How We Will Weather This

August:

The Mayday wakes me. The radio volume is low, but it reaches the fo’c’sle. A man, his voice an octave shy of hysteria, yanks me from the bunk, pulling me upstairs.

“There’s a boat one mile off Cape Addington taking on water! It’s a yellow-and-black troller, wood, two people on board. He’s got three or four pumps going in the engine room and a guy bailing in the fish hold.”

“Roger, Captain, can you spell Cape Addington?”

“A – D – D… It’s on Noyes Island!” The engine screams in the background. “He’s gonna need another pump. I can see four anchor lights from here, I know somebody’s got a pump they can give us!”

We’re anchored in the next bay down from Addington. Us, and a small fleet of fellow trollers. I slide into the pilot seat. Rain washes the night, beading the windows. I don’t turn the lights on. There’s nothing to see except the solid red glow of the VHF. I pin my gaze on that light, willing it to pulse with another transmission.

Fishermen often know boats better than we know the people attached to them. All season we slide past each other on the tack, observing, assessing. Judging. Sometimes not knowing the person aboard as anything more than a miniature figure in neon raingear. Our boats represent us by proxy – our boats, and our disembodied voices on the radio. Identities are impressions, forged by boat maintenance, tack behavior, and radio conduct.

Only one boat matches this description. It’s been the bane of the fleet all season, most recently two days ago, when another fisherman got on 16 to call out the yellow-and-black troller that had turned right on top of him. It was a mild scold, little more than a “what’s up with that” rebuke. The response was an explosive diatribe hot and rank, fouling the airwaves. Our knives stilled mid-gutting as we stared at the deck speakers, stunned at the escalation. The initial caller was taken aback, too. “Whatever, man. You troll like a dumbass. And put a fuckin’ name on your boat, too.” Refusing to cede the last word, the young man shot more venom back.

Fishermen always say that we’re there for each other. That if you’re in trouble, it doesn’t matter who you are, what our differences are on land. That on the water, we’re family.

I want to believe that’s true.

We could be alone here, if not for low-slung constellations of neighboring anchor lights winking in and out of view as boats slowly twirl on their tethers, darkness broken only by the red glow of radio silence. I want to reach for the mic, tell the man someone is listening, someone is out here. But my transmission would be nothing more than interference; we don’t have the spare pump he needs. I want to believe that’s the reason for the rest of the family’s silence, too.

So I just sit in the dark and stare at the radio, arms wrapped around my knees pulled into my chest. The position a marine safety instructor taught, one that will preserve your body heat in the water. One that might help keep you alive.

The radio snaps to attention. “I’m almost to him, should be there in another five minutes! I’m gonna raft up to him and see what we can do.”

The Coast Guard asks for further description of the boat in trouble. The screaming engine threatens to drown the man’s wretched reply. “It’s my son.”

 

September:

The weather hits in the night. We’ve spent the run south pushing to stay one step ahead of this gale, only to have it pounce on the midnight shift.

Caught in the ocean’s convulsions, Joel and I go very still. Him at the helm, me alongside, both of us pinch-lipped and vigilant, hyper-alert. We don’t speak, just watch for what’s ahead. Waiting. The autopilot fights to hold its course. Glass jars chatter in the galley. I stormproof the cabin as best I can. Bear the Boat Cat looks uneasy, sitting stiffly beneath the table. I tell Joel I’m going to make sure her safe space below our bunk is clear. I have a bad feeling she’s going to need it.

The fo’c’sle is a disaster. Cabinets flung open, books thrown from the shelf. Margaret Atwood, Ariel Gore, and Neil Gaiman sprawl across the bunk in a disheveled threesome. I’m shoving everything back into place – some place, any place they might hope to stay until the weather comes down – when the world falls out from under me.

“Oh, fuck,” I hear Joel bark. The engine drops to an idle. The Nerka pitches starboard, an abrupt lurch followed by a crash. Not one crash, but the staggered percussion of many heavy things making sudden, artless impact. Flying up the stairs, I brake hard. All five drawers have launched from the pilot seat, hurled across the cabin in brutal disarray. The space beneath the table is a ruin of wrenches, hooks, and knives.

“Bear! Fuck, where’s Bear?”

Gingerly excavating the debris, I release my breath. No crushed cat. I find her under our bunk, eyes like marbles. She must have zipped down, a whisker ahead of the attack. I stroke her rigid body and murmur apologies.

When we trade wheel watches, Joel isn’t in the fo’c’sle five minutes before returning with a scowl. “There’s no way I can sleep down there, the way we’re bucking. I’m just going to rest up here.” He’s too tall for the daybunk but climbs into it anyway, bracing socked feet against the back of my seat.

