Poetic Interference

(This special edition blog post, was first published on 49Writers, to Alaska’s literary community statewide, March 10, 2022.)

By Kathleen Tarr

Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ukraine’s beloved poet, playwright, and painter is honored in this bronze statue installed in 1960 in Washington, D.C. and dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Its inscription says it is “Dedicated to the Liberation, Freedom, and Independence of All Captive Nations.” Shevchenko spent many years imprisoned for his pro-Ukrainian sovereignty activities in czarist Russia. The statue is maintained by the U.S National Park Service. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.)


Ukrainians are being praised for their bravery, courage and resistance against Russian aggression. It has been unbelievable to see the news about Ukraine’s fight for freedom, how they have managed to combine military force with extraordinary inner strength to defend and hold on to their democratic and sovereign homeland.

The immediate response from Ukrainian writers and poets, and to those who stand in fierce solidarity with them against Putin’s brutal assault, has also been remarkable.

Less than one week after Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” began, I received word in the comfort, warmth, and security of my Anchorage home that my friend and former Alaskan colleague, Olga Livshin was helping organize a Facebook live stream poetry event called Voices for Ukraine.

Olga Livshinpoet, writer, translator and teacher now resides in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She was born in Odesa, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish journalist. Olga emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was fourteen. We first met at University Alaska Anchorage where we both worked and shared adjacent offices, she as the Russian language professor, and me, as the program coordinator of UAA’s low-residency MFA program, and adjunct instructor.

Poet Julia Kolchinksy Dasbach who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, co-organized and co-hosted Voices for Ukraine. Julia emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. as a Jewish refugee at age six.

The 2.5-hour onlineprogram on March 1st which sprang together with hardly any advance notice, instantly drew an audience of 860 or more from around the world—writers, translators, Ukrainians, plus regular readers, and people from as far away as Bangladesh who have nothing to do with literary circles.

Olga and Julia described it as a “transatlantic, trilingual (Ukrainian, Russian, English) virtual event in the middle of war and displacement.”

Voices for Ukraine was unlike any live Facebook event I have attended. While listening to this spontaneous combustion of creativity, the firepower of international camaraderie being publicly expressed for Ukraine, I kept asking myself, “Is this real? Are Russia and Ukraine really in a war?”

As a writer, this part of the world—Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and the Baltics—has been a personal area of focus for several decades. I lived solo in Krakow, Poland for most of 2014, and from my rented flat in the Kazimierz district, continued working on the manuscript for my book. I first went to Russia in 1990, and have visited the country over ten times, most recently, on four trips since 2003.

In January 2020 I flew nonstop from Los Angeles to Moscow on Aeroflot, right before the killer virus disrupted everything. I remained for two weeks. Returning to Russia anytime soon will be impossible.

On Voices for Ukraine, an array of powerful voices, most of them unfamiliar to me, united to recite their poems, including Boris Khersonsky and his wife Lyudmila Khersonska who joined in live from Odesa. (Khersonsky has 36,000 Facebook followers, but I did not know his work until I listened in.)

“This was such a space of support and solidarity, so many tears and such positive energy, such hope in the face of atrocity and catastrophe,” co-organizer Julia said in an email.

One of the featured poets, Iya Kiva, had just been fighting for the last two days, and posted on FB that this was the first night she had slept in her apartment. Another poet, Lyuba Yakimchuk, had been gathering medical supplies and her husband was driving them to hospitals in Kyiv and Kharkiv, across dangerous roads being bombed and patrolled by Russian troops.

“And these poets, they took time away from much more urgent work,” Julia said, “to be with us, to read poems, because poetry is its own urgency.”

President Volodomyr Zelensky, as of this writing, remains protected within the ancient and beautiful fortress of Kyiv. There is something special about Zelensky’s voice which obviously relates to his former life as a professional actor. Zelensky is someone who carefully considers words he utters, and words he hears. I pay close attention to his verbal mannerisms, his tone, how he sounds in translation. I do not yet hear any double-speak pouring from his lips.   


What happens, during tragic and dangerous times such as these when poets rush in?

Do missiles suddenly stop flying? Do Russian soldiers abandon their convoy, park the tanks, and peacefully walk away? Do politicians (from everywhere) who blindly tow party lines quit promulgating lies and supporting the drone of propaganda? Do authoritarian rulers squirm, break out in a sweat, reverse course, and back off in order to dismantle their global reputations as a possible war criminals?

Of course not. I ask only for rhetorical effect.

CNN recently interviewed a Moscow journalist who worked at the last independent television, TV Rain, now shut down. The anchor and news director explained that Russian people don’t want to be isolated from traveling and communicating with the rest of the world. The cultural interconnectivity between Russia and other countries has been very strong among the younger generations.”

Her words made me shudder: This is the end of the Russia we had known.

“Putin has destroyed everything free and independent in the federation. We haven’t seen anything like this.

What kind of 21st Century Russia does Putin want? What is the world in for?

On my winter trip to Moscow in 2020 to see my long-time Russian friends, the city looked vibrant, resplendent and more prosperous than I had ever seen it. We took pleasant but cold evening walks along the Moskva River lined with shops playing Western music. Strands of colored and sparkling lights adorned the spotless riverfront for several miles. Every day, my nine-year old surrogate niece and I worked together on her homework practicing English. She studies at a private language school in addition to attending her regular public school full-time. At the end of her lessons, she took me to task over my basic Russian.

Whenever I speak a few words in Russian, the sounds and rhythms strike some pleasure center in my heart. And then I come back to Alaska, put my notebook on the shelf, and quickly forget all the latest Russian words and phrases added to my vocabulary.

Putin continues to squeeze freedoms making it illegal for Russians to publicly criticize the government’s invasion or to talk about the war. Not only that, he throws people into jails and prisons for it. Over 4,300 more protestors on the streets of Russia were detained today, as I write this—an estimated 1,700 of them were automatically incarcerated or hit with large financial penalties.

