Tag Archives: hope

This is Our Dunkirk

Let’s breath. All of us. Right now. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Look out the window and find something beautiful. Find something that makes you smile and lightens your heart. Find something that makes you feel good. I know it’s been a rough month. If you’re reading this I’m sure you’re like me. Every day we seem to be asking ourselves how ethics, humanity, and just plain old fashioned decency can be eclipsed by the cold blooded bottom line.

We’re watching protestors whose only crime is the desire for clean water and respect for burial grounds be sprayed with water in freezing temperatures.

We’ve watched as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stared unblinking into the camera and lied to the world. Fuck you and your coal free promises Minister. Your word means nothing when you green light a pair of pipelines. That’s like saying you’re going to quit drinking and then cracking a beer while saying what you really meant was you were only quitting whiskey.

As for the rest of America… well let’s just leave the rest of that screwed up Republic alone because I don’t have the energy to get into that right now.

Because believe it or not. This is about hope.

On November 9th I wrote my friend and mentor Kim Heacox. He’s a writer, photographer, and soon to be my next door neighbor. He’s one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet. If the world is truly going to hell, I’m glad I’ll have his company on the way. I asked him, in not so many words, what the heck we do now.

“Read,” was his response. From a man that built a separate structure on his property to hold all his literature it was hardly a surprise. “Find a big heavy book, 500-600 pages long about a dark period of history that turned out brightly.”

So I did. I love history. I’ve inhaled World War II books since I was a kid. It’s my Dad’s fault. I could tell you the difference between a Spitfire, Hurricane, and Typhoon before I was 10. If you don’t know your Royal Air Force history that last sentence meant nothing to you. But that’s besides the point. I found a big old book about the early period of World War II in Europe.

Nazi Germany had annexed Austria, steamrolled through Poland, and improbably wiped the floor with France in a manner that no one had seen coming. Back in Berlin, Hitler was euphoric. But with tank divisions closing in on the last allied stronghold on the French coast at Dunkirk, he ordered a halt. The move was inexplicable. The British Army was routed and pinned to the coast. But he halted for 24 hours. It was all the allies needed. Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers were evacuated back to England. Beaten and discouraged, but alive to fight another day.

Over the next few months, the German and British Air Forces battled for air supremacy. The British, with the aide of Polish, French, Canadian, Kiwi, and Aussie pilots prevailed in what was later called The Battle of Britain. The tide slowly turned. A year later the U.S entered the war, and with their equally incredible victory in the Pacific at an island called Midway, saved the world from fascism and imperialism.

Now I knew these stories before I picked up the book. But it still amazes me when I consider how close we were to the world crashing down. All because a few thousand tanks plowing through the French countryside were ordered to stop. All because Hitler was an insecure man who loved playing his Generals off one another.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is our Dunkirk. We are in the French countryside, watching the Panzers of the German army steamroll towards us. We are the unsuspecting marines, sound asleep on December 7th, 1941. Things look bleak, I won’t deny that.

But you know what? This is nothing new. History is peppered with occasions when the prospects looked bleak. Many a soldier sat on the French beaches in June 1940, looking out over the ocean for a rescue he thought impossible. But it happened. Our rescue is coming.

“The arc of history will bend towards justice,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King. If ever there was a man who was justified in feeling his fight was lost, it’s the good Doctor. But he had faith. Faith that, in the end, the good heart wins, that the compassionate will be victorious, and the just will overcome.

I won’t sit here and blow sunshine up anyone’s butt and say everything is just fine. It ain’t. The good guys won World War II, but millions of lives (many of them civilians and of course Jews) were lost. Dr. King’s fight continues today, far from over. This is going to be hard. The right thing usually is. So be loud, be passionate, and above all, please don’t give up hope. Sacrifice. You don’t have to be in North Dakota or run for president to fight this.

You can install solar panels, go off the grid, give a homeless man your lunch, give up your seat on the bus, smile at someone who doesn’t deserve it. Just promise me that you will not sit in your home scrolling through Facebook and believe that the battle is lost or that there is nothing you can do. Because if we begin to think like that, we will indeed be defeated.

