Becoming a Man

    Many of us are thinking about transgenderism right now since Bruce Jenner's interview: what it means, how we should think about it, how we should respond. I'll write more on this later, but I know a little something about being a man. I wanted to be a boy for years as a child, because I was such a lousy girl. And then I married a fisherman and moved to Alaska----and I had to become a man. And I had to teach my daughter the same. But along the way, I made another choice . . . .  This is longer than my usual posts, but please read to the end. There, what I wish for ALL women who live and work with men. 

 I stand in the stern of the skiff and Naphtali is in the bow.  “Mom, could I run the skiff for the rest of the pick?”  
  “Sure,” I reply instantly, my internal eyebrows rising.  Finally, it’s happening. “Wanna take it now?”  I shout over the engine., careful to keep my face neutral.  We are heading to the next net, the bow plunging between waves.  She nods her head yes and makes her way back between the totes and skiff sides.
            Naphtali, 14, now stands in my place in the stern, I move to the center of the skiff.  She has been  commercial salmon fishing with her father every day of every summer since she was nine, but she has resisted this move to the stern. Running a 60 horse outboard means you pilot a 26 foot aluminum skiff around swirling nets on the open ocean. It takes finesse, fearlessness and strength.   

She grips the outboard handle tentatively, and uses her body as I do, as a stabilizer for the left arm.  The men don’t need to do this; they have enough body weight and mass to absorb the intense vibration and the force of propulsion. As we approach the next net, she slows.
     We come in for the landing on the net and I see we won’t make it. The wind is pushing us over the line.
“Sorry!” she calls as she reverses.
“ That’s okay!  Let’s go again!” I reply, facing out to the water, not watching her, giving her room.
    We approach again. She slows the engine, idles us close to the corks, and shifts into neutral for me to lean over the skiff side and lift the net out of the water,  but we are still five feet short. 
 “ARRRGG! Which way do you turn this for reverse, mom?”
            “The other way. Turn it the other way!”    She turns the arm sharply toward herself, but we turn the wrong direction.
  Again we miss. Just feet short, the wind blusters the bow over the other side of the corks. 
“Mom, maybe you should do it!” Naphtali calls, frustrated.
            “No. You can do it. “   I will not tell her again how to do this, I decide. This is a knowledge that comes not from language or shouted directives; it comes only through the hands, the shift of her feet. Her body must begin recording  all the ways of moving a craft through the waters she will face.
            For me, this started when I was twenty, when I married a fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska and stepped into this ancient, new world of salmon and fishing. That was twenty-eight years ago. I wasn’t taught, I simply did it because I could, because my help was needed in the crush of fish, because the question of who I was---woman, girl, man, wife, fisherman---didn’t matter then.   

            When we are done with our final net, Naphtali makes one more request; “Mom, can I take it to the tender?”
I smile casually, as if I didn’t know what this means. “Sure, go ahead.” She tightens her grip on the outboard handle, stands straighter and rounds the corner of the island, face set in stoic confidence, the “stern face” her father wears, her grandfather wore, all the men wear as they command their vessel from the stern. The face I wear as well.

 We head for the Sierra Seas, the larger boat that takes our fish and delivers it to the cannery.  The other skiffs from our fishing operation are there, six of them, with two crewmen in each, all tied together waiting to offload their fish.  We see them before they see us. This is it---center stage. I glance up at Naphtali, frozen in an inscrutable aplomb. Then they hear us, and glance in our direction. She is ready. This is her debut, her coming out.  The Alaskan fishergirl’s equivalent of a southern girls’ debutante ball. It’s public now---Naphtali is running the skiff. Everyone sees and knows.  She is no longer a child or a crewman or a girl;  she is a fisherman. 

What am I giving to you, daughter?  I wondered that day. Though most of her training has been under her father’s eye and hand, I am part of this too. What am I passing on to her? A skill that will bring her deeper into the heart of fishing than she has ever been. Running a skiff  makes you captain of a  small ship, presiding over one or two crewmen. It means you earn the right to travel your piece of boat straight into a convulsed, tide-ripping storm of ocean and in the midst of that storm, to fish and work as if there were none. It means you will hold other people’s lives in your hands. It means you will work eight to fifteen hours every day through every summer.

It means you will be a girl in a world of men, and expected to work like a man no matter your size. It means that just as you are becoming a woman, Naphtali, you are becoming a man.

I don’t remember which day I became a woman on the water. The years blur together. But I became a man first.  It happened in a blow, piloting a small skiff alone through 50 knot winds. Or maybe when the nets were so full of fish we could not lift them from the water. We picked them in the water, then, throwing hundreds, thousands behind us into our skiffs for days, until we could no longer stand. Or on a night when told to drive a skiff full of fish around an island and a reef in the black dark, not knowing where the rocks were, and still going.  Or the times I refused help from a crewman though I desperately needed it, my body near breaking. On the nights we took up our nets, me, the smallest, choosing to pull the lead line, the heaviest line of all. 

