(This special edition blog post was first published on 49Writers to Alaska’s literary community statewide on March 10, 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began February 24, 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 Livshin, poet, 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 online program 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.
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.
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, spoke assertively for the need to substitute falsehoods for truth, and for poets to have more artistic autonomy. After years of Stalinism, his poetry (and life) symbolized a personal rebellion agains Russia’s isolation from the world.
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 Inupiat, 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, though, because we had established NGOs and supported energy companies such as Exxon in partnerships 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, dreary, 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 cannot 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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 from the Book 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.”
Alaska in the pandemic spring
A snow berm in Soldotna is spray-painted with flowers. A sister and brother team, ages 9 and 11, wanted to bring some joy to people during the pandemic. (Kathleen Tarr photo)
We have top-notch public servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, health care workers and other essential personnel — in the post offices, at the airport, in Prudhoe Bay, and in Fred Meyers, Walmart and Carrs, unpacking romaine lettuce and asparagus every day — who are doing their jobs well and beyond the call of duty.
The majority of us are not locked-down in poor public housing projects or in high-rises without balconies in densely-packed cities. We have places to go outside while maintaining recommended physical separation. People are able to walk their dogs, push baby strollers, and ride fat-tire bikes on the snow-covered Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or on neighborhood back streets not explored before.
We can even choose to disappear into the still-winter wilderness, if so inclined.
Our go-go-go lifestyles have been greatly curtailed, or maybe altered forever in ways it’s impossible to speculate about. We may be shaken up for a good long while and unable to travel, except to drive (or use a snowmachine) to the next closest town — without ever getting out of the car.
We’ve learned to disinfect with abandon. Entrepreneurial creativity has been unleashed with virtual offerings of yoga, gardening seminars and free online concerts. Arts organizations like the Anchorage Symphony and the museum present an array of online lectures, musical offerings and podcast programming — not for escape, but to remain human.
For some important historical perspective, the 1918 flu pandemic was highly lethal. The contagion arrived in Seattle two months before the end of World War I.
Dr. Beverly Beeton, historian and author, has studied the 1918 influenza.
“The virus came north to Alaska via steamship around mid-October 1918,” she said.
In her many public lectures, Beeton (former UAA Provost) points out there were no tests, no medications and no effective vaccines for the 1918 flu.
Medical help in the U.S. was in short supply because many doctors and nurses had gone to support the war effort in Europe. “Nurses or other caretakers could wipe your brow and butt, and keep you warm and comfortable, but that’s about all they could do for the sick,” Beeton said.
The largest age group affected was 19- to 40-year-olds. In those years, a person aged 50 was considered an “old” person.
When the flu was transmitted to Alaska, it decimated Native villages such as Brevig, 60 miles north of Nome, where 72 out of 80 people died in a week. In a grim historical fact, the territorial government paid gold miners to blast through the permafrost to dig communal graves, according to Beeton.
In one gut-wrenching moment after another, Native children were abruptly orphaned. For survival, and out of deep compassion, new family units were formed and blended to take in the orphans, and to take care for one another. Still, large numbers of Native children ended up in orphanages.
Alaska had fairly sophisticated communications back in those days. Most got next-day news reports, thanks to the telegraph system, Beeton said.
“Alaskans were informed about what was happening in London, New York and Washington, D.C. through excellent community newspapers with editors who thought well, wrote well, and talked well.” Many Alaska newspapers around 1918 were one man/woman bands where the sole proprietor did it all — edit and report, maybe with someone who set type and printed.
Americans are figuring out how to best sanely manage our drastically changed home, work and social lives. We feel the special responsibility and need to keep children of all ages safe, happy and tenderly cared for.
How psychologically scarred will we become if COVID-19 rages on? In the aftermath of the human wreckage, will there be any permanent shifts in perspective about what it means to be a just and caring society? In the Land of Plenty, we have more who are vulnerable than we have honestly acknowledged. Will free enterprise help solve the direst problems? Does more “intentional living” mean less conspicuous consumption, more self-reliance, more do-it-yourself projects?
This week, I came across a post from a psychologist who provided a list of 25 mental health tips for sheltering-at-home:
Some of the commonsense recommendations included: stay hydrated and eat nutritious meals; notice the good in the world; find an expressive art; find construction and meaning in destruction; and find lightness and humor in each day.
