To The Stars

It is getting dark again. I was gone in Chicago for a few days at the beginning of the month and I came back and it seemed all the daylight had fled in those few short days. Some days it is hard to wake up knowing that daylight is fleeting, and even harder when you know each day you lose a few precious seconds.

I took Latin in high school. I was not very good at it, but I loved that the ancient language felt like unlocking a mystery. Each new word I learned had somehow evolved and changed until it became a word we use today. For example, “video” means “I see.”

My senior year of high school I somehow stumbled upon a phrase that is also the state motto of Kansas, “ad astra per aspera.” Aside from being beautifully alliterative and poetic in sound, the meaning is even richer: to the stars, through difficulty.


Seeing the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) was never a huge bucket list item of mine. They were a bit of an afterthought to me, until one morning during our first winter when I was headed out to school I looked up and saw a purple and green line slowly moving through the sky in a dream-like trance. A few more sightings of the elusive lights drew me more and more to them. I liked that they were unpredictable and showed up on their own terms. More accurately, they were always there, but their visibility was a matter uncontrollable to man. The Aurora is only visible in darkness, and the darkness increases your chances of seeing it.

Darkness and difficulty are fickle friends who often don’t feel like friends at all. But they also bring us to the stars. If I weren’t willing to bundle up and stand on my porch in -30 F temperatures I’d never know the living poem of the Aurora lighting up the sky.

Through difficulty, yes — but, to the stars. To the stars.

The Marathon That Wasn’t

Last November I signed up to run a marathon in August. If I talked to you in person at some point between those months, I’m sure I mentioned it. I was so excited. I realized that in order to have motivation to exercise through the Alaska winter I needed a goal. Building a base for the marathon was exactly what I needed.

I love running. I love its simplicity, poetry, and how much it teaches me. I had never completed a full marathon before, but the marathon intrigued me. I felt curious about the distance, and wanted to see what it would be like to do a buildup and then run a marathon.

I worked really hard at building my base over the winter logging miles on the treadmill, and thinking how wonderful it would be to finally run outdoors and see the sunlight. The first day that the snow had melted enough on the track I did a little happy dance. I ran the first track workout I’d done in years, and I loved it. Marathon training made me so happy. I loved the long runs, the track workouts, all of it. I researched and stretched and foam rolled and ice bathed and did all the things.

And then one day in June my knee started to ache a little. I thought nothing of it, but skipped my long run that week. The pain persisted. After some time icing and ibuprofen didn’t seem to help I saw a doctor. Throughout weeks of trying to cross train and take care of myself it didn’t get better. I suddenly realized that my dream was fading. Maybe a better word would be deferred, to steal from the iconic poet Langston Hughes.

I realized that if I truly believed that my body is God’s and I want to honor him with it I couldn’t in good conscience continue trying to push myself to do the race. My body was telling me it wasn’t ready, and I had to listen. I had to scratch. After I scratched I felt really mad that I had wasted all my training. I put hours of work, research, and rehab into training, only to not accomplish my end goal.Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

One of my favorite authors, Amy Krause Rosenthal, talks about “Plan Be”, existing only in the present. I love that. It redeems Plan B from a second choice to the best possible choice. It asks, what do I have now that I can rejoice in? So my marathon Plan Be was to take the lessons marathon training taught me and hold them. I learned about endurance, rest, and being kind to myself. Those lessons will always be there. The marathon ended up giving me a lot more than I could have expected, and I didn’t even run it.

That thing that you worked and hoped for, putting in lots of hours, only to see it pass without fruition? It mattered, and it still matters. You’re not a failure if you don’t end up accomplishing the goal you worked towards. Sometimes you just have to work a little to find Plan Be.

The Song Of _____________

There’s a little novella by John Steinbeck calledĀ The PearlĀ 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


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.