Mirrors of Uncertainty
For a lost wax casting class at University of Alaska Fairbanks, I carved five small fish in blue wax, and I was disappointed that the wax wasn't capable of holding the detail I was capable of carving. Nevertheless, these five little fish were invested, then melted out, the wax burnt, its smoke vented through the outside wall. The investment cavities were then filled with molten silver which, when cooled, shined like moons in January.
The fish were all about an ounce and a half apiece. I was still disappointed the wax hadn't better held carved surface details so I was disappointed in the fish although they satisfied one of the assignments for the class. I didn't know what to do with them so I kept them wrapped in a paper towel atop the refrigerator, first in Fairbanks, then in Idaho after I drifted south to accept a fellowship at Idaho State University. They were there atop my refrigerator for years even after I remarried and acquired a fourteen year old stepson.
One day I couldn't find them. I didn't remember doing anything with them, but they weren't on the refrigerator, weren't anywhere I looked. While I didn't thoroughly search the whole house, I looked in all of the obvious places, all of the places where I might have stuck them, might have hid them, all of the places I remembered sticking items since I moved into the house. And since one acquaintance of my stepson, a teenager with a reputation for thievery had been in our kitchen months before, I suspect those fish were stolen. I had no proof, no reason to suspect the teenager other than I couldn't find those fish. So I mentally chalked the fish up as gone—they represented thirty, thirty-five dollars worth of silver, and were among the least valuable things that could have walked out of the house. I sort of forgot about them until I heard a poet read.
The poet had been a divinity student. He had planned to preach Christ and repentance to sinners until he realized that he was a sinner. Then his doubts began. First about himself. Then about Scripture being the word of God. Finally about whether any god exists. He wasn't long into his doubts before he couldn't continue as a divinity student so he became an English major (what else when a person has lost their faith), and eventually an English professor whose performance of Beowolf is remarkable. But he has never shaken those doubts about whether he is worthy of salvation.
None of us are, and most of us know that. We get up mornings and pull our pants on, one leg at a time. We are tired at night, often frustrated, and we doubt ourselves. This is the week the last Peanuts cartoon strip will appear for the first time. Charlie Brown's self-doubts are ours. And as we nationally consult more analysts and more counselors of all sorts we just confirm our doubts about whether we are able to cope with those things that didn't seem to phase grandparents and great-grandparents.
Last night my wife of now five years looked at a list of houses available in the area of Alaska where we will buy property. She became excited about one place. Its location was perfect, and its price a bargain. I asked if she realized the place used an outhouse. "Where do you see that?" she asked. I pointed to where. "Oh, well, we don't want that."
"Why not? I don't know anyone on the Kenai who hasn't experienced a winter using an outhouse."
"You have already spent a winter, and I don't intend to." She was mad at me for at least five minutes.
Yes, we used an outhouse my first winter North, but I don't really want to return to using one. However, the experience wasn't as bad as my wife obviously envisioned. About Thanksgiving, I took the seat loose and started bringing it inside and keeping it behind the stove—
My memories of using an outhouse as a kid in Indiana are of how cold the edges of the hole were and of a huge harvest spider that lived in the upper corner by the door. I didn't know spiders grew so large, and I wasn't convinced a spider that large was harmless. I used to keep my eye on it as I sat out there, shivering and crumpling pages of last year's Sears catalogue, its yellow pages already missing. For me, the worst part of growing up was becoming old enough that I couldn't use the thunder mug in the house at night, but had to get up, get dressed, and go to the outhouse, where I sat almost too cold for anything to happen, where I sat with that spider watching me.
So, no, I don't want to return to those days. But I have no angst about them, or about returning to using an outhouse, or about Sear catalogues or harvest spiders.
That winter of 1974-75 spent on the Kenai Peninsula, we rented Bishop's cabin at the corner of Oil Well and Kingsley Roads. I fell timber for Tommy Simmons, another gyppo delivering logs to Louisiana-Pacific. The only gyppo who declined a contract for export logs or cants was Denny Bell, with whom I eventually became friends
At Denny's one evening, I meant Clovis Kingsley for whom the road on which I lived was named. Clovis told me a story about him and Denny shooting a bull moose just about dark one Friday evening. Like myself, Denny was also a Sabbath keeper, and he wanted to get that bull hung and dressed before sunset. In addition, they shot the bull on Bell's Flats, and I have seen brown bear there. They didn't want to risk losing the bull, which meant they needed to get it to Denny's house, a mile or so away, before a bear claimed it.
If a fellow intends to pack a moose on his back, he usually butchers it into eight pack loads of eighty pounds or so each. With two fellows packing, that translates into four round trips. Hiking, especially with a load, a mile of muskeg in the dark will take an hour. For Denny and Clovis to have packed that moose out on their backs, they would have been until two or three in the morning. Denny would have certainly worked hard enough to have violated the Sabbath in his mind. He had a better idea: he hurried up to his homestead, got his D-4 Cat and rattled it down the hill and across the muskeg as fast as he could. He and Clovis hooked onto that bull—it was already dark enough that the lights of Denny's cabin could be seen from across Bell's Flats—and Denny headed for his place by the most direct route across the muskeg.