The suggestion to use humor is a good one. In my all-too-quiet hermitage by the parkway, I’m trying — laughing out loud, alone and frequently, with my morning coffee.
No doubt, this is a strange, surreal April. Over the next few stressful weeks, it’s a good time for introspection. To reflect on this far-flung state we call home.
Though spring season arrives much later than in the Lower 48, the northern landscape will soon be superabundantly alive, bursting with millions of shorebirds, pairs of migrating trumpeter swans, and more salmon-hungry bears than in any other part of the world. In Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood, a profusion of old lilac shrubs will once again bloom. Their intoxicating fragrance will be so sweet and strong, you can catch a whiff of lilac scent simply by driving through the neighborhood with your car windows open. Unless the moose get to them first.
From Utqiagvik to Ketchikan, we can possibly reduce our COVID-19 anxiety by recalling that Alaska has always held tremendous healing powers. Though hard to articulate, we know this to be true. As a beauty-making place, its spiritual assets are beyond measure.
No matter what season, Alaska’s land and all its living things, visible and non-visible, provide rare moments of serenity in this mad world.
At a time when people are desperate for a robin’s tweet, we are privileged to be cloistered here, together.
Kathleen Tarr, a longtime Alaskan, is the author of “We Are All Poets Here.” She is a frequent contributor to the Anchorage Daily News and serves on the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum.
(Published February 6, 2019, Anchorage Daily News)
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 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.)
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.
I’ve been thinking about the mental and physical changes I immediately felt as the earthquake hit. 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 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 trembling, 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 shakes combined, a fact I later learned from the hard-working seismologists—and something to frequently remind myself about.
Within 15 minutes after the M7 earthquake, 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 independent me. The more primitive part of the brain definitely voiced itself: “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 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 weeks of psychological stress, it 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 following 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 need to do. (Writing about it has also been a kind of therapy!) Flashlights are now positioned everywhere in my home.
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 expected 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 plate tectonics. 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, maybe what we are each called to do, in whatever quiet and calm we can muster, is to listen to the earth around us. Listening also involves occasional 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 and time frame. We operate on the laws of probability and statistics. Next time, perhaps, I will be better prepared and a little less frightened. 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.
If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while.
If you write only for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead. ~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
By the time he reached his fifty-third year, Thomas Merton strove for a purer form of solitude than his monastic life in rural Kentucky provided. He wanted to be a real hermit, instead of the half-hermit he was after being granted permission to live alone in a cinderblock hut within the wooded property of the Abbey of Gethsemani.
With an expansive intellect and insatiable curiosity, the renowned Trappist monk admitted he could gladly give up the business of writing and publishing books. But he could never quit poetry, he said. Nor could he ever abandon his devoted practice of journaling.
Many of the over 50 books Merton penned such as The Sign of Jonas and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander evolved directly from his journals. Merton considered his journals a serious literary practice and discipline, as books-in-the-making. Journals were also his refuge from a world teetering and faltering on the brink of mayhem and disaster. They were the way he privately worked out his thoughts to gain more than a wobbly foothold on his ideas and impressions.
His literary wanderings covered an incredibly wide range of subjects and concerns of the day from the anxiety over nuclear proliferation and encroaching technology, to Zen Buddhism and circling hawks.
He used journaling to relieve inner conflicts and tensions. Or perhaps, all the decades of journaling compounded the daily pressures he felt to remain prolific, and to stay tuned in to his fellow writers and poets.
Journal writing stripped away pretentiousness. It also gave him a vehicle to discover his unfiltered narrative voice, the organic, raw, lyrical, and poetic voice that was truest—and to steer clear of inaccessible, turgid prose.
Overly-polished prose—prose that is too buttoned up, dry, and succinct to the point of being dull, the tonally cool and aloof academese—just wasn’t his style or cadence. Through such valuable writing practice that regular journaling afforded him, he found the voice that didn’t at all sound like writing.
Pen in hand, spontaneously writing in the infirmary (he was a frequent visitor) or near a crackling fire, he didn’t need to impress any hierarchies with his erudition. He could ignore the pushy and intrusive self-editor when freewriting. He didn’t need to finish anything in his journals. Shards of thought, random mosaics of this-and-that spilled across the pages without apparent purpose or pattern.
