Fireweed

The first weekend I lived in Alaska, two weeks freshly wed, Derek and I drove up the Steese Highway in Fairbanks. It’s an incredibly scenic drive and we lost phone service almost immediately, a perfect recipe for quality time.

As we drove I noticed a pink flower on the side of the highway, and I remarked at how beautiful I thought it was.

“That’s fireweed,” he told me, his eyes fixed on the winding road ahead. “They call it that because it’s the first thing to bloom after a forest fire.”

I never knew until moving here that Alaska had a forest fire issue, but lightning strikes, hot summer air, and abundant wilderness make for quite a few forest fires in the summer.

I looked at the fireweed, a stark contrast with the overwhelming green on the Steese, and it struck me what a grace it is that God made something so beautiful to be the first thing to come from a fire. The fireweed was a little phoenix rising from the ashes.Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

This morning, two years after that drive up the Steese, I was talking with some friends about God’s faithfulness, and how refining trials can be. I think difficult and painful seasons of life always bring with them their own fireweed. They bring lessons, truth, wisdom, and grace. The caveat is we have to be attentive–and patient. Maybe sometimes that fireweed isn’t visible for years, or even until eternity. (This is not to say trials or pain are easy, either. They are difficult and hard, and I don’t want to be dismissive of that. Sometimes answers are few and tears are many. But I am a person who tends to dwell on the negative, and I want to be more focused on the graces and lessons of trials, and fireweed helps me to do that.)

Whenever I see the fireweed, and it is everywhere in Alaska in the summer, I try to remember that grace. The grace that something beautiful and bright comes from ashes of a forest fire, and in the same way God is in the business of bringing truths that are beautiful and bright to our lives in the midst of trial and pain.

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Eyes Up

    My school year ended almost three weeks ago, and since school has concluded I have had much more time to run instead of squeezing in a short run while feeling exhausted from a full day of work. I was sad to see the school year end, but I am very much enjoying having a bit more time to myself.

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   With more running time comes more thinking time. I have the tendency to get words or phrases stuck in my head, particularly on runs. (Usually it’s a line from poetry, because I am me.) One thought that keeps coming back to me is something my high school coach would tell us during cross country season.

    “Keep your eyes on the shoulders of the girl in front of you, not on her feet. If you look at her feet you’ll start running whatever pace she’s running, and you’ll never pass her. If you look at her shoulders, you’ll pass her.”

    I am not sure why this phrase keeps rolling around in my head, in part because most of my runs these days are alone on an Army base with no one to pass in sight. But when I find my eyes dropping and scanning the pavement in front of me, counting cracks and divets, I remember what he used to say.

    Lately I have found it really easy to look at the metaphorical feet of other people and started trying to run whatever race they’re on. It’s so easy to wish ______ for myself, and usually it boils down to something someone else has (whether it be a talent, skill, or even tangible thing) that I want. It’s hard to admit that reality.

    Alaska is not a terribly hot place in the summer, at least not compared to other places in the Lower 48. But it feels really hot because the sun is smack in the middle of the sky for so much of the day. Today as I write sunrise was at 3:11 AM, and sunset will be at 12:24. It feels like the earth is baking in sunlight, and it makes running outside unpleasant at times. Yesterday as the sun beat down on my arms I kept hearing my coach’s old words in my head — eyes up, eyes up — as my eyes drifted down to the pavement the more fatigued I got.

    The race of the person in front of me is their own, just as mine is mine. If I keep looking at their feet I minimize my own efforts. It’s not so much about passing people as it is about running my own race that’s set out for me by God as fully mine, intended for me, at my pace. I think that’s part of why I love Hebrews 12 so much – “the race set before us.” It’s a metaphor I find relatable. Let us run it with endurance, and eyes up.

On Falling

    This past fall I ran in the Equinox Marathon Relay in Fairbanks with two dear friends. I lucked out with the easiest leg of the relay – the first one. While my leg of the race contained more elevation gain than I have ever experienced in a race, legs two and three were absolutely brutal. One is completely uphill, and one almost completely down. The Equinox is a trail marathon and marathon relay. It was my first experience with trail racing.

