Alaska

Alaska's Disaster & Swooning Over Swans

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This week I am in Texas, speaking at a large church in Victoria. So glad and grateful to pour out the words God has given. And going, always, in weakness rather than strength.

Last week, my husband and I escaped town and our relentless schedules and the flood of bad news on our screen. The national news is so constantly jarring, and now this week, Alaska’s news is just as bad. We didn’t go far——just an hour “out the road,” the one road out of town that winds for 60 miles into breathtaking country.

We were lucky. It was foggy, making our disappearance complete. No one knew we were there. It felt like we were a million miles away.

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What were we escaping? What is “Alaska’s Disaster?” This is not my space to talk about politics, but I’ll give it quick nod. (Fellow Alaskans who disagree, let’s agree on grace toward one another, even if we have different views?) Our new governor got elected by promising every Alaskan a check for $3,000 in their mailbox, their full Permanent Fund dividend. (this is complicated and I won’t explain it here.) He did not, however, while running, ever give us his plan to balance Alaska’s budget, which has been in trouble for some time.

Now he’s threatening a 40% budget cut. What gets cut? Education. Headstart and preschool programs. Forty-one percent of the state university budget. Medicare and Medicaid. Farmers. The state ferry system—-which Kodiak and every coastal community depends on. And so much more. They want it all gone. As if there is no other way . ..

So we get in our car and go.

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We go for a walk along the rime-edged shores of Lake Rose Tead, surely one of the most beautiful lakes in Alaska.

There are bald eagles here in scores. One immature eagle let me walk to the base of her misty tree before she lifted off. Glory!

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And the tundra swans are there. They’re new in the neighborhood. They’ve come down from the north, discovering our Kodiak rainforest, our waters thick with food. Our temperate climate.

Sometimes we drive out to and there’s not a swan to be seen. Today, there were 100. We counted.

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And a funny thing happened. The first flock of swans saw were such wild creatures. So skittish. I snuck and slid and hid among the alders, camera around my neck, wanting just a peek. Just a shuttered moment to catch them. And I did. Four sailing swans stayed long enough to let my lens watch them run, rise, and arrow straight into the foggy skies.

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But the rest of them? The 96 others? I slipped surreptitiously along the edge, noiseless, hunched low . . .. and there they were. I crept closer, expecting them to startle and flee, as the others did. Then closer. They did not attend to me at all. Then I stood at water’s edge, a stone’s throw away and they regarded me not at all. I called to them. They just kept pluming and swanning as if I was not there. For ten minutes I stood there, close, feasting on their wildness wondering why they would not flee from me . . ..

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And then this poem by Mary Oliver, which maybe tells me why.

WILD SWANS

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

——-Mary Oliver

I do belong. Even in the wildest of places. Even in whatever protest I join, to protect Alaska’s elderly, the needy, our kids.

The world and the Spirit of God calls to us all.

This is our family too.

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How Alaskan Animals Pray (and 7 "Wonder Years" Winners!)

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(Wonder Years Winners Below!)

Some animals get all the luck. This time of year, think of all the attention given to donkeys, camels, sheep, goats and any other creature whose likeness attends and protects every baby Jesus, every Nativity scene. Were they even present that night that God broke into the world through the screams and the body of a teenage girl?

I don’t know, nor do I know if dogs and cats go to heaven, but I do know that animals are beloved. I know that creatures high and low, hairy and slithering were spoken into being before us in that resplendent first garden.

So this Christmas season I am thinking of animals, the animals around me in Alaska. Most mornings I sit over the ocean, reading my Bible, watching the eagles and otters. I tire of human antics and long for something purer. This is the real news of the day, not the Internet news, not the radio news. When I am watching these creatures I feel as though I am watching bodies and beings at prayer. They seem to be praying the words that I love and stutter nearly every day.

Here they are, my animal neighbors who move me to pray with them.


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Our Father who art in heaven,

Glorious, honored, loved, hallowed be your name.

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(May we always cherish it in our hearts and keep it holy.)

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Reveal your kingdom among us, here, now,

in ocean, tree, bush and sky.
Cause your every purpose to be fulfilled on earth,
 just as it is fulfilled so perfectly in heaven.

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We acknowledge you, Father, as our generous Provider
  so we ask, would you give us each day the food that we need—

(but no more, no less so we live by trust more than by food?)

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And would you forgive us the creaturely wrongs we have done,

the debts we owe, the ways we have hurt others 

as we ourselves forgive and free those who have wronged and hurt us?