On state-controlled media, Putin angrily calls America and the West the “empire of lies” which in many respects, doesn’t seem that far-fetched when applied to the Trump era.

Putin alleges that the Russian military is not killing Ukrainian civilians.

One of my Russian acquaintances, a professional filmmaker and cinematographer, has left his home in Moscow this week and is on his way with his wife and children, driving to Georgia to escape the chaos.

This pattern of migration sounds historically familiar.

After the Bolsheviks seized control during the Revolution, many educated Russians from the cultural elite, the intelligentsia, departed in the 1920s and early 1930s, choosing instead to live as emigres in Paris, where many continued to write and publish poetry, prose, and theological and philosophical works.

Several years ago, Olga Livshin and I collaborated to design and co-teach a 49Writers seminar on Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest poets of the Soviet era who briefly traveled to Paris as a young woman, but who remained inside the Soviet Union. Akhmatova lived through the bloodshed, the assassination of her former husband, the imprisonment of her son in the labor camps of Siberia, the calamities of World War II, including the horrendous Nazi siege of Leningrad, as recalled in her famous verse, “Poem without a Hero.”

Until her death in 1966, she “grew steadily as an artist, never ceasing to write, even in difficult times.”

“My poetry is the link with our times,” Akhamatova said. “When I write, I live with the very pulse of Russian life.”

A vast land of extreme contrasts, paradoxes, and contradictions, Russia’s long history is an anguished and glorified one.

A continuous cycle and battle between repression and liberalism on an unfathomable scale. Russia is at once a cold cellar and a warm hearth.

And now Russia has invaded Ukraine…


My first, most vivid impressions of Russia date back to age 14 in my birth city of Pittsburgh when I happened by chance to see the much-acclaimed film Doctor Zhivago in matinee re-runs.

I grew up mainly viewing Russia and the USSR as the monstrous enemy of freedom-loving America. The country was full of conformists and automatons who, out of fear, had to be obedient and march lock step under their communist leadership.

As a kid, I could absorb very little about Doctor Zhivago’s political realities, the reasons for the chaos and violence, i.e., the shootings between Reds and Whites, whoever they were, and why so many nice people were freezing to death, going hungry, and abandoning all their belongings, fleeing to any place where small personal freedoms could be found.

The poet, translator and novelist, Boris Pasternak.

Maybe in my young mind, as I watched those haunting images and as I listened to the unforgettable balalaika soundtrack in Doctor Zhivago, I started to subconsciously absorb some understanding of what Russianness was, besides the standard communist stereotypes I was exposed to.

Over and over again, as an American, as someone with Polish and Lithuanian ancestry, and as a writer, I have been determined to scratch below the surface, to make attempts to understand something more meaningful and experiential about Eastern Europe and Russia, in discovering what truths exist beyond objective, economic statistics.

By the time I got to Alaska in 1978 and lived for a time in Sitka (New Archangelesk) and on the Kenai Peninsula where there are several Russian communities of Old Believers, and onion-domed churches, my interest in Russian history and culture expanded in a deep way. The geographic place names of Alaska connect us directly to some history with Russian explorers and fur traders: Baranof Island; Shelikoff Strait; Kalifornsky Beach Road, Mt. Veniaminoff volcano, Nikolaevsk.

I have watched and re-watched Doctor Zhivago many more times over the years. Then and now, I believed there was such a thing as Russianness, and that it must have something to do with the symbolically powerful images British film director, David Lean, masterfully created in his interpretation. What lodged in my imagination were the panoramic shots of the snow-covered Urals; whistling trains; women in furs; and the clanking trollies similar to the streetcars I always rode in my Pittsburgh childhood.

From the film, I also vividly remembered the ominous looking steppe, the fields of sunflowers, how the remaining leaves from golden birch trees scattered and fluttered across the wintry ground. And that chilling line from the movie spoken by a revolutionary: “The personal is dead in Russia” has never left me.

 The leading man, physician-poet, Yurii Andreievich, played by Omar Shariff, was not any kind of an American action hero, wielding weapons, and leaping over tall buildings.

In one of the scenes I could never forget, Yurii stayed up all night in a freezing room in rural Russia, hovered over a small table, writing poems while his mistress slept. He wore threadbare gloves, had dark circles under his eyes, and wrote with the light of only a single candle. The wolves literally howled outside, a metaphor for the ravages yet to befall the land.

The candle was a direct reference to Pasternak’s poem, “Winter Night,” part of a cycle of poems he included as a kind of appendix to his novel. It referred to his line from “Winter Night”:  “A candle burned on the table / A candle burned.” Say that line to any educated Russian and they will immediately know whence it came.

Yurii, this weak, passive, and distracted man, as some believed, did not define himself according to external political structures, dogma, or party labels. He maintained his “secret” interiority and personhood. Manuscripts don’t burn, as Mikhail Bulgakov, said.

Through my all my travels and readings, I have learned something about the values and temperaments of everyday Russians, their stories, folklores, myths and symbols which speak more directly to whatever this idea of Russianness was. I had to look outside the assessments of the Kremlin, European economic councils, and American think tanks. A more idealized, less morally and politically corrupt Russia, in other words, existed in the shadows.

In my mind, it had something to do with a whole whirl of images that raised a different kind of historical consciousness: spending time breaking bread with strangers around a hand-hewn table; walking through forests; journeying as a pilgrim to visit a staretz for spiritual wisdom; steaming in the banya; riding horses and sleighs; foraging for mushrooms; ballet and Tchaikovsky; growing vegetable gardens at dachas; making cabbage soup, blini, and pelmeni; sewing and embroidery; selling sacks of potatoes on roadside stands far away from Moscow; village folk dancing and singing in the villages of Chuvashia or Novgorod.


