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Baha'i, Spiritual, Religion, Hope,
Faith, Truth, Mindful, Purpose, Awareness, Seeking

Read a few pages. - Enjoy!

 

It's A Wrap

 

When I arrived home for lunch, my wife Sonia was in a busy scurry—cleaning. She was quiet. I knew that meant she was thinking through something important. She did that often. When she had something on her mind to work out, she would go into this quiet mode and start cleaning. I learned over the years not to disturb her when she was in this mood because she didn’t like to engage in conversation, so I thought, this, too, will pass.

I sat down to eat lunch and watch Perry Mason like I did nearly every day at noon. When I got up to put my bowl away, my Sonia suddenly breezed through the kitchen with an armload of laundry and announced, “I’m moving to Oregon next spring. You can come with me if you want.” She didn’t even break stride as she disappeared down the hall and off into the laundry room.

There I stood, wondering what to make of her statement. I quickly followed her into the laundry room and asked, “What do you mean, you’re moving to Oregon?”

She stopped right where she was. A look of hopelessness came over her face as she turned to me. “I just can’t take another winter here.”

I knew she meant it. We had been in Alaska nearly eight years now, and for the last three of them we had been talking about leaving. We loved it in many ways, especially the people. Then again, Sonia was ill, and the long, cold, dark winters were becoming too much for both of us. I was ready, too.

I had come to realize that there are trade-offs no matter where one lives. There are wonderful things to discover and experience, and there are some things that aren’t so wonderful. I never did well in the city or where the sky was unusually cloudy like it was in Anchorage. I was happiest living inland where the sun shined frequently, and access to wide-open spaces was readily available. So agreeing with her was not difficult. I quickly replied, “I’m ready!”

The agenda was set for the next nine months. We would prepare to move to Oregon, to Eastern Oregon that is, where there are wide-open spaces and plenty of sunshine. It was October, which meant I had to sell my business while deciding on a new place to live and work. I also had to make all the necessary arrangements for our move. We still had a teenage daughter at home as well. It was going to be a complex project, but we were ready.

I informed the people where I worked of our decision. It wasn’t long until all of our friends and associates knew about our plans. They showed disappointment when hearing of our upcoming move, yet encouraged us with best wishes.

Several years earlier, my daughter had asked me to accompany her on a service project that she had volunteered for as a school assignment. There was a small soup kitchen in downtown Anchorage called Bean’s Café that provided free meals for people in need. She and I were to show up there and help serve. I thought it was a good thing to do, both for my daughter and as a service to the people. After going once and getting to know a few of the volunteers, I decided to continue at their insistent invitation.

Over the years, I became a regular at Bean’s Café. While serving there, I experienced an opportunity to work with several Alaskan Native women. I sincerely enjoyed their company and found myself looking forward to the weekly visits at the café. These women had an unfamiliar way of dealing with things that totally amazed me. They seemed to be able to put people at ease and say the right thing in the right way, which was usually in an indirect manner. I also noticed that their outcomes were generally peaceful, and in some way, unifying. Serving people who live on the cold streets of Anchorage, who were often intoxicated and angry at society, was no easy task, yet these women did it so well.

One elderly woman was especially outstanding. Her name was Rose, and she took a liking to me, or at least I thought she did. She would always greet me with a warm handshake and make sure I had something to drink. She would sit me down and inquire about my family, my work, and my life in general. In fact, she often got quite personal with me, but she never pried and I never felt the questions she asked were inappropriate. They were always loving and sincere. She would fold her hands over her round belly, lean forward a little, look into my eyes as if to quiet me for a moment, and then ask me something general—the conversation eventually leading to more intimate details. Rose wondered what I thought about various political issues or current world events and why I thought the way I did. Sometimes she would offer a perspective different than mine and ask my opinion. I always enjoyed talking with her and eventually came to trust her, comfortably sharing my personal thoughts and feelings. I never felt harshly judged or condemned in any way. In fact, I often went away feeling better about myself and more hopeful about life in general. I came to like this gentle eighty-three-year-old woman very much, so I dreaded the time I would have to tell her I was moving. When I did tell her, she didn’t even flinch. She just looked at me with her dark, smiling eyes and slowly sat back in her chair. “We all do what we have to do,” she replied, then slowly stood to go back to her work. She was quiet the rest of that day, making only small talk. She didn’t say anything more about me moving until just before the end of my shift when she asked, “When will you be leaving Alaska?”

