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!

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.

 

“You got a dog?”

If you know me, you know I have waffled about getting a dog/pet in general for a while. In college I went through an anti-dog phase. I was pro-cat. I had fond memories of my childhood cat, Alvin, and had forgotten the havoc he wreaked on our household. Thankfully, I had my mom to remind me of Alvin’s passive aggressive habits whenever I said, “I want a cat”.

Derek and I talked back and forth about getting a dog for a while, and finally decided we would table the conversation until our one year wedding anniversary. After we returned from our vacation this past July we decided to start looking at dogs.

I was super nervous. Neither of us grew up with dogs (or pets, really. Alvin passed in 1999, may he rest in peace). I have had some bad dog experiences before. But Alaskan winters are dark and cold, and my husband spends a lot of time gone, and I really wanted a companion for such times.

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We would hesitantly look up pets available for adoption on our local petfinder while trying not to get our hopes up (I believe evangelicals call this “guarding your heart”). One Saturday we decided to visit our local animal shelter. While there we saw quite a few dogs, including a cute little black Alaskan Husky mix named Craig. (CRAIG. I KNOW. I am sorry if you have a dog named Craig, but I just thought it a rather odd dog name). He was adorable, but I really didn’t want a Husky. I just thought they might be too energetic.

We returned back the following Monday evening, and even visited another dog, but it wasn’t a good fit. Little Craig was still there, bopping around in his cell and being cute, but again, no Huskies.

Wednesday I get a text from Derek, “want to go to the shelter and just see if Craig is still there?” Le sigh. I agreed, and headed to the shelter that evening and met Derek when he got off work.

Little Craig was still there, which to me is pretty amazing because dogs get adopted very fast in Fairbanks. I’m not totally sure of all the reasons, but I think some of it has to do with the popular skijor/sled dog culture. Anyways, we decided to visit with Craig.

Readers, it was not fair. The little fellow walked into the visiting room and put his chin on my knee and stared at me with his brown eyes. He then plodded over and did the same thing to my husband. Either he is incredibly emotionally manipulative, or just an incurably sweet little dog. I vote the latter. I looked at Derek, who looked at me, and we both felt totally sunk. It was Craig.

 

We adopted him right then and there, and changed his name to Mac. I initially wanted to name him Macbeth, because I am that English teacher. But he was so sweet and cute and I couldn’t give him the name of a villain. So he became Mac.

I will not sugar coat this and say it was easy. Tears were shed. Favorite teaching tote bags were chewed. We have been learning a lot. But overall it has been so wonderful inviting little Mac into our lives. I am the last person I thought would transform into a dog person, but it is happening to me. Mac is sweet, feisty, a little obstinate, and an incredible little companion to come home to every day. Here’s to more adventures in dog ownership.