The Song Of _____________

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.

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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

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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.

The Day That I Understood “How Falling In Love is Like Owning a Dog”

It was a Wednesday. The air was hot and thick in Fairbanks that summer, and the sun did set but we were never awake to see it.

We had planned to meet at the Fairbanks Animal Shelter that evening. Derek and I had made two other trips there without feeling any certainty about a pet beyond being certainly overwhelmed.

I got there early, and Derek was held up at work. I anxiously sat on a bench chewing my fingernails, watching the clock tick. The shelter closed at 6, and it was 5:15. Finally I couldn’t stand sitting anymore, so I paced around the lobby and then told myself I’d go look at the dogs they had available.

I walked out back to the outdoor cages. As I stepped outside a little black dog in his cage ran to the side nearest where I was and looked right at me. He was the only one who did that. All the other dogs kept barking or running in circles or lying down, but he kept looking at me, his head cocked and ears flopping. I walked over to his cage. Craig. I’d seen him on the website before, but was hesitant because of his husky lineage. He kept looking at me with those big brown eyes, his little tail wagging.

I went back to the lobby and Derek rushed in.

“We have to visit Craig,” I urged him.

I ran to the receptionist and asked if we could do a visit with him. “I’m so sorry. We close at 6, but the visiting hours ended just now at 5:30.” I started to walk away, and then another employee ran up to us.

“Let them visit him!” She said. “She was waiting so patiently for her husband!”

We were ushered into the visiting room where Craig was brought in to meet us. He walked in and promptly placed his chin on my knee, looking right at me again. My heart sunk into a puddle, one that has only been mildly less puddly since then for brief periods of time due to incidents of obstinance.

I looked over at Derek who just nodded. We knew. We also immediately changed his name to Mac, a nod to Macbeth, a favorite Shakespeare play of ours.

I was never really a dog person growing up, and even in college I was afraid of dogs for a while. But once we got married and I realized how much Derek would be gone for Army things I really wanted a companion. Mac is wonderful. He’s not perfect, but he doesn’t need to be.

One of my favorite poets, Taylor Mali, has a poem called “How Falling In Love is Like Owning A Dog.” Here is the full text. This quote finally made sense to me after I made eye contact with the little black dog in the outdoor pen.

Sometimes love just wants to go out for a nice long walk.
Because love loves exercise. It will run you around the block
and leave you panting, breathless. Pull you in different directions
at once, or wind itself around and around you
until you’re all wound up and you cannot move.

Throw things away and love will bring them back,
again, and again, and again.
But most of all, love needs love, lots of it.
And in return, love loves you and never stops.

It has been one year of Mac Minkus, of love loving and never stopping.

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Photo credit: Bailey Crowe.