I'm just back from a trip in Prince William Sound, and as before, I'll post several installments from that 12 days. Here's the first.
A strange day, with a lot of “L’s” in it, full of lassitude, a wallow of a day: lazy, languid, lethargic, listless, lingering, lumbering, low, slow, lulled, long. A day that seems to hold me in its mouth like a lozenge. Slowly, I dissolve.
It’s been over 16 hours since Craig stumbled out of the bunk at 4:30 am this morning to pull anchor and begin the journey across the Gulf of Alaska into Prince William Sound, and on up to Hinchinbrook Entrance. A swell ran in the Gulf. Dense clouds hunkered over the mountains. I slept until 9, got up, drank water, and dove back into the bunk for another nap. I’m still catching up on sleep after the writers’ conference last week.
Last night, we anchored in Sunny Cove, on Fox Island, at midnight, after driving mad-dash from Homer, charging through Fred Meyer for groceries, barely making the fuel dock before it closed. After filling the boat with fuel and water, we drove straight out of the harbor, no time to post anything to the blog, to mail the cards I’d written on the drive over. We have just twelve days. My sister and family arrive for a visit on the 30th. Not a moment to waste. After five days of writers’ conference, two days to catch up and rest after, I resented the rush. While Craig drove, I unpacked groceries, organized food drawers, wiped down the counters and refrigerator, still grimy from Craig’s “boy’s” research trip alone and with our friend Dan the week before. Wind-chop slapped at the boat’s hull, Finally I slunk down into the bunk and curled up beside Craig’s duffle bag and fumed. I just wanted to be home for longer than a week! I needed some space! After awhile, like a sullen bear, my gloom spent, I re-emerged to put away the last of the groceries and clear the table for supper. Craig was steaming two artichokes. It was the first day of my three-week long cleanse. After anchoring, we sat at the dinette and ate our ‘chokes in silence, Craig’s dipped in a mixture of melted Earth Balance buttery spread and olive oil, mine plain. We tossed the tooth-marked leaves into a stainless steel bowl. How could I stay grumpy eating an artichoke heart? I tossed my mood out the window. Waves shushed the steep gravel beach of the horseshoe-shaped bay. Whatever I thought my life should be, this was it now. We brushed our teeth and crawled into the bunk for a few hours sleep.
Now it’s overcast, everywhere I look a different cloud-shape. Some like flattened lenticular lenses. Some stretched thin like bed-sheets worn to transparency by decades rubbing against bodies. Some like scatterings of fish scales (called mackerel sky). Above the ridgeline of Montague Island, incidental wads like tufts pulled off a moose’s coat in spring. Everywhere I look, a different color, thickness, texture, like the sky can’t make up its mind. The sky is today, like me, one big half-dissolved lozenge held in the damp mouth of an enormous slumbering, languorous beast. A day lived inside that beast’s dream.
Craig’s curled up in the bunk under the comforter napping, dead to the world up here in the cabin. I’m driving, and it’s 8:30 pm, and we’re still a good hour away from anchoring in Rocky Bay. I get up from the seat and turn the little knob on the autopilot, angling the boat east, toward Montague Point. I lift the binoculars and scan the water for whales, scan the shoreline for brown bears. This morning, at the south end of Elrington Passage, the entrance to the Sound, I spotted a large black bear pawing and nosing something on the beach. When it heard our engine, it looked up and stared dead-pan at the boat for several moments like an old man disturbed from his raking by a souped-up, sub-woofer-throbbing carload of teenagers driving by. Then the bear, in slow motion, turned and ambled straight into the ryegrass and alder, not looking for any opening, just pushing through the thickness of green. For that bear, I imagine, openings are everywhere. The whole world, one big opening. Despite its unwelcoming glare, Craig called it “the welcome bear.” After a name the tour boat operators in Resurrection Bay affix to a certain killer whale pod each spring, the “welcome pod,” the one that swims out to meet incoming pods. As opposed to the “host pod,” a name that came to Craig it a dream. It’s what we call the pod that takes up a month-long residence in the king salmon fishing hot spot between Agnes Bay and Bulldog Cove and entertains the incoming pods. We poke fun at these terms, but the thing is, they’re kind of true. I don’t know about the welcome bear, though.
And now, the boat cruises past the overturned bleached aqua hull of a boat washed up on Montague’s shore; it’s been there for decades. We’ve just passed, aptly, Graveyard Point. Natoa’s bow rises and falls slightly in the ocean swell cornering around Montague’s northeastern corner.
