From here on, assume just about every word is in bold and/or all-caps,
and each time I use an exclamation point I actually meant
Starting a new quilt forces me to sit still, stay focused, and think about next steps. The last few years I've been giving them away, keeping people I love warm while I work on the next project.
The next one I finish might be mine.
Summer is finally over, and now that October's waning I get to almost slow down into fall. People who stay are here, those who leave are mostly gone. The muskeg turned red, so did some leaves, I was there and back again. While traveling I found myself trying to describe my bookstore to people who will never visit but want to understand what helps keeps me here, so thought it was time to post in detail about the best job I've ever had.
I actually started this by accident. The writing prompt was 'Bosses' and it turned into a love letter to my bookstore.
Sing Lee Alley Books & Gifts is an independent bookstore in a town of 3,000 on an island in Alaska. The woman who started it over 30 years ago still owns the house with her husband. They live in Hawaii most of the year. The woman who bought the business from her still runs it, and since she managed it for years the transition was practically a matter of paperwork. She works hard, running the business and doing massage therapy in the back room a few days a week. I help her part-time during the year, and keep the lights on 5 days a week in winter, which is when when she travels somewhere around the world. I leave for a month each in the fall and spring, and we work with each other if other things come up.
Petersburg doesn't get the big cruise ships, relying on independent travelers or boats carrying 50-200 people at a time. We're open on Sundays in summer for 6 hours. People come to Alaska to experience our beauty and maybe find themselves. We sell a lot of Alaskan authors, books about tiny houses, memoirs from thoughtful people, and military history throughout the summer. Along with lots of other things. When I travel and shop for books for the store, I get to ignore the tables of books dedicated to how to stop being so busy.
Around Christmas we open Sundays again, then go big and stay open until 7 pm that whole week, selling books and gift items that the store owner has picked up on her travels, be it up to Anchorage or down south to Oregon, or any of the countries she's recently been to. Christmas Eve we stay open until 4 pm, and collapse on the two chairs in the store afterwards with a glass (or two) of champagne. That's the day we provide food and cider to the customers, a Norwegian-Alaskan tradition of our town where we thank them for the business over the year, and they thank us by spending more money. We don't have a website, though sometimes I post things to our Facebook page when I remember. People from communities like Point Baker (population 35) or Sitka (population 9,000) will call in orders for us to mail out. I've gotten pretty good at describing the different colors of a sock and picking out birthday cards for strangers.
The building itself is an old boarding house, built in 1927 to welcome newcomers to the island as the town still got its feet (and pilings) under it. The bookshelves were built by hand in the store, and people keep asking to buy our rugs but we like them and it'd be a pain in the ass to replace them so we say no. The walls are covered in artwork, books are intermingled with scarves, Alaskan gift items are everywhere and the kid's room is all the way in the back accidentally/on purpose. We check email once a day, twice if we're expecting something. I place the book order once a week. Along with paperbacks, select hardcovers and books that are interesting enough to get my attention, I order books certain people will like and give a call when it's arrived about one-two weeks later. We advertise when we're having a sale, but people know where to find us. Sometimes people come in just to chat with one or either of us and don't buy a thing.
I eat lunch on the stairs in the sunshine, shovel the driveway and stairs in winter, take pretty pictures of our apple tree in the fall, and sweep excess rainfall off the stairs year-round. In the summer we keep the door open so visitors know we're a business, but every other time of the year people walk in and make themselves at home.
Last winter I finally started putting up book recommendations around the store. It's forcing me to stretch my reading habits, as I realize not everyone shares my love of apocalyptic themes and feminist historical fiction. Even though they really should. This winter I'm thinking of hosting a weekly coffee hour in the post-Christmas winter time, where people bring their favorite books and we talk about them, maybe do a book swap. I don't really know where we'll fit the chairs, but something tells me it'd be worth it to try.
There are worse ways to spend a winter.
It's actually a lot more work than I make it sound, but it doesn't always feel like it.
I think that makes us lucky.
My name’s Chelsea. I’m from Alaska.
Just around 11 years ago, this was the first phrase I learned to say in Danish. Right before, “I don’t speak Danish.” I was away from home for a year, probably the last year before social media became mainstream. I learned a language, made friends, and discovered that home could mean many different things. I was scared every day.
It was a new world and I had no other choice but to be brave.
It's 70 degrees in May and I'm not ready.
Holy shit tomorrow's June.
People are watering garden beds, confused.
There's a reason we don't live in California.
Right before I left in April, I was working and finishing a submission for a magazine,
so any extra energy I had was spent twisting ideas and words
into forms I didn't quite recognize.
I forgot how exhausting it can be to try to write for someone else's expectations.
