Friday, September 19, 2014

Identity and loss

Identity is a tricky thing. I've written about this before, exploring how we define ourselves contextually, historically and through other lenses. Identity post-loss is even harder to pin down.

Since Kevin died I often feel as if I no longer know who I am. The parts of myself that seemed most sure - storyteller, friend, lover - no longer feel as if they have foundation. I didn't know that so much of my understanding of myself was, in fact, my self in the context of one relationship. Frankly, I find that to be quite uncomfortable and almost embarrassing. I am a modern woman! I shouldn't need a man, or anyone, as my defining element. It turns out, I do. I did. And that makes sense, since identity is often in relationship to others.

When you're in a really good relationship - and Kevin and I were great - you become a sum that is greater than the whole of its parts. By supporting each other we could rise to a higher place than we would have been able to alone. What's more, we delegated knowledge to one another. I used to be technically competent, but Kevin enjoyed creating our home network and similar tasks. So I let him do it. I now have no idea how its wired or even works. Likewise, he delegated most of the cooking and shopping to me. I enjoyed it. He didn't. It worked for us both. 

Now I find myself forgetful, incompetent and shy. These are never words I would have used to define myself before his death.

I find I question my ability in just about every facet of my life. Kevin helped me think through stories. He was my first and most trusted listener. He helped me be a better friend. He helped me love my own body. Doing all of this alone is hugely difficult. I know there are people who never had the kind of support I did, and those readers may be annoyed with this post, since they have always had to do it all. If that's the case, I'm sorry, but I have had the advantage of partnership. I have been incredibly lucky in my partner and our relationship. Now this has been amputated and I am trying to learn to walk all over again.

Here is another way to look at it, a story that might clarify what I am stumbling to say. Shortly after Kevin was diagnosed he was talking with a counsellor about his chances for recovery. She was trying to help him understand that his chances were very, very slim. He said, "I know. But I also know that I have something other people don't have. I have Laura."

"Explain to me how yours different from other relationships," she replied.

"Well, individually we are each pretty good. We're smart. We each are problem solvers. But together we can do anything. Together we can solve any problem. Together we're a super hero."

He was right. Together we were a superhero. And alone I am not even Clark Kent, comfortable in his secret identity because I no longer know who I am. I am finding out, but it's a person I never wanted to be. So it is with many who lost their partners. We are in an undiscovered country, without a map and only the warning that there may be monsters, and we are land being explored.

(c) 2014 Laura S. Packer
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Friday, September 12, 2014

On bigness and smallness and being finite

(c)2014 Laura Packer
Independence Mine State Park
Home. Work. Friends. Family.
Home. Work. Friends. Family.

In our everyday lives it can be easy to forget just how big the world is. Just how small we are. And just how finite we are compared to the larger universe around us.

When I was 26 I had cancer. That seems very long ago and inconsequential now. It wasn't a big deal; I had surgery, I was fine. But it left an emotional impact and I needed to understand who I was in this world that had made it so very clear that I was mortal. I went to England. I looked at things that had been in the world much longer than I and would remain long after I was gone. It helped. I had a better understanding of my own smallness and mortality but within a context of a world that continues. A world of story and mountains and rain. Things that endure and are as close to infinite as we can easily understand. That was enough to get me over the shock of my own finite nature and back into my life.

This year has been a barrage of the finite. The mortal. Death and endings. (Some will want me to write and new beginnings here, but I'm not there yet. This is where I am now.) The love of my life was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died. My business is faltering because of my inattention as I've been far more focused first on nursing Kevin and then attending to my own grief. My understanding of my own passions and priorities, the ways I have defined myself for years, has changed. This week a family member succumbed to lung cancer. Other family members are contending with illnesses of age and mortality. It's been a rough year.

Losing Kevin means the bedrock to my world has been destroyed. For those of you who never met him, Kevin was a big, strong man with tremendous presence. He seemed like a foundation of the world. He was the foundation of my world. A friend commented to me recently that if Kevin could become ill and die then we all can, that he just seemed so sturdy. So he was. So he did. And my foundation is gone.

In losing my bedrock I again found myself drawn to reminders that the world goes on. That I will die, that everyone I know is finite but that doesn't mean the world is finite.

