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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Smoking Forest Fires

October 2020

I spent the past eight months in Oregon's High Mountain Desert, aka the Oregon Outback, working daily on behavior analysis writings, standard celeration charts, a poem or two a week, and other tasks. I am back in Alaska now getting used to the absence of Oregon and California’s smoking forest fires. I went to the beach the day after I arrived home. I smiled at the smell of the ocean and reveled in the distant fog. It had its own outline, its beginning and terminus, Icy Strait and Excursion Ridge. The rest of the sky covered the land with clouds about 5.000 feet above. It was apparent where the fog ended.

Such glory, I thought. I had just come from seven weeks of mostly smoke-filled air that was anywhere from moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, to very unhealthy. We never got to hazardous. My sister-in-law in another part of the state described ash falling from the sky like snow, and not being able, for days on end, to see the road 100 feet away. I’ve been at her house many times, but I fail to imagine that. Smoke rated unhealthy and beyond kept my husband and me from going for long walks in the desert. We were far to the east of the Cascade Mountains. What was it like in those fire areas much farther west? Horrible when ours was bad enough to make me say: Enough! I’m headed back to Alaska.

The smoke was worse in visibility than a cloudy, foggy, rainy day in the Alaska rain forest. I wanted to be rid of the horrid odor, the coughing and sneezing, the watery or itchy, dry eyes. I wanted to sleep through the night with the window open and smell fresh air. I didn’t care if it was the boggy forest. I just wanted clean air. After no rain for four months, I am so happy to live in my corner of smoke-free, soggy, damp Tongass Rain Forest. I love both our houses and terrains, but a rain forest next to the ocean is home. I love my Alaska studio. I told my building contractor son what I wanted—dimensions, where to put the windows, bookshelves, desk, file cabinets, chairs, everything. He drew the plans, told his father the wood dimensions needed and my husband milled the frame, joists, window framing, beams, corbels, board and batten exterior, porch flooring, and probably more. Our son’s workers built it. It has no water, but the nearby outhouse is 8 x 12, hidden in the woods. This outhouse has no wall on the entry side, a solid wall towards my studio, and on the other two walls, three openings for views of the woods. The wood on the inside walls forms a 45-degree angle pattern that meets in the middle of the north and south walls. When first built, Norah and Reid decided it was their new fort. I think it’s a F.O.R.T.—Fort, Outhouse, Retreat, and I still don’t know what the T represents. Suggestions welcomed!

When on the phone with a colleague, friend, or even family, people ask where I am. I say I’m home. The next question is: Which home? Fair enough. I am one of the fortunate people in the world who has had two homes almost all my life.

After two more days of unpacking and arranging my life of solitude, I'll be ready to get back to work with data–based research and writing. Only when I finish that in about a month can I spend much more time on poetry and narrative non-fiction or a novel. This poem or two every week just isn’t enough. Robert stayed in Oregon and continues to work on house repairs—painting the exterior, exchanging screens for storm windows, raking leaves. Yes, we have to change the storm windows and screens in fall and winter. We refuse to put more modern windows in our 83-year-old classic house, which at some point was in a book titled 100 Historic Oregon Homes. To take away the wood windows would ruin its Cape Cod style.

I don’t mind an orange or red sky when it’s an aurora borealis, but I don’t like it when it’s cause is the odor of forests burning. In Oregon, we live on a double lot in town with a broad view of hills two blocks away and far to the north and south. The climate is dry, sunny, and smells of sage and grass. I find it far too sunny. I like its cold winters but not the hot summers. Alaska is cool in summer, 60 to 70, and somewhat cold in winter, usually the teens to 30s. It was colder and with more snow when we moved here 23 years ago. In just these few years, I have watched glaciers recede and temperatures grow warmer. Twenty-three years ago, the ground was frozen solid by now. I wonder when it will freeze this year.

When we left Alaska in February for one month, Christmas lights were still up. We usually leave them up for our long winter and take them down around the vernal equinox. We still had snow tires on the car, which were still on the vehicles when I returned.  It seems I left Alaska in winter and returned in winter. A friend once told me winter starts Labor Day weekend when all the tourists leave and ends Memorial Day weekend when they return. I like that. In this month of October, most people leave for warmth. I happily returned.

I work too hard right now, a habit I developed in grade school for three reasons: I had to catch up to my siblings who were eleven, eight, and seven years older than I was—that’s silly as I would never “catch up”; I went to private schools with much homework and had to study hard because it was my parents’ money; and, thirdly, I knew something was different about my thinking and my perceptions of the world and I didn’t want anyone to suspect (see the November 2019 blog about epilepsy). By the time I started university, my father had died and not left enough money for my mother to send me to college. I had to get a job. Thinking I was applying for a part-time one for Monday and Friday afternoons, I learned it was full-time Monday through Friday.. Full-time at school and full-time at work. It never occurred to me until after I finished my master’s degree that I could have slowed down and taken fewer courses as an undergrad.

Then I met and married a young man who had spent two years in Vietnam, where working an eight-hour day was not an option. Some days even working for twenty-four hours a day was also not an option. When his father died, we bought the house he’d grown up in and we supported his mother. After he became an RN, he had three jobs—his full-time job as a surgical nurse, another part-time job as a psychiatric nurse, and his regular Army reserve duty. He also had a part-time job on the side as a landscaper, good hard physical labor. At the same time I was a public school principal, hardly an eight-hour a day job. I also often taught a semester and a summer course for one of the nearby universities, and wrote poetry or fiction every day. Nor, most certainly, could we forget the two children we had living at home either. Because of these schedules, Robert had insisted that we set aside an hour a week of family time. We are so lucky this sometimes turned into several hours or even an all day activity. We had no time to even contemplate that PTSD (first formally defined in the American Psychiatry Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980) had wended its way into this marriage. I remember thinking five to fifteen years into this schedule that some day when we slowed down and looked at one another, either we’d still have a marriage left or we wouldn’t.

We survived all the hard work. When we paused to look, we had enough money saved to buy land in Alaska, have our son build us a house, and move back into our dream. That dream was remote wilderness, the dream we had when we first met.

What does it take to pull out of a hole such as PTSD? I often think of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and his Slough of Despair and Slough of Despond and dragging myself through the muck. I always felt a bit like a sabre tooth tiger caught in the La Brea Tar Pits and that horrible struggle to escape the inescapable. A person is different though. We can choose to walk around pit after pit and never confront the issues that face us. Or we can walk through the muck and come out the other side. It might take years, but as Peter Matthiessen said in his book, In Paradise, “The only whole heart is the broken heart. But it must be wholly broken.” Only after it is wholly broken can we mend it back into a whole heart.

To be continued November 15….

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