I, too, have filled my share of journals—over 50 of them, to date—but I didn’t begin this as a discipline until the year 2000, shortly before I began my traditional, three-year MFA program in nonfiction.
Merton diligently kept journals almost all his adult life. He was primarily an autobiographical writer, but through intensive journaling, he trained himself to see and record more deeply the details of life and nature around him. The journals were never about him, per se, they were a way to capture the milieu of the times, to be a witness, to record a mind awake in the dark. Or to stream the story of a modern-day conscience.
I owned few material possessions when I arrived in Alaska in 1978 beyond a camera and a few books. While preparing for my northern sojourn, I splurged to buy my first pair of heavy, all-leather hiking boots and climatically incorrect clothes for Alaska. More importantly, I packed the one hard-bound journal I had—the first I hoped to fill.
I began it the year before, in 1977, with notes scratched from Burwell, England. I was there for an indeterminate amount of time to visit my younger brother, Richy, who was based with the U.S. Air Force at Mendenhall. Richy paid my way across the Atlantic from Florida. Though this was my inaugural trip overseas, I fancied myself a carefree global adventurer, same as Merton did in his youth.
Enamored with Herman Hesse, I copied this memorable quote from Hesse on the pages of that journal:
“A profound desire to travel is no different and no less poignant than the dangerous yearning to think without fear, to turn the world on its head, and to obtain answers from all things, persons, and events. It cannot be appeased by plans or books; travel means more and costs more, and we must put our heart’s blood into it.”
I had the heart for it. I was ready to go and planned to see as much of the world as possible, maybe become a freelance journalist. At first, I thought of that journal as mainly a travel log. Nothing of great literary importance. A place to dump facts, figures, superficial details, historical happenings, dates, and place names. Diaries, on the other hand, were for love-sick adolescent girls who liked to write with lots of curly-cues in purple ink.
I wasn’t a doodler and can’t remember writing any laments about forlorn loves. After an excursion with Richy to see the mysterious stone pilings of Stonehenge, I pulled out the journal and scribbled a few more pages. It’s funny now to see that most of my entries were written in second-person, as in: “You are gazing up at the shapes, marveling about its existence when a peculiar feeling hits you.”
A fledgling writer, I was timid and hiding somewhere. I didn’t know enough about the “I” to even recognize that the real “I” was non-existent on those early pages. Who was that person? The “I” lurked somewhere in the rubble of her mistaken identities. She begged to be made visible, to come out from under it all and be set free, but I had a long way to go and too much to learn.
I arrived in Alaska carrying the same half-filled journal. I wrote how pointless it was to try and describe the sovereign power of Alaska’s mountains.
I wrote volumes upon volumes of throwaway lines.
I recorded old Russian sayings like this one: “Never pronounce that you will always escape poverty and prison.”
Every now and then, I attempted poetry, most of it not worth reading again: “In December / on the plot of land where my garden grew / the solstice night digs in / I smile to remember / once did I paint / the color of the wind.” I wrote one poem imitating Robert Service.
I journaled erratically, half-heartedly, more like an occasional note-taker, and years passed, and the kids grew up, and I took to journaling more and more, though I was never as driven about it as Merton.
I liked to hear those stories about mountaineers stuck in their tents at base camp for days on end during raging snow storms and howling, dangerous winds often wrote in their notebooks to kill time. It always surprised me to talk to writers who claimed they didn’t journal.
I didn’t start taking journaling more seriously until around 2000, right before I started my traditional MFA program.
Much of my forthcoming book, We Are All Poets Here, which partially tells the story about Thomas Merton’s 1968 trek to Alaska, and which covers his Alaska journal and itinerary, grew from the pages of my journals. And most of my published essays have evolved the same way—from journal bits and notes.
Once I discovered Merton, I made journal entries in response to Merton’s journal entries. I wrote reactions to his works. I recorded the details about my book’s highs and lows. I wrote about my meandering, haphazard spiritual journey. And no matter where I went, I took along a notebook with the caveat that I wouldn’t allow myself the luxury of choosing a new one until the “old” one was completed.
Merton became a famous man in 1948 with the onslaught of success his spiritual autobiography stirred in the reading public. Other bestsellers followed lock-step. Merton might have had a premonition that the precious volumes of his personal journals dating back to the early 1930s betokened historical significance.