“Probably sometime next summer,” I responded.

She paused for a moment as though calculating the time, and then, throwing a towel over her shoulder, she smiled big and gave me a hug. That was one woman I was really going to miss.

As the months went by, I kept Rose informed of the progress of our move. She was always very kind to me—being informed of our move didn’t change the way she treated me at all. One day I was explaining to her how I purchased a large truck with a twenty-foot van on it to move our belongings. I had bought one eight years earlier when we moved to Alaska from Oregon, and by selling it for more than I paid for it, our moving expenses were reduced considerably. I planned on doing the same thing for our return move. I was explaining in detail how we were planning the trip. I told her that Sonia would be driving our Bronco, and I would be driving the big truck and towing a small camp-trailer. Our daughter was going to fly down to Oregon and stay with my son, who had already moved back. Another couple we knew from Alaska were also moving back to Oregon. We had decided to all travel together.

Rose subtly informed me, “I was thinking of going down to Washington to visit my family sometime next summer, but I don’t drive, and I can’t fly.”

“Why can’t you fly?” I asked.

“My sinus condition,” she replied. “I get intolerable face pain and headaches from the sudden elevation changes. I can take slow changes, like in a car, but not in planes.”

“Maybe you could travel down with us,” I suggested.

Glancing down, she said softly, “That’s a possibility, but I wouldn’t want to put you and your family out.”

“You wouldn’t be putting us out at all,” I assured her. “Why don’t you think it over? You are welcome, and we would be happy for your company.” She agreed to consider my offer.

A few weeks passed without seeing Rose. I missed my regular weekly session at the café, so I hadn’t talked with her for a while. I was busy phasing out all the activities and projects I had been involved in. I had been writing two books and was busy with so many other activities and projects that I felt overwhelmed. It was wintertime; I was extremely busy, and yet, I was getting depressed again. When it happened last winter, I was able to ride it out somehow. This time the pressure was too much. I couldn’t shake the feeling of grief in my chest that weighed on me, so I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. His diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder came with a prescription for medication and a special light for people who suffer from light deficiency. I slowly began to feel better and was able to stay focused on my tasks. I was busy closing out projects and activities in preparation for our move. I also had to arrange for a place to live and a location to establish my business in Oregon. I was very busy and focused, so telling Rose I was resigning from my weekly post at the café was just a routine decision that had to be made. I went to the café on my scheduled day and informed her it would be my last, as I had so many things to do in preparation for the move. She acknowledged my decision with one of her kind smiles and continued with her work.

I had forgotten about the possibility of Rose traveling to Oregon with us until it was nearly time to go. Remembering, I casually asked, “So, are you going to Oregon with us this summer?”

“I think I might be able to do that,” she replied, “but I would like to talk to you about it sometime first. There is a groundbreaking ceremony being held at a new Native healing center near Palmer. I would like to invite you and Sonia to attend. Maybe we could talk about the trip then.”

“I don’t know,” I moaned doubtfully. “We’re so busy getting ready for our move. I don’t think we can add another activity to our agenda.”

“It’s a very special ceremony,” she pleaded. “Audrey Hathaway bought the building and property and would very much like to see you there.”

Audrey is an Alaskan Native healer who uses traditional herbs, drumming, songs, chants, and prayers to help those who need healing. She is well known and respected by the Native people and the medical community. I had met her before and found her fascinating.

“We’ll have lots of good Native food for you to eat,” she said enticingly, followed by belly laughter from her and several Native women who were working close by. It was funny to them, but I was clueless to the humor.

“Okay,” I said. “Still, I have to ask Sonia if we can work it in.”

