle, his pole, but also his willingness to follow his dreams and the hook of hope for what's around the next bend. Like the fish, my dad's heart keeps beating after death. It lives in me, and in all that have hope for the next good catch.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Summer recap: what we do in the off season

So what does a girl do in the off season whose dogs take up much of her time in the fall and winter?

You would think the answer is relax, but we have been very busy this summer! Clearing trees, creating new puppy paths for daily walks with the dogs on our property, renovating this old farm house, and yakking! 

"Yakking" - my affectionate term for kayaking - has been a passion of mine for about the last eight years. This summer, I have officially passed the yakking bug over to my 12-year old daughter, Elise. She's become quite good at it too. 

Elise in the background being cool on her kayak
This summer has been unbelievably hot, with a total accumulation of three weeks worth of days at 90 degrees or above, so it was perfect to spend lots of time on the water. For her first kayak, I didn't want to invest too much. My Wilderness System is a mid-level kayak that costs about what you'd expect a mid-level kayak to cost. Not knowing if Elise would "take the bait," I opted for an "entry-level" Sundolphin brand sit-on-top kayak for her birthday in May. She had been kayaking in a tandem yak with me before, but this was the first time completely on her own. I gave her a brief lesson about the basics, and she took to it swimmingly! She's become quite adept on the water too and can easily keep up with me when paddling. We have enjoyed many hours paddling together this summer watching the fantastic sunsets over the lake by the Ranch.

Taken with my "real" camera: on of the amazing sunsets at the lake we kayak on

Elise's silhouette while watching the sun setting in the west
One thing I adore about kayaking is, because it's relatively silent depending on how you paddle, it allows for an extremely up-close and personal view of wildlife. I have seen more wildlife while paddling than at any other time, including by dog sled or backpacking. Elise got to see her first active beaver couple doing beaver things beside their den, muskrats, countless blue heron, falcons, hawks and many other animals.

A lone beaver swimming in the setting sun
We have been doing lots of fishing this summer too. Elise caught a fairly large catfish one evening, and last evening while kayaking, I caught a 12 inch crappie from the same lake. 

Elise focusing on her line

Me and the "crappie" - an unfortunate name for a beautiful fish

When it wasn't too hot, we trekked many miles hiking in various places where Pokemon don't go. 

Elise and her sister, Sophie on a family trip

Cooling their feet in the creek after a hike


We have ventured into less wild places too, like Stan Hywett Hall & Gardens in Akron - the largest house in Ohio. 

A view of the hall from the rose garden on the 70 acre grounds

Sophie and Elise in Stan Hywett mansion

And we have ventured into various craft stores and been silly ...

Sophie in Pat Catan's bouncing a giant fluff ball on her head ... 

...while a masked Elise watches on

Now we are gearing up for fall training to begin, and that normally begins around Labor Day, but I have little faith that the temps will cool off by then for us to run. 

Here's to a great summer and blanket weather ahead! 

A grainy cell phone photo from an evening when it was cool enough to cuddle in a blanket
Until next time,

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Bender

I watched a man die last night in the
Hollow din of twilight.
He was on a bender, a dance with death that weaved left of center colliding
With a semi tanker, the airbag, metal.
I, too, taunted death, but in my own morose mind, not through wine but through a bloodletting I so craved.

But in that moment when I watched you collide in crushed metal and smoke poof that
primal survival part of me took hold and I ran to you. I watched you
gurgle blood and gasp for each shallow breath. I touched you,
felt the heartbeat intent on life, that futile heartbeat.
Silly heart.
It's just a muscle, all brawn. It does not know to quit. And so it pumped and
until your lungs filled with blood and you gurgled.
I told you it would be alright.
I lied.
But I wanted to believe. I wanted so badly to believe
for you as well as for me.

Intention is everything.

Now, I am haunted by the acrid smell of the alcohol and blood on your breath, I am haunted
by the futile gurgle.
Airbag, blood and alcohol
Did you intend to dance with death?
I had been taunting her, too,
But in your death, I found my salvation.