Yet, according to his explicit wishes stated in his will, he strictly forbade his journals be made public until 25 years after his death. They were edited and cleaned-up and made more “publishable” for general readers and the most damaging or titillating details—whatever negative comments he might have said about his fellow monks or the too-conservative Catholic Church—were removed.
Merton’s Alaska journal was, in fact, different than all the rest as Merton died before he ever had the chance to edit any of it.
As a naturally gifted and widely published author, Merton did not view his personal journals as a way to further illustrate his verbal virtuosity. Of course, the future readers of those journals, such as myself, turned to them for their brilliancy, passionate insights, and yes, for their literary firepower.
Each journal was a highly creative act. He was most himself, the genuine Thomas Merton, expressing the very core of who he was, when he pulled out his journal, forgot all about himself, and engaged his mind in wherever it wanted to take him.
Over time, I learned to think about my journal this way, too, as a place to make straight forward observations in whatever I saw around me. And to be on the lookout for the exacting, telling, intimate details, as well. That’s a standard reason many writers do journal.
But from Merton, I learned that a journal can also connect you to a spiritual realm when you least expect it. There are moments when I’ve been alone in silence, lost in a timeless space journaling, that I’ve felt in touch with a deeper reality.
Merton was a great humanist who journaled tenaciously not out of self-love, to edify himself or his celebrity. He didn’t do it to merely hone his literary skills.
He journaled out of love. Love for the world and for God. He often relied on personal writing to help him with his inner transformation. I finally learned something about that.
I signed the contract for my first book in an east Anchorage home exactly one year and ten months ago, on December 16, 2015 at 10:30 p.m. in the middle of a Christmas party while nervously sitting in the host couple’s master bedroom.
During the holiday cheer and chatter, my publisher, Vered Mares (VP&D House), and I stole a few minutes of private time to talk. We sat on the host’s bed amid big piles of winter coats and scarves stored there by the many guests. Time was short because early the next morning, Vered was leaving on her second trip to Havana, Cuba and it would be almost a month before she returned to Alaska.
The irony that a hard copy of my almost 400-page draft was going to be hand-carried in and out of Castro’s Cuba by a woman born of an Israeli mother and Latino father was not lost on me. Thomas Merton ventured to Cuba, pre-Castro, as a young man in the 1930s and fell instantly in love with the place. He commented on it frequently in his journal, and later, after becoming world-famous, he developed a close kinship with Latin American poets.
As jubilant as I was to be signed as Vered’s 14th author, I exited the holiday gathering—attended mostly by poets and writers—with surprising restraint, without screaming at the top of my lungs,“Hey everybody! I did it! I did it! I finally signed a book contract!”
By New Year’s Eve, after receiving a gracious invitation to stay at a friend’s home outside of Las Vegas, a place I always avoided, I took off on a whim to celebrate. I found myself on the Vegas Strip walking through the Bellagio Hotel’s ornately decorated lobby, watching the fireworks show with the best-dressed partygoers. In the surreal atmosphere of blinking slot machines, I lifted one-too-many champagne toasts.
Reaching this long-awaited milestone of signing a book contract was either a test of true grit and endurance, or proof that after ten years of focused work, I might finally be cured of literary psychosis. (Little did I know it would take another 22 months of writing, revising, editing, and design before the book could be physically realized for its shipment to press this November.)
Prior to signing on with VP&D House, an independent, boutique publisher, I faced rejections by 14 different publishers.
The University of Alaska Press turned down my spiritual memoir, as did the medium-to-larger houses such as HarperOne San Francisco. Prestigious religious/spiritual publishers such as Loyola Press and Paraclete—both Catholic oriented—politely passed. And of course, the over 25 highly targeted agent query letters I sent through the years to NYC and other locales led to dead-ends. Such is the fate of an obscure writer from the hinterlands, one with a personal story about how a mystical and intellectually-charged Trappist monk became her spiritual guide.
It lacked juicy, dramatic commercial appeal. A spiritual topic was a death knell for the academically-minded editors. I had a highly-polished, well-thought-out book proposal that took years to refine. But I was a nobody writer. My “platform” rested on nothing but gusts of glacial air and dreams.
I received valuable feedback from several of those rejections, however. Sometimes, you have to thank God for unanswered prayers. All the rejections, the wrong turns, and the agonizing delays were a kind of shock therapy that I didn’t know I needed. At this moment in time, I feel the deepest deep gratitude my book was overlooked.