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    The race was in September, which in Alaska means the temperatures could be anywhere from chilly-but-manageable to I-am-in-pain. That morning was beautiful, but cold. As a result we huddled in a gym near the start line until right before the race so our muscles wouldn’t get too cold. While standing there I heard my friend remark to another runner,

    “You know, it’s important to fall down during a race like this, because you need to learn that you can get back up.”

    That comment nestled itself into the back of my mind as I was shaking my legs out and preparing to run. I was nervous because I’d never done a trail race before and had no idea what to expect. I had only run road races before and cross country in Illinois, where an elevation gain of 2 feet is labeled a hill. I had never fallen while running, and suddenly I began to worry.

   The race started, the most relaxed race start I have ever experienced, and off I went. As I ran I started thinking, “maybe I do want to fall”. I wanted to learn that I could get back up.

    The thing about running is that every race, every run even, can teach us something if we let it. We just have to be willing to sit in the discomfort and pain to learn. I wondered if maybe this race was meant to teach me that I could fall and recover.

    Sure enough, about five miles into the race, my foot got snagged on an exposed root and I could tell I was about to fall. Instead of tensing myself up like I probably would have before, I tried not to let anxiety control my muscles, and I fell. It hurt, and my knee throbbed a bit. I was right by a group of volunteers who swarmed over asking if I was okay, and I smiled and told them I was fine. It hurt, and I was embarrassed, but I could tell I wasn’t injured.

    I got back up and kept going, and finished my leg of the relay. After it ended and I passed my race bib on to my teammate, I noticed a giant mud stain on my running tights where I’d fallen. I assumed when I washed them it would wash out, but it didn’t. I’m pretty proud of that mud stain. It is a reminder of what I learned during that race. Falling hurts, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes it can cause serious injury. But a lot of times it’s tiny aberration from what we’re doing that teaches us resilience.

    My friend’s comment helped me to not fear falling, but instead approach it with curiosity about what it could teach me. Looking back the Equinox is one of my favorite races I’ve run, primarily because it taught me that I can fall and get back up.

Winter Solstice

Yesterday was winter solstice, and we had 3 hours and 41 minutes of daylight. I finished grading my finals on Wednesday, and yesterday was my first day of winter break. I don’t take it for granted that I have a job where I get winter, summer, and spring break.

Yesterday I took Mac on a walk during the lightest light we had. It was about 11:15 am when these photos were taken. When I say that we have 3 hours and 41 minutes of light, it’s never really bright light. It’s more like the great poets Simon and Garfunkel once said: a hazy shade of winter.

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Starting today we have 7 more minutes of daylight with each new day. It’s so comforting to know we are on the upswing of light. This winter has been mild temperature-wise, but the darkness has been hard for me. I love knowing that the light is slowly but surely making its way back.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

Merry Christmas, my friends!

My Top 10 Books of 2017

One of my goals going into 2017 was to do more reading. I have always really loved to read, but struggled to find time to do it beyond reading whatever book I’m teaching. But I think it’s such a valuable practice, and it’s like using a muscle. The more you exercise it, the more habitual it becomes.

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I did not read these in 2017, but I did look at them in 2017.

So, here is the top ten books I read this year! Not all of them were published in 2017, but but they were new to me this year.