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Please rescue us, deliver us when we face tribulations, temptations,

when we are drawn away from you rather than close to you.

Please rescue us from the destroyer, that evil one.

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We ask you all this

because you are the King

and this holy kingdom is yours,

power and majesty and strength is yours

glory and honor and praise is yours.

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Forever and always,

 Yes and amen.

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Amen.


THE WONDER YEARS WINNERS!

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Friends, it was SO wonderful to hear from so many of you last week! What a treat! I know I said I was giving 3 books away, but I’m giving 7 instead. (I would give you ALL a book if I could! But maybe it would make a great gift to your over-forty friends for Christmas?)

Please contact me here (Leslieleylandfields@gmail.com) with your mailing address and I’ll get a copy to you asap!

*Karen Worley

*Lula Cobb

*Jane Stewart

*Yvonne Mollica

*Katie Husby

*Lance Aldrin

*Darrell Davis

Congratulations!! May the words in those pages enrich and prosper your soul!





Listening to Alaska's Crazy Days of Light (And Book Winners)

I am writing this on the longest day of the year. It’s crazy here in Alaska, where the sun takes only a two hour snooze (between 1 and 3), but otherwise the shining show goes on. Even here, near midnight. 

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 From this tiny northern island, I pass it on to you, then, some of this long long light. 

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I'm sending more light than words this week. These last two weeks, I've spent most of my words. On a new book proposal. On a script that I’m writing for a film crew this fall.  On a particular social issue. On a theological issue. (About one mega-church's "Patriotic Worship" Sunday, where everyone brings flags to church to celebrate first: their freedom as Americans. Second: their freedom in Christ. Did Jesus call us to worship freedom? Or our nation? Didn't he call us to worship him alone?

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(What if we visited a Christian church in say , Slovenia, and they all brought Slovenian flags for "patriotic worship"? I think we might whisper, "Idolatry"?)

And now I've done it.  I didn't mean to. We all have SO many words, don't we? Our world is all a-twitter, each one proclaiming his truths and her cause to anyone who will listen (as I just did). So many good and right causes worth speaking and fighting for. Yes, let us use our words for this!

But words are tempting, dangerous. Because WE are dangerous. They make us feel powerful. A man who lived more than 2,000 years ago looked around him and saw people speaking, using words amiss. They were counterfeit creators who sculpted statues and tried, like the Creator God, to speak their creations to life:

Woe to him who says to wood, “Come to life!”

  Or to lifeless stone,”Wake up”

Can it give guidance?

It is covered with gold and silver,

There is no breath in it.

But the LORD is in his holy temple;

Let all the earth be silent

before Him.

 

We don't need to fashion idols and beg them to speak. The problem is not that God doesn't speak. Our problem is we are too busy speaking to listen to Him.  If we listen and look, what will we see?

"For the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord"   

"The earth will be filled with the Knowledge of the glory of the LORD,

              As the waters cover the sea." 

                                                   (Hab.2:7)

From this land of long summer light, may I pass on to you today just a bit of it? Can we sit here together, wordless, listening before this holy God? (Maybe with a little music?)
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"The earth WILL be filled with the knowledge
of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea."
Do you  hear it?
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 This week, Lord, let me practice silence. Before I speak a word,
Let me listen long and well to you in all the light you have given. 
Amen. 
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I'm happy to announce the winners for Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate

Lorna, Patricia A. Lynn Hyman, Sheila Smith, Cindy Lavoie,  and Rosemary! 

Your books are on their way! 

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The Strong Alaskan Woman + How NOT to Hate the "Virtuous Woman"



   