Rose stopped, turned to face me directly, and then stood up real straight. “I would really like you to come.” She held her hand over her heart and stood motionless, smiling, awaiting my commitment.

“All right,” I said reluctantly. “I’ll be there.”

She gently nodded her head and returned to work.

The dedication of the Native healing center was in the spring, which in Anchorage means June. Spring, or “breakup” as it is called, begins in April. They refer to spring as breakup because that’s when the ice begins to break apart and float down the rivers. In Anchorage, around the middle of May, over about a five-day period, nearly everything sprouts green. The cottonwood, willow, and alder all leaf-out at once and spring arrives. But June is the month to be outdoors. The sun is up twenty-two hours a day, the temperatures are in the sixties, sometimes even in the seventies, and it’s generally sunny.

It was June, and we were making the final arrangements to move sometime in late July or early August. Because it had taken us ten days of travel when we moved up to Alaska from Oregon, we were planning on a ten-day return trip as well. It was 3,027 miles from the front door of our apartment in Anchorage to the front door of my mother’s house in Tygh Valley—our temporary destination in Oregon. We would travel approximately three hundred miles a day, which would require six-plus hours of daily driving. The Alcan Highway was paved the whole way now with just occasional patches of gravel where the road was being repaired. These were the details rolling through my mind as I headed to the ceremony.

I only knew a few of the people at the dedication ceremony. There were three long tables set up with food, some of which I had never eaten before, including raw whale blubber called muck-tuck, dried seaweed, and seal oil. I filled my plate and sat down with Sonia and Rose to eat. The ceremony following the meal included prayers, drumming, chanting, and a few short talks. It was pleasant and inspiring. Even so, I was anxious for it to end so I could get on with my tasks. The activities were nearly over, and I was so preoccupied with other matters that I forgot to talk to Rose about traveling to Washington with us. It’s not customary among the Native people for them to open up the subject when someone else is offering something, so Rose hadn’t said anything either.

A physician friend of mine from Eagle River was getting ready to leave. While looking my way, he asked loudly, “Grayson, when are you leaving for Oregon?”

“In July or August,” I replied.

He wished us well and proceeded to the parking lot. When I looked back at Rose, she was smiling big and looking at me with an inquisitive expression on her face. I wondered for a moment what that was about and then remembered her asking to talk with me regarding the trip. Walking closer to her, I asked, “So, what was it you wanted to talk to me about, Rose?”

“I would like you to sit down here and listen to me carefully,” she replied, pointing to a small bench. “Please don’t comment until I finish, and then I would like you to go home and think about what I have asked before you respond. Is that okay?”

“Yes, that’s fine, Rose,” I said.

“I want to make you a proposition,” she continued in a quiet, sincere voice. “I would like to ride with you down the Alcan to Washington where my daughter lives. That is, I want to ride with you, just the two of us in your moving truck. I know you’re a writer, and I have read some of your work. I like the way you write and the way you think. You have a good heart, and I can speak to it without reservation.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

She stopped abruptly and sat with statue-like stillness, staring at me. I realized I had spoken out of turn and had not kept quiet as she had requested. When she saw I had realized my error, she smiled one of those quick teeth-baring grins some of the Alaskan Natives do, bowed her head for a moment as if to find her place, then raised her head and continued. “I would like to publish a book, but I am having trouble writing what I want to say. I have tried several times. I even tried a computer. I still haven’t found anything that works for me. I was hoping you could help. I would like to bring a tape recorder on the trip and record what I have to say while you listen. Also, I would like you to ask questions and carry on a conversation with me. When we have finished our journey, I would like you to write what we record, and then submit it for publication. I want nothing from the sale of this book. I only want you to do whatever it takes to get it published. Now, you go home and think it over, and then let me know. Do you understand what I am asking?”

I had to snap out of my stupor, for I found myself lost, imagining the reality of her proposition.

“What’s the book about?” I asked curiously.