At the end, I didn't have any words for myself.
Then I spent three weeks away and barely wrote a word.
And now tomorrow is June.
It's happening again.
I've written before that it was the in-between times that were my favorite.
Every time I'm fully settled into a season, doesn't matter which,
my senses start to itch for things to change again.
So here we are. February.
The winds are shifting, breathing life back into the green all around us.
The biggest difference is in the light.
Now the shadow of the mountains follow me home.
Thinking of spring - in February, in Alaska - feels impossible.
But we only received two major snowfalls, each lasting about a week at a time.
The snowpack in Southeast is less than a quarter of typical amounts.
Together we're holding our breath, waiting for time to pass to see what the fish will have to say.
Maybe winter will reappear one or two more times before that moment.
But people are messing with garden beds and leaving the snowshoes at home,
so whatever comes we all know it will be temporary.
I've found a rhythm.
This is the first year in the last 11 I haven't packed everything I owned into suitcases and boxes.
Now I understand why it felt like I was holding my breath.
Turns out I like things to change,
but sometimes it's nice for them to just not.
This new rhythm's still a bit uneven.
Planting roots in muskeg's a precarious business.
Put too much in all at once and you'll sink,
too little and you'll stick to the surface.
I'm still holding my breath.
Ask any person in their mid-twenties if they've got their life figured out.
Once they stop laughing or crying (or both?) give them some coffee and back away slowly.
In a way it's necessary.
Being in a state of flux is exactly what we need right now.
When Alaska starts smelling of spring in February,
and our islands are falling into the ocean,
to pretend that everything is fine, everything is the same,
is either ignorant or cruel.
To be apathetic is to be both.
I'm talking about climate change and I live in Alaska.
This is the chapter of my life called
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
We are an oil state.
It's what fuels us and enables us.
Our relationship is an unhealthy one, and we all know it.
With low oil prices our state budget is hitting rock bottom,
and like any addict would we're furiously lashing out, begging for one more hit.
"With industry poised to invest billions of dollars in the rapidly thawing and increasingly accessible and resource-rich Arctic, Alaska now has a blueprint to help the state to take advantage of the situation, members of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission said Monday."
This time with feeling.
"With industry poised to invest billions of dollars in the rapidly thawing, increasingly accessible and resource-rich Arctic, Alaska now has a blueprint to help the state to take advantage of the situation, members of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission said Monday."
We're an addict that doesn't care about an open wound
because it means we can find a vein more easily.
We've hit rock bottom (prices, that is)
and rather than see it as a chance to think outside the box
we're curled up in the corner waiting for the sky to fall.
Okay, that's enough.
This is getting depressing even for me.
And I'm the girl who spent Valentine's Day thinking about love and reading about the Sixth Extinction.
In a way it's a natural link.
They're both totalizing experiences that can overwhelm our sense of what's possible.
It was around that time when I realized why I'm so drawn to fantasy books and shows,
and have an irrational draw to superhero movies.
Because sometimes it all boils down to,
"Honey, I love you, but this world isn't going to save itself."
Bonus points if they do it together.
I need to be done soon.
Because the world isn't going to save you back.
I've been writing and editing, submitting to different places and finding more deadlines to push for.
I've been at the bookstore full time,
and working my new second job as the Market Manager for our summer produce and arts market here in town.
My third job, cleaning and being entertained by cruise ships, will start in May.
I'm resisting the urge to figure out how Paypal works and put it on this website.
I'd rather have at least one thing in my life that I do purely out of love, not out of financial obligation.
Though in writing that I realize how lucky I am,
because I love the work that comes with those three sources of employment,
and I wouldn't give that up for anything right now.
Poverty brain has me pushing for Optimum Efficiency in everything I do,
so even my down time has to be "good enough" to justify the "wasted" time out of my day.
Luckily that means hikes and quality, intentional time with my favorite people.
Also lots of Parks and Recreation.
In these busy days I need Leslie Knope's optimism,
her fierce refusal to be anything less than herself.
A self that gives a damn, works hard, loves deeply, and knows when to say
"Fuck it, time for some waffles."
We could all use a little bit of Leslie Knope's optimism.
Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed scientists on the front lines of the human-activity-caused mass extinction event.
You know, the one happening right now.
And they were counseling her about their optimism.
An Alaskan researcher told her, "People have to have hope. I have to have hope. It's what keeps us going."
If they have hope, who are we to give up?
Because we aren't just an oil state.
You hear me?
We are a salmon state.
A people state.
A state made of mountain, muskeg, tundra and rock.
A state held in the grips of ocean, rivers, streams and ice.
The sky isn't falling, it's opening up.
It's up to us to be brave enough to take that first step.