There are things on the Kenai Peninsula Catskinners call Alaskan creeks. The average person doesn't notice them. Catskinners say that is because they are one inch wide and ten feet deep. Denny ran into one. The Cat sank to the top of its tracks, and sat there jiggling, unable to move, as it threatened to sink even farther.
Clovis said that for awhile uncertainties nearly overwhelmed Denny, who just knew he was breaking the Sabbath and didn't know how he could free his Cat, which continued to sit there idling, jiggling, sinking farther into the muskeg.
Denny and Clovis cut every willow and black spruce within two hundred yards of the Cat and shoved them under its tracks to try to keep the Cat from sinking farther. The Cat was a cable blade with a pony motor, meaning the Cat had no hydraulics to force the blade down so it couldn't lift itself with its blade. Plus, the Cat used the gas pony motor to start its diesel motor. The gas motor didn't have a starter but only a crank located behind where the blade was floating as the Cat sank farther. They couldn't again start the Cat if they shut it down, and the vibration of its engine idling continued to cause the Cat to sink into the muskeg.
Denny used the Cat to skid logs which he then milled for his sole source of income. He couldn't afford to lose the Cat, nor his salvation: if a person is convinced that God requires him or her to keep the Sabbath holy, refraining from doing any work on that day from sundown to sundown, and then that person finds, in this case, himself working harder than he ever has to keep from losing a main source of his income, that person will experience doubts about God and about why God is letting this thing happen. He will tell himself this is an ox-in-the-ditch situation that can be forgiven, but he will know that is not the case. This is a situation where he put the ox in that ditch, and he will begin to doubt his sincerity as a Christian. He will have doubts about the wisdom of him pulling that trigger so late Friday afternoon (the bull was a big one, over sixty inches). I know these doubts. I have been there, and Denny told me that he was there.
When Clovis told this story, he laughed and Denny had a red face. It was only a year later when Denny brought that D-4 up to my shop to put in a driveway and parking lot that I heard what he was thinking. Denny said he felt guilt with every chew of every bite of that moose that winter even though he knew the incident was covered by blood.
Traumatic occurrences seldom produce real trials of faith. It is in these little incidents where faith is eroded by those moments of uncertainty, which, like dripping water droplets, wear away at our resolve.
Denny and Clovis worked until dawn getting enough wood under the tracks of Denny's Cat for it to pull itself out of that Alaskan creek. Then they still had the moose to skin and quarter—that moose was both families' winter meat.
Moose were all over Ninilchik the winter we rented Bishop's cabin. At least fifteen were in the little patch of timber right behind the our outhouse.
I had shoveled a path through waist deep snow to the outhouse. One night, when my wife was out there, I heard her scream and I ran outside without stopping to pull on my boots. As hard as she screamed, I thought something or somebody had attacked her.
Those who have lived in snow country will know how difficult it is to keep the swing of a door shoveled free of snow buildup. Before winter is over, doors to outbuildings don't want to close, and sometimes it is easier to live with a door standing ajar than to clean all of the ice out from behind and under it. Such was the case with our outhouse: its door didn't close the last four or five inches. And a moose had stuck her nose into that gap and was checking out what my wife was doing in there.
I saw the moose with her nose in the gap, and I grabbed a five gallon jerry can and threw it at her, hitting her in her ribs. She grunted, then ran around behind the outhouse and looked to see what it was that had hit her. My wife ran for our cabin as fast as she could, and I had to retrieve the toilet seat. I really don't like cold seats.
My wife may have had doubts before about moving so far away from her parents and family, doubts about relocating to the Kenai Peninsula, doubts about my employment, doubts about where we were living, how we would get through the winter, but her doubts were about big issues which she felt comfortable taking to God in prayer. Now, she had doubts about whether she ever again wanted to use the outhouse, a subject she wasn't about to mention in prayer. She had doubts she had to handle, and when daylight came, she chipped away all of the built up ice so the outhouse door would close freely—within two weeks, the door again wouldn't close tight. The snow, though, had settled. Moose could get around easier and were less interested in shoveled walks and plowed roadways. Most of them had moved down onto the Ninilchik River where they were trimming willows.
But my wife's other doubts stayed with her.
I sometimes wish I could write with the self-assuredness of Mom's ancestor who preached the funeral for Mary, Queen of Scots. But we are well enough educated to know to qualify everything we say. Scientific truth has a life of, what, seven years. And with deconstruction, is written communication even possible? We deconstruct our history, our literature, our language, our faith, and we are left to drown in a flood of disconnected signifiers and signifieds, none of which have meaning, making our suffocation equally meaningless. No wonder our local poet remains reluctant to say, This text is finished. As long as he holds it close to his breast, it remains alive, strong and healthy. It grows, matures, like hidden Leaves of Grass.