- for Bradley Dillman  9/29/15

Special note: for those who are unfamiliar with the term "bloodletting" in an historical sense, please click here. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Processing grief: run your race

It’s really difficult to admit defeat. I pride myself on my “grit” and tenacity. Those who know me speak of it and have teased me about my tenacity, and I've developed quite a reputation for fortitude. The Finnish call it "SISU." Perhaps it's just a stubborn inability to stop, a will that refuses to allow things keep me from moving forward, but I pride myself on this reputation. I do not let things get me down. Ever. I learned from my days riding horses that you always get back up on that horse - or the sled runners, as it were. I have been in weather that would make others cringe and not stopped.

But, seven months ago, life handed me a series of sucker punches - quick right/left blows in rapid succession - that left me unable to get my bearings for awhile. I hit the mat, tried to get back up, and was handed another quick one/two punch that caused me to hit the mat harder.
As a musher, one thing we learn is to be adequately prepared. One of the surest ways to disorient someone is to throw a blow when they're unprepared. I was prepared for the first blow when I filed for divorce from a 14 yearrelationship. The next blows - which were much heavier-handed with the loss of my job and the death of my father - I was admittedly unprepared for.

The dogs have taught me that, sometimes, it is necessary to hunker down and simply take shelter. Trying to advance forward prematurely can make matters worse. I tried to advance prematurely at one point, but was handed another blow, so I decided to take a cue from the dogs and wait. 
When my dad died, time suspended. I felt like I was free falling but in slow motion. Everything else fell away. It took the wind out of me. Things that were seemingly meaningless took on great meaning, like a small nail file he used to obsessively file his nails with. Grief and loss - this kind of loss with divorce, job loss and the death of a parent all within two months of each other - changes a person forever. I could never have understood this kind of loss previously. 

These blows and the time that suspended subsequently froze several months. It seems, looking back, as if I was suspended in time, frozen like a still frame trapped within a film. All was silent in that frozen world and yet, life went on in a haze. 

Now, suddenly, it’s been seven months since those events, and I am no longer frozen by grief and debilitating loss. 

The dogs never lost their voices; they did not join me in my frozen stillness, and their life has helped breathe life into me again. They celebrate every day with a cacophony of howls that echo around the hills of the home. Those howls have fed my soul. The dogs remind me of who I am. They remind me of what's important: to hunker down if the storm is too bad, and then move on. Keep moving forward. . 
Slowly, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, I’ve oiled my frozen joints and started to move. Slowly, I've started gathering up the pieces. Part of gathering up the pieces is thinking hard about this healing process. Some might judge me for writing honestly about my vulnerabilities. But it seems the surest way to show strength is to, in fact, be vulnerable. Sometimes the truest way to show fortitude is through grace.

Grace: unmerited, undeserved pardon;poise and steadfastness in the face of adversity. Finding grace during this storm has been difficult at times. Sometimes we show fortitude through fighting back. I tried that tactic, but the storm grew bigger. I thought my anger would protect me. It did not. I made anger my best friend for a time because it seemed like my only safe ally. I felt justified to my anger and I held onto it. I slept with it, fed it, named it, confided in it, nurtured it, groomed it, and whispered dirty things in its ear to keep it near. But I came to realize my anger was not my ally. It didn’t protect me. My anger only fed my pain and alienated those who truly loved me.

I tried for a time to find a way to soothe the pain. But, there is no way to alleviate it, no magic elixir to wipe away the devastation or the hurt. It’s uncomfortable and messy and it takestime - sometimes a long time. You have to sit with your pain, and nothing will rush healing. You cannot evict pain before it’s ready to vacate the premises of your heart. You cannot cry it away or fight it away or fuck it away or run it away or push it away. Eventually, I had to accept it and sit with it, not with anger as my ally but with a cold, quiet acceptance and patience.

