Alaska is far away.
Maybe you think you know this, but however far away you imagine Alaska to be, double that. Because Alaska is really, really far away.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a week with other writers on a remote Alaskan island. I wish that each of you could have the chance to be dazzled by the Alaskan sun and scoured by the Alaskan wind. I wish that you could taste King salmon only just pulled from the water.
If a two-day journey isn’t an option for you, what about a book instead?
(the following includes affiliate links)
Here is a memoir of that same remote island. It is also one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America by Leslie Leyland Fields is the story of a young woman from New Hampshire struggling to make a home and a marriage on a primitive and remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.
This is a memoir of marriage, motherhood, spirituality, and poetry. It is also a memoir of wilderness and the dangerous and exhausting work of commercial salmon fishing.
Even if you can’t imagine enjoying a book about fishing (much less actual fishing!) I highly recommend this book. The writing is stellar, the story captivating, and the whole thing is edged with lyricism.
This is the most particular and most universal of stories. Now, I too, am asking the question at the heart of this book: how do we bear the terrible, beautiful grace that sustains our lives?
This was where we unraveled the rest of our lives, it seemed, even as we sewed up the holes in the nets. There was something about this space, about standing out there on the beach under the open sky – the clouds or sun, mountains on every horizon, though it was ocean all the way to the edge. The walls were gone, how could there be a larger space to stand in, and yet, it became a sort of confessional. – Leslie Leyland Fields
I picked up another Alaska memoir in the bookstore at the Anchorage airport: Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles by Heather Lende. This one reads more like a collection of personal essays than a cohesive memoir. The tone is cozy and, at times, a little too cute, but Lende’s work as an obituary writer for her small-town paper lends the book some serious depth.
Lende organizes her chapters around the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but she incorporates other traditions as well, such as Buddhism or Native American spirituality.
I kept this one tucked in the seatback pocket on the long flight from Anchorage to Seattle. At one point, my seatmate asked if she could read it, and I passed it over. She laughed out loud for the rest of the flight.
It’s a good book.
I wonder if to be human is to know that we can’t ever banish pain and ugliness from the world, only learn from it and create something beautiful and good out of it – like the newest totem pole in Sitka, the one called ‘You Are Going to Get Well.’ If you ever see it, you will believe that’s possible. – Heather Lende
One of the guest writers at the Alaska workshop was the novelist Bret Lott. You can’t go wrong picking up any of his fiction (I adore the strange, hilarious, heartbreaking first story in his collection The Difference Between Women and Men: Stories), and his novel Jewel was once an Oprah Book Club pick.
I especially recommend his latest, a collection of essays called Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.
For writers, his essay “On Precision” is outstanding. For everyone, the final long essay on the death of his father is beautifully crafted. I aspire to write personal essays like this one.
As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know. – Bret Lott
I have two bonus recommendations for you today. The first is Girl Meets Change: Truths to Carry You through Life’s Transitions by Kristen Strong, a pretty and practical book for any woman who struggles with life’s transitions.
The second is the most recent book from Emily P. Freeman: Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. I don’t think anyone writes Christian formation quite like Emily. Her writing is accessible but also lovely, straightforward but rich and wise.
In my eagerness to read it, I mistakenly ordered two copies. Leave a comment here, and I will enter your name in a drawing to win one of those copies. A winner will be notified by email.
Tell me, friends. Read any good books lately?
In Alaska, there are many ways to die.
You can die in the air: bush plane, float plane, an airliner in wind and fog. You can die in the sea: barge, skiff, a ferry plunging in the trough. (If you are a sea lion, you can die in the jaws of an orca halfway between your rock and the waves. I have a picture of blood and frenzied sea lions if you are the sort who needs proof.)
You can also die with your feet planted firmly on the ground: bear, cliff, swiftly-shifting weather.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. The shadows are longer. Death lurks out in the open here.
When you become a mother, you count all the ways there are to die: babies sleep but do not wake, daughters fall on the stairs, sons are diagnosed and named incurable.
Later, the ways are counted for you, but they are not the deaths you have already met in your imagination.
