If There is Only Today

Kevin, sweet­ie –

Over 18 years antic­i­pat­ing your death, brac­ing for it, while near­ly believ­ing the leg­ends of your immor­tal­i­ty. Want­i­ng to believe them. Over 18 years prepar­ing for a loss that, turns out, can’t be pre­pared for at all.

You looked like you were dying when we met. Decem­ber 7, 1999. T & K showed up at my alley win­dow & casu­al­ly report­ed your ill­ness. I was still new to the Ave, bare­ly 21, and didn’t yet under­stand the will-he-make-it-through-this-one-or-won’t-he tightrope that was your per­pet­u­al state of being. Fear still felt urgent. We got to know each oth­er over the next few hours — one of us slumped on the side­walk, the oth­er cajol­ing, then plead­ing. When the cops showed up, you man­aged to get halfway down the block before col­laps­ing. The ER or jail, they said. As EMTs led you to the ambu­lance, you broke away long enough to grab my arm & pull me along with you.

If I’m going, you’re going with me.”

You last­ed about ten min­utes in the exam room before storm­ing out. (The first les­son of many you’d impart: on future ER vis­its, I’d know bet­ter than to pas­sive­ly wait in the lob­by, nego­ti­at­ing access for behind-the-scenes advo­ca­cy.) You spent that night on my apart­ment floor, tucked beneath my grandmother’s crazy quilt. My bound­aries were already shit; what else was there to do with you that cold, wet night?

Over our years of more hos­pi­tal trips, jail vis­its, prison let­ters, ban­daged feet, clean socks, cups of tea, spi­ral-bound note­books, Pepe’s bur­ri­tos, more “Ay, love, can I get a favor?” than I could count, you taught me the ques­tion wasn’t what to do with you, but with all out­liers. Any­one too unpre­dictable, too non-com­pli­ant, too fuck­ing much to be grant­ed food, shel­ter, health care, a toi­let, pri­va­cy, eye con­tact, dig­ni­ty, human recog­ni­tion. Those so deeply wound­ed, car­ry­ing oceans of pain that sys­tems won’t accom­mo­date and the unscathed can’t bear to be near. You taught me to ques­tion my role as a ser­vice provider, to under­stand that, for some, there wasn’t going to be a tran­si­tion­al hous­ing pro­gram or achiev­able end-goal. There would only be today.

(If all I can give is today, am I still worth your time?)

When you stole from me, it was nev­er as much as you could have. When you lied to me, I learned not to get hung up on debat­able details, but to hear what was unspo­ken. None of these lessons were unique­ly mine. Did any­one make it off the Ave with­out dream­ing they might pull you up with them? A clos­et floor, reg­u­lar sleep & meals, a safe place to get clean: wish­ing those things could be enough to bring you peace. Every­one want­ed to be the one to save you. In you, we embraced con­tra­dic­tion: your volatile and pre­car­i­ous well­be­ing; the cer­tain­ty of your hugs. Blue eyes rolling in their sock­ets, one sen­tence flail­ing over the next; off-the-charts smarts. Your irre­press­ible charis­ma. That dark place where it was near­ly impos­si­ble to reach you. You were a flame draw­ing so many of us close, and no flame ever burned brighter than a play­ful Pup­pet, that wild cack­le ric­o­chet­ing down the alley.

You taught me to love with­out agen­da – not in spite of That or in hopes of This; just as you were. Just as you were… A human being who laughed and encour­aged and looked out for, who was gen­er­ous and fun­ny and ruth­less­ly self-aware, fre­quent­ly & bit­ter­ly dis­ap­point­ed by those of us who failed to live up to your fierce loy­al­ty, who hurt oth­ers and hurt your­self more, who lived with unfath­omable pain and self-loathing and some­how, through some mea­sure of resilience I will nev­er com­pre­hend, some­how always kept on liv­ing.

Until you didn’t.

If I could tell you just one thing? It would be I’m sor­ry. I’m sor­ry I let the ocean wash between us, more and more time seep­ing between let­ters until years had passed. And if I could tell you one more thing? It would be thank you. While those social work days are long behind this fish­er­man, I am for­ev­er grate­ful that you pulled me along with you that cold Decem­ber night, into that ambu­lance and on into your life. I would answer the unspo­ken ques­tion you nev­er stopped ask­ing.

(You were, love. You were worth it all.)

But the win­dow for telling you any­thing has closed. All that’s left is this – telling any­one and every­one else, peo­ple who nev­er knew you, who would have crossed the street to avoid you, that your life mat­tered, and your death doesn’t go un-mourned. For this, I wish I could scream as loud as you. It still wouldn’t be loud enough.

So tonight I light a can­dle for you, sweet­ie, and for all who loved you. And that’s the fuck­ing heart­break of it all – there were so, so many more of us than you ever believed. I hope you can believe it now.

Love,
T

 

 

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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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