Voices for Ukraine reminded me that I should be reading more contemporary Ukrainian poets. I do own one book by Sirhiy Zhadan, poet and novelist from Kharkiv, but honestly haven’t read a complete poetry collection by any other poets currently living in Ukraine. My only experience in Ukraine itself was spending an entire night trying to sleep in the Kyiv airport when my flight from Vilnius to Krakow was cancelled.

I finally got around to reading Doctor Zhivago in 2003 when, once more I was in Russia, only this time to take my first trip to St. Petersburg for the 300th anniversary of its founding by Peter the Great.

Pasternak’s novel was banned in Russia until 1988.

The poet, translator and novelist, Boris Pasternak.

Most writers know the story of Pasternak’s last few years, but as we witness what’s happening today under Putinism—his vehement intolerance for even a shred of dissent or free expression—the Pasternak affair bears repeating.   

Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but in a hail of criticisms by Soviet authorities, capitulated, and was basically forced to decline acceptance of humanity’s most prestigious literary award.

The beleaguered poet, under severe pressure, issued a lukewarm public apology for having written the unacceptable Doctor Zhivago

Background: In 1957, after the preeminent Russia literary journal, Novyi mir, refused to serialize any part of Doctor Zhivago. The manuscript for Doctor Zhivago had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published first in Italy. An English translation appeared in late summer 1958, and on October 23, 1958, the Nobel Prize was announced in honor of his lifetime achievement as a scholar, translator, poet, and prose writer.

Four days later, Boris Leonidovich was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, the organization established in 1934 by the government and to which all professional writers were obliged to belong if they hoped to earn any kind of frugal living as translators, writers, or editors. 

Internally, the Soviet press viciously condemned the writer. During the scandal, the Authorities labeled his one-and-only novel as “squalid.” An international furor quickly erupted over his harsh treatment. 

 Pasternak’s novel, which he considered his best work, never mentions Lenin nor Stalin, nor does it celebrate the Russian Revolution. It does not reaffirm or comment on any communist doctrines or theories. What it does do is illuminate the human condition.

From 1958 until 1960, the poet, spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, exchanged several letters and books with Pasternak from his Cistercian monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. After the writers’ union expelled Pasternak, Merton got wind of all the controversy and strongly defended him. (All of Merton’s mail was censored by his religious superiors, but somehow, he was granted special permission to send letters to a fellow poet in the nefarious Soviet Union!) The renowned Catholic monk typed and mailed a letter to the Soviet Writers’ Union. After Pasternak’s death in 1960, Merton wrote and published a brilliant essay of over 30 pages on Pasternak’s genius. It remains one of my favorite essays of Merton’s.

On the pages of his journal, Merton asked: “How else shall I study Boris Pasternak, whose central idea is the sacredness of life?”

“…It would seem that Pasternak’s ability to rise above political dichotomies may very well be his greatest strength. This transcendence is the power and the essence of Doctor Zhivago. One of the more important judgements made by this book is a condemnation of the chaotic meaninglessness of all 20th Century political life, and the assertion that all politics has practically ceased to be a really vital and significant force in man’s society…”   —Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions

Concealing truths about dark realities is something the Soviet government did exceedingly well throughout the twentieth century, especially during the Great Terror.

The biggest lies Stalin and his associates told about Ukraine was that there was no forced famine, no Holodomor in 1932-33 when, in fact, an estimated 10 million peasants died in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, including three million children who died of hunger, in his campaign to crush and liquidate the peasantry and kulaks in the name of farm collectivization and de-nationalization.

The truth about the loss of life was not fully disclosed until secret files were opened during the Gorbachev era.  (The historian Robert Conquest in his bone-chilling book, Harvest of Sorrow, estimates that a total of 11 million innocents died in the Soviet terrors between 1930-1937.)

As a young but internationally known and important Soviet poet in the early 1960s, Yevgeny Yevushenko (1932-2017), born in Winter Station near Lake Baikal in Siberia, he spoke assertively for the need to substitute falsehoods for truth, and for poets to have more artistic autonomy.

I once heard Yevtushenko give a poetry reading at Eckerd College in Florida, and couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. Here was the poet who wrote the famous, “Babi Yar” and “Heirs of Stalin” poems, plus volumes and volumes of poetry for the past forty years.

At that time Yevtushenko was in his early 80s and was living in–of all places–Oklahoma!!! Yevtushenko stated that it was the early generation of poets post-Stalin, in his generation who created the “cradle of glasnost.” The zestful, charismatic Yevtushenko had paid several visits to Alaska over the years, referring to Alaska and Russia as “un-justly divided twins.”

During glasnost and perestroika, a grassroots euphoria broke out in Alaska over its relations and attitude toward Russia. I was privileged to be a part of the post-Soviet wave of positivity and hope. A spiritual paradigm shift of sorts. Russia led me inward.

Part of my job at the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce was to organize several important trade missions to the Russian Far East to promote business cooperation. I studied Russian at UAA, hired a private Russian language tutor, hosted an exchange student from Magadan in our home, and traveled to Irkutsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Chukotka, Moscow, and to Magadan. (The port city of Magadan shares a sub-arctic climate with Anchorage and was officially designated as our “Sister City.”)

In the years before Putin came to power, optimistic Alaskans—and not the Washington, D.C. policymakers—seemed more ready and psychologically equipped to help build the New Russia. Various indigenous peoples such as Yu’piks and Inupiaks, could prove they shared common ancestors and bloodlines with Russians across the Bering Sea, in Yakutia, and Chukotka. The week-long “Soviet-American Reunion” we organized in Anchorage in 1989 was uniquely Alaskan.

Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the incredibly hard truth we are all confronting right now is that those goodwill efforts built in the 1990s are probably buried until the next political and cultural Thaw.