One day, you do not recognize how much your boy struggles to breathe, but the pediatrician does. She calls an ambulance from the exam room.
Another day, you forget your child’s epi-pen. Thank God, that stranger in the corner of the shop had one in her purse. You learn, to your sorrow, that death is folded within each moment.
Silent. Hidden. Utterly inseparable from love.
In Alaska, there are so many ways to live.
You live in the air: bush planes and float planes fly low. You soar like an eagle, skim mountaintops, explore islands empty except of bears.
You live on the water: the taste of salt spray on your lips, a diving fin whale almost at your fingertips, sea otters like floating teddy bears.
You live on the land: black-tailed deer who are not afraid of you, tide pools filled with sun stars and blood stars and the deep breathing of anemones.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. It is a dazzle in your eyes all day long.
Of what consequence is death when the air is like glittering glass?
If you are a writer, you are often alone. You retreat from family and friends seeking the quiet you need to write.
But one day you step on an airliner. One day you step on a bush plane. One day you wade through the water and heave yourself into a skiff. One day you taste salt spray all the way to Harvester, an island like a boulder tossed across the sea.
You journey to the edge of the world, and you discover you are not alone. The world is as full with stories and with storytellers as it is full with the glory of God.
The stories you find on Harvester Island are intimate with death.
There is the story of the old man and the young boy. They vanished on the water, leaving behind only a dog in a skiff and so many broken hearts.
There is the story of the unhappy wife standing on the edge of the island rock with a small suitcase in her fist. She has arrived at the end of her road. She is alive, but she has already died.
There are so many ways to die, but in Alaska, you learn what is true in every place on earth: there is only one way to live.
The only way to live is to die.
The only way to live is to arrive at the end of yourself and then to keep going (you can do this via bush plane, you can do this via motherhood or marriage or any great attempt at love).
Love is what remains, at the end of yourself, at the end of every beautiful story, at the end of every terrible one, too.
Love is our home. It is the place where death is only a fading legend. A tale we will tell again and again until, like glass smoothed and polished by the waves, it loses every sharp edge.
One day, we will let that old story go; we will drop it there, on the black gravel of the beach. For we have traveled 10,000 years, and we are ready for new stories.
Written in the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. With love for all the writers who traveled to that boulder in the sea. I am glad to have met you, there on that line between rock and water, life and death, stranger and friend.
At first, the wilderness appears wide open. It is unexplored. Who knows what wonders wait to be found.
When we first moved to Florida, we were eager to explore new roads. We caught glimpses of water – river or ocean – and we pressed on. But the river always remained hidden behind endless waves of Spanish moss. The ocean was a mirage, a blue spot on the GPS we could never quite reach.
The real ocean hid behind grassy bluffs or gated mansions. Park your car and pay your fee, and you’d find it. But it was not open to the wanderer. To those with a car full of kids who only wanted to drive and believe they were free.
Wilderness roads are straight roads. To meander without a plan across a network of straight lines will only lead to disappointment. There can be no circling back in some surprising way. There is only that moment of disenchantment, that moment when you agree it is probably best to turn around.
The wilderness looks like a spacious place. You cannot see the edges, no matter which direction you look. But there is no real spaciousness here.
In the wilderness, you wander but you are also hemmed in.
I grew up with the siren song let’s go for a drive. When my parents couldn’t take our squabbling for one more minute, they piled all four of us in the station wagon.
Where are we going? we always asked.
Crazy, my mother always answered.
Years later, heading out for a long drive became our favorite date. Especially in the spring. In the spring, you never knew when you might round a bend and find yourself slowing, slowing, and finally stopping to watch the wind dance in a field of bluebonnets. We’d park your pickup truck by the barbed-wire fence and roll down our windows.
All the better for watching flowers dance in a field we happily admitted we would probably never find again.
The roads are my favorite thing about my new home. This promised land.
They are narrow and curvy. They force a slower pace. You must stop at every bridge to let the car opposite cross first. You often find yourself caught behind horse-drawn buggies or herds of Sunday cyclists.