On Sunday morning I saw one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen since the election. It came to me via Twitter of all places (don’t bother following me, I never tweet). Someone had retweeted this picture of a man in front of Mosque:

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If you could describe a “Trumpeter” to a police sketch artist, he’d look like this. But look at this! Isn’t that amazing! Isn’t that fantastic! Don’t for a second think he doesn’t have friends, colleagues, or family members who gave him hell for this. He may have lost friends, he may have family members that will no longer talk to him, I don’t know. But he did an incredibly simple thing. He held a sign in front of a mosque. And he gave me hope. He made me feel good. And I’m neither Muslim nor Arabic. May he be inspiration to us all.

It’s dark out their my friends. Yet humanity has been here before. We have seen evil men and evil corporations infest and threaten us. But they cannot win as long as we have the courage to stand up and speak against it. We will lose battles yes. We’re losing several right now. Pipelines are being built, bigots are being elected, corporations are taking priority over human beings. But justice is on our side. The arc of history bends in our favor. Dark is the way but light is the place. Let us not despair just yet.

Bless the harbor seals.

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Hanson Heartbeat

The windows creak and groan. The world outside them is pitch black but I know tree branches the shape of withered arms stretch their wood clad fingers toward the cabin’s walls. The ocean pounds. It sounds so close I expect the next wave to come barreling over the porch and set us adrift in the sound. It’s the first storm of many, I’ve spent the summer dreaming about them. There’s something in the forty knot winds and blasting rain that’s soothing, secure. Hunkered down with the fire roaring and the cat asleep on the back of the couch. Just as long as the boat’s ok where it’s tied up in the back of the cove. It is isn’t it? I should go check.

By morning it’s subsided. The low pressure monster taking a deep breath, preparing for the next exhale. Harlequin ducks poke their multi-colored heads out from behind the rocks, Sea Lions return to the haulout, Herons again perch on the worn out kelp that has been buffeted by waves for the last 12 hours. And like all the critters, we poke our heads out our door. All the roofs are still in place, the lab still humming along. All that’s changed is the growing collection of fallen branches and golden fingers of the Cedar trees that populate and soften the forest floor.
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If only the rest of the world was like this. Half a day of insanity and turmoil before everything returned to it’s relaxed state. Humpbacks in the pass, seals munching fish, deer scavenging for the kelp that just couldn’t hold on anymore. But human nature doesn’t work like this. Every day some new scandal flashes across the screen. It is the quintessential train wreck. I want to look away so bad but can’t. My stomach tightens as I scroll through article after article, my heart pounding against my ribs, eyes becoming glazed and unfocused.

How has it come to this?

Assault, repealing amendments, threats of political violence, the laundry list could go on for pages. Dear God, what century is this?

I step out onto the rocky face opposite the lab. The point here sticks out into Blackney Pass just a little further, but the difference is noticeable. Sea lions cruise by, calm and serene. They’re exhalations are like small explosions, as if there’s something stuck in their throat. After watching them gulp salmon whole it wouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s just business as usual for the pinnipeds. Eat salmon, have a nap, yell at your neighbor on the rocks.

Six big boys swim past not ten yards off the rocks. Even from the relative safety of the point I stiffen. I’ve spent enough time in a kayak to know these guys make me uneasy. I’ve been followed, growled at, and watched them zoom inches below my seat, feeling the kayak rise and fall as they passed. But they seem as unsure as I am. They stop off the rocks and we stare into each others eyes.

They’re a comical looking animal when you see them straight on, bobbing like corks. They have this perpetual look like they’re always surprised. Like the monster just jumped out of the shadows in a slasher movie. I wait for them to dive away and leave me be. But they stay. The curious magnetic quality of sea lion dynamics occurs, more and more appear out of nowhere. Appearing from their hidden trap door on the ocean floor. Seven, eight, nine, ten. We speak without making a sound.

There calmness unsettles me. I want to scream at them. “Do you realize what’s going on? Do you know what could happen on November 8th? Didn’t you read what he said now?”

The group blinks in polite puzzlement before disappearing beneath the waves. Thirty seconds later they’re back. My breathing is unsettled. I went for this walk for two reasons. To harvest mushrooms and leave the rest of the world behind for a bit. You’d think that’d be easy on Hanson Island, but it isn’t. There’s a sense of helplessness being so far away from it all in times like this. There’s nothing you can do but refresh the news and pray. I stare at the sea lions and they snort in my direction, nostrils flaring.