It's also up to us to make sure we don't leave anyone behind.
Look around you.
Defend what needs defending.
In editing my pieces for submission to other places I came up with a new ending for
the piece that was called Home but became Those Who Stay.
This post is for Those Who Speak,
because you are everywhere and you are legion.
Thank you for reading and encouraging and doing.
Now pass along some hope and knowledge today.
Because we're just getting started.
Spring will be here soon and these roots won't plant themselves
What will our new ending be?
Our berries tempt with tart
the evergreens shelter and conceal.
The treachery of the water is well known,
yet still we welcome the lure.
Even with an empty net there’s always a catch.
We stand on the precipice, our options unclear.
It’s the quiet before the storm.
What can be saved, what needs to be found,
and what can we afford to lose?
We have the lessons of history
and optimism that comes from going to the moon and back.
Pragmatism needs to be ignored for now.
Nobody else gets to define the limits of our reality.
What will we do, those of us who stay.
What will we do with this one wild and precious place?
I survived the holiday season.
For an introvert working retail in a town that loves its social events,
especially around Christmas,
this is a big deal.
It also means that, in an effort to be kind to myself,
I let myself sleep in rather than get up early to write.
I should be back to normal soon.
In the meantime, I wrote this for Tidal Echoes, a UAS literary magazine.
I'll find out in March if it was accepted.
I called it Home, but as more and more folks leave
avoiding Alaska in the winter months that aren't filled with sugar and lights,
I think I would prefer to call it:
Home: Dedicated to Those Who Stay
The next chapter will be
A Housesitter's Guide to Giving a Damn about Somebody Else's Dog, Even When it Eats your Socks
Parts of this might look familiar.
- Home -
A customer told me this was his last trip.
He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and, luminous,
proclaimed his time traveling the Inside Passage had been a rebirth.
He was leaving the next day, home to Vermont to most importantly live,
and then eventually die.
We smiled at each other when he left the bookstore,
and I told him, with all my heart, to take care.
I fought tears for the rest of the afternoon,
then ordered a cheeseburger to go and watched the sun go slowly down.
I doubt he is the only person I’ve met who came to Alaska with that knowledge.
They travel to our home to have the experience of a lifetime,
and some of us have countdowns for the next time we can leave.
We are children of the Tongass,
with muskeg in our hearts and scales for skin.
We itch to push off,
to wring ourselves dry and bask in the sun.
But before long we’re dried up and in the breeze,
waiting for the rain to help us settle back down.
I was explaining daily life in Southeast to an elderly visitor and her daughter.
The family that includes people who shovel off your porch without asking,
and the walk that should take five minutes
but takes twenty because of the people you see on the way.
She replied, “Oh, I see. You take care of each other up here.”
When I hear whales greet each other before I speak to another person,
it’s already been a good day.
When I need to feel powerful, I put on my boat clothes.
We live in a ring of fire with glacial ice in our veins, but ultimately it is the green
the moss, algae and mold
When I need to feel grounded, I hike alone in the woods.
Our world moves with the tide and winds.
Only the most powerful can try to ignore those
and eventually they fail.
It is a radical act to have an intense connection to the land you call home.
Our connections to other people and places grow more intangible every day.
Anymore it takes intention to feel the dirt beneath your boots.
Those of us that choose this place are here for love.
Of person or place
it barely matters.
It just matters that it is a fierce love.
A love that removes us from others
and defies attempts at logic.
And sometimes reason.
The adhesive on my skin mimicked tar as it traveled
from my hand to my forearm,
elbow to fingernails.
In the shower I was distracted by the sun I was racing to catch
and I scrubbed until the pumice made my arm bleed.
I may help take care of others, but I think I may sometimes need a little help too.
Even in my boat clothes.
Like love, this relationship can be painful.
There can be pain.
But there is also joy.
I don’t think it’s possible to ever actually be alone in the woods.
I started writing this almost four months ago, when friends and former classmates wrote on a friend's blog about where they were vs. where they thought they were going in post-postgrad life. Like the others, I love writing. And I haven’t been able to make a life out of it, so am doing other things. I did not expect the process of responding to Chris, Sean and Anna to send me down a months-long rabbit hole that had me balancing questions of meaning, value, work, and how to say you have “enough” when you’re still trying to figure out your vision of what that is.
I decided to break this up into three different posts. The first is a more personal perspective, so I did my best to keep the political and theoretical tangents to a minimum. The second will explore what “enough” can look like, with the lives and work of others as guides. The third deepens the discussion and brings it to focus on what I consider to be the true issue at hand, the various systems (political, social, economic) that make up our world and the ways they create the boundaries we use to both define and create our lives.