PART FIVE (and the final curtain on this blog post)

Putin’s imperial gamble, his unconscionable invasion of Ukraine. is tragic and hard to stomach.

It’s as if the linear historical clock has been smashed to bits, and we are plunged backward into a warped recidivism, to a divisive and frightening world order full of threats and fears about nuclear weapons resembling Cold War2. We not only have malicious propaganda to contend with, but cybersecurity warfare, too.

I think back to one bright September day in 1991. Russia was at the very beginning stages of reforming from political deception and economic disaster to flashes of more political truth and historical reconciliation. It certainly felt like a New Russia was being born. And that America, too, was genuinely interested in the new and dramatic reforms taking place. A democracy couldn’t and didn’t automatically develop because we had set up NGOs and supported energy companies partnering with Russians.

I was in the Russian Far East that September 1991 working as staff to a delegation of high-level Alaska mining officials. My second such trip over. Our business group was hosted in Magadan by the state-owned Russian energy company. Magadan, on the Sea of Okhotsk, was an administrative center for mining operations but it had retained its gruesome reputation over its involvement in the forced labor camp system during Stalin’s time.

Magadan looked dilapidated, run down, and economically forgotten by Moscow. I remember seeing bathroom plumbing held together with duct tape, and visiting apartments where families lived completely crammed into tiny spaces in ugly concrete buildings. The central government controlled the dates and times when families could turn on their hot water.

Our meetings took place at a retreat complex reserved for high-ranking managers and engineers and their families out in the country, about 30 kilometres distant from Magadan proper.

I walked around the drab, 1950s buildings and performed my patriotic duties—I passed out candies and trinkets of Alaska flag pins to any boys or girls I might see.

A girl of about age nine confidently stepped towards me and said hello in polite Russian. Nadia was dressed in a red skirt, baggy tights, and wore a yellow satin bow in her hair almost as big as her head. Before the children darted for the candy, they had been occupied playing with glass bottles and cans. Nearby, I spotted a long wooden panel painted with a portrait of Lenin.

In this public art piece, Lenin was surrounded with members of the young communist league, each of them smiling and saluting to the hammer and sickle of the Soviet flag.

After Nadia put the bubble gum in her pocket, she turned to me, assumed more of an erect posture, folded her hands, and began reciting a Pushkin poem in Russian that I could only half-guess had to do with autumn and falling leaves. 

I often remember this little innocent with her wide smile, the one who freely recited some verses to a stranger and foreigner from the decadent West. In that frozen moment of time in the former gulag city of Magadan, it was joyful to no longer be “of the enemy.”

No child since Nadia has ever said thank you to me with such an unusual and unpredictable gesture.

I still picture Nadia in her proud and formal stance reciting Pushkin without hesitation or stumbling. I will not forget that tender moment and how very Russian everything seemed to be.


(Kathleen Tarr, Anchorage, is the author of the memoir, We Are All Poets Here. As a Merton scholar she is a frequent speaker and teacher about Thomas Merton’s life and legacy and serves on the national board of the International Thomas Merton Society. A founding member of 49Writers, she is also a member of the Alaska Historical Society and former board member of the Alaska Humanities Forum. She earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Reach her at:  ktarralaska@gmail.com)

The Things We Need

(a reflection on Christmas 2021….)

Growing up in a single-parent, non-religious household, the oldest of five children, we moved from apartment to apartment during those rough years. To support us, my mother worked night shifts as a hospital admissions clerk, and for a time, we received government food stamps.

In Pittsburgh’s public schools, students performed holiday skits and most classes held musical performances, making Christmas time something extra special to look forward to. I remember standing on stage under a spotlight in junior high, a scared stiff, bow-legged kid ready to sing a small solo part in “What Child Is This?”—a moment that also abruptly marked the end of my musical career.

Families enjoyed being together to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on television. Real, live carolers showed up in low-income neighborhoods wearing Santa hats. City sidewalks filled with shoppers rushing home from brick department stores with their treasures.

I remember the rare smile that crossed my exhausted mother’s face in the wee hours of Christmas morning as she watched each one of us pounce like a pack of wild dogs on the little somethings she made sure were tucked under the tree.

This year, chintzy Christmas products hit the shelves quite early in the box stores, though the inventory and selection seemed more limited than in recent years. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas have materially blurred together.

As we whizzed towards Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, I wondered how another holiday season during COVID-19 would turn out?

Given the major supply chain problems, coupled with ongoing COVID infections, anxieties about the Omicron variant, frenetic schedules, and overly distracted psyches, people naturally took some relief from the e-commerce god above, Amazon.

Looking back, the year 2021 began nationwide with a dose of political shock treatment. Our democracy teetered on edge with the events surrounding the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.

The year ends with the recent arrival in Anchorage of up to 100 Afghan refugees. They have fled the violence and oppression in their country to relocate to the Land of the Midnight Sun, though at this moment, in late December and early January, it certainly isn’t that.

Ideally speaking, in this place of golden dreams and opportunity for all, the refugees are here to begin their whole lives anew, to find stability and peace. In the midst of a brutal upheaval, a sense of inner prosperity.

They will have to learn English, figure out the currency, find employment, be shown how to use computers, pay bills, budget and shop for groceries, and use public transportation. And hopefully, in time, they will learn about the essential meaning and fundamental responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

They have come during a time of corrosive political rhetoric. From the U.S. Congress on down, we appear to suffer from a collapse of honest, constructive and respectful public discourse. Language itself has been debased.

As the Afghans try and settle in, how will the families survive their stark transition to this quirky place where moose, lynx, and bears can be found roaming about? And where prices for goods and housing runs so steep?

The Refugee Assistance & Immigration Service, part of Catholic Social Services, is working extremely hard to coordinate federal funds and to collect enough in donations to provide refugees warm parkas, winter scarves, leggings, and thick socks.

