There’s a little novella by John Steinbeck called The Pearl that I love. I’ve taught it twice, once in Chicago and once here in Alaska. It chronicles the tale of Kino, a poor pearl diver in Mexico, and his small family. The text opens with a moving scene of Kino waking up and kissing his wife and son, and Steinbeck describes “The Song of the Family” welling up around Kino, an invisible music that marks the beauty of simplicity and daily patterns.
When we read this I have my students write their own little songs, identifying daily patterns and routines and writing about them. I always love reading their pieces, whether they be the song of hockey practice, driving to school, eating breakfast, or whatever they want. The idea is that there are songs everywhere, we just need to look.
Kino’s song turns bad quickly, as greed and fear overtake him when he finds a huge pearl worth a lot of money. I think this communicates a false dichotomy I easily buy into: things are either really bad or really good, but never a mix of both.
Lately the song of Alaska right now has been a lot of sad and happy mixed together. It’s been fun weekend trips, saying goodbye to dear friends, visiting home, coming back again and missing Chicago, and starting school, among others. I’m learning that the songs in our lives can be happy and sad, and joy and sorrow can both have a seat at the table.
Last weekend we went to Valdez and we saw a little black bear eating salmon on the side of the highway. It was the end of the salmon run and also near a hatchery. Salmon
swarmed throughout the water, so the bear didn’t have to work very hard to get his snack. I was mesmerized by the sight of the bear happily eating his salmon and plodding around the river. It brought me so much joy, and I marveled at seeing such a beautiful and natural thing.
The Song of the Bear and His Salmon and the Song of Transition Being Confusing can both play at the same time. I think it’s very human to want things to be just happy or just sad, and this season is teaching me that it’s okay to be both. Kino’s song was either happy or sad because of his choices and because his life existed in a novella. But recognizing both songs of joy and sorrow can play together has brought me greater peace. Maybe the both songs playing together is the best place to be.