You can do a lot of things that at first seem unbearable and don't think you can do. The call woke me at 5:13 a.m. My dad was dead

I scurried out of the house in my pajamas and slippers and drove west to my parents’ house. He was lying in bed exactly how I’d last seen him. His hands were folded neatly, but his mouth hung open and one eye seemed to peek out of its half-open lid. 

I climbed in bed next to my dad and curled up on the right side of him, resting my head on his shoulder. I remembered as a girl cuddling with him this same way. He’d put his big bear arm around me and I’d feel his curly chest hair against my cheek. He smelled like man, like dad, a mix of Old Spice and sweat. 

Now, his chest was bony, hollow, gaunt, the outline of his pacemaker clearly visible through his paper-thin skin. The curly hairs that rested there were gray and thin. I sobbed, wrapping my arm around his body this last time. I’d lost both of the men in my life - my father and my husband - within two months of each other. 

The men from the funeral home came, finally, after my family grieved around my dad’s small body in the hospital bed in the spare bedroom. They put a thin gurney in the narrow hallway. It didn’t look wide enough to hold an average-sized person, but it was perfect for my dad. As they began removing the blankets that covered his lifeless body, I asked routinely “do you need help with anything?” not expecting an answer. 

Surprisingly, one of the men said, “Yes, in fact,” and asked me to stand at the head of the gurney to steady it for placing my father’s body on it. I did what I was asked. I am the daughter of a Marine, after all.

I stood holding onto the cold metal rail at the head of the thin gurney, bracing myself for him to appear. The hallway and time seemed to stretch, becoming longer, narrower, and my head started to spin. I sobbed in anticipation of seeing him carried out of his house this final time, questioning to myself whether I had the strength for this duty.

And then he appeared. Wrapped in a white sheet, naked except for his t-shirt and an adult diaper, the big man I’d known as my father appeared a gaunt, tiny, frail person in the funeral man’s arms. He carried him like a baby, cradling his head against his arm and chest and walked slowly, carefully toward me. As he lay my father down before me on the stretcher, time seemed to stop, a chasm of black where all sound and everything around me fell away. All there was was my dad.  

I looked down at his face from above and great swells of sobs took hold of me uncontrollably. The funeral man placed a navy blue velour blanket over my dad, pulling it taut up to his chin over the white sheet. I could see his thin legs under the blanket in repose and the knob of knuckles underneath where his hands were folded neatly over his rib cage. He looked peaceful finally as I looked down at him there. His mouth finally closed. 

I pulled the stretcher out of the hallway with the two funeral men, our informal private calling hours now taking place in my parent's living room, and my mom began to wail. 

“I can’t let him go!” she repeated, and leaned down and kissed my dad’s sunken eyes and cold cheeks and forehead. I wrapped my arms around her sobbing body. She shook with grief. I wanted so much to protect her from this pain. But I couldn’t. Grief is a process, and it comes in waves, and the waves crashed hard within my parent’s living room that morning.

I won't lie: while this storm raged, I didn't think I would emerge. But I have. I sometimes have to pinch myself to ensure it's real.

And now, I am thankful. Going through a series of adverse events that you think you can't walk through, you come out the other side having tools you didn't have going into it. There's new wisdom; there's new grace. 

Grace. Amazing grace. How do we come to grace?

You come to it sometimes moment by moment, hour by hour, letting the days turn into nights and the nights fade into mornings. You may walk around in a haze for awhile. That’s okay. Keep pushing through. You come to it by loving yourself, even on the days when you feel unloveable. You come to grace by showing up, and that can mean showing up for the little things or the big things: brushing your teeth, going to the dreaded grocery store, getting up out of bed when the alarm goes off, filling out tedious paperwork in some obscure office. And you come to it by being real, and vulnerable and honest. Sometimes that, too, is messy. In fact, that can be the messiest part. Owning mistakes - recharting the course back to that fork in the road when, if you had only done one thing differently, chosen the other fork, life would have been different - is messy and difficult to admit. 