In this place, there is no scenic route. There are only the familiar roads, with their familiar beauty, and the turns you haven’t yet taken. The eighteenth-century farm you’ve never seen. The historic blacksmith shop you never noticed. The “ancient burial ground” half-hidden behind a brilliant maple tree. I lose miles wondering who might be buried in this “ancient burial ground.”
The daily chore of Kindergarten carpool is a thirty-five-miles-per-hour roller coaster. Gypsy Lane carves a path through the forest. Schoolhouse Road curves along the edge of a steep hill. I can see sheep and a fast-running creek down below.
Old stone barns and shabby farmhouses and that one crazy place with the alpacas. Every single day I forget where I’m headed.
Every drive, every errand, feels like a Sunday afternoon drive in God’s country.
On the hard days, and in the hard places, I sometimes resist gratitude. To “give thanks in all circumstances,” can feel like shutting my eyes. Like pretending.
But giving thanks has nothing to do with renaming a prison a spacious place. It is only the grateful acknowledgement that God never leaves us behind. He always comes back for the lost sheep. He always makes a way.
These days, I am looking back. I am remembering and giving thanks.
Thank you, Lord, for the hard, straight roads that led me here. Thank you for the wilderness.
Thank you, Lord, for the Promised Land. This spacious place where every road leads somewhere new.
You were a child, and they wanted only the best for you. So they told you your heart was deceitful. They told you that every desire was only a misplaced desire for Him.
They spoke the (partial) truth in love, and you took their words to heart. Those words kept you safe. They kept you on a narrow way, and you will always be grateful for that.
But Jesus never promised safety; He promised abundance. The abundant life is a wide-awake life, and it is anything but safe.
Infertility was unexpected. It was a hammer blow to your heart, and when your heart cracked open something precious and dangerous slipped out.
First one and then one more. And just when you thought that was all, convinced you’d closed the box up tight, even more would come leaking out. We were made to be deep water, but you were terrified when you first glimpsed the depths of your desiring self.
You wanted, and you wanted fiercely. You wanted a baby of your own. And when that miracle baby was born you asked for more.
There are three things that are never satisfied, / four that never say, ‘Enough!’: / the grave, the barren womb, / land, which is never satisfied with water, / and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’ (Proverbs 30:16).
Babies were only the beginning. You wanted to earn that PhD. You wanted to live in the big city. You wanted to read poetry on green Irish cliffs.
You wanted to live a life that mattered. You wanted to create. You wanted to be loved.
Fiery desire had been unleashed. You held your hands to the flames, and you were consumed.
God gave you the babies. God gave you the degree. God gave you poetry in Ireland, and God gave you love.
But God wanted to give you more. So He took you to the wilderness.
You cried every day for two years, Lord I want to go home. Lord I have no home. Lord I want to go home. Please, oh please, take me home.
When God led you through the desert to the farmhouse on the hill, you heard again the message given by those well-meaning Christians all those years ago.
It is true that all desire is misleading.
Desire isn’t necessarily wrong (though it might be). It isn’t necessarily sinful (though it might be). Desire is misleading because, if God-given, it leads you somewhere unexpected.
The babies bring joy, but they grow so quickly and every day they slip just a little further from your arms. The PhD sharpened you, but it didn’t provide the career you imagined. The house is a dream-come-true, the garden is your canvas, but the work is relentless and you do not have what it takes.
Those things do not satisfy completely but wanting them was never wrong. Those dreams were planted in you by God himself and in reaching for them you found something better – someone better – than any dream-come-true.
Sitting in the deep recess of the old parlor window, you notice the snow beginning to dust your hilltop. Stepping outside, snowflakes tap-dancing on your cheeks, you feel a great longing well up in your heart.
This is a familiar feeling. For years, you could see some clear thing whenever you felt it. A child. Or an accomplishment. Or a garden of your own. But you have come home and what is there left to want? What is the object of this longing and where will it lead?
Perhaps the snowflakes blur your vision just enough to help you see. Because it is here – in the snow on the hilltop – that you finally glimpse the truth. Yes, the farmhouse on the hill is a gift, God-given, but it is only the shadow of your true home.
Now you understand that God is, that he has always been, leading you home to himself.