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.