There is a saying oft repeated in mushing. I’ve said it to myself countless times before pulling the snow hook finally to launch through the starting chute of a race, all dog power, butterflies and adrenaline. It is a quiet mantra in dog racing: Run your race

What this means is this: do not get caught up with worry about what other people in front or behind you are doing. The mind can play evil tricks when we get caught worrying about what others are doing. Worry about yourself. Take care of your dogs. Race how you train. Focus. Be alert. And most of all, enjoy the ride.

You come to grace when you run your race

Thursday, June 9, 2016

An open letter to Stanford rape survivor and the judge who sentenced Brock Turner (one in six)

Dear Stanford Survivor,

I choose to say survivor, not victim. You don't know me, but I have been where you are. And I write this letter because you gave me the courage to speak.

In the United States, one in six women has been or escaped rape. Sisters, daughters, mothers, aunts, best friends, coworkers, acquaintances. Someone you know has been sexually assaulted.

Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Girls ages 16-19 are four times more likely to be raped or experience attempted sexual assault. Those between the ages of 12 and 34 are in the highest age bracket for rape. Wounded antelopes in the herd, as you described your own experience.

Like you, I have been stripped in a strange place, scared, and left to watch blood run down the drain with water. A one in six. I have felt my insides burn from abrasions caused by sand, that grit from a foreign beach scraping me in the most delicate and private places. I have felt helpless.

Your letter or, what courts call "victim impact statements" moved me. I wish only that it could have moved the judge presiding over the case to see what rape is and to hand down a sentence that fit the crime. To that judge, I say this:

Rape is worse than murder. At least in death, there is some release and peace. Rape kills its survivor but then forces us to walk on. Rape robs us of privacy, dignity, and, often, a voice We return to life and "normal daily activities" numb in places that should never be numbed. Unlike you, I had no witnesses, no one to verify what happened. I didn't even have the words to describe what happened. Like many rape survivors, I questioned whether it even happened. Was I crazy? Why couldn't I remember the details. I returned to daily activities, but nothing was normal as I'd known it.

I was raped at 14 by a stranger in a strange place. I never told a soul what happened - literally silenced - until I was 16, and then, when my first boyfriend kept pressuring me for sex, I told him. His response to this most confidential secret knocked the wind out of me.

He said no one can be raped. Women ask for it: by what they wear, by partying, by going out after dark or to unsafe places alone.

As Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth say in their book, Transforming A Rape Culture, sexual violence is institutional violence. Rape and violence against women and the institutions that support such violence have to change. The institutions that normalize and minimize sexual aggression in men as "boys will be boys," and shames and holds responsible the victims of these reprehensible crimes has got to change. And that change starts with accountability.

Accountability does not lie with those who survive their attackers. Accountability lies on those who perpetrate these crimes and on those institutions that turn a blind eye to these crimes or otherwise condone them with a slap on the wrist.

I carried so much guilt and shame over what happened to me, when I was 17, I literally tried to cut that guilt out of myself by attempting to take my own life. It took me several years before I was able to see that the grit that scraped me in those most sensitive, secret places also scraped in me a thirst for life. That grit walked me through hell and showed me I had the courage to still stand. That grit formed who I am.

Now, many years later, I have two daughters, ages 12 and 17. I talk to them about that grit. I talk to them about rape. I tell them that we are strong. We come from a long line of strong women: sisters, daughters, mothers, aunts. I tell them we don't deserve this. And I tell them: the institution that gives a slap on the wrist to anyone who would do this has to change. And that change starts with them. It starts with voices. It starts with stories and speaking out. It starts with putting a face to the one in six.