  1. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Read this if: you are looking for a thought provoking, but exciting read that deals with complex issues in a fascinating and enjoyable form.Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
  2. Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller. My favorite theology/Christian living book of this year, but also not a difficult read at all. Read this if: you want to be challenged, grow, and think about God more.
  3. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. I just finished this one recently. I was really curious about his new book, and it was an interesting if not sad perspective on mental health and teenagers. I love that he gives teenagers a voice that is valuable. Read this if: you want to learn more about an honest perspective on teenage anxiety/OCD.
  4. Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham. I was super curious about Lorelai Gilmore’s writing, and it did not disappoint. Read this if: you’re looking for the perfect, easy-mindless beach read.
  5. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. This was a top-rated historical fiction novel on Goodreads last year. It’s about WWI. (It was really nice to read about not WWII. Does anyone else feel like every book out there is about WWII these days?)  Read this if: you are looking for a historical fiction piece that is both interesting, easy to read, and deep.
  6. A Prayer Journal  by Flannery O’Connor. Honest and beautiful, this is a very simple prayer journal. Read this if: you want to learn how to pray with honesty.
  7. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Read this if: you need an easy, funny read with nuanced humor.
  8. Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. I heard rave reviews; this did not disappoint. Read this if: you want to learn about resilience, or are experiencing tragedy or grief in some capacity.
  9. English Lessons by Andrea Lucado. I love me a good memoir, and Andrea’s experience of growing up as a pastor’s kid really resonated with me. Read this if: you want an honest and easy read about Christian living and doubt.

And, drumroll, my favorite book this year…

Textbook Amy Krause Rosenthal by Amy Krause Rosenthal. Amy Krause Rosenthal, or AKR, as she calls herself, is a phenomenal and inspiring author. AKR caught my attention for her absolutely incredible Modern Love Column earlier this year about her terminal diagnosis and her husband. This book was my favorite of this year. Read this if: you want to think about life in a new way, be inspired, or enjoy unconventional writing.

On my list for 2018 include, so far, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller (I have been meaning to read this for soooo long), Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, and Sisters First by the Bush Twins. What are your books to read for this new year or your reading goals? Please share! (And I’m not saying that in a “please comment on my post” kind of way. I genuinely want to know!).

(P.S. If you’re on Goodreads, be my friend! I love following friends and getting suggestions from Goodreads).

The Odyssey of [to] Homer

I can think of no better way to celebrate Christmas on my blog than by recapping our travels of another great holiday, Labor Day. The one town in Alaska that we didn’t hit on our summer travels that I’d really wanted to see was Homer, and so this year for Labor Day we made it a priority.

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The best thing about Homer, aside from being the Halibut fishing capital of the world, is that it can be the source of many great puns based on The Odyssey. The English teacher in me was loving it. I believe at one point Derek, exasperated, asked me to stop calling on the Muses and talking about how Odysseus must be sooooo tired from his travels. I’m hilarious!

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Homer is an 11 hour drive from Fairbanks, so it was definitely ambitious of us to try and make it that far just over a three day weekend. I had initially planned a trip to Homer this summer with my friend Stacy, but we had to change it to Talkeetna last minute. I had heard amazing things about this little coastal fishing town.

We hauled everything into our car after work on Friday, and then made the drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage. (About halfway through our drive we looked at each other and said, “we are never doing this drive on a school night again”. To people who are from Alaska 6-7 hours on the Parks Highway might be nothing, but to us, it is terrible.) We stayed overnight in Anchorage and then drove 4.5 hours from Anchorage to Homer.

Once we finally made it to Homer we were immediately in love. We had an amazing little Airbnb that backed up into a moose sanctuary. We also loved loved loved (incorrect grammar just so I can express my deep love!) the Homer Spit! There are a ton of little shops, fishing charters, and restaurants that all jut out on the Spit into the Gulf of Alaska.

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Mac’s first ocean experience!

Initially we had booked a fishing charter, but ended up cancelling it because we brought Mac with us and had to check out of our Airbnb and couldn’t bring him fishing (duh). We ended up being grateful to have a slow day in Homer, walking along the beach and enjoying some local restaurants. We ate at La Ballaine for brunch, which was really good, and we had halibut for dinner one night at a place whose name escapes me. (Okay, if we are going to be honest, Derek had halibut and I had a cheeseburger, because I love cheeseburgers and I will order one 99% of the times we go out to eat. I know, I know. I was in the halibut fishing capital of the world, and ate a cheeseburger. C’est la vie).

