It's an honor to be included in the new collection inspired by EMMA Talks:
Radiant Voices: 21 Feminist Essays
for Rising Up, edited by carla bergman
Copies available through TouchWood Editions.
The First Wake
The first sound you hear every morning at 4 o’clock is the sound of the skipper putting on his boots. You know this sound because it reminds you that you, yourself, were in such a hurry to get the fuck into your bunk at 1 o’clock this morning (after you got done pitching mixed fish for 3 hours and then fixing that tear in the bag from the snag your skiffman dragged you over the top of and then washing the dishes from dinner) that you forgot to take your own boots off, and so you’ve been sleeping on top of your rank sleeping bag in damp sweatpants and a tank top, with your wet feet moldering inside the godforsaken confines of your Xtra Tuffs.
Then you hear footsteps, and you think to yourself, “Maybe he’s just taking a leak,” and you try to salvage another precious 18 seconds of sleep before your fantasy is shattered. Keep in mind that you have spent your entire luxurious 3 hours of rack time dreaming that you were pitching fish, so in your mind, you really haven’t slept at all. This is why you go back to sleep in the 12 seconds it took the skipper to reach topside. But then there’s the squeal. To start a diesel engine, you first have to turn the key on for several ear splitting seconds as it readies - it goes EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE - and then you get the CHUFF CHUFF CHUFF sound of the engine firing up. This is when the waking game really starts.
The game is pretty simple: the first deckhand out of the sack to pull the anchor wins the bad-ass award. It means you are a superior worker. It means you are the strongest, smartest, most keen-eyed and highest-paid deck monkey of them all. You totally get bragging rights. If you win all the time, you get to guilt other deckhands into doing things for you: “I pulled the pick again. You get to…” pump the bilge by hand, clean out the shitter, plunge...whatever.
It also means that, in your hustle, you trip on the step heading out of the galley because someone forgot to close the lid on the glove cubby. It means that you are staggering out onto the deck in the dark, only to find that you didn’t grab a sweatshirt because you weren’t going to lose the race and eat shit like you did the last three mornings, so now your bleary eyes are being pelted with the rain that has already been whittled into stinging bullets by the time it’s fallen from the sky and been blown sideways by the 35-mile-an-hour winds that picked up since you dropped anchor mere hours ago.
You cling to the railing as you run up the side to the bow, and when the skipper gives the signal, you start the hydraulic winch heaving the cable up, deftly knocking it into place along the spool so that it doesn’t grab or kink on its way out next time. Then the cable turns to chain, and you realize there is so much goddamn kelp on the pick itself that it won’t come all the way up, so you have to scamper back to the gear closet and grab your knife and then run back to the bow so you can lean way out over the edge and hack at the kelp ball, with nothing but slippery seaweed and a slimy chain to hold onto.
Then you finally heave the damn thing onto the mount on the prow and kill the winch, remembering to tie a safety line onto the chain with a quick-release knot. You know how to do this because you are the bad-ass, the superior worker. You are the A-one deck monkey.
And then you haul your now freezing, soaking wet ass back into the galley where you find that someone else has already started the coffee going, and you get to snag 3 more minutes of sleep before you hit the fishing grounds. You take your boots off, change your socks, and hit the rack hard.
The Second Wake
Enter into any channel and you’ll see a sign posted, “5mph - No wake.” The wake is the footprint of the passing boat, the frothing trail it carves behind it, with crests curling off at angles and churned up water between.
When we traveled, I would often spend hours staring back behind us at our wake. Sometimes the wake would glow green with bioluminescent algae in the dusk. Sometimes the seas would be so rough, the wake would get lost as the waves leapt and folded up and in on themselves. If the sea were calm, it left a scar on the surface that would last for as long as I could watch it before it disappeared into the optical tricks of waterlight.
Sometimes I thought of it as slicing the skin of a vast, beautiful animal, and I felt ashamed.