So there I was, full circle, finishing 2015 with an unexpected acceptance from a small press based under the shadow of the Chugach Mountains in the state I love.
What timing! One month earlier, after a decade of dedicated research and work, after filling over 40 journals of raw reflections and miscellaneous observations and notes, after re-tracing Thomas Merton’s steps in five states and traveling back to Russia, I concluded it was time my draft manuscript and book proposal went to the dust bin for a while. In this case, back to the covered plastic totes I had always lugged my files, notes, and drafts around in.
I desperately wanted to finish this book before it finished me. But I knew I had lost my perspective. What was I doing? I quit my full-time job with benefits after five years as the first Program Coordinator of UAA’s new low-residency MFA program to work on The Book.
Though I never stopped writing ever since I completed my MFA in nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh in 2005, The Book languished.
I engaged in all the conventional literary maneuvers along the way. I applied to various writers’ residencies to find solitude to write. I built up serious publishing credits in journals, magazines, blogs, and anthologies.
Grad school friends and acquaintances, many of whom had gone on to publish popular books, including Rebecca Skloot’s wildly successful, The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, eventually stopped asking me about The Book, imaginary as it seemed. Writer-friends regularly met me in coffeeshops to shore up my spirits while listening to my tales of angst and woe. I laughed at the truth behind such questions as: “Hey, how’s the War & Peace of memoirs coming along?”
My family was sick and tired of hearing me talk about The Book. There goes Mom dragging her boxes and laptop to somebody’s borrowed cabin again to write. They couldn’t understand how or why The Book took so long and why my kitchen table constantly looked like the desk of a scatter-brained professor.
Couldn’t I just self-publish on Amazon, make it an e-book, and be done with it? Couldn’t I produce a YouTube video or a podcast to attract some much-needed attention like musicians and singers do, or blast social media to find the right publishing match?
Right before I introduced my project to Vered via the book proposal and sample chapters, I thought the best course of action was to pull back and re-evaluate everything. Maybe if I put The Book aside for a while, I’d gain more literary clarity, understand what its structural flaws were, what it was I was trying to say and apparently not saying well enough. It dawned on me that I was having trouble because I wasn’t going deep enough in the narrative.
But then along came this one-woman dynamo, this incredible entrepreneur and risk-taker, the tenacious Vered Mares who, all while she has been working with me, is also overseeing the establishment of her independent bookstore on Spenard Road called The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe—set to open before the end of 2017. Before construction began, she had to tear down a former sex shop to make way for the new business. I wondered if Thomas Merton would get a kick out of that?
Last weekend, we met at her house, as we so frequently have. We sat in Vered’s living room and drank Cuban coffee and discussed the forthcoming release of The Book. Her cat Tabby was nowhere to be found, though this summer, she used to sit on the piles of my manuscript pages I stacked on Vered’s couch during our seventeen editorial work sessions.
Vered is the furthest thing from having a Simon & Shuster type of publisher/editor, but she comes from an impressive literary lineage. Her father, Tony Mares, was a well-respected New Mexican poet and widely published essayist. Her uncle, Melvin Kinder, wrote the bestseller Smart Women, Foolish Choices and her father’s brother, Michael Mares, wrote a thick tome on the history and ecology of deserts. Her 82-year-old step-mother, Carolyn Meyer, is still working non-stop as a professional writer and has over 60 books to her credit.
It’s autumn and Anchorage has seen at least three frosts already. I miss the summer days when we took breaks in Vered’s spacious backyard. She’d grab a smoke and I’d lean my head back in the sun or watch her toss mealy worms to her chickens running loose over the grass and in front of tall thickets of raspberries.
The roof and walls are now up on The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe. Things are moving faster and growing more complicated. We needed to discuss last-minute details before We Are All Poets Here goes to the galley stage. We had all the marketing to think about, and when we should plan the book launch party. (To date, Don Rearden’s book release for his novel, The Raven’s Gift, remains my favorite such event.)
Over the course of researching and writing the draft manuscript, my personal life unraveled, my over 30-year marriage broke up, one of my former professors and close friends committed suicide, and four close family members died.
While working on “my project” I had three different operations for skin cancer. I moved seven times, including to a foreign country for almost a year—Poland—where I went solo and sight-unseen to a rental in Krakow. My oldest son got married and two grandchildren quickly followed.