Bear slinks up the stairs, too. With a wary glance at the replaced drawers, she flattens herself again under the table, appearing at once boneless and tense. The anchor dips, the guts of a wave shattering against sixteenth-of-an-inch window panes. I stand in a hopeless effort to see over the lunging bow. My fingers clench the console.

Someday, from some safe space on the far side of fear, will I reduce this storm in classic fisherman’s understatement, head tilting to shoulder in minimalistic shrug? We took some green water. Will I gaslight myself? Time does that; time, and our future self’s need to whitewash past danger.

Darkness fuels fear. In a world reduced to black night, white foam, green water, you can’t assess conditions as a whole, can’t brace yourself for anything beyond the next toothy wave. For everything I can’t see, there is sound. The river running down the roof. Erratic one-two, one-two notes tweeted like a canary, a cabinet popping open with each up-surge, closing as we slam back down. The violence of water hitting the hull just so – a resounding smack that, no matter how often I hear it and assure myself it’s just water, it’s just water, always makes me jump. Reflexively, I conduct a mental tour of our safety gear.

I think back to the beginning of our season, when the Nerka first headed out to the Fairweather Grounds. It was so easy to trust the ocean when tucking into that cheerful blue, taking at face value the snake-oil promises of a calm day. So easy to imagine myself unafraid on the water. That was a lie. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m afraid on the water as I’m afraid of the instant when everything changes – the moment you don’t see coming, when you suddenly feel yourself falling from shitty into very, very bad. The moment you realize you’re in trouble is the moment too late; there’s no turning back or avoiding what now is. There’s only the question of how you will respond, and if your response will make a difference.

 

Today:

I’ve been back on land for months. Yet I’m still hugging my knees to my chest, staring at a solid red glow, waiting for someone to break the radio silence. I’m still clenching the wheel, watching green water shatter against the windows, praying they’ll hold, bracing for the next hit. The landscape has changed. It shifts and tumbles, every day newly precarious. I review our safety gear, sometimes wondering if it’s time to grab the go-bag. Wondering, if so, where there is to go.

The yellow-and-black troller survived that August night. Family came through, other boats stepping up to share pumps. And Joel, Bear, and I made it though our night, too; the weather broke with dawn, washing us limp and stunned into a new day. Thinking back to those nights and others, times my heart lodged hardest in my throat, I realize it’s less a matter of going, more about getting through. The ocean gives us everything we need to do this. Resolve; Vigilance. Endurance; Solidarity. Hope. Love.

So I’ll be here, standing by the radio, hands steady on the wheel. I’ll keep going, trusting that even when I feel alone charging into dark, storm-tossed nights, dawn will come. Trusting you’re out here with me – and you, and you, and you – and you’ll do the same. In this way, together, we will weather this.

 

 

 

 

I wrote this in January 2017,  for Oregon’s FisherPoets Gathering. Gratitude to Cirque for publishing it in their Summer 2017 issue, Vol 8, No. 2. Revisiting it now, in November 2017, the words feel like they were written by someone else, someone stronger and more optimistic than I currently am.  Maybe you are that someone? If so, please share this wheel watch with me; tell me how to be a person who trusts in the dawn.

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Gearing Up for the 20th Annual FisherPoets!

We’re less than a week away from Oregon’s annual FisherPoets Gathering, friends! The highlight of our winter, FisherPoets is always special – this one especially so, as we celebrate the 20th year of commercial fishing women and men from across the country (and one from Belgium!) uniting to share stories, poems, and songs celebrating our industry.

I usually try to share something about FisherPoets here, wanting to convey the magic, wanting to lure you to join us. This year, fellow FisherPoet (and gifted writer, mentor, and beloved friend) Pat Dixon has written such a perfect explanation, I’d rather just send you to straight to his words. If you’ve been undecided about making the trip or wonder what this “FisherPoet” business is, anyway, please read Pat’s personal invitation.

What I’ll say is this: those of you able to join us in person in Astoria this Friday – Sunday, February 24 – 26, please do say hi if we’re in the same venue. But if you can’t make the trip? Some of us will come to you! Make a date to enjoy readings from the comfort of your home, thanks to Coast Community Radio’s generous support.