Will the Afghans have adequate apartments with a few throw rugs to warm the floor? Will they have plenty of tea, cardamom, lamb, dates, eggplants, and other culturally appropriate foodstuffs and spices to get by? Will their little children who don’t yet speak English have the chance to frolic in the snow with friendly playmates?

Winter Solstice gatherings are a big part of outdoor holiday celebrations all over Alaska. We take headlamp hikes in Kincaid Park and hit the cross-country ski trails. Families huddle around fire pits and take drives away from city lights to gaze at the stars.

For this year’s solstice, I attended a small party for the fully vaccinated. A friend invited me into her cozy, art-filled home, where a fire crackled and guests indulged in canapes, cheeses smoked salmon, and irresistible candies. We sipped fancy cocktails in martini glasses and had Prosecco with pomegranate seeds floating on top.

All throughout the holidays, I continued my close musical partnership with Alexa. I still marvel at how she played any holiday song I requested, including Kristen Chenowith’s new Christmas album. But I was not very polite to Alexa.  I constantly interrupted her by bouncing back and forth between traditional melodies such as “The Little Drummer Boy,” then to Chris Stapleton, to a little Josh Groban, and another switch to Amy Winehouse Radio on Pandora.

Even with the strands of white lights I put up, and the music magically conjured by a simple voice command, at times, it was hard to calm the jumping mind. The darker moments still arrived.

Two Anchorage families I know lost every single thing they owned when their separate hillside homes were razed and consumed by fires in 2021. I thought about family members who are gone, the two younger siblings I lost unexpectedly over the past ten years, the dear friends who have moved away from Alaska.

Through the volunteer grapevine, some good news and cheer, though:  Alaskans, once again, have shown great generosity and compassion through their giving to the Afghans, as they have for the refugees from Somalia, Cameroon, Sudan, and Ukraine who arrived before them.

On this day, in this present promise of a New Year, we can also gift our new Afghan neighbors with the stunning beauty of hoarfrost, alpenglow, the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range. These silent, snowy peaks may be a welcome reminder of their mountainous homeland. Maybe Alaska’s mountains will help ease their minds, and ours, of the million little things.

Maybe together, in community, we will whisper a vow of wonder to not give up on the future. To believe in this country, in its basic goodness, and in its great spirit of hopefulness. To sing the best that we can.

In the words of Proverbs 8:11:For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.”

To the Moon, Alaska!

(The following commentary first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on July 20, 2019.)

I met two of the Apollo 11 astronauts — Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — on their inaugural trip to Alaska in July 2001, a thrilling and meaningful encounter.


Their primary mission was to fish for king salmon on the Kenai River. But the astronauts were also here as VIP guests to commemorate the first anniversary of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, our state’s only space science education center for children. Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, himself a former World War II pilot and a tireless advocate for Alaska aviation, secured the bulk of the necessary construction funds via a special one-time federal appropriation.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of humankind’s most miraculous, awe-inspiring feats of history — Apollo 11. Under massive constraints of time, money and risk on every level, we developed the ingenuity, technology and teamwork to safely launch Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and back.


The cosmic endeavor cost billions of dollars and took hundreds of thousands of people from all across the country working in sync to make the epic journey happen. And yes, it was rocket science — the best and brightest rocket scientists. And the ranks included the top engineers, computer technicians, metallurgists, test pilots, satellite inventors and MIT graduates.


But the people working behind the scenes at NASA — excellent administrators, data entry clerks, secretaries, accountants — also exemplified the kind of resolve and dedication that the star test pilots oozed in their DNA.


Scientifically informed politicians, well-trained journalists and enthusiastic classroom teachers all played a visionary part in boosting the space program.


Astronaut Buzz Aldrin looks back at Tranquility Base during the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. (Nasa)
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin looks back at Tranquility Base during the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. (NASA)
Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke to students at UAA's ANSEP building on Friday, January 15, 2013. Students from Mat-Su middle schools, Bethel and Nome high schools and UAF in Fairbanks are in Anchorage for the program. Aldrin is the special guest at the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program celebration at the Dena'ina Center Friday evening. Aldrin was the second person to walk on the Moon. The Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim Tsimshian dance group performed at the talk.
Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke to students at UAA’s ANSEP building on Friday, January 15, 2013. Students from Mat-Su middle schools, Bethel and Nome high schools and UAF in Fairbanks are in Anchorage for the program. Aldrin is the special guest at the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program celebration at the Dena’ina Center Friday evening. Aldrin was the second person to walk on the Moon. The Lepquinm Gumilgit Gagoadim Tsimshian dance group performed at the talk.


If we pause to take an evolutionary look back, our species, Homo sapiens, has survived thanks to superb capacities for cooperation between groups, as the Israeli anthropologist, Yuval Noah Harrari points out in his bestseller, “Sapiens.”

Historically, something else has bound Homo sapiens together, Harrari says, while paradoxically, also tearing us apart: our fictions. The whole array of communal beliefs, myths, stories and imagined realities we choose to believe in have also led us to undertake monumental, risky explorations into the unknown.

These astounding moments of convergence and alignment, such as the Apollo program, are something to think about as we face the most vexing and monumental issues of our day, i.e., global climate change, how to repair the Earth’s biosystems, how to save the oceans, how to feed the world’s population.


Michael Collins, who was also a member of the Gemini 10 crew, told reporters it wasn’t circling the moon that dramatically changed him, it was seeing the Earth from 239,000 miles away. “It’s not just a rock. It’s a fragile place,” he said, “and we need to do a better job of protecting it.”


What’s troubling in our current political atmosphere, though, and what can cause a sense of despair to sink in, is that due to the modern breakdown in community values, in family and in our unifying myths, we have forgotten how to bridge the gulf of differences that separate us. Alaska right now is the perfect example of rancor and splintering.