The water tells you that you are alive because it becomes so many other things. The metaphors are endless: the ocean as cornucopia, as we haul an enormous bag of fish over the side. The ocean as a voluptuous woman, when you see its swells and heaves and everything is hips and breasts and asses and tides, pulled about by the moon. The ocean as beast, all-powerful and unable to be reasoned with, smashing everything in its path. The ocean as dangerous magic, prompting superstition and tattoos and rituals for safe passage. The ocean as desert, flat and endless, undrinkable, burning with salt, the sun beating down. As wine. As ink. As horse, bucking, wild.
When the ocean is calm, the surface becomes glassy and reflective. It turns the color of mercury and makes interlocking shapes of gray and black and silver, looping ovals that whorl in and out of each other, like shadows boiling. This is something you cannot see from the shore, because the waves break the surface and destroy the tension and the symmetry. It is beautiful, dark yet full of color.
I used to wonder whether that beauty is meant to mesmerize, to make death painless. Sometimes I would stare out onto the surface of the ocean and wonder if that was what was happening to me: I was being lulled into a false sense of contentment by the surface so that I wouldn’t mind when the sea one day would swallow me whole.
The Third Wake
I don’t think my culture deals very well with death. We mourn but we don’t allow passion. We honor but we often forget to celebrate. When I grieve, I want to scream aloud. I want to be sick on the ground and to tear off my clothes and to puncture my arm with my own teeth and with sticks and pieces of broken glass. I want to find pictures of the deceased and wear them face down under my clothes, next to my skin, until the photograph crumples and frays and the colors bleed all over me and bits of paper stick in my flesh.
I want to jump up and down and shout their names over and over again and have everyone else who loved them jump up and down and shout their names so that the ground will shake and the air will move and our voices will float off into space forever and an alien a million years from now will catch it all in a jar and listen to the vibrations and hear their names repeated through some foreign sense.
I want to laugh about every stupid thing they ever did and retell the story again and again. I want to keep every secret they ever told and at the same time write it out on a wall with a spray can in letters four feet high. I want to celebrate them and say thank you and thank you and thank you.
But usually we don’t. We listen in shock; we remain strong; we cry a little; we choke on our pain; we dress up for a service; we wait to go numb.
Sometimes. And sometimes, we have a wake.
The last time I saw Gary Edwards wasn’t in Kodiak at all. It was in Seattle, Washington, at the train station. We’d had plans to spend the weekend at a pension neither of us could afford, to go to art museums and drink brandy and draw each other in the bathtub for a couple of days, but a storm delayed his plane in Philly where he was no doubt doing the same with another “friend,” and so I spent the weekend alone.
I was just heading home to Portland when I got his breathless call. He’d gotten into the airport, and was flying to the station in a cab to say goodbye. We hugged and laughed for 2 minutes on the platform; he kept touching my ears and taking photographs from the hip, and then I was on the train and he was laughing again, waving dramatically and shouting, “Au revoir, au revoir Lara Lee!”
Except that I would never see him again.
Gary’s boat, the Big Valley, went down in the Pribilofs on January 15, 2005. I got the phone call the next day, and I remember my father’s voice saying, “I have some very terrible news.” His voice broke, and I only waited to hear which boat had sunk. I remember saying “NO NO NO NO NO NO NONONONONO” and then hanging up the phone.
I spent the next few days glued to the internet, watching the headlines:
“Coast Guard continues search for missing crew.”
“No sign of crabbers missing at sea.”
“Search for missing crewmen suspended.”
“Sole survivor of Big Valley tragedy conscious and recovering after extended time in the water.”
“Times announced for pair of Big Valley services.” ...
I went back to Kodiak for the last time to attend. It was such a big deal that they held it in the high school auditorium to accommodate the mass of the gathering - friends and family of all of those lost, and Cache Seele - the miracle who survived. People spoke and shared stories and then shared food, but the whole ordeal felt too full of pain, too awkward. An opportunistic state representative showed up and took the mic and somehow managed to turn it into a plug for the soldiers in Iraq, and was booed from the stage.
A woman who had survived a shipwreck of her own tried to comfort me: “It doesn’t hurt, you know. Drowning. It’s warm and you just go to sleep.”