 I wish I could be more like you.

Wish I could be content with some salmon and a smooth rock to lay my head. Though I’m glad I don’t have to watch for a black pointed dorsal coming up behind me all the time.

    “So be like us,” they answer. “Just let go.”

    “I wish I could.”

    “It’s easy.”

    “I wish it was.”

    “Stop wishing and do. Control what you can control. Chop some wood, watch us swim, count the humpbacks. Be present.”

The sun streams in through the clouds. Vancouver Island is hidden but the clouds in front of it sparkle with late morning sun. There are chocolate pancakes in my belly. I write fifteen feet from the ocean. An ocean in which, right now there are two seals, a sea lion, and a humpback visible (who I should probably photograph and ID). I’m in control of our power, our fresh water, and some of our food supply. My heat comes not from propane but wood. I am in the most beautiful place on earth. If I cannot let go here, where can I?

I think of the miracles of this world, of this place. That humpback will soon leave for Hawaii. A 3,000 mile journey without a Lonely Planet book or compass. He or she will hit it square on the dot. No questions asked. Amazing. I memorize the beauty in the sad eyes of the harbor seal and the bouncing optimism of the Harlequins. The prehistoric cackle of the heron, the Pterodactyl incarnate.
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Breathe, be still, be present.

I smile, inhaling salt air and high tide. My hands run up and down the trunk of a Cedar tree. I close my eyes, and feel myself, at long last, let go. Surrendering to the pulse of the island.

Photos By Brittney Cannamore

Overcoming Doubt and Listening to Abbey (Not the Road)

It’s hard to imagine having a mid/early/late life crisis here. In a place where on any given morning the ocean turns sapphire, the forest yields every shade of green imaginable, and Orca’s call in the dead of night. But it happens. We’re reminded that our unconventional life is a societal outlier. 27-year old’s are supposed to have reliable mailing addresses. Maybe a mortgage and a baby room. Quaint, bustling, hard working, picturesque. It’s the American dream, the American way. At least it was until it wasn’t.

But this doesn’t stop us from considering that maybe we are doing this all wrong.  Seeds of doubt can germinate and grow quickly if we allow them to. Swimming upstream can be tiring. A writer? Who reads anymore? What makes you think that what flows from your mind and through your fingers will capture a world that would rather scroll Facebook than turn pages? This is all well and good, but shouldn’t you shelve the dream, move on, get a real job.

As an uninspiring “mentor” from my church going high school days told me, “you can’t ride the skateboard forever.” He admonished when I told him what I was doing with my life. “Have you ever seen a 60-year old on a skateboard? You’d think something was wrong with him.” Every now and than his voice gets in my head. My fingers tremble, my words seem trite, uninspiring. I pour another cup of coffee, sit with the Harlequins in the cove, take a deep breath, refocus.

Our fear and self doubt manifests itself in different ways. I bang my head against the writer’s block, Brittney scrolls through house plans. She looks at property, checks the bank account, shakes her head, and refreshes the Real Estate page. We have a target now, a landing strip. Gustavus, Alaska. 400 people, 400 moose, one life changing national park. Now if we could stop flying long enough to land. A body in motion stays in motion, one at rest stays at rest. After five years together, we’re still in motion. New Zealand, Juneau, Gustavus, Seattle, British Columbia. I love it. I’ve pushed past my fear, my self doubt, at least for now. Be a writer or starve to death trying. Brittney says she’s ready for the house. My little tumbleweed wants roots. I can’t blame her. Gustavus fits us as good as we do each other. A warm sweater on a crisp fall day.  I love sweaters, I’m wearing one right now. But at some point in the next hour I’ll want to take it off. I’m not ready to wear it forever.

I could have it all right now. The house, the mortgage, the lawn in need of trimming. But I wandered off that road a long time ago.

“Petroleum is Alaska’s present and future.” I was reminded throughout high school. The gateway to, if not fame, certainly fortune. On the backs of industrial giants, we will ride Alaska into an age of wealth and opportunity that we can only imagine. We’ll dig the spurs in deep, push her into a gallop. For nothing should stand in the way of growth, monetary opportunity. All this, I was told, could be mine.