She just stared at me with soft, tear-filled eyes, and finally replied slowly, “A spiritual vision of hope for mankind. Now go!” she insisted. “We’ll talk soon.”

All the way home I kept scoffing at what she had said—“a spiritual vision of hope for mankind.” Oh boy, who does she think she is?

What does that mean? I wondered. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I didn’t know of any spiritual vision of hope for mankind. In fact, the spiritual future of humanity seemed rather dismal to me. I had wondered about it nearly all my life but had essentially given up hope. Experiences in my youth had assured me I was a spiritual being and that there was so much more to life than what appeared in this short material existence. I had contemplated the questions of death, the afterlife, this life, and the possibility of other lives. I had investigated religions, read spiritual books, talked to everyone who would listen, read everything I could get my hands on about spirituality and religion, and temporarily had become certain of the purpose of life. But my enthusiastic interest had dwindled with time. Somehow, things changed. The more pressing concerns seemed to just take over my life—college, children, work, friends, responsibilities, stress—all causing the spiritual part of me to just fade.

I would love to have a spiritual vision of hope! I thought. I had been down the conventional spiritual path—go to church, do what you’re told, and don’t dare ask any probing questions. When I did ask, I was usually given the same parroted answers that never made sense to me. Maybe to the real believers it does, I thought. Maybe I just wasn’t ever areal believer. Maybe I just needed to accept the superstitious-sounding answers that were given to me whenever I questioned the conventional perspective. Maybe! Maybe! Maybe! I didn’t know what was right and true, and I hadn’t known for years—in fact, decades.

I was just doing what everyone else was doing—going through the motions of life as though they mattered somehow, yet feeling empty, as if something seriously important was missing. It had been especially true during this last year. I had blamed it all on depression. But I was probably depressed because my life didn’t seem important or meaningful enough. I had read a verse from Danté that I thought summed up my life quite well:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,

I found myself in a shadowed forest,

For I had lost the path that does not stray.”

That was it. I was forty-seven. Three of my children were now living away from home, and I was on the threshold of being asked to consider again all those questions I had wondered about when I was nineteen. What am I doing here on this earth? What is my purpose here? What is anyone doing here? Does anyone really know? Does anyone else ask these questions? If they do, why doesn’t someone say it? Are we all afraid of the answers? What if there aren’t any answers?

So far there hadn’t been any answers that felt right or made enough sense that the majority of people could agree upon them. And now, some old Alaskan woman wants me to listen to her for ten days while she resurrects all those difficult-to-bear feelings again. Was she crazy? Was I crazy for even considering her proposition? Would she lay on me some Alaskan Indian thing? I wondered. I didn’t know. Maybe I would just listen to her talk and at the end of the trip tell her I am not up to writing the book. No, I didn’t want to do that either. I might as well listen to her talk for ten days instead of listening to my own thoughts. So be it, I decided. I’ll just do it, and deal with it.

Finally, the day came. The last items were loaded into the big truck, and I closed and locked the door. It’s a hollow feeling when you’re getting ready to move, and you walk through an empty house where you have lived for several years. I stopped for a moment in the living room and just took it all in. Years of life here, and now it’s over. I felt a nostalgic melancholy swoop into my chest. It was from love—love of my family and our experiences here. For the most part, the experiences were good. Sometimes they were nearly unbearably difficult, and other times abundantly joyous. They all contributed to the love that was so strong in my family. I gave the house a big smile, closed the door, and walked away. Sonia and I had already said our good-byes to friends and co-workers, so we settled into our vehicles and pulled out of the driveway.

We headed to Palmer, which was just an hour away, to spend the night with some friends. We were to meet up in Palmer with Franklin and Annie, who were also moving to Oregon and planned on traveling with us. When we arrived, we helped them with their final packing and loading which we finished late that night. I didn’t sleep well. I’m sure none of us did as we had quite a journey ahead of us. I ran through all the things I could think of to be sure we were ready. A three-thousand-mile journey through Alaska and Canada’s northland can be trying. It pays to be prepared.

  Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1995), canto I, lines 1-3.