Coast Community Radio will broadcast from the Astoria Events Center on both nights, Friday and Saturday, Feb 24-25, from 6:00-10:00pm PST. Tune in to live-stream the following FisherPoets’ performances:

Astoria Event Center, Friday, February 24
MCs Jon Broderick and Jay Speakman

5 Curt Olson and Abigail Martin, Broadus MT
Danny Keyser, Astoria OR
Annie Howell-Adams, Friday Harbor WA

6 Ryan and Kyle Lutz, Portland OR
Pat Dixon, Olympia WA
Phil Lansing, Boise ID

7 John Palmes, Juneau AK
Billie Delaney, Port Townsend WA
Kirk Lombard, San Francisco CA

8 Jon Broderick, Cannon Beach OR and Jay Speakman, Gearhart OR
Wilfred Wilson, Delta BC
RK and Cherry Rice, Long Beach WA

9 The Brownsmead Flats, Astoria OR
Tom Hilton, Astoria OR
Don Pugh, Snohomish WA
Erin Fristad, Port Townsend WA

Astoria Event Center, Saturday, February 25
MCs Rob Seitz and Tele Aadsen

5 Toby Sullivan, Kodiak AK
Mary Jacobs, Ophir OR
Moe Bowstern, Portland OR

6 Hobe Kytr, Astoria OR
Geno Leech, Chinook WA
Wayne Chimenti, Port Townsend WA

7 Rob Seitz, Los Osos CA
Vicki Horton, Port Townsend WA
Alana Kansaka-Sarmiento, Portland OR

8 Doug Rhodes, Craig AK
Mary Garvey, Seaview WA
Steve Schoonmaker, Kasilof AK

9 Mariah Warren, Sitka AK
Rich King, Kilauea HI
Tele Aadsen, Bellingham WA
John Haggerty, Seaside OR

 

Hope to see you there, friends.

 

 

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Making Change

 

I was fourteen years old when a man grabbed me by the pussy.

We were in the checkout line of our Pacific Northwest town’s Payless drugstore. It was early evening, one week before Valentine’s Day, and I was buying a cassette tape as a gift for my best friend. (The Thelma & Louise soundtrack. Seriously.) My parents were waiting in the car. I’d stepped up to the cashier when a hand squeezed my ass.

I was not raised to fight for myself or others. My family consisted of three isolated people who neatly sidestepped not only conflict but engagement of any kind. I knew neither fight nor flight; I knew only to cringe into my body like a potato bug. To make myself disappear.

The man circled me. He cupped the front of my jeans, slid his fingers against my vulva, and squeezed. We were alone in the checkout lines – alone with the two women working the cash registers, alone with my frozen feet and pounding heart. No one spoke. I remained paralyzed. He released his hold on his own time, sauntering out of the store on his own terms. Change broke the silence. Coins clattered against the counter as I paid for the tape, never making eye contact with the cashier. I forced numb legs to step through the sliding doors, into the darkness where he might be waiting, and slid silently into the backseat of the Datsun. I didn’t say anything to my parents.

At fourteen, my ugly duckling childhood was barely a year behind me. The transition happened so unexpectedly and without warning, I didn’t yet understand the distinction between attraction and abuse. I didn’t understand unwanted advances weren’t about me, but power and predation – the flexing of rape culture’s muscle. I thought it was my fault that grown men suddenly evaluated me in a way they hadn’t before, openly, as their right. Some I’d known as family friends: the elder fisherman having coffee with my mom on our boat, who, when I described having “worked my ass off,” was quick to correct me, “It’s still there – I noticed!” Others, like the man in the drugstore, were strangers.

Several weeks later, my mom reeled back when I came downstairs one morning. “What happened to you?” she gasped, grabbing my chin and forcing my face up. “Who did this to you?”

I didn’t want to tell her. To acknowledge the long red wounds where I’d dug my fingernails into flesh and pulled, as if in opening skin I could open a door to step back in time, back to a time when I hadn’t felt men’s roaming eyes and hands… That was an exchange too intimate for our family. But she persisted. Finally I confessed, “I didn’t want to be pretty anymore.”

Twenty-five years later, I still see her face crumpling, falling under the weight of grief she didn’t have words for, outrage she’d never been allowed to express.

 

 

My mom.

My mom and I exist at arm’s length. We subsist on three-minute phone calls and occasional visits where stilted conversation clings to such banal topics as the weather and her friends’ health woes. Avoidance of anything more substantial is by mutual, unspoken agreement. I broke that agreement only once, when, exasperated, I named the tension between us, saying the time we spent together couldn’t be fun for her.

“This is fun for me,” she insisted. She just wanted to show me her gardens and have tea together, she said. “I’m not going to talk to you about politics or sex or religion! You don’t have any idea who I am.”

She wasn’t wrong. But she wasn’t entirely right, either. I know pieces of my mom, pieces I carry like coins in my pocket.

Born in 1942, she was her parents’ first child. When her brother was born four years later, her mother told her how relieved she was to have had a son. Boys were better than girls, she explained.