So to you, Stanford Survivor (I wish so much that I knew your name), thank you. Thank you for your bravery to speak and tell your story. Your voice sent a ripple into the water of rape culture, and that has reverberated through and outraged people everywhere. Thank you for your tenacity and grit. Thank you for the courage to confront not only your attacker, but the institution that didn't hold that attacker accountable. Thank you for telling your truth.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ode to back-of-the-packers: run your race

At the time of this writing, there are still 28 mushers running the Iditarod race trail. There is much anticipation as to who will win Iditarod each year, and each year, there seems to be a fight to the finish among the top five teams. There are lots of stories of drama, challenges and adversity. This year's race certainly outdid itself in that category.

When the winners come in, it doesn't matter what time it is, the crowds gather. Cameras flash, and fans cheer far and wide.  Now that 3/4 of the racers have arrived in Nome, it seems things have died down. When those last 28 roll into Nome, do they find the crowds gone?

I personally tip my hat to the back-of-the-packers, for while many if not all mushers face adversity on the trail, often it is those who are last to come in who face the most adversity, who run their own race despite odds and often in solitude. They're the mushers who run their own race without worry about what the others' strategy is or how far they have in lead. They are the ones who, for them, it's not so much a race as it is an experience, a journey with many places to stop and marvel at the amazing life unfolding.

Really, I have no business writing this. I am small potatoes compared to any Iditarod musher, regardless of where they finish.

But this is an homage to much more than the Iditarod. It is an ode to the lifestyle, to those who live outside the lines, those who run their race without thought about whether or not they are good enough. It's a tribute to those who know that just showing up is enough.

It's about setting goals and sticking to them, despite the odds. Those in the back-of-the-pack are often the ones who face the most adversity, who run in solitude having been left behind by faster teams. They are the ones who can face the toughest set backs, like Minnesota's Nathan Schroeder whose father reported that not only was his team sick with a virus and stalled at the White Mountain checkpoint, but Nathan himself was sick and "coughing blood."

It takes a special breed of person to run dogs. As Robert Service said in his poem "The Men Who Don't Fit In":

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
 A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
 And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
 And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
 And they don't know how to rest.

If you're ever able to attend a dog sled race, stick around to welcome the back-of-the-packers. In doing so, you will welcome some of the toughest people with the most fortitude that you will ever meet. 

*Update: Nathan and Jodi Bailey came into Nome as I was writing this. Welcome in! 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

It's a way of life

During a recent conversation, I had to excuse myself so I could head home. I had been away for nearly six hours, and I needed to get home to tend to the fire.

"You sound like you live like a settler," replied my friend sarcastically.

I guess to some, we do. My house is heated solely from firewood.

Early in the morning before dawn, I emerge from the warmth of my flannel sheets into the cold house and head downstairs to stoke the wood stove. I have no propane, so I can't just turn a dial and wait for my house to get warm. I have to work for it. No matter what the weather, or my mood or health, certain things have to be done. Animals need cared for. Eggs need gathered. Fires need stoked, and firewood brought inside and stacked. I like to think it builds character as well as muscle. 

There is no television as in "cable T.V." We entertain ourselves with books, animals, coloring, games and obviously, the Internet.

The Ranch has become a sort of sanctuary. Without the clamor of television, it's so quiet and the sounds of nature fill the air.  In the evening, we burn candles after dinner, and the dogs fill our seven acres with song; sometimes coyote join in. A neighbor two doors down reported a black bear on his back deck last fall. One evening, across the road in the farmer's field, my daughter and I counted 16 deer. In the evening, we sometimes see half dozen rabbits hopping along in the grass. Foxes bark in the woods around our home. Bald Eagles and Red Tailed Hawks are frequent fliers;  bats swoop in the air at dusk in summer. Field mice scurry across the country road.

We move with the seasons and we never, ever stop.

Somehow living in solitude and in sync with nature grounds me, and I think it grounds my family. Some may see this way of life as difficult; others, desolate. We see it as beautiful.

There is not a day that I miss city life. We have lived at the Ranch almost six years, and I can't imagine ever going back to the suburbs, the luxury of turning a dial for heat or the sounds of traffic filling my ears.