       I’m just back from leading a retreat in my own beautiful state. I love speaking to Strong Alaskan Women! (And I met some truly amazing women. Beyond words. Shout-Out to Baxter Road Ladies!) We can endure the rigors of the wilderness, but I admit, when it comes to the duties of the house, I'm done for. After just 4 days away, laundry is piled everywhere. The dirty dishes I accidentally left in the dishwasher grew a gruesome mold. The counters are lost in stacks of mail. And there's other work to do. By Friday, I have to bake 15 dozen cookies, read and endorse a book, design a label and write three articles, as starters. 
          This is my everyday life, and likely yours as well.  But doesn't our exhaustion make us virtuous, biblical? You know, a Proverbs 31 woman? I hear some of you choking. Does anyone like this over-lauded woman who never sleeps, who is forever doing crafty earthy things like sewing clothes, planting a vineyard, spinning wool by lamplight? Didn't she ever go for long walks  in the desert, looking for beauty, writing poetry? Why don't we hear about that?
        We love to hate her---and still we laud her. Women on both sides of the Mommy Wars (which still exist, though I would downgrade it to "The Mommy Skirmishes") claim her because look! She does it all! She's a domestic diva and she sells her own merchandise and deals in real estate. 
            But too many women are goaded into a frantic busyness thanks to an overemphasis on this one chapter of the Scriptures. I say this as not as an urban woman who disdains the earthy home arts. I wrote part of this out at my fish camp in Alaska where I cook massive meals for 8 – 12 people, make all our own bread, smoke salmon, work out on the fishing nets with my family when I can, write essays and books,  mother my two younger sons and four young adult children.  The writer of Proverbs would be proud of my schedule.  
                                                 And I’m tired. So are many other women I know. Even Strong Alaskan Women. And honestly I  don’t think we should be called godly or virtuous because of it. Most women I know who do everything---including homeschool their children---are sure they are still not doing enough. I remember the words of a woman who ran her house, homeschooled her many children and who one day guiltily lamented that God was calling her to give up her one respite in the day, her thirty minute nap. (Really? Yes.)
              Surely a man conjured this woman up. Who else would turn the gospel of grace into a gospel of domestic works-righteousness? Ummmmm, another woman, actually: King Lemuel's mother. Before we hunt her down and stone her (or, as an Alaskan woman, shoot her)------ she’s not real.  She’s not even meant to be real. Hear this!
Dear Women Who Are Trying to Do It All: (me. And you?):   The noble woman is not intended to whip us into domestic goddess works-righteousness. She’s an ideal. We don’t have to spin wool and stay up to midnight making matching denim jumpers for our daughters to impress God with our love for our family. Or for Him.               Look what we've done. We have focused so much on her activities, failing to see that her activities are illustrations of her love and values. The heart of the message is who she is, her character, not what she does, her performance. All that she does springs from a bountiful, wise heart that “fears God”—the whole theme of Proverbs.

            There is no single way for women to “fear God”---thank goodness! And loving and fearing God does not require relentless performance and exhaustion. (If you see that raccoon-eyed woman giving up her nap, tell her “Don’t do it! God wants you to take a nap!”)                        So. I have laid down most of my sarcasm toward that woman , and sometimes even the bread board and the keyboard to remember that what God wants from me, from us, most of all: our hearts, our love, our attention. 
              And what do we get back from all of that good living? Surely someone as holy as King Lemuel’s mother would say nothing about reward.  Isn’t a wise life its own reward? Ah, but this woman (and her son recording these words) knows what we need! “Praise her!” she says. “Honor her!”  “Let her works bring her praise at the city gate!”                How can you hate this? Pay attention! Tired, Noble Women who Love God, take a break! Go outside. Take your camera, your notepad or nothing but your eyes. Find beauty, love God.   Even in your own house, if you rest a moment, you'll see it.  (This right here in my living room. The only flowers blooming---and I didn't even know it. Until now.) 
Allow others to praise you—and help you! Don’t be afraid of being honored. You deserve it.  You really do. God—and this not-so-Strong Alaskan Woman, and that very wise woman in Proverbs---says so.   

Stormy Crossing, The Last Place We Look for Beauty




                                 (Photo by Wallace Fields)

Two summers ago, I was scared before the skiff even launched. The NE wind had come down. It had been blowing 40 mph, ripping the ocean to white, but now it was probably down to 30 mph. I hadn’t run a skiff yet that season. So this was my first run, in these shuddering seas? 



I was fully dressed, as we always are when we step into a skiff: I was wearing full commercial grade raingear, a life jacket, a hat, my fishing boots, but I forgot my gloves. My hands were already so cold it wouldn’t matter when they got wet.

And they did get wet. As did the rest of me, even through the small opening at my neck. We all stand in our open skiffs when we travel to see over the bow. Like lightening rods, the water finds us first. Whole sheets of water pelted me as I rose and fell in the swells, my knees braced against the seat in front of me to stay upright, my arm on the tiller. Gasping for air between waves, I quartered my way from one island to another.



I have made this crossing many times and been out in storms far worse. I was not terribly afraid once I left shore---I was mostly awake, all of me. What I saw! The deep blue heaves and lifts me like breath; the whitecaps under the wind are my gasps. The grey clouds that sweep the mountains and troughs, spilling their water, and the sun that breaks between them, lighting the fires . . . All this exploding in water and howl of wind and motor, eyes blinded by the force of so much being and existence. . .