Unbearlike, I search for an opening in the sky, which, since I last examined it, has changed. Now it looks like old felt, pulled thin here, torn there, bunched up yonder. A bleary blot of brightness marks the position of the sun. Light patches the Chugach range in places with the grain, gleaming tan of browned butter. The snow line’s retreated up the sides of Montague Island a lot since last time we were here, I notice. It doesn’t seem possible all that snow can melt in May’s 40 degree temperatures, but it always does. Now it’s spring, temperatures up the 50’s. Not early spring, like last time. A few days from the summer solstice. A day that makes Alaskans a little sad.
I get up again to check the Nobeltech chart on the computer screen, then stir a small pot of chowder on the stove: razor clams Craig dug from a beach north of Homer, king salmon caught by my friend Rich, and halibut from our freezer, along with potatoes and carrots and kale from last summer’s garden, and from the store, white wine, onion, broccoli, corn. I made the chowder for dinner the other night. We sat out on the deck in the sun, Lars, me, Craig, our neighbors Asia and Carl and a poet who’s staying on after the writers’ conference, Nickole. Chowder and bread from Two Sisters’ Bakery and salad, and for dessert, I ran out to the garden with a paring knife and cut off a few stalks of rhubarb for a sauce to pour over vanilla ice cream. Lars, who’s decided to try to be a vegan this summer (after 21 years as a dedicated carnivore) gave in and ate dessert with us. We sprawled around the living room like brown bears on a beach after a good whale carcass feed. Contentment.
I’m thinking about food a lot as I’ve finally started the cleanse my naturopath suggested, to detox what’s left of radiation and chemo and the rest from my body. She’s been watching the temperatures in Homer, and finally it’s warm enough, she thinks, for me to begin. So I squeeze 45 drops of a detox tincture into my water bottle twice every day, and first thing in the morning, blend up a smoothie of special vitamin and protein powder with frozen kale and raspberries from last summer’s garden, along with oat milk and a banana and a dash of flax seed oil. It’s not a fast. Just gluten and dairy and sugar and caffeine-free, and for one week, in the middle, no animal protein of any kind, and no legumes. So I think about the things I miss. My cups of strong green tea. My morning mug of milky, honey-sweetened matte or chai. The jolt of energy from the caffeine. Our neighbors’ duck eggs fried in a pan, the big orange yolk spreading across my plate. And think, is this really necessary? Food, so elemental. Such comfort.
One of the writers teaching with me at the conference was my graduate school mentor Frank Soos, a tall, gangly, athlete and short-story writer who biked all the way from Fairbanks to Homer in eight days for the conference. Frank has a brother nicknamed “Moose,” so the physique must run in the family. He told me a “nifty” (his word) trick for insomnia: starting with “A,” try to think of a poet for every letter of the alphabet, and see if you make it to Z. It works! A. Ai. B. Baudelaire. C. Carson. D. Dove. E . . . This afternoon, after reading about the evocative power of taste in a book about writing creative non-fiction by another conference presenter, Brenda Miller, I tried the sleep meditation with food.
A. Apple. My mind spun and wheeled like an eagle, a Granny Smith in its claws. I thought of my grandmother, a Latvian peasant, who picked apples from under our neighbor’s tree, cut them into rings, and dried them in our oven. Which led to the smell of dried apples in coffee cans. To my mother’s apple bread. To our snowshoe hare-murdered apple trees. To my father spraying his apple trees with poison from a hand pump. To bins of apples in the Latvian market, sold by old, round, Polish ladies in babushkas. Babushka. B. Bread. My mother’s black bread hot out of the oven, sliced, steaming, melted butter pooling in the crevices. My father slathering butter thick on his bread for breakfast, slicing salt pork, sprinkling salt all over it, eating head down with a grim determination. B. Butter. Bacon. Bread. C. No, not cancer, but currants. Red currant jelly in my mother’s cellar pantry. Picking red currants with my mother and sister under hot sun in the back yard in summer. Fingers stained red. Forefinger and thumb around the tiny stem. The taste of a berry, its part-wine, part-tart, part-sweet taste bursting in my mouth. In Homer, picking red currants in autumn, in the rain, in our back yard. Straining them through a food mill. Making jelly with minimal sugar. Because of such withholdings (lard, sugar, salt), never being able to live up to my mother as a cook. Wondering if our kids will wish they’d learned more from their mother, father and me. The way I wish that I’d asked her, when I could, “Mom, let’s make klimpu zupa together so I learn how.” Klimpas = Dumplings. D. The paste of flour and water in a bowl, my mother standing over the steaming soup pot, dropping dollops of batter on to of the froth, the bobbing dumplings, their slippery surface on my tongue, the dense floury plainness, comfort food. C. Cleanse. D. Desire. C. Cleansing away all so the desire for food, my food, my body’s food, my spirit’s food, rises to the surface like klimpas. E. Eva’s body, restored to original fortitude, F. And grace, G. (And now I fall asleep).