I have always been in love with the world. Much of my writing and speaking life is essentially pointing out the majesty of the small and large, reminding myself and maybe others that the world is. The world is. Knowing the world goes on in spite of Kevin's death, in spite of my eventual death, in spite of human stupidity, helps.

So I sought out bigness beyond human scale. I recently spent some time in Alaska, the biggest place I could think of that would be accessible. I've posted photos elsewhere on this blog.

I stared out into the ocean. To the horizon. I watched fog banks close in and fade out. I watched the sun set into the water and the darkness surround us. I saw tiny lights in the night, human habitation in the midst of vast wilderness. I listened for the breath of whales, the call of migrating cranes. I climbed trails into towering mountains that were dwarfed by the mountains beyond. I looked up and saw snow. I heard the voice of the glacier, thousands of years in the making. I walked amongst decaying buildings, being taken back by the land. I crouched and was awed by lichen, mushrooms, moss. By this flower. By that bird. I was in the world, of it, and reminded of my very finite nature. The mountains don't care that I will die. The ocean continues to beat even though Kevin will not swim in it again.

None of this made my sorrow less acute, my longing for him any smaller. None of it made it easier to breath or walk through this world without him. But it did remind me that this is what it is to be in the world. We have only a moment. We must treasure what we have.

I promised Kevin 'til death do we part. I kept my promise. And the world is keeping its promise to me, revealing itself in wonder. In bigness. In smallness. And in the infinite.

(24 weeks. Breathless without you and yet still breathing.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The world through my eyes: Hubbard Glacier

This felt like what I'd imagined in Alaska. The ship sailed into Hubbard Bay. We got within about 1/2 mile of the glacier. The air was full of cracks and groans, crashes and pops. Glaciers are loud, not passive ice sheets but active, living things.

As before, you may want to click on the pictures to see the whole thing. You can see the earlier parts of this journey here: Seattle; the Inside PassageKetchikan, Icy Strait Point and Hoonah; Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau; Skagway.

Our first real view of the glacier. Note this is not the whole thing, I didn't have a wide angle lens.

The ice walls are 300' high. This pass is blocked in the winter -
the glacier grows and shrinks quite dramatically through the seasons.

The other side of the glacier. Note the debris field. Mountain remains.

We saw quite a bit of calving. It's LOUD.

A larger view of the gap.

I love the colors and the crags.

This is almost a good version of the blue. I love knowing that I am looking at time as well as space; the horizontal lines are hundreds (if not thousands) of years old.

I repeat, this ice wall is over 300' high. Dwarfed by the mountains.

Another calving.
The floating ice around us hissed and popped. As it melts compressed carbon dioxide is released; it's carbonated ice!

Leaving the glacier. You can see the debris trail in the ice to the left, the course of the glacier.

The world is a big place.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The world through my eyes: Skagway

Wednesday took us to Skagway, a well-preserved gold rush era town. It would have been charming but the town is utterly over run with tourists. I was one of 7000 visiting all at the same time. I understand why they do this, but it made it hard to navigate.

I ended up taking a train ride along an old pass, traveling a gold rush era trail. The train was narrow track, the cars were old and some of the views were good, even when it was foggy. The fog, in fact, yielded some of my favorite moments.

Fog. Trees.

Note the old telegraph pole. Many still have the glass insulators that sell for so much in antique shops.
I heard it referred to as the "wireless" network since it no longer has wires. Ha.

We followed this river for miles. The water is a light aqua color because it's full of glacial silt. 
More river.

Unused spur

This bridge is called the "ghost bridge" for reasons that become quite obvious in the fog.

Pulling out of Skagway on the ship, you can see where the silt-laden river water hits the ocean. It was really triking. That grey section is not beach, but water full of ground up mountain!

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The world through my eyes: Mendenhall Glacier, Whales and Juneau, oh my!

Juneau is a city I could live in. It clings to the edge of the sea and the mountains. The streets rise precipitously and everything is lush and green, at least in the beginning of September. Considering the city is in Alaska, it gets surprisingly little snow.

I took a an excursion led by a local and saw some stunning wildlife and views, so this is a picture heavy entry.