The town was beautiful. It was quiet and peaceful and not too touristy. It felt just right for us, a nice little oasis away from Fairbanks before the school year and winter really set in. We loved walking along the beach and along the spit and relaxing. It was perfect.

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View from our little Airbnb
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Brunch – my high school’s football team had just played Homer, and some of my students were on the front page!

 

The only thing I wish is that we had been able to stay longer! We had to leave on Sunday and drove back to Anchorage, but the plus side is we got to eat Moose’s Tooth pizza for dinner. It’s no Lou Malnati’s, but it is quite good. (#deepdish4ever).

We are hoping to make it back and go halibut fishing next summer if our schedule allows, but if not, it was the perfect little town and a great weekend getaway.

Alaska Winter Survival Guide

Hello, dear readers. Winter is upon us up here in the frosty north! We had our first day at 20 below zero last weekend, and to me that means it’s official: winter is here. I thought it would be fun to do a winter survival guide. Caveat: I am no winter expert! I have only been through 1 winter up here so far, and so this is coming from a new person.

I am so grateful to have grown up in Chicago winters – they were like training runs for the marathon Alaskan winter ahead.

 

Here are some tools that really helped me last winter/things that every Alaskan has to get through the winter:

  1. Make like REI’s marketing and opt outside. My coworkers last year told me this time and time again. For the first half of winter I was pretty content to stay inside and be all cozy and warm, but after a while I started to go crazy. So Derek and I went snowshoeing. We (I) tried to cross country ski, and spent most of that time facedown on the frozen Chena River questioning my life choices. (I am reevaluating my relationship with skiing, will update later, with hope that things will improve).
  2. Exercise. This means spending a lot of quality time with the treadmill. Last winter I went to a lot of yoga classes, too. Exercise is so crucial. It automatically improves your mood and keeps you healthy, and also keeps you from being too sedentary in the winter, which is an easy temptation. It is extra work in the winter to get to the gym or workout class, but always worth it.
  3. A winterized car! This was new to me, but when we moved up I had to have block heaters installed onto my car, and whenever it’s -5 or -10 or below I plug in my car at work. There’s a little plug sticking out of my car and I have a weatherproof extension cord I use to plug it in to outlets. I use I also have blizzak snow tires which are completely necessary. Salt doesn’t work on the roads when it’s -20 or colder, so the snowplows drop gravel. Roads in Alaska in the snow are TERRIBLE in general, so snow tires are basically a necessity.
  4. Vitamin D supplements and a happy lamp. Because we have such little sunlight in winter (think less than 3 hours, which I am inside at work during), both of these are necessary to help avoid seasonal depression and also keep our bodies healthy and happy. I usually sit in front of my happy lamp in the morning when I’m reading, and I can tell when I don’t take my Vitamin D supplements. (If you don’t know what a happy lamp is, it’s a lamp that imitates sunlight and helps your body produce vitamin D. I love mine so much and plan on using it even after we leave AK. Here’s a link to the one I have: Happy Lamp).Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
  5. Wool socks and super warm boots. Xtra tuffs are the boot of choice in Alaska, but I have the Sorel Joan of Arctic boots and they are incredible. It’s pretty much necessary to have a serious snow boot.
  6. Books! I am a voracious reader. It’s challenging sometimes during the school year to read consistently, but when I’m stuck inside I really enjoy escaping into a good book. This year I did the Goodreads challenge and just today met my challenge of 35 books for this year.
  7. Community. I have been consistently blown away by the beautiful, wonderful people God has placed in my life up here in Alaska. I have made the most amazing friends and I absolutely love my community up here. When I think about PCSing (military speak for moving) I get really sad thinking about having to leave the community. It helps to go through difficult things with others and to have people to spend time with!

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Winter is tough. The minimal sunlight and extreme cold make it really challenging to not want to stay inside all day. However, I do love that the winter last year taught me that I can do hard things. With God’s grace and a beautiful community of people experiencing the same thing, we learn that we can face difficulties and experience growth through them.