A Blog of Flashbacks
This is a guest blog from my friend, Moe Bowstern. I know Moe through Fisher Poets Gathering, the last weekend of every February in Astoria, Oregon, a weekend of prose, poetry, song, and art by people in the commercial fishing business. Like almost everyone who performs at Fisher Poets, Moe has done the hard work of commercial fishing. I’ve not done that, but I write about it in The Night Orion Fell, and continue to write other stories and poetry about the sea.
This writing of Moe’s is not about commercial fishing but about the dire straits of living in a city, something I haven’t done in decades. Moe put it as “how to be alive in America in this moment” and I say how to be alive on this planet at this time.
NASA names this the sturgeon moon, but the Western Washington University website I found lists 29 tribal moons; Kalapuya people call it ‘end of summer’ and Wishram say ‘blackberry patches moon,’ or at least, that is what some people from these groups told someone from Western Washington University, who wrote it down, got it digitized, and now it’s there when I reach for it. A big moon, anyway, in the northern hemisphere, low in the sky, gold and fat as wheat.
Speaking of wheat, happy Lammas, happy Lughnasa, happy ancient festival of early harvest, the first grain ground into the first loaf, the beginning of the death of the sun. Summer has tipped; we begin our descent.
I’ve been trying to understand how to be alive in America in this moment. I was pondering it at the hospital job where I restock supply rooms and tidy shelf after shelf of individually plastic-wrapped medical doodads. Had last weekend off to attend a delightful wedding; tried to stay off my phone but a buddy texted me, ‘Is that the hospital you work at in the news? Everyone with their guns is too ducking much.”
Not my hospital, but one in our system. A man who allegedly had a history of mental instability and violence killed a security guard in or near the birth center of a sister hospital. When I went back to work, my coworker told me the shooter had just been evicted, and now he was dead.
The day before I returned, my coworker also told me, our hospital was locked down—a code silver—because a cop got shot somewhere close to the campus. Everyone just kept working. The hospital is in a suburb. Many of my co-workers, when I bring up where I live, talk about how dangerous Portland is, as if guns are stopped by the urban growth boundary.
I worked one winter in a boatyard in Kodiak, Alaska, helping fiberglass a fish hold. The boat was up on blocks, at the mercy of gravity. We climbed aboard from the greasy gravel of the icy yard via a ladder lashed to the lee side. High winds battered the town the week I arrived, with gusts, the radio told us, up to 100mph. Crossing the boatyard to use the bathroom was an exercise in potentially deadly chaos. Felt like a video game, to see a metal dumpster flip over and slide across the lot on its side, and calculate whether it was safer to dash across to the warm shed with the indoor toilet or squat under the boat and imagine getting crushed with my pants down. Calculate is a funny word, but that is what I pretended to do, as if I could somehow measure the safest crossing or the best way to avoid a heavy slice of sheet metal someone never thought they’d have to tie down.
I crouched in the belly of the boat as it rocked in the rough embrace of the gale, calculating again—how long would it take me to unfold myself from the contortion of my working position and propel myself up and out of the hold if the wind managed somehow to grab a stern corner and flip the boat? Something I love about fishing is no matter how many years I did it, I always found a new terror to overcome. I was too inexperienced with wind to say to my boss-friend, ‘I love you man but hell no on the boat yard in 100-mile winds.’ I swallowed my fear instead, a minute at a time, all day, 480 minutes, over the three days that storm to blew itself out.
I often wonder, should I tell people about this kind of thing? By ‘people,’ I mean people who love me who are outside the fishing industry. I learned early in my fishing life not to tell my mom about my exciting new job, when the next call home I would hear from my dad about how I needed to stop fishing, I was frightening my mother. Is it less frightening to learn about this years later, since I’ve lived through it? Can a parent go back in time, replay a phone call, insert flying sheet metal into the conversational context and fry some nerves when they hear about it 18 years later?
At the hospital we got follow up emails about the shooting, containing language that walked a corporate line between grief, responsibility, culpability, safety. Amazing writing. Exactly one week after the terrible incident, we gathered in the healing garden for a ‘moment of silence’, summoned at the start of the moment by a hospital-wide announcement. By the time I got there, the moment was basically over. It’s a hospital, people can’t leave stations. It was me and the PR people and the cafeteria staff out there in the sunshine by the fountain in the beautiful garden named after someone’s beloved deceased family member. The announcement came, ‘The moment of silence is over.’ Everyone scattered. Not even a song. The perfunctory nature of the observance was so bald it actually hurt, a paper cut on my soul.
I wheeled my cart around the small warehouse and wondered how to talk about our reality, where there are more guns than people. I don’t want to talk about it, but how can we not? Are we supposed to swallow it down? I don’t want to invite worry; am I more vulnerable in a hospital than on the street? When I started this job over a year ago, one of the old-timers told me that the birth center is the most dangerous part of the hospital, that domestic violence follows people, that the always-locked doors to the birth center have a camera, and an alarm, and a nurse’s station that is occupied 24/7.
When will we understand that gun control isn’t about guns alone? That healthcare is gun control. That guaranteed, appropriate housing is gun control. That having options is gun control. That paying people fairly for their labor is gun control. That gun control is not about taking people’s guns away as much as it is giving people some real control in their lives. I had several conversations at work about guns, including with a woman who worked in our birth center who is married to a cop. ‘When people don’t have anything but their guns this is what you get,’ I said. Everyone I talked to agreed with me, and I’ve never felt worse about being told I was right.
We live in a roulette game, all of us—city, suburb, outback, small town. When I pondered under the fluorescent lights how to talk about my safe, normie, hospital job with benefits, where a security guard got shot and killed, I kept seeing that sheet metal flashing in the winter sun as the wind threw it across the boatyard. That’s what it feels like.
Today I went to the Sandy River and soaked up the green haze of the trees reflected in the water, watched tiny fish dart in the clear water, nudge my neon-yellow river shoes. I said a prayer for the dead security guard. I cried for the loss of Sinead O’Connor and her truths that cost her so much, for Paul Reubens and the homophobia that took down his brilliance at the height of his career. Both so fierce in their ways, both leaving us with beautiful road maps for navigating the minefield we’ve created.
I dropped off zines at a friend’s house and saw a warbler crash into a picture window. Feral cats abound in her area, so I scooped the bird and held her for 20 minutes while she came back to herself, eyes half closed, taking a drop of water now and then from my finger. She shit twice in my hand then flew into a hedgerow, a small miracle.
I have no answers today but wishes. This full moon I wish you a connection to your truth, the bravery to sing it, the boldness to laugh at it, the audacity to risk sharing it. I wish for you someone to sit with when you are stunned and in your mess. I wish for you a fresh baked loaf with a handful of blackberries hot from the August sun.