As she generously filled a plastic grocery bag of apples for me from her backyard fruit tree, Vered reminisced about what we’d gone through in the past two years of working together. She’s traveled back and forth from Alaska to Cuba six times (including being there for Hurricane Irma) and eventually married a Cuban man named Yovany.
She lost her beloved dog, finished her MFA at UAA, and sold her family home in New Mexico to help financially underwrite the costs of her new enterprise. While personally working with me on The Book, she drowned in a tangled morass of infinite government forms and documents involving U.S. Immigration attorneys over the problems and approvals for her husband’s visa to move to Alaska. At any day, she may have to fly to Bogata or to Havana for their final immigration interview that keeps getting pushed back.
“Can you believe we’re finally at this point?” I said. “The Book is 99% done. Just a few more small details to wrap up. It’s doesn’t feel real.”
“Yep, we’re finally here,” she said. “We’ve worked closely and more personally than most writer-editor relationships. At bigger publishers, editors are usually juggling many titles at-once. And they don’t always get the book, not on such an intimate level, the way I feel I know your book. The way I understand Merton’s legacy now.”
I showed up at her house recently, a bag of nerves, wound-up, frenetic, speaking literary gibberish about the future of The Book.
“Vered, tell me the truth, do you think I’m insane?”
She laughed and assured me that everything was perfectly normal.
THOMAS MERTON AT HIS HERMITAGE, ABBEY OF GETHSEMANI. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS MERTON CENTER, BELLARMINE UNIVERSITY)
Thomas Merton chose to live on the margins. As an isolated Trappist monk, he joined a strict and austere religious order as a deep and profound act of cultural resistance. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemani on December 10, 1941 at age 26, a newly confirmed Catholic and recent graduate of Columbia University with a Master’s degree in literature.
The young, disillusioned Tom Merton traded his active, secular, literary life for a different kind of existence altogether—one of celibacy and prayer in quiet, peaceful monasticism in the backwoods of Kentucky. He basically renounced the perilous and mutilated world with its spiritually vacant values as he perceived it at the time.
The following decade would witness a second world war, the mass carnage caused by atomic bombs, totalitarianism, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the United States’ increasing dependence on materialism.
Thomas Merton, born of two artist parents and from a privileged background, gave up his material possessions to drop out and be an obedient, devoted monk. And by taking such a drastic course, he assumed he would put down his pen and paper forever, for writing was not part of the Trappist tradition. His former writer-self, the side of him that had tried in vain to write the Great American Novel, and the side that wanted to be popular and recognized as a respected man of letters among his intellectual friends, would naturally disappear in the monastery, or so he thought.
But seven years later, his obscurity ended. He became an international, bestselling author with the publication of his acclaimed autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948.
From that point forward, his literary fame skyrocketed. By the 1960s, his writerly output was astonishing—over 40 books with many bestsellers among them. From behind the walls of the monastery, he worked constantly to keep up with current events via personal letters to a wide range of correspondents. Merton wrote to a friend about the “air of absurdity” surrounding America and how the “country was going nuts” not only with the war in Vietnam but also with its radicalism and war protesters setting themselves on fire.
His cultural resistance and social protest continued not through demonstrations and marches as he wasn’t permitted to participate, but through the written word.
For the last twelve years, I’ve been immersed in the life and thoughts of Thomas Merton. As a writer myself, I’ve tried to understand his remarkable literary trajectory.
One of the reasons that I, perhaps, ended up writing memoir for my first book, though it was never my original intention, was because, like Merton, I needed to do some major interior cleaning-out. I needed to find out what held at the center for me when the world and America no longer made much sense. It was as if I needed to sweep away years of accumulated debris and piles of falsehoods. The act of writing served as the powerful leaf blower to get down to the bare asphalt of the soul.
As I began working on “my project” things further fragmented and fermented internally. I heard echoes of the Sixties in myself. Just as in Merton’s earlier and more youthful form of contemptus mundi, there was much to dispute and protest in the 21st century.
I felt, and continue to feel, a strong impulse to drop out and move to my own slice-of-the-pie sanctum somewhere, and to write ever-so-quietly in my journals for the rest of my days. I want to grind the inner and external noise to a halt. To detox from all devices. To turn off the news streams, at least for a few months, in order to replenish and rejuvenate from the droning talking heads, the same-old propaganda assaults, the endless daily damage control required by the current White House.