Then, one day I became a woman again. I don’t remember exactly when. Maybe when out in the skiff with a baby ashore, my breasts filling with milk as the skiff filled with fish, knowing there was a helpless other who needed me more. Maybe when I started accepting help, then asking for it from my 6’2” crewman who was twice my weight, choosing to preserve my back for all its other uses. Maybe when I looked beyond the fish to the crewman beside me to ask him how he’s doing with this work. Maybe when I cried that night alone in the dark, running the skiff around the reef, praying for help. Knowing then that anything I did was not done by strength at all.

             Growing up in New Hampshire, if I had thought about being a mother someday and passing a heritage onto my daughter, I would not have imagined this----the two of us out in a skiff, in orange raingear, slimed by fish guts, blood and kelp, the mountains and ocean rising up around us. I would not have imagined us killing fish instead of garnishing them; snatching salmon from watery jaws, shouting sea lions away from our nets, picking kelp at midnight, assessing a man’s worth by body size and strength.  Though I grew up in the unisex 60’s and 70’s in a nearly genderless household—with three brothers and two sisters and a mother who built houses, fireplaces, and furniture—somehow, in a rosy glow, I place the two of us  in the kitchen. 

        There we are, within warm buttery walls,  surrounded by appliances with dash boards and buttons just waiting to be controlled by the lift of our fingers. Engines that whirr to life with a touch rather than a full-body yank on a six-foot pull cord.  We are wearing matching aprons instead of matching raingear. Standing side by side while I demonstrate the roll of the pin, the fold of the dough instead of the slashing of kelp and the roll of jellyfish from the nets.  Betty Crocker is there. We speak of literature, The Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things as we braid a mound of challah.  I teach her the science of yeasts and pie crusts, the brilliance of Indian curries.  She learns to savor the artistry of food as I do, the unending beauty of colors and textures and flavors---this, the only domestic art that I love. 

          None of this has happened. Naphtali, like her brothers, enters the kitchen only to eat. Instead, when I can leave my other labors, writing and the work of a house and children, I gear up, join her, and head out to sea.

                     *           *             *           *            *

        This summer Naphtali turns seventeen. I am realizing every day this year that she may not return many more seasons. After college, maybe she'll never come back.  The thought of being alone here with all boys and men saddens me. When she leaves, what will she take with her?  What do other mothers pass onto their daughters? Great-grandmother’s china, Aunt Mary’s handmade baskets, family recipes.  I have none of these. 

I want to give her something that is hers, and ours, alone, that cannot be given to my sons, that was not given to me. Something distinctly female, that will ease and further her way down the path of womanhood. It has taken me a long time to become a woman out here; I had to find the way myself; a winding path between nursing babies, gutting fish, changing diapers, and spitting into storms. I wish its benefits and joys upon her much sooner than they came to me.
It is not fishing that I want to give. It was never really mine to bestow. It has always been Duncan’s. And it is much more hers now than mine; it is already her lifelong work, even if she stops tomorrow. If she continues, she will have to sort out how to be a woman in this world and work, and decide how much it matters. I have struggled with this for almost thirty years.

*                           *                             *                       *
It’s 7:45 pm, time to ready for the evening pick. Naphtali is going out with  Emily, her best friend, here for a month. A respite from her usual company of men.  Naphtali’s  bathroom ministrations for fishing usually mean a business-like slathering of sunblock on her face, her hair wound and pinned up beneath a plastic shower cap then a bandana around it as protection from fish slime and blood. Her wardrobe: a thermal undershirt, sweatpants, wool socks pulled up over her ankles. Then the step into rubber  hip boots, the pull of clownish orange and yellow bib rainpants, a foam lifejacket zippered over the top, vinyl gloves to her forearms.  All body shape erased.

This night both girls emerge from the bathroom with the usual wardrobe, but with their hair exposed, in pony tails, their faces transformed with rich red lipstick, huge hoop earrings, gypsy scarves, thick mascara and eyeshadow.  Laughing at this exaggeration of their own beauty, and laughing at where they will take it---out into the skiff, where gender is stolen---they trip down the hill to the beach, steps light with anticipation.  Under her arm, Naphtali carries a digital camera and an unopened box of tampons.  She has told me what they are up to. 

In honor of her birthday, they are designing their own digital cover of Seventeen Magazine.  They will feature an outhouse contest, a fit-and-fabulous exercise routine, and an article highlighting the tampons: “Menstruating in a Man’s World.”   Out on the water, they take turns standing in the bow for the photo shoot. Behind them, kelp dried on the skiff sides, fish at their feet, they flash a glamour-girl smile,  finger pointing to the tampons. 