As a society, we have become more scientifically polarized and less likely to read in-depth. We resort to emotionalism, stereotyping and name-calling. Fostering real dialogue between opposing groups is an ideal often promoted by elected officials, voters and party members. In reality, however, there isn’t much evidence to prove that fostering real dialogue as a way to get from A to Z has been implemented in practice. Cooperation goes up in smoke.


In the volatile decade of the 1960s, not everyone believed America should prove its superiority against the USSR by spending astronomical amounts of taxpayer dollars on space program stunts. Many critics viewed space travel as a total waste of precious resources while important social programs languished.


Yet the naysayers at the time were a real part of authentic public dialogue. They kept NASA sharply focused on goals and objectives. NASA had to be truthful. They had to answer the controversy in the language of numbers, cost overrides, balance sheets and budgets.


But in the heyday of the U.S. space program, the bottom line wasn’t the bottom line.

NASA also spoke to the public and Congress in inspiring terms, not only in dollars and cents. They used brilliant public relations tactics, no doubt, by using various members of the astronaut corps to ignite passion and imaginations, to appeal to humanity’s sense of awe and wonder.


Instead of concentrating on whatever commercial products might result from Apollo 11, NASA appealed to a belief in something far greater to rally Americans. To probe the universe. To answer an insatiable hunger to gain more knowledge. To foster a “can-do” problem-solving spirit. To push forward into the future against insurmountable odds (which also produces uncharted consequences).


Most importantly, instead of continuously bashing and humiliating the opposition — those evil Soviets — through hateful Cold War rhetoric, NASA actually mentioned future cooperation as a possibility. After Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong traveled on a kind of diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union. Armstrong was warmly received as a hero by our “enemy.” Both superpowers extended a hand to one another through the International Space Station and other shared scientific efforts.


Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their indelible footprints on the moon’s bleak surface, in its “magnificent desolation,” as Aldrin described it. Col. Michael Collins, the lunar command module pilot, is the least well-known of the three elite astronauts. Humble and self-effacing, he’s the astronaut I most closely follow. Collins, age 88, has remained 100% satisfied to be, metaphorically speaking, in the moon’s shadow. A member of a distinguished military family, he has always viewed himself as an equal member of the Apollo 11 team. He hasn’t cared in the least that no action figures were ever created in his image.


Once he left NASA, Collins, a United States Military Academy graduate, became the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and later, a trustee for the National Geographic Society. He’s been inducted into many halls of fame. He still enjoys fishing and has become a visual artist.

We all know that Alaska and the country have greatly changed since Apollo 11 and joy was shared on everyone’s faces at the ticker-tape parades.


At a South Anchorage park recently, I struck up a conversation with a retired military man who was having fun flying his expensive Maverick Air drone in the skies above me. The high-tech drone supports his photography hobby. There are probably more aircraft flying around Alaska today than ever before, he said. More than 50 new F-35 fighter jets will be based at Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, as Alaska has not lost its strategic importance.

We are now living in an era of unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones are here to stay. Rovers send back mind-boggling images from the surface of Mars. Nobody knows whether Homo sapiens will ever make it to Mars. I’m not sure if the Red Planet, 140 million miles away, really generates any excitement in the public’s eye.


The souvenir snapshots of Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins I took 18 years ago in Kenai will now be passed on to my four-year old grandson. One of his bedroom walls is decorated with painted renditions of the planets. Together, we often dash outside to count the numbers of airplanes we hear soaring over his house. He doesn’t yet understand who Michael Collins is, but soon enough, he will.

Psychic Impacts from Anchorage’s Magnitude 7 Earthquake

Kathleen W. Tarr

If, during childhood, I had experienced anything like the unforgettable phenomenon and terror of a major earthquake, I might have grown up with the inspiration to become a geologist. When the catastrophic magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on Good Friday in 1964, however, I was a young child living in Pittsburgh with no knowledge of the natural laws of geology.

Anchorage’s recent M7 earthquake—on November 30, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.—was also unforgettable. And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since that I was nowhere near Alaska for the much greater one of 1964.

I’m not sure if neuroscientists have written much about the lingering psychological effects caused by major earthquakes. (I’m writing this from Southeast Alaska after gladly accepting an invitation from friends to get away from the shakes and rolls. Only trouble is, I’m situated on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, where the Yakutat block is…

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Psychic Impacts from Anchorage’s Magnitude 7 Earthquake

If, during childhood, I had experienced anything like the unforgettable phenomenon and terror of a major earthquake, I might have grown up with the inspiration to become a geologist. When the catastrophic magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska on Good Friday in 1964, however, I was a young child living in Pittsburgh with no knowledge of the natural laws of geology.

Anchorage’s recent M7 earthquake—on November 30, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.—was also unforgettable. And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since that I was nowhere near Alaska for the much greater one of 1964.

I’m not sure if neuroscientists have written much about the lingering psychological effects caused by major earthquakes. (I’m writing this from Southeast Alaska after gladly accepting an invitation from friends to get away from the shakes and rolls. Only trouble is, I’m situated on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, where the Yakutat block is thrust into the Fairweather Fault, one of the fastest moving terranes on the planet.)

I’ve been thinking about the mental and physical changes I immediately felt as the earthquake hit.

That morning, I was alone in my small, one-story ranch house on very flat ground, sitting at my laptop working. The entire structure, violently jerked and swayed, wall to wall. The power instantly went out. My coffee sloshed completely out of the cup and onto the floor.

Within the inner recesses of the mind, in its substrata, a major transition occurred. I can only describe it as a kind of cognitive liquefaction.

In that harrowing moment in the midst of the pitch blackness, my rational faculties went slip-sliding away, too, and my brain—as I have tried explaining it to my friends—turned into a glob of goo. And when that happened, another part surfaced, some long-hidden, primal instincts temporarily took control.