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And more astonishing, even this on the island I just left. That island is a working island where everyone is head-down on task, where there is no shelter from the wind, where the nets are splayed across the grass, and the island is covered in tractor-roads. 






















Our island too is a working island, where nets and tractors, skiffs and machines cover grass and beach.




This day of mending net in the wind, it was hard to speak to anyone and I was cold and wet ---but what I saw! Let me tell you about the colors of this work! The colors of all this gear on land before it is dropped into the sea to catch fish.



Let me tell you about the blue-green nets and the yellow corks and the pink buoys and the endless coils of line ready to do their work for us.






















 Let me tell you about yellow and orange raingear hanging in the gear shed waiting for the bodies to give them life and the rusty anchors sunk in sand to hold our boats. 







Courage lives here, and endurance, and a brotherhood of fishermen. But can you believe that beauty lives here as well, even when it is not intended or sought?

“We walk by faith, not by sight,” we often quote, but just as often, it is our sight that awakens our faith. Even when we do not intend it, in our busiest hardest labor, beauty and order and color emerges from our hand and pours forth speech that brings praise out of silence---for those who see it. 

I see it. I hear it. I am sure you do as well. Even here: 






















                                  (Photo by Tamie Harkins)

Where do you see strange beauty in your world?



Praise Him, the Father of All Beauty and Good,

Who can be found in storm and sea,

Who can be seen in the work of ordinary, tired hands,

Who yet will be praised

By babes and fishermen and women late

at the sink or deep in the soil:

Praise Him for bringing Loveliness out of our 

commonest Labors.









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And, I do not forget the eaglets, Calvin and Maddie (as named by my youngest sons), who have doubled in size. Here, too, is strange beauty forged from odd feathers and dinosaur faces. Here, too, we watch and praise . … 





Look! I can almost fly!




Praise Him.




A Russian Steambath Tour+Are You Clean Enough for God?

Our banya, which sits about 100 feet from the house.

Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water a day. We use maybe 3 gallons apiece. We’re just not that thirsty---or that clean. (One of my sons has worn the same sweatshirt the entire summer. Just 1 washing. And I just went 6 days without washing my hair. I’m lucky like that . ..)   


Our water does not gush from our 2 faucets in the house: it ambles, urged along simply by gravity-flow from a tank above our house filled with water from our hand-dug well. Getting clean and staying clean take time and energy. We don’t have an indoor shower or a tub; we bathe in a banya, a word and a custom brought over by the Russians 300 years ago when they colonized this part of Alaska.  


The banya is a wood-fired steam sauna in a building separate from the house. We build a huge wood fire in the barrel stove,


fill the inside tank (over part of the barrel stove) with water for our hot water.  

We keep the fire stoked until the water inside is hot and the air temperature is about 200 degrees. It takes 3 - 4 hours---we have to plan ahead. Then we take turns filing out to the banya, towels over our shoulders. We steam and sweat, washing in basins, emerging  red-faced, happy and clean. 



We use very little water, but we use a lot of wood, all of it driftwood found on beaches, dragged to shore in a flotilla, stacked until we saw it up and burn it.











I’ve been dragging my body into that banya for 35 years now. Naked I sit, in my grime and sweat and the worries of the day, sucking in air almost too hot for my lungs.  But I’m not really here to get clean. I'm here to get pure. 

The banya, like a native American sweatlodge, is often a house of prayer for me. Two thousand years ago, on a grassy hillside, maybe a bit like the one where we built our banya, a promise and a blessing was given: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “

 Am I pure enough yet to see the living God? 

In a book of prayers from the Presbyterian church published in 1940’s  I find this prayer: 

 “Grant that we may think clean, generous, humble                                                                  thoughts and harbor none that  stains the mind or dims our vision of Thee. So cleanse our hearts that we may ever behold thee face to face . .”


What I have seen of God so far is this: 

He strips us,   he scalds us,    he sears our lungs,   he opens 

our pores,   we melt,      our bodies weep . . . 

And when we return again to the world, 
we wear clean clothes, our skin shines, 
people are kinder,  
and the world itself is  brighter than we left it.






How many of us are “pure in heart”?  
Not me. But we shall be, one day. Even as we lean toward that day,

 somehow 

this day,

already,

we have been made 

clean    enough.