The Alaska Grotesque

With sunrises around 4:00 a.m. and sunsets around midnight, it can feel as though a new day begins at 3:00 p.m. and again around 7:00 p.m.—as though I should put on a pot of coffee and eat a bowl of cereal for dinner.  Today, it was overcast until about 3:30 p.m. and then the sun came out and the thermostat inched past 60. It took all day for the day to begin.

I wish I could take pictures and show you this tree in our front yard. But I know how this goes—if I take a picture of it, it will come out looking like a tree and not the sparkly, dancing, playful leaf-shaker that it is. I made Aaron get me a new camera for my birthday so my photos would look more like my friend Kelsey’s, but, like most things I want for all the wrong reasons, the camera and I were doomed from the start. First, it uses actual AA batteries rather than the rechargeable invisible battery like our old one—batteries that run out of juice after five minutes. Then, it was like the shudder had to yawn and take a nap before it could take a picture, which is why so many photos show Clara with her finger up her nose or looking down at her feet. So, when its screen was shattered on the airplane ride home, I understood this to be an indictment of all my selfish longings.

I am rereading Traveling Mercies for our book club and would like to walk along the California beach with Anne Lamott and listen to her explain to me the world in comic, heartbreaking simile. But, like me and my camera, she often sees the external events of her world either as reflections of her personal human condition or as directives from a higher power. Dolphins that swim up to her and her son are miracles, as are biopsy reports that come back benign.

I am fearful of ascribing supernatural intention to the natural world, scared of believing in miracles for fear that I will, as it has been said, make God into my own image, into a God who makes my car start or brings my dog back because I’ve been a good girl. Yet, the natural world is alive here in AK—sometimes writhing, sometimes embracing, sometimes bellowing, and I can’t ignore the power it has, like a god, to bring me comfort and also make me afraid.

For instance, we tried to go for a short hike over the weekend when the sun came out, but there was too much death. A dog with white fur seemed to have been splayed open at the stomach like a rug and was stench and rotting at the start of Grebes trail. We wanted to ignore it, certain that death is no reason to stop moving, but then we saw piles of fresh bear scat just a few feet up. We had our baby with us. We turned around.

At the start of our second attempt on Silver Lake, a neat filet of internal organs were resting on the side of the trail. The organs ate grass, a hole in the stomach revealed. A bit creeped out, we marveled at how clean were the intestines and liver. No muscles, fat, or hair—just a green and pink decomposing digestive track. The next morning, we read about a local family that went for a boat ride on Tustumena Lake. Huge swells came out of nowhere, swamping and capsizing the boat, killing the father and daughter as he tried to keep her afloat. The other fifteen- and thirteen-year-old girls swam two miles to the shore and huddled together, knowing their father and sister had drowned, to stay warm.

In addition to being a master of metaphor, Anne Lamott did a lot of cocaine and drank a lot of scotch. Once, totally plastered, as in plastered to her bed by her own drool, she saw Jesus. I’ve never used cocaine, I’ve never been plastered, and I’ve never seen Jesus.  My seas are calm; I’m the one who wasn’t prodigal; it’s hard for me to believe I need to be saved.

Years ago, a month into my first full-time job, I realized people everywhere spent most of their lives working. They were actually okay with working 8-10 hours a day and spending a quarter of that time with the people they loved. Soon, I was okay with it, too. Recently, I realized that people everywhere were also sitting on couches and eating leftovers. That it is unbelievably simple to work, exist, buy a nice car or a boat, and retire. It’s like the Dar Williams’ song says—there is nothing wrong, but there is something more.

Some people hurt themselves to feel alive, some people send naked pictures of themselves to twenty-one-year-olds on Twitter, and some people move to Alaska. Some people find faith in resurrection, and some in death. I think what’s so grotesque, as in what stirs simultaneous feelings of strangeness and familiarity, about a rotting dog five feet in front of some bear poop is that I think it could be me. Alaska is dangerous and unpredictable. And this stirs up fear, which feels a lot like faith. People really get a kick out of nature, and for now, if hallucinogenic drugs are out of the question, then Alaska is a good place to go into the wild.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Alaska Grotesque

  1. Kelsey

    Well that one left me all warm and fuzzy inside.

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