“If you want to make money, live a comfortable existence, petroleum engineering is your best choice.” Grab a straw, stick it in the ground, suck that sweet nectar until it’s empty. Life, liberty, oil subsidies, and the pursuit of happiness.

 What if I don’t want a comfortable existence?

No one talked about what those that wanted to sit on the rocks and count Orca’s should do. Or if you loved the philosophy of fitting everything into one rusting Pathfinder that you prayed would start.  If it doesn’t fit? Give it away. You don’t need it. There was one definition of success, and it could be found in your bank statement.

Now? Oil is going for under $2 a gallon. The state is bankrupt, people panicking. The kids that grabbed their straws are realizing the glass is emptying fast. If the money disappears will they still enjoy what they do? I sincerely hope so. Will the industry rebound? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Ask British Petroleum, Shell, or a state senator and they’ll say it has to. Alaska needs it, can’t live without it. The voice of the addict. Without oil, Alaska will be like Maine. A nice place to live but not a great place to make money.

As my friend (and writer) Kim Heacox says, “what’s wrong with that?”

I hold Brittney’s hand, squeeze it softly, pull the computer away from her. I know that look, know that fear, understand that desire to have a place to call home. She wants to build an apothecary, bring natural healing to Gustavus. She wants open mic nights, a vegetable garden, the slow bike race on the fourth of July. But she also wants Hanson Island, the open road, the freedom that we enjoy that we’re debt free. She admits she’s not ready to give that up yet. Maybe in a year or two, or three, or thirty. I want all those things too. But we can’t have both. Maybe if we invest those Permanent Fund checks our bankrupted state keeps giving us we can…

Not everyone is meant to live like this. That’s fine. That’s a relief. There aren’t enough Hanson Islands  or Gustavuses to go around. I ferried and drove to Orca Lab on the miracle of petroleum pulled from the ground and refined in a factory that pushes more carbon into the air than the globe has seen in millennia. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Edward Abbey said the job of the freelance writer was to criticize and inspect the country in which he lived. Consider me his disciple, just trying to do what he expected. Good old Abbey. Doing what he loved until the very end. His buddies snuck him out of his death bed in the hospital he hated more than roads through national parks and let him say goodbye in the desert.

They inscribed on his tombstone: Edward Abbey. No comment. I like that.

Where do I want to say goodbye? Gustavus or Hanson Island? I can’t decide. Mercifully I don’t have to, and God willing, I won’t have to for a long time. We’ll see how far our skateboard carries us.