My whole body trembled, convulsed. This is it. On a Richter Scale of Fear, I registered an 11.

I ran screaming to the front door and stood frozen with indecision, then collapsed onto the doorstep. With both hands shaking, I called anybody I could think of who might come over, crying through very jumbled words. The M7 unleashed 90 percent of the total energy, far more power than all the subsequent aftershocks combined, a fact I later learned from the hard-working seismologists—and something to frequently remind myself about.

Within 15 minutes after the M7,  a male friend who happened to be driving nearby (he thought the wheels were coming off the axle of his Suburban) came to my rescue. This is what he found: a helpless, disoriented creature, a woman curled into a heap, barely able to speak or stand up straight. And yet, by extraordinary good fortune I hadn’t sustained a single cut or bruise and my five-year old house was still standing. I gazed up at him, hugged him, and then in my desperate, semi-delirious state with my arms locked around his neck, I practically strangled him.

A reluctant confession from my independently-minded self. The more primitive part of the brain the brain responded: “It’s good to have a man with me.”

I was not able to sleep a wink that first night, as most everybody I know in the Anchorage area has admitted—men, too. All night long, I sat in a chair positioned close to the front door, fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket, with my car keys, winter coat, boots, hat, gloves, and fully-charged cell phone.

To help counter my fears, I searched for the blue Rosary beads that once belonged to my now deceased mother. I found them in a small jewelry box, took them out and muttered a few prayers. Not a rational gesture by any means.

For days, my legs felt as if I had been on a Bering Sea crab boat; it was hard to stay balanced while working in my kitchen, especially if another aftershock hit. I jumped with every loud or unexpected sound I heard, every creak or vibration, whether it came from the refrigerator’s ice maker, wind rattling a vent, a freight truck rumbling down Lake Otis Parkway, the furnace kicking on—even the ding from an incoming text message would set me off.

In my quest to relieve some of the psychological stress, it has helped to review the history of North America’s most powerful earthquake.

After the epic M9.2 earthquake in 1964, teams of geophysicists, geologists, and engineers immediately swarmed into Southcentral Alaska.

“Hundreds of foot soldiers of science, in pursuit of the secrets of the inner earth, roamed around,” as Time-Life Books reported in their popular Planet Earth series from 1982. Our young state was turned into a “a full-scale laboratory experiment.”

During the data-collecting frenzy of the 1960s—and it must be happening now, as well—scientists and engineers studied aerial photos and soils maps, they measured landslides and fault scarps, looked at groundwater movements, and scrutinized buildings and other structures.

Those passionate scientists did anything and everything possible to fully analyze the physical mechanisms involved. The total energy output of the 1964 event was estimated to be the incomprehensible equivalent of 240 million tons of TNT, as one report said. And that unfathomable energy and force pulsed through 100,000 square miles of land, either heaving it up or dropping it downward.

After years of study, the much-anticipated professional papers were produced summarizing crucial scientific findings of M9.2.

USGS’s final report, Professional Paper 546, “The Alaskan Earthquake—Lessons & Conclusion” stated that M9.2. generated more scientific study from all scientific disciplines than any single previous national disasters in U.S. history up until that time.

Six hundred miles of fault ruptured at once and moved up to 60 feet, releasing about 500 years of stress buildup.

Over 130 people were killed, most by tsunamis—including 16 deaths on Oregon and California shorelines. The earthquake lasted almost five minutes and the aftershocks continued for a psychologically damaging 18 months.

One side of Fourth Avenue, as we all know from the iconic earthquake photos, buckled and cracked wide open and dropped over six feet. Seward, Valdez, and Chenega—to name a few locations—were decimated. Some areas near Kodiak were permanently raised by 30 feet, and over 60 fishing vessels were sunk or severely damaged in Kodiak harbor.

For further comparisons, I recently watched a 46-minute documentary film. “Though the Earth Be Moved,” produced by the U.S. Office of Civil Defense, reported that one million gallons of jet fuel spilled at the Anchorage airport in 1964. The film showed the one-year-old, JC Penny store in downtown Anchorage, demolished. Slabs of falling concrete killed two people.

Another important fact must be noted: I am done with aftershocks, though lately, they have grown much weaker.

Anchorage residents, as the Anchorage Daily News not long ago reported, still suffer from anxiety. The M7 epicenter was too close (less than 15 miles away) to simply forget it happened. Since the main shock, 40 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater have frayed nerves, disturbed and frightened children and pets. Being home alone is probably not the best thing, counselors have advised.

Even though I’ve lived in this seismic land for decades and have been in plenty of other earthquakes and tremors, I had not yet gotten around to the serious business of reviewing and filling the “survival checklist.”

However, the M7 (which sounds like a galaxy) has jolted me and my friends into a new reality. We have acquired a heightened state of awareness about where exits are in public places, and where the highest elevation points are if we live in coastal areas. In the city, we are worried about the Port of Anchorage’s further structural deterioration and our overall food security.

We are tallying water jugs, battery supplies, and headlamps. We are investing in propane camp stoves and securing any heavy household objects that could topple over and cause injury. We are storing more cans of sardines and dried beans in our pantry. We’ve made a plan about whose house, if still standing, will be “earthquake central” next time.

A few months have gone by and I have made a conscientious effort to suppress the emotional outbursts, the fears, and to focus more rationally on what I should have done and need to do. (Writing about it has also been a kind of therapy!)

But honestly, one day of unprecedented terror is enough, thank you very much. So says the emotional self, loud and clear. Never again. Woman, you are a weakling and need to toughen up, comes the more commonsense internal response. But it does seem that female friends reported experiencing more lingering side-effects such as nausea, dizziness, and stronger desires to jump on the next plane to Seattle.

