"Peaceful journeys, Whale. You fill us with awe, even in death."
I've lived in Alaska for 16 years, almost half that time with children. I know how this place has shaped me, but I have no life comparison for them. The North is all they've ever known.
"If I was younger, I'd probably be crying right now."
Astrid, age 7
Earlier this summer, I got it in my head that my daughter and I needed to slog through some workbooks to bolster her reading and writing skills. One of the first worksheets -- a "which-one-of-these-items-doesn't-belong-in-this-list" affair -- featured an illustration of a bear rolling out his sleeping bag at the top of the page. A wilderness theme, logically.
So, which item doesn't belong?
fire, candle, radio, flashlight.
She chose "candle."
According to the test creators, my daughter's answer to question #1 would've been wrong.
But her logic was this: "I'd need the fire to stay warm, the flashlight to see in the dark, and the radio so I could call for help."
Ah yes. That kind of radio.
Hers was the answer that would keep her -- maybe even us -- alive.
This morning we hiked a mile downhill to a beached humpback whale lodged at the edge of Kincaid Park in Anchorage. I've written about finding things on beaches before, mostly in Prince William Sound and sometimes elsewhere, but we didn't stumble upon this morning's find; we traveled to the whale with intention.
My son, age 10, had a theory as to why the whale's side had split open, spilling guts into the silt.
"It's probably all the gases expanding. Like that one time when you put the red lid on the sourdough batter and it blew right off."
Their filter for the world is connected to their sense of place.
You are probably wondering what kind of olfactory experience that whale was, and the four of us can say, for the rest of our lives, with authority: "Smells like a long dead whale." Now we know.
There are times when I ask myself why we would ever choose to live here. Why, as an architect and an artist, my husband and I aren't willing to return to an urban hub, to a different kind of exposure or set of opportunities in some other place, one not so remote.
I wonder, why at one time we turned our backs on just such a place and walked so far away.
Without the naivety of the first lesson -- the false assuredness, the bumbling, the sliding -- the second lessons are different. After you've learned from something, you'll never experience it the same way twice.
Maybe the deeper lesson is knowing you don't want to.