As brokenness and alienation have seemed to engulf us, I’ve tried to make sense of warring political parties and a political climate in which a U.S. president has been publicly described as a “pussygrabber,” a narcissist, and a disgrace.
Absurdity and chaos abound. Men horde assault rifles and randomly murder innocents. Mentally ill, disillusioned young men fire at school children. Nuclear war has become a real fear again, as it was in Merton’s day and throughout the Cold War. Fewer and fewer people want to tear themselves away from their cell phones long enough to engage in real conversation and dialogue. America’s “greatness” is in question.
And another question is: what, as a writer, should I do?
My first book, We Are All Poets Here, will be released in late November, yet I’m at an existential crossroads, similar to Merton’s back in the 1940s.
I’m fighting myself over this tendency of wanting to withdraw at exactly the time I should, as a new author, plan to be more visible.
There is moral courage in dropping out as a writer, but so, too, is there moral courage in staying in—to passionately pursue the real. To stay in the game.
By the dawning of the turbulent 1960s, as Merton himself later admitted, he no longer recognized that prideful, judgmental part of himself that had first joined the Trappists. He carried out voluminous correspondence with poets, thinkers, and writers from all across the map in many different religions, countries, and cultures.
As I evolved into being kind of a Merton guru, my admiration for his beautiful and biting prose kept increasing, as when I came across his Auschwitz poem found in his poetry collection Emblems of a Season of Fury, 1963. The poem, “Chant to Be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces,” contained savage political irony. If it was spiritual fluff I wanted, I knew I had come to the wrong monk.
By the time Merton made his surprise sojourn to Alaska in autumn 1968 (which is partly the focus of my book), he had reached a new level of spiritual maturity. At the same time, though, he was mentally exhausted by the sheer force of his intellect and literary craftmanship. Part of his inner conflict toward the end of his life was how to balance the relentless writing with the need for an even purer solitude and contemplation than the monastery had provided for his previous 27 years.
How to take a step back from his non-stop writerly duties and responsibilities as a designated spiritual master while remaining socially, politically, and culturally informed? What would Alaska teach him?
During the last few years of Merton’s life, and as he prepared to embark on his trek to California, Alaska, and Asia in 1968, in that “year of everything horrible,” he began to turn the lens full circle back to his interior life’s journey.
The best form and act of resistance, Merton believed, was to not live on myths and illusions and lies. It was, first of all, to speak truth to yourself.
He wanted to travel even deeper into his interior self, away from the illusions of being an internationally famous monk, teacher, and a spiritual cause celebre.
He was less and less interested in external results, in his big-shot reputation, and in what the intellect was forever butting in to say. Or in what negativity the latest news headlines injected.
Translated as a writer into today’s terms, it didn’t matter how many op-eds you published, or how many blog readers you attracted, or how many bestsellers you wrote to capture the attention of grassroots political activists, and the power elite and establishment.
The time for making political statements through poems and essays, for trying to create real political change and to raise the social consciousness was for Merton receding. It was time to take a step back.
The Trappist Superstar was growing weary of words.
In one of his poems, he said, “I will try to be my own silence.”
Today, when the world is everywhere encroaching, when we are being assaulted on all fronts by media fatigue and obfuscation, it’s interesting to ponder that, as a writer, my best form of resistance and protest might be to put down my pen and paper, and not to contribute more words and loud talk-talk-talk.
Though I have a first book about to launch, and I will need to turn my attention to the whole self-centered social media marketing machine, the book talks, updating my author’s web site, etc., maybe the best course of action right now is to first sit in silence. Sit in silence awhile. Allow whatever more important truths I might feel and see to be made manifest.
Lately, I’ve joked with my friends about my new, daily motto: I don’t know anything about anything anymore.
I still haven’t broken up with the monk. I continue to examine Merton’s literary life from many different angles. As Merton said in one of his journals, “One must get along without the security of neat and simple, ready-made solutions. There are things one has to think out, all over again, for oneself.”
Like him, I feel a deep urge to drop out from conventional living in order to give more serious focus to developing right relationships and practices, and to care more about honest, authentic community.
And in the precious time I have left to write, to sit in silence longer to allow all the good to rise up and be heard.