If you're interested, I've also posted about Vancouver and the Inside Passage and Ketchikan and Icy Strait Point.

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm just blown away by the tenacity of salmon.
Here are some salmon at the end of their journey, spawning, fighting and dying. 

Juneau is in a temperate rain forest. The flora is just amazing. 

90 years ago this area was under the Mendenhall glacier. As it receded it left behind glacial erratics (rocks). This picture shows you some of the mossiness of the area.

Another berry I cannot identify.

I wish I could properly capture the colors of the glacier, I don't know how yet. But this gives you a sense of size. Kind of. It's HUGE.
I was surprised by how dirty it was, but that makes sense when you consider how glaciers churn everything up.

Maybe this helps convey the size.

Note the blues in the ice. 

Icebergs and blues

By the shores of the lake at the foot of the glacier. Yes, the water is cold.
I sprinkled a little of Kevin's ash here. He would have hated the cold but loved the view.

These are called bane berries. So named because eating 3-4 will kill an adult. So don't do that.

A jellyfish, just minding its own business.

While the harbor seal was keeping an eye on me.

Humpbacked whale, diving. 

This whale is named Spot because of the markings on his tail.

Bald eagles were everywhere. These two clearly were flouting the sign.

I wasn't expecting to see this eagle in flight, so I didn't have the right settings on my camera.
Nonetheless, I like this photo.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 5, 2014

The world through my eyes: Ketchikan and Icy Strait Point/Hoonah Village

My Alaskan adventure took me to Ketchikan on Sunday and to Icy Strait Point/Hoonah village on Monday. I had terribly connectivity on the ship (even though  paid through the nose for it) so I'm only catching up now.

It is hard doing this without Kevin. There is a deep sense of something missing, which is no surprise. There is a cognitive dissonance, on the one hand a feeling of pointlessness (why am I doing this when he isn't here to share it with) and on the other a hint of continuation that, while it lacks joy, is at least present. So it goes. I'm not yet ready to be in the world without him, but here I am. So it goes.

It poured all day. Boy, was I cold.

The salmon were swimming upstream (or trying to). This was fairly early in their journey, so they are still brown.
A few days later I saw the classic bright red spawning salmon (coming soon).
Watching these animals fight their way a few feet upstream then be swept back down and try again was truly awe-inspiring. I did see the classic "jumping up a waterfall" behavior but wasn't able to get a shot of it.

I visited the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan. All of the totem poles in this museum were from abandoned Tlingit villages, brought into this center with permission of the carver's clans and elders. It was a lovely place, full of reverence for these holy relics. The whole place smelled of dry, aging wood. Wonderful.

Ketchikan, like many Alaskan cities, is built on stilts and boardwalks. Creek Street is a historical street in Ketchikan, once home to many bordellos that served cannery workers, sailors, gold rush dreamers and more. This house was a little off the beaten path. I liked the contrast between the red, grey and green.

Art in the Ketchikan harbor. I love octopi.

On the boat from Ketchikan to Icy Strait Point
Rain continued.

More bigness

A flock of sea birds.

I watched this flock form and reform v's as they headed south. Winter is coming.

Red building, white anchor

Icy Strait Point/Hoonah
This may be my favorite stop on the cruise. I didn't expect to love it but it felt most authentic. Hoonah is a (mostly) Tlingit village. When the canneries closed they decided to cater to the cruise trade, but only allow in one ship at a time and seem dedicated to both making a good living and educating tourists. It was fascinating.

Road from Icy Strait Point to Hoonah.

Abandoned cannery in Hoonah. Birds.

I shared my lunch with this raven. 

Abandoned boats. And finally some blue sky!

A boggy area well into the island. I loved this place.

Fawn bones in the forest. Someone had a snack.

A coastal Alaskan brown bear, doing what bears to. Eating salmon. Sorry it's such a long shot, please double click to zoom in.

In case there was any doubt I was in Alaska.

This is a lichen called "old man's beard." It is rather like spanish moss and grows only where the air is very clean.

The Tlingit say if you see a raven, look for eagle. Here he is.

The shore of the island. Very rocky and lovely.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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