While all boys were better than any girl, my mom learned over the course of her childhood that individual girls merited varying degrees of value. She learned that she, a studious, quiet type, was the wrong kind of girl. Her mother told her so, wondering aloud why she couldn’t be more like the pretty, vivacious girl next door.

My mom didn’t pass that cruel measuring stick on to her only child. Instead my inheritance consists of stories and observations jangling against each other. She was one of three women in her veterinary program at Cornell University. One of few female skippers in Southeast Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery, and the only one with a teenaged daughter as her crew. She spent her sixties as the only woman on her team at an oil refinery. Though she refused to apply a feminist frame to her achievements, that was how I viewed her. My pockets sag with gold, a coin for every powerful memory.

They aren’t all gold. Other memories are pennies, pitted and green with corrosion.

One. We stand side-by-side, inspecting make-up in a drugstore. It’s the same Payless that will soon teach me the dangers of my femaleness, but today’s only lesson is a 50-year old woman turning to her 13-year old daughter, asking if a particular shade of eye shadow will help her look pretty.

Two. I am working at a truck shop across from her house. I am the only female on the shop floor, other than those spread-eagled across the walls. When I come home broken from a particularly hard day – when the n-word is used to describe Dr. King; when a staff meeting includes blasting a left-leaning local woman as an anti-war cunt; when my boss gestures to one of the posters and says he’d like to see me in that little black number – she waves a hand in discomfiture. “Oh, well…” She changes the subject.

Three. I perch on the edge of a chair at her dining room table. She’s urged me to come for dinner – “Won’t that be fun?” I’m watching her offer to cut a man’s steak. He’s had a seat at her table for the past twenty years, whenever the mood suits him, and is accustomed to being the center of her attention. Tonight he makes loud observations about the slice of cake on her plate and which parts of her body the calories will settle upon. I counter that she’s an adult and can eat whatever she chooses, but the defense is lost beneath the sound of my mom laughing at his “joke,” the sound of my mom agreeing, “I know, Bud, you’re right.”

Four, five, six. I watch my first and most defining female role model, the most capable and strongest woman I’ve known, bow to men unworthy of her, unavailable and withholding. I watch her opinions take on the shape of those of the men around her. I watch her make pieces of herself disappear.

 

 

This September, I returned from five months at sea. My mom was eager for me to visit, to see the improvements she’d made around her place. “I think you’ll be really pleased!” She yearns for my approval. In this way, I have been no better than the men she’s surrounded herself with: unable or unwilling to give what she seeks.

Driving into her rural neighborhood, I wasn’t surprised to see my old employer had erected a Trump sign in front of the truck shop, just rolled my eyes. But the mirror image reflected across the street stunned me. I’d never known my mom to reveal her political preferences; she avoids at all cost conversation that might be controversial.

Staring at the sign jabbed in my mom’s yard, I felt the way I imagine she once did, seeing her fourteen-year old daughter’s self-hate etched into her skin. Horrified, helpless. Heartbroken. Both of us so far beyond each other’s reach.

What happened to you? Who did this to you?

 

 

If I could, this is what I would do. I would pull out my pockets, gather those gold coins and melt them down. One woman’s value: absolute, unmistakable. I’d draw back a fist to hurl the corroded pennies away – down a wishing well, maybe, drowning those images of subjugation – but would stay my hand at the last second, understanding just in time that pain is its own kind of protection. Into the flames the pennies would go.

After the smoke cleared, I’d place a breathtaking swirl of metal, a shield of unique sturdiness and heft, into my mom’s hands. No one would ever reduce it to “pretty.” With that shield I would give her anger and grief, the certainty to refute anyone’s assessments of her body, her mind, her self-worth. I’d give her emotions we have never known how to exchange – confidence, joy. Trust. I would pass on to her every survival tool she wasn’t able to give me. I’d give her everything she never received herself.

But that’s a kind of change I don’t know how to make.

So I draw upon what I have: my vote. I vote as if my ballot might take back every time we laughed at our own expense, held ourselves responsible for a man’s behavior, blamed our bodies as the offender, changed the subject rather than the narrative. Every time we made ourselves small. My mom and I may never learn how to be whole and visible to each other. Still, even if we just cancel each other out, I vote as if we might yet share a safer, more equitable world.

 

 

[Gratitude to Dawn Quyle Landau for originally publishing this essay as a guest post on her blog, Tales From the Motherland, on November 6, 2016. It bears re-posting here, today, as an oath to refuse to normalize what is decidedly not. I’ll see you in the streets tomorrow, dear ones, and over the days to follow. May we resist and rise together.)

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