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!

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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.

Alaska Literature + Authors Breakfast

This weekend I had the privilege of attending a breakfast devoted to celebrating Alaska Literature and Alaskan authors. I learned that literacy among students in Alaska is incredibly low, and in part that is due to the lack of literature about Alaska. I can imagine that Alaskan students might struggle to relate to a lot of YA texts simply because their lives are so vastly different than those of the main characters in YA novels. Alaska literature makes literature much more accessible to students in this state.

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I got to hear from several incredible Alaskan authors and also purchase some Alaskan literature. It was fascinating. One thing about Alaska that has stood out to me is how much Alaskans take pride in and love their state. The literature I heard about celebrated things like recess at -20 degrees, the salmon run in the summer, and the stories of Alaskan plant and animal life. The arts community in Alaska is very vibrant. Some of the authors were also illustrators and photographers as well, and many were former educators. I absolutely loved hearing their stories and learning more about this unique place.

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This author was from Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, which is the northernmost town in the United States. (North of the Arctic Circle). Her husband is Iñupiat, and this novel is about the Indian Boarding School system that Alaska Natives were forced to attend in the 1960s.
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This author is from Seward, and this book is an autobiographical novel about moving from a homestead to Anchorage in the 1960s. 
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This picture book is for my husband, who loves musk oxen.
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This book is authored by the same woman who wrote the musk ox picture book!

Alaska is such an amazing and mysterious place. It seems that every new experience I learn something more, and I simultaneously learn how much I do not know about Alaska. It is a really awesome paradox. It made me think about how lucky I am to get to be a teacher in this state. I get to interact with such unique and wonderful people who have really beautiful stories to share. I am excited to learn more through these books and support Alaskan arts.

 

Alaska Travels: Sitka

If you have seen the excellent chick flick The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, you may recall that Ryan Reynold’s character was from the town of Sitka, Alaska. Fun fact: the movie was filmed nowhere near Sitka, and the movie’s representation of Sitka is a C- on the accuracy scale. (Still worth watching).

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Sitka Harbor. It was salmon season!
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Mt. Edgecumbe, a volcano, in the distance

When we were planning our Tour de Alaska this spring, I suggested looking into Sitka. A lot of local Alaskans I know through work had suggested Sitka to me, and after finding a good deal on flights we decided to add Sitka in for our travels.

Sitka is a fishing town in Southeastern Alaska, and is also only accessible from Fairbanks/Anchorage via plane or ferry, which is why we flew. (We actually flew out of Anchorage, making the trip to Sitka a 6.5 hour drive AND a 3 hour plane ride. Alaska is huge, guys).

When the Russians came to Alaska they settled in Sitka and also in Kodiak Island. In Sitka there is a Russian Bishop’s home that was restored to be a replica of what it would have looked like in the time the Russians were settling. This was the most interesting thing we did. We took a tour and heard about the relationship that one bishop in particular, Father Innocent, developed with the Tlingit people. (In a pleasant turn of events, unlike most colonization stories, their relationship was mostly positive!) The house was beautiful and we really enjoyed seeing it.

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Russian Bishop’s House
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Russian Bishop’s House

The other highlight was Sitka National Park. They have a totem pole display with a lot of huge totem poles, and also beautiful trails to walk on. The ecosystem is Coastal Temperate Rainforest, which is completely different than Fairbanks. (Read: the winter average temps are in the low 30s. Above zero).

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Beautiful hikes in Sitka National Park

One other thing to note is that we went to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. If you know me remotely well, you may have heard about a harrowing experience I had involving an owl the summer before my senior year of college. As a result, the Raptor Center was not my favorite thing, but it was cool/terrifying seeing bald eagles up close and personal.

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Injured bald eagles who cannot live in the wild. They actually take these eagles to the salmon run so that they can get their own fish when the salmon are running!

One thing we considered doing, but decided against, was a whale watching tour. Sitka is known for having beautiful ocean views and the whale watching can be gorgeous. It’s also expensive, and we had already done a whale watching tour in Seward, so we decided not to. But if you ever do go, definitely try one out!