Writing has become a process, like the growing of Grass but with revision instead of publication its product. We have circled around on ourselves since Jack Kerouac was On the Road.
Too many of us lack faith in our convictions. As was said in an ancient Pogo cartoon, We have opinions because somebody said we should have opinions. We have endured a President still discovering his core convictions (they might all wear stripes), and a Vice President who invented the Internet. We profess faith in a Creator God, then deconstruct and carefully, thoughtfully, emotionally reconstruct the only text that reveals this deity. We questioned whether our military could defeat Iraq. Yes, we did. Then when our military did, we asked them to use safer bullets as they were and are sent to figuratively deliver pizza around the world, a phrase that belongs to Rush Limbaugh.
The popularity of radio personality Rush Limbaugh might have as much to do with him voicing his convictions as to him validating the opinions of his audience. Rush, G. Gordon Liddy, Chuck Harder, Allen Keyes, a few others—all might stand out because they deconstructed their uncertainties instead of their opinions. Perhaps we should send all of them back to college so they, too, can learn writing as process.
I used to sit in that outhouse there at Ninilchik, and wonder if I had made a mistake moving North. We might have been too poor to even collect Food Stamps (a person needs a kitchen) if we would have applied. I was working on a contract for Louisiana-Pacific but not getting paid. I had uncertainties. And they were probably the same ones my wife had. We just dealt with them differently.
There at Ninilchik, we really didn't lack anything: we were given bundles of used clothes for our daughters, who were young enough they didn't mind wearing hand-me-downs. A couple local sawmills had me fall a little timber for them and paid me in cash. A fellow leaving Alaska gave me his eight laying hens. A farmer gave me several hundred pounds of frozen potatoes, enough for both us and the hens … in case a person ever encounters having to eat frozen potatoes, don't let them thaw. Once a frozen potato thaws, it's nasty. But if a person throws the still frozen potato in boiling water, it cooks up okay. Not quite like a potato that has never been frozen, but plenty good enough for mash potatoes or lefse.
Bishop's cabin, when we moved in, was heated with a small pot burner oil stove. By January, working fulltime for Louisiana-Pacific but not getting paid, I couldn't afford to buy heating oil. But I had an almost unlimited supply of dry, bug-killed spruce available to me. All I needed was to acquire a wood stove. I just couldn't afford to buy one. And if there is anything that can cause a person to doubt himself that thing is being in Alaska in January in a cold cabin with a wife and three daughters six years old and under. I truly questioned my ability to provide. I had some of those questions Denny asked.
A commercial fisherman I had met, Bob Clucas, said, "Rusty Hicks has a wood stove in one of his sheds that you can probably get. Why don't you ask him?"
I don't think I have ever admitted to anyone how hard a thing that was. Rusty was a disfellowshipped member of the church to which I belonged. I had never met the man. He then lived three miles up Oil Well Road, and I didn't have a vehicle that ran. But it was twenty-five below zero. We had a little electric milkhouse heater that was keeping the cabin somewhat warm, but we were out of oil and the temperature was falling. It would be forty-one below in the morning.
As I walked up Oil Well Road that night in January, 1975, northern lights out but the wind blowing, cutting through my jacket and jeans, I kept hearing in my mind, almost as if the words were being spoken aloud, If God is for you, who can be against you? I could think of a lot of whos. But the passage kept repeating itself, almost with the regularity of a cadence count as I walked against the wind.
Rusty couldn't have been happier to give, not just loan, me the stove and new stove pipe. He drove me back down Oil Well, and helped me install that stove. He didn't leave until the cabin was warm.
(Could I have applied for welfare? perhaps. But I really didn't need you to support me.)
So yes, I have dealt with uncertainties, mine, my wife's. She never really got over hers. A decade later, following a traffic accident, eleven months of hospitalization, and a six-figure insurance settlement, she took her money and left, leaving me to continue rearing three daughters who then faced their own uncertainties about marriage and divorce, law and grace. If I could preach with the self-assuredness of Mom's ancestor, it would be about divorce. But what can be said about divorce in the deconstructable English of the changing millennium?
Before I sailed for Kodiak in 1979, I had only been to sea in skiffs, and then never out of sight of port. I didn't know what I was doing, didn't know much about the boat I bought, but I was willing to take educated chances. Still as I watched the lights of Homer disappear as I headed for Kodiak, 210 degrees, south by southwest, magnetic, I felt all kinds of uncertainties, ones I again felt when I left Kodiak for Dutch Harbor.
I feel uncertainties about putting forward my words. Who am I to challenge cultural deconstruction? Well, I am that person who walked up Oil Well Road with that phrase in mind, If God is for me, who can be against me? No one. The uncertainty can only be whether God is for me. So exactly a quarter of a century older than on that January night in 1975, I set down words that are my own, but might not be.
Last month I found, in a rumpled paper bag among moth-eaten fly-tying necks in a tin cookie can, those five cast silver fish. They were tarnished, one of them almost black. I don't remember putting them in that bag or in that tin, but I must have. And my doubts about that teenager were unjustified.