People said to me, “It’s how he would have wanted it, to go down with his ship.” Bullshit. Gary hated fishing. He had two phone lines just to avoid creditors, and most of his debt was in his boat. Where most crab boats boast cocaine and cans of spam and hustler centerfolds, the Big Valley had an espresso machine, antique lithoprints on the walls, and coffee table books of Picasso and Matisse strewn around the galley. Gary wanted to die in Paris with a sketchbook and a nude model in his lap, not making what he swore was his “last trip” to the Pribs. That whole glory of the sea and the romance of the storm is a load of crap. It’s cold, and it’s huge, and they never find your body, so the people who love you have to let you go in other ways. And so we did.
Friends of Gary’s - and he had so many, many friends, all of whom would call him their “best” - made their way to the only place any of us wanted to be, his home, part museum, part cultural center, part pleasure den. His captain’s bed and drawings everywhere. Sculpture garden, a banja made from a wheelhouse, art made from stones and glass.
We sat together for hours, telling stories, drinking, smoking...we built a bonfire in the yard higher than two of us on each other’s shoulders. The ground was a slippery mass of frozen mud. Moe played the fiddle and someone else beat on the bottom of a plastic bucket, and people sang, and they stomped, and I had brought fire chains and spun flames around and around, and the fire burned higher and higher and the sparks whirled and we howled and we danced and loved them all: Gary and Josias and Aaron and Carlos and Danny.
That is a wake - to stand in the dark in a circle of people who love and to see clearly how a person has touched you, to wake up to their presence in your life, to their impact on others, and on the world. To let them burn through you so that that presence is awakened within you and you see how we are not in and of ourselves but life moves through us together.
And we say thank you and thank you and thank you.
“Where are you from?” folks ask.
When I was in New York, I’d say, “the Pacific Northwest.”
When I was in Kodiak, I’d say, “New York,” as if the answer always had to be far away.
Now I could say, “Well, we lived most of the year in Indiana when I was little, but we fished every summer out of Kodiak—though there was that one winter in Dutch Harbor—but then we moved to eastern Oregon, and we still fished in the summers, but we switched canneries, and then in my last couple of years on the boat we kind of drifted around, and then I went to college on the east coast, and then I went overseas, and then San Francisco, and now I’m here and on my seventh address in Portland, and you know, my partner is from Chicago, so we go back to visit at least once a year…yeah, Northside…Go Cubs!”
But I don’t. Now that I’m settled down, I say “Alaska,” and leave it at that.
But it’s not where I grew up, not really. Three months out of the year I traced the edges of an island. I've never been to Juneau, or Palmer, or Nome. I didn’t walk the same cold road to and from school there. I didn’t learn to take for granted the way the mountains and the water collide. I never got teased by older girls in the high school locker room in Kodiak or had crushes on teachers there. I didn’t while away my days longing to leave.
But when the tide of homesickness floods, it's those waters that lap at my chest. It still gnaws at me like sand fleas on fresh bones on a beach, still whispers like dried grasses against my neck. The smell of saltwater still makes the hair on my arms stand on end. I haven’t fished in 17 years, but my body still knows seasons by its turns. Spring means the itch to go north, to think about gearing up or heading out. Summer means jellyfish and mosquitoes and fireweed smoking the hills. Fall is the time to return south.
Where am I from?
What do people want to know when they ask? Do they want to know where my accent comes from? Are they trying to guess how I dressed in high school, what music I liked? Are they picturing me as a child, playing on city streets, running in fields, picking stones on a beach, getting rides to the mall? I think what they really mean--what we all mean, when we ask--is, “Tell me more.”
Or, “Why are you the way you are?”
So much of the way that I am comes from Alaska, from being on a boat. I can get myself out of bed to work when my body wants nothing more than to sleep. I carefully coil my garden hose. My husband always wants to let dirty pots soak overnight, and it drives me fucking crazy. "Just scrub the damn things harder!" I always say.
Alaska taught me to work.
Alaska taught me a love and fear of the water. When people find out I’m not much of a swimmer, they always ask, “But didn’t you grow up on a boat?” As if I’d been paddling canoes in the south Pacific, cavorting with dolphins. “Yeah,” I answer, “and I tried not to fall off.”
Alaska made me wary of men and their promises. Wives were out of sight and out of mind for so many that prowled the docks, and absence made the heart grow fonder for what was right in front of them.