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Cutest little homes
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The incredible foliage is everywhere!

Sitka had a completely different feel than anywhere else I’ve ever been in Alaska. It honestly felt more like a posh Seattle suburb than Alaska to me, which was weird. (For example: everyone manicured their lawns immaculately. What is this, a country club?) I honestly found myself missing the authentic and rustic Alaskan feel while I was there! I am really glad we had the opportunity to go to Southeastern Alaska, especially because it’s not easy to access from where we live. It seems like there is always something new to learn about Alaska. It’s so big and mysterious and wonderful. With every new place we go I fall a little more in love with this state, and Sitka was no exception.

P.S. Take me anywhere, and I will find a bookstore. The bookstore in Sitka was incredible. Take all my money. Take all of it.

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I want it all
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Does this smell like Mr. Darcy?

Alaska Travels: Seward

Good evening, readers. I have a lot of lesson planning/grading/general schoolwork to do, but instead I am here, typing this post. When writing inspiration strikes, you must obey. Kids can teach themselves To Kill a Mockingbird, right? If you are a devoted follower of Riding Westward (lol), you may recall in this blog post that I promised a recap of our summer travels. Well, it is now the first week of September and I am delivering you said promise.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetDid you hear that sound? No? Well that was the sound of school starting. Aka me frantically scrambling to assemble my life together in time for the school year to start, only to realize that there were a million more things I needed to do/prep/plan/photocopy/re-photocopy because I found a typo after making 100 copies of said document. You know the deal.

Anyways, Seward. We decided to spend 4 days in Seward celebrating our first wedding anniversary, July 4th, and summer in Alaska. It did not disappoint. We had already been to Seward once before, for a day trip during Labor Day weekend of 2016. While in Seward for the first time we went on a day cruise with Kenai Fjords cruises to do some whale watching, see nature, and also otters. The first time we went we fell in love with this cute little seaside town, and were very excited to go back.

The first thing that’s amazing about Seward is not even Seward itself: it is the drive. The drive from Anchorage is insanely gorgeous. You feel like you’re in another world of magical fjords, glaciers, greenery, and beauty. It is highly recommended (by me) that you play Sigur Ros while driving to Seward.

While in Seward we went sea kayaking, which was cold but also very fun. Seward is on Resurrection Bay, and there’s a lot of fishing that happens in the area. There is also a ton of wildlife: think seals, otters, puffins, whales, etc. etc. etc. We sea kayaking and also went on a small hike as part of our tour. It was really beautiful and a neat way to sea the bay from a different perspective.

Another thing we did was go to the Alaska Sea Life Center. It’s an aquarium of local marine life and it is incredible. There are two dream jobs that exist here: 1) sea otter fluffer and 2) baby walrus massager. Neither of these are a joke, readers.

The highlight of being in Seward was the July 4th Celebration and consequent Mount Marathon Race. If you remotely know Derek and I you know that we love running, and we were geeking out the entire race checking splits and talking strategy. It was inspiring and beautiful to watch these people finish a grueling and gutsy race. I wrote in detail about Mount Marathon in this post, but watching it was an incredible experience. There was so much excitement and town spirit surrounding the race and a lot of Alaskan pride. Interestingly enough, Mark Zuckerberg was in attendance along with his wife. We saw them several times. Apparently he was touring Alaska.

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Awkward placement, but best photo I could get of Mount Marathon.
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Mount Marathon Race start.

Aside from the touring, we did a lot of relaxing, went on a nice long run, and also ate excellent food. If you are ever in Seward, check out the following:

From the deck of our BnB!

In short, Seward is an awesome nautical town. It feels very Alaskan and very different than Fairbanks, and it was a refreshing getaway for us. Derek and I kept looking at each other and saying, “we love being here!” because we did. If you are in Alaska for a short time (or a long time!) be sure to go to Seward. It is incredibly worth it!