Coming Home

For all its ocean facing windows, the lobby of the lodge is always dim. Dark wooden walls cast a permanent shadow that the orange fluorescent lights can’t begin to penetrate. An awning stretches over the long balcony, protecting al fresco diners from the rain, and blotting out whatever rays of sun make it through the gray clouds.
Those with their back to the windows have their faces vanish into dark, inscrutable shadow, features and expressions hidden and mask like. So when I walk into the lodge the pair are not immediately obvious. Their rain gear and boots hidden in the darkness. But their boundless enthusiasm as I approach squelches any doubt that it’s me they’ve been waiting for. As they sit back down and the paperwork appears the shadows hide the signs that should have been obvious. The mother’s shivering hands and arms, the wool hat pulled tightly over her head without a single curl or braid protruding beneath the material.
Her son scribbles names and home addresses well she berates him the way only a mother can. Not spitefully, but in the way that makes him, even at 24 roll his eyes and sarcastically mutter, “mooooom!”
As we rise it takes her a few extra moments to gather herself and lift her thin body off the couch. Only now in the better light does it become obvious and my expression, comprehending for only moments betrays me.
Yes. She’s going through chemotherapy, had been since she was diagnosed with lung cancer just three months ago.
“Never smoked a cigarette in my life,” she says as if I’d have the nerve or insensitivity to ask. “I lived in Juneau for three years back in the early eighties and I wanted my kids to see it before…” she trails off. She doesn’t tell me what stage of treatment she’s in and I don’t ask, I don’t want to know.
Like many, their fear and terror is covered by humor. They laugh long and loud at my every quip and comment, as if Dave Letterman and not Dave Cannamore was their guide.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to paddle,” she confesses.
“It makes no difference to me how far we go,” I answer, “I’m just so happy you made it back.” I’d float fifty feet off the dock all night if they want to.
We reach the sheds that house our kayak gear and a gentle mist begins to fall from the clouds that habitually threaten rain. The drops fall in a resigned, uninspired sort of way, the stormy cumulus far from enthused, sending precipitation earthwards as if it didn’t know what else to do that evening but soak  the leaves of the alders.
Her son is easily as tall as me, a cello player in San Francisco who looks like he could play small forward for the Warriors in his spare time. We firmly tell Mom to stay put and lug the double and single kayak down the beach toward the slowly flooding tide and she gently folds herself into the front cockpit. For the first time she doesn’t look tired and worn. Her eyes gleam with the excitement of untold patience after waiting for this exact moment. I push them clear of the rocks and follow, my kayak bobbing in their wake.
“I used to go kayaking all the time when I lived in Juneau,” she says as we move past the dock, aiming for the mouth of Bartlett Cove. “I would take my cat with me.”
I try to imagine Porter perched on the bow of my kayak, clawed paws slipping and sliding on the fiberglass, scratching the gel coat or worse, attacking the human responsible for depositing him in a vessel surrounded by his sworn enemy.
There are people that you want to see it all. Breaching humpbacks, hunting orcas, frolicking sea lions, sneaky seals, flying pterodactyls, and as we paddle I mentally will the inhabitants of Glacier Bay towards us. Calling to them to understand how precious their presence would mean to all of us.
We paddle and the conversation is easy. No factual tic tacs needed to stimulate talk between the two boats. Mother and son bicker good naturedly as he struggles to master the rudder peddles on his maiden voyage. Talk turns to baseball, two die hard Giants fans bemoaning their lack of starting pitching depth.
My stomach turns, replace San Francisco with Minnesota and this was my Mom and I. She in her early 50s, he his mid 20s. I’m about to open my mouth, to reveal the parallel when the whale arrives.
The bait ball had been swirling for fifteen minutes, the gulls’ insinuations and the protests of murrelets had become a white noise. The humpback had given no warning before ripping through the surface, sending white wings scattering as herring gull, kittiwake, and mew rise a few feet higher and out of reach of the ballooning mouth. The impact on us is instantaneous. No one hollers or calls out, it’s more of a silent, “ohhhh” from all three of us that stops our conversation mid sentence. The calm evening water allows the sound of the next breath to echo off the trees on the Lester shore, the water falling from the back and flukes as the whale rises higher momentarily before falling away beneath the waves.
The rain continues to fall at random intervals as we paddle, her stamina exceeding her expectations. As it falls heavier she leans back in her seat, face pointing upward, allowing the cool water to strike her face beads sliding down and into her lap. As we return an hour later, her stroke stronger than ever she looks reborn. I tell her about John Muir, how he slept on the glaciers when he was ill and walked down the next morning feeling like he had a new lease on life.
“Maybe theres more treatment in the wilderness than we know,” I suggest.
She likes the sound of that, “forget the chemo, just bring me a huge iceberg to munch on. Make sure theres some vodka to go with it though.”
She laughs as their boat nears the shore, I hop out and catch their kayak by the nose, raising it up to land softly on the rocks and barnacles. As the moment comes to step clear of the boat she pauses, not to gather her strength, but to savor. She runs her hands lovingly along the combing, her fingers brushing the forest green finish, a loving look in her eyes.
“It feels so good to be back here, you don’t know how much places like this mean to you until you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to see them.”
She isn’t talking to either of us, but the silence that follows is total. Even the birds have gone silent as if in respect to this fiery and passionate woman.
It’s most telling where we run to when we can make out the expiration date on our lives. We don’t run to the Oracle, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge or any other man made marvels. We come home. To the place that, deep inside, we still acknowledge as sacred, as special, as holy, even if we’ve long forgotten exactly why. It’s why we marvel at glaciers and eyes gleam as we glass the water for that six foot dorsal fin. Because the natural world gives us something that we can never create, can never imitate. And when we know time is up, what better place to spend it, than right at home.