One local geophysicist I know, a Stanford graduate who worked on the Earthscope project installing seismometers throughout Alaska, tried consoling me: “The magnitude and frequency of aftershocks, will, over time, diminish,” he said. “So when one occurs, please be happy.”

M7 has also reminded me—or maybe emotionally pummeled me—into remembering what is real and what is abstract. This is the earth. The earth and its powerful forces are real. You more fully comprehend these titanic geophysical changes when you live through them, when you have felt your whole body physically react.

In our 21st century society of technological advancement, global inter-connectivity, and physical comforts with mostly reliable sources of heat, fuel, food, and water, rarely do we think about the consequences of any of that being taken away, with absolutely no notice.

The fact is, according to the Alaska Earthquake Center, Alaska had 55,000 earthquakes in 2018, a new record. And that is an astoundingly real number. Seismically, we are North America’s big daddy. It’s impossible to walk around Alaska geologically numb or indifferent to the dynamism of the ground beneath our feet.

The psychic rebuilding is going to take a while. Those fissures of fear run deep. Alaskans of yesteryear showed grit and resiliency. They bravely stayed put and rebuilt.

Geologists have done remarkable work in the past 50 years to better understand tectonic plates. But with improved mathematical modeling, better instrumentation and satellite observations, many mysteries remain to ignite the scientific curiosities of our species.

Our precious planet, forever in-motion, commands utmost respect and rapt attention. If we are to read its messages–whether geological or climactic–maybe what we are each called to do is to listen more closely to the earth around us.  Listening also involves occasionally studying and learning on one’s own.

It is beyond our current scientific capability to predict what kind of earthquake will happen and in what exact location or time frame. We operate on the laws of probability and statistics. Next time, perhaps, I will be better prepared and a little less anxious. But I’ve decided to keep my mother’s prayer beads on the mantle. That way, I can easily grab them in my mad run to the door.

News & Events


January 16, 2019    Barnes & Noble, Anchorage, book signing, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

February 13, 2019   Author Presentation, OLE Program (UAA); 9:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

March 9, 2019          Author Reading, The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe

March 27-20, 2019   Associated Writing Programs conference, Portland, Oregon

April 27, 2019 —       Featured speaker, New York City, Corpus Christi Chapter of the                                                 International Thomas Merton Society.

June 27-30, 2019 — Presenter, International Thomas Merton Society, 16th General Meeting, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California.


November 10, 2018, Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh, noon to 2:00 p.m., Featured speaker—informal book talk.

November 1, Kenai Peninsula College, Kenai/Soldotna, Alaska….McLane Commons, 6:30 p.m., Presentation and reading for KPC’s Showcase:  “From the Inner Frontier to the Last Frontier: Thomas Merton’s 1968 Journey to Alaska.”

October 14, 2018, Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, guest speaker at Sunday Forum, 9:00 a.m. to 10:15, 2824 East 18th Avenue, Anchorage. “Reflections on Thomas Merton’s 1968 Alaska Journey.”

October 15-18, 2018  Yakutat, Alaska, presentations to book club and community on We Are All Poets Here.

October 4, 2018
Alaska Professional Communicators, luncheon guest speaker. Kinley’s Restaurant (3230 Seward Highway, Anchorage), 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

September 28-29, 2018
“Thomas Merton in Alaska” Conference, St. Elizabeth Anne Seton’s, Anchorage, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Merton’s 1968 sojourn to Alaska. Conference speaker & book signing.

September 12-15, 2018
Alaska Historical Society Annual Conference – Tundra & Ice: History in Alaska’s Arctic. Conference Speaker. Nome, Alaska.

August 26, 2018  Book Signing, St. Paul’s Corner, Holy Family Cathedral, Bookstore, 5th Avenue, Anchorage.

Other appearances:

Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain & Ireland (TMSGB&I) Oakham Conference. Left to right: Gary Hall (TMSGB&I), Stephen Dunhill (TMSGB&I), Kathleen Tarr, and Dr. Paul Pearson (Director, Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University).

KT 49W Talk March 1
Kathleen signs books at 49 Writers Craft Talk, March 2018.aWe Are All Poets Here, author reading. April 26, 2018. Homer City Library.

Alaska Writer’s Guild Monthly Program: Author & Publisher Presentation. The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe (3956 Spenard Rd, Anchorage, AK 99517), 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m., May 8, 2018.

Homer City Library Book Club, June Book: We Are All Poets Here Author Reading. Homer City Library (500 Hazel Ave, Homer, AK 99603), 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., June 26, 2018.

Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain & Ireland Oakham Conference. Panel presenter, “Showcasing Contemporary Merton Work,” April 6-8, 2018. United Kingdom.

49 Writers Craft Talk. “On the Literary Road with Thomas Merton: Writing as a Pilgrimage,” March 1, 2018. Indigo Tea Lounge, Anchorage.

UAA Campus Bookstore We Are All Poets Here Presentation and Discussion. “On the Frontiers of an Inner Life: Thomas Merton’s 1968 Journey to Alaska”, February 6, 2018.Book Launch Party, We Are All Poets Here, January 27, 2018. The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe, Anchorage.

Kathleen presents a copy of We Are All Poets Here to Alaska’s former Lt. Governor, Byron I. Mallot.  The two shared stories about Yakutat, Alaska–the Lt. Governor’s ancestral home, a predominantly Tlingit community on the north Gulf Coast of Alaska, and an important part of of Kathleen’s book. (February 23, 2018)

Kodiak Island, July 20-27, 2017.

The 15th General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society, St. Bonaventure University, Olean, New York, June 15-18, 2017. (participant)

Panelist, Notre Dame University.  “Trying to Say ‘God’ : Re-Enchanting the Catholic Literary Imagination,” Conference, South Bend, Indiana, June 22-24, 2017. Panel topic: “Thomas Merton and Writing as an Act of Resistance.”