            It is just what a mother hopes as she carries her newborn daughter home from the hospital—that her daughter will exceed her. She is stronger than I am---she is becoming a woman sooner than I did. I pray for her the courage to stay strong; the resolve to keep singing when everyone else is silent, to dance in the skiff.  She has this already. More, I pray for her what she has not yet dared: the courage to be weak, the courage to ask for help, to cry when she needs, to bleed when she must, to work beside men as a woman. And most of all, if she cannot, for the courage to walk away. I will help her pack. And I will bear her absence---alone now in a world of fish and men---with all the strength------ of a woman. 

(The start of the story---leaving New Hampshire, my life in the wilderness, in fishing, living and working among men, is here: Surviving the Island of Grace )

*I wrote this piece 10 years ago. My daughter is now 27, and is getting an MFA in Theatre Directing. She comes back to visit (and fish) just 2 weeks a summer now. 

What Are You Doing in Yr Wild+Precious Life? And Sweet Giveaways!

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?"    ----Mary Oliver

I ditched my island a few days ago---for a smaller one, 42 foot fishing vessel  “Dreamer.” I spent the day and nearly the night with a friend, Dave, and his crew. I went with camera and raingear,  to watch how others live and catch fish. To get wet and work on the deck beside them. I went, in short, to see how they lived---the first of many trips ahead on other boats and places and islands, to see about this life on the ocean, how others live it, survive it.


I am beginning (finally!) a sequel to my memoir, Surviving the Island of Graceand already, such grace comes. A new book grants permission for such things.

My job was to stack corks as they were winched on deck. A quarter mile length of corks, piling so high I soon could hardly reach them and had to stand on the rim of the stern to keep going.  At the end of each set, more than hour of cork-stacking later, I was breathless, wet, and ponderous. 

Sometimes we are given holy  moments when we look up from our commute over a river bridge, from cleaning a bathroom, from cutting our elderly mother’s toenails, from surveying the view from a mountain summit, from wiping a baby’s bottom, from stacking corks on the back deck of a fishing boat in Alaska-----and we are astonished.  We find ourselves, suddenly, for a few minutes, strangers in our own lives. How did we get here? How did this life come to us? 

We blink in momentary blindness  as the thin tether of memory and history lets go and we are unmoored, drifting, strangers in our own lives, seeing the strange work of our hands. And a few long seconds later, we wake and remember the decisions that set us exactly where we are, that led us to the man we said yes to and the children that came, to the job interview and the promotion, to the building of the house on the island, to the nursing home where our mother lives, to the stern of a fishing boat. And the flash of possibility is over.

My day on the boat ended at 1 a.m.  It was just dark then.  The small boat  chugged the miles back to my island.  A skiff took me to shore, dropped me off in water deeper than my knee boots. I plunged into icy water, shivering. It woke me. It was a low minus tide, the skirt of the ocean pulled back, our gravel beach  deeper, further than I had seen it for awhile, the ghostly lights of the boat glowing our beach warehouse yellow.  

What was this place? I trudged up the beach with the ocean in my boots, up the long hill, tired from a day and night working on the deck. I did not know myself or this haunted  island or the hulk of house looming in the dark that I walked toward. How have I come here?  Whose life is this?

I opened the door and stood for a moment in the night-still house. I could  hear breathing. I heard the kettle  steaming on the oil stove, saw my mug beside it. The dog stirred and came to me, sniffing and licking my wet legs and feet. Then from the bedroom, “Leslie, is that you?” my husband calls.

I return to my life, my own house. Yes, the house I built with Duncan.  I remember now.

Did we plan our lives? How have they come to us?  Out of a thousand possible places to live and a million people we could have joined----how are we here, with these people, now? There is only one real answer---and it cannot be spoken because it is like the wind and the Spirit that blows through and around us. We don’t know where it comes from or where it is going, but we read in the Psalms, that before we were even made,  “All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” 

 Somehow we have chosen. We have chosen again and again the lives we are living, though so much of the time we did not understand what we were choosing. And some of what we are living is what others have chosen for us, what we never would have chosen for ourselves.  

And somehow every path we have taken, the smooth and the rough, is the path already known for us. 

Who can fathom this? But Know it is true. Believe it. 

And believe there is wonder and beauty and love and goodness and purpose even in the hardest places of the life you have chosen, the life you have been given. 

What are you doing with this “one wild and precious life”? 

Instructions for living a life

"Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it." 
    -- Mary Oliver

Sweet Summer Giveaways!

I would like to send you something sweet from this island life. I have just made Rhubarb Ginger jam and Golden Rhubarb Marmelade from the lushness of this island. I’d love to share it with you---along with a copy of my memoir, “Surviving the Island of Grace.”  I wish I could send this to ALL of you---but can only choose four.  How and who do I choose?  I would ask this favor first. Would you share this post and this blog with your friends on Facebook?  Just let me know you’ve done that in the comment section---and then I will put your names in a boot and stick my wet foot in the boot----and the first four that I peel off my foot win!  (Does this sound democratic enough?)   
May the stickiest names win!

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. . .


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.


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.