Alaska made me hate being wet and cold. It made me love good rubber boots. And socks. Warm, dry socks. And food. Hot, plentiful food.
I love sharp knives. Tidy knots. Stolen naps.
Alaska made me restless.
Fishing is about seeking. It’s about going after what you can’t always see but what you hope is there—what you know is there. It’s about chasing, and trying. And trying again, just because you can.
Alaska draws its own unto itself and sends the rest away. People go up there to find things: adventure, fortune, a sense of self—and either it gets their hooks in them and a summer gig turns into a life, or it spits them out, and people leave within weeks, saying “this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.” It's like having a master, or a mistress. I know myself best in relation to the incredible power that is there, the wildness and the aloof way the rocks and the bears and the waves and the water simply don't care about us. There is a whole piece of my identity that cannot be reflected by anything other than that: a self needs a mirror to remind it of its own contours or it disappears and grows weak, like smoke. There are parts of myself I only see, only recognize in the hands and the stories and the jokes of other fishermen. Of other women who fish.
I no longer go north, so I am often homesick: but for what? For long hours, uncomfortable bunks, hurried food? For aching muscles, sexual harassment, shitty sleep? Homesick for what community? The crews changed every year, sometimes every month, every closure. What faces? We barely saw the yellow and orange shapes of friends on faraway decks, their distant little lego arms jerking a plunger or pawing at web. What place? A familiar river mouth, a favorite bay to anchor, a peak that looked different with ever cloud that snagged on its pinnacle. Shifting, all of it was shifting…crews in and out, and fishing grounds rotating and canneries changing. None of it static, all of it escaping and in transition like tides.
Having no earth beneath your feet does something to you, to your mind, to your sense of self. The thing is: even when I was there, I felt that same longing and homesickness. It’s not about missing a place, or a time, or community, it’s what the there really is and means. It’s the self that longs that is familiar, the seeking, restless self that is drawn. For me, that is the sweetest sense of home, the rootlessness, the lack of grounding.
I have traveled in strange places, and have felt that wildness, that bigness elsewhere. I was once in the middle of the desert--the desert of all deserts. The locals all slept through the brutal heat of midday, but I had wandered out into the shifting dry sea as if pulled by arid sirens, their voices full of hisses and quiet and promise. I waded over a ridge and then rested, lying against the side of a dune with the sun pounding down. The sand skittered over the surface of an erg and danced in light like pixies, like will-o-the-wisp. The crystals caught the sun and tossed it in circles, making bright shapes I'd never seen, gently rubbing the skin from my fingertips, my face. There, a warmth breath blew against my ear, full of a familiar sadness and longing that was profoundly familiar, at once pure longing and also something like being home. The space in between, knowing that there is, in fact, nothing to return to.
The last time I was in Alaska was for a funeral in 2005. I may never go back again. My son's middle name is Kodiak, and I gave him this name so that he would feel tied to the place, so he could discover it for himself in his own way, and find his own kind of meaning, his own unsettled lack of a home. I long to take him, but even as he paced the same boardwalks, ran along the same shale beaches clattering like coins, picked driftwood from the sand and breathed in the scents of salt, of gurry, of stone and wind and diesel and fiberglass and heard the thrumming of the engine and the patter of seawater from the net as it dragged over the block…it would not be my home, would not be the same, nothing to return to but the memory. It is the longing that is familiar, not the place itself.
There is a word in Portuguese: saudade: a profound longing and feeling of sadness for someone or thing that is gone, lost, maybe never to return; one can even be in the presence of the person but feel a future or past disappear, and feel saudade…but inside the pain of saudade is also the joy of the love one feels for the thing or person, and the hope of consolation.
German has a word: Wehmut: a wistfulness, a homesickness, yearning for the past.
Romanian has dor, longing for someone or something loved, and the need to sing sad songs about it.
Welsh has hiraeth. Hiraeth is longing for home, but it is more than that. Pamela Petro says in her beautiful essay, Dreaming in Welsh, “Home isn’t the place it should have been. It’s an unattainable longing for a place, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.”
Where am I from?
I am from a place of longing. I am from the sea and its restlessness, from work and its temporary satisfaction. I am from the pleasure and pining for a home that may never have been.