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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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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The “Me” Within “We”: Soliciting Stories

Last June, my editor’s response to Draft #2 arrived on our doorstep just as we were preparing to head north. If there can be a good time or place to face the fact that your book needs major revisions, I found mine in the Nerka’s pilot seat, alone on my wheel watches while Joel slept, the promise of Alaska ahead. My manuscript was heavy in my lap as, removed from the world within this pocket of suspended time, I read it from beginning to end. All 323 pages, many of the margins dark with penciled edits. Then I read it again. Comments that stung the first time through merited contemplation on the second. By the third read, I agreed with most of them.

When we arrived in Sitka, I reunited with my friend Mary. She, like too many people in my transient life, is someone I’d like to share more time with. I suspect we’d uncover much common ground, given the opportunity, but abbreviated shore leave has limited us to Facebook exchanges and parking lot huddles. And to this moment, two women stepping out of a cluster of male captains to nurture a seasonal connection on a bustling dock.

She asked how my book was going. I told her what I’d just realized, seeing through my editor’s eyes: I’d lost my hold on the story.

“I wandered over here,” I flapped my right hand toward the breakwater, “into issues of sex and monogamy and fidelity. But that wasn’t the core narrative.

“It’s here,” palms together, heart-center, “in the tension of being together and separate. The struggle to maintain your identity as a strong, independent person, while in partnership with someone else. Being dependent on each other while staying true to the person you want to be, all within the confines of a boat. What that looks like.”

Bobbing her head, Mary’s eyes grew shiny. “Yes, yes – oh my god, yes!”

That affirmative response was a gift. She was the first person I shared this renewed direction with, and her enthusiasm helped me trust I was on the right track. That I could wrestle the narrative back to where it needed to be, and that this tension between self and couple was the point of connection between author and reader. It was the place where my story could become bigger than myself.

 

IMG_2747

 

I don’t write on the boat. I’m on deck working eighteen, seventeen, fifteen hours a day, for weeks at a time. In the cabin, Joel and I are always within six feet of each other. Our town time is chore-focused, rushing through tasks to get back out as soon as possible. If bad weather grants us an unexpected day off, I just want to sleep. (I am so, so fortunate that Riverhead gets this. In gracious deadlines and tolerance for an author who’s incommunicado for months, my editor has demonstrated her value of my fishing life and this book.)

I don’t write on the boat, but I do think about writing. My friend Andrea says this counts. She calls this mulling over character development, metaphor, and just-right sentences “composting,” and says it’s an essential part of the writing process. I agree. I spent a lot of time composting this summer, thinking about that dockside conversation. Surely Mary and I couldn’t be alone in our experience of doing work we loved, with the person we loved, knowing the wondrous fortune of our lives – and still nursing a quiet fear that we sacrificed some essential part of our self along the way.

Were there more of us?

I put a card in the mail to a woman I love and respect, someone who was once in the same boat as my friend and me, having gone to sea with her male partner many years earlier. Joni began fishing in the 1960s. I asked how it had been for her, what she recalled of that experience, what it meant to her now.

When her response arrived a month later, I didn’t read it. I wanted to wait for a quiet, solitary space, a time when I could give her words my full attention. Space and time: the two things that don’t exist on the boat. It was only within the past few days that I finally opened her email. I’m still trying to pick myself up off the floor, so moved by the generosity with which she gave her story.

Joni’s story is not mine to share – and yet, her story is mine. You know how the cliché goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Together, we span six decades in fishing. I think about how the harbors have changed – more female deckhands, more couples running boats together, more women running their own boats – and then I hear a voice in my head, whispering questions of identity, belonging, invisibility. And I can’t tell whether it’s Joni’s voice speaking, or my own.

 

Sunset Through Hawsehole

 

This is why I read and write memoir: because I want to light these places we don’t often reveal to each other. Vulnerabilities we mask, doubts we’re not supposed to acknowledge. In placing a higher virtue on silence than on trust, we commit to our own alienation. We build our walls higher, failing to see that the experiences that leave us feeling isolated are the very ones with the power to bring us together. I tell my story because I want to know yours.

My hunch is that this issue isn’t only a women-on-boats struggle. For many of us, the challenge to preserve some sense of “me” amongst a “we” is simply an effect of growing up as a girl-child in America, socialized from Day One to put ourselves second. So I wonder if this speaks to you, and if it does, how you’ve navigated the tension between self-identity and partnership. What the rewards and sacrifices have been. If your definitions of “reward” and “sacrifice” have changed over time.

And I wonder, too, what these questions bring up for Hooked’s male-identified readers. Many of you originally started following this blog for the fish stories; that you’ve stayed through meditations on gender and self-identity means a lot to me. You’re infused with cultural expectations different from those I grew up with  – different; no less powerful. I wonder what you identify as the leading messages of your life, how you internalized them, and how those messages have impacted your life and relationships.

While I searched for the right thought to close this post, yet another inspiring woman from the fleet provided the words I was looking for. Thank you, Erin, for sharing this quote right when I needed to hear it.

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . “

— Frederick Buechner (Telling Secrets)

 

I’m asking big questions at a busy time, friends. Hooked’s FINAL final manuscript is due this December. Between revisions and managing all our own fish marketing for the first time, I’m out-of-my-head swamped. Forgive my belated response to the conversation. Trust that I’m reading – I hear you – and I’m grateful to know you. Love and appreciation to all. 

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Fear, Art, and Love in the Canadian Rockies

Head down, I watch my snow boots creep across the lake, one shuffle-step at a time. Joel doesn’t shuffle. He hustles, hunched beneath his camera bag as he rushes for a distant spot of blue. Ice wiped clean by the wind: the perfect frame to lead into the fast-approaching sunset. It’s negative three degrees. As I murmur into the scarf swathing my face, words form frosty pellets in the fibers. I can do this. I can do this. A chant intended for my ears only, the lake responds. Bu-BUM. A deep drum beat, issued from somewhere far below. A heartbeat, so much steadier than my own.

A half-mile east, tents and propane heaters dot the lake as ice fishermen jig for trout. Two of them, John and Ymir, assured me the ice is safe – eleven inches thick. My fear isn’t rational, yet it’s real. Every step terrifies me. I follow every step with another.

 

We’re ending 2014 with a five day road trip in the Canadian Rockies. Joel comes up here every winter. It’s a sacred place for him; he sang Hozier’s Take Me to Church as we drove the Icefields Parkway. This is the first time I’ve joined him. There’s always been some reason not to: busy writing Hooked’s proposal, busy writing the first draft, busy. I’ve always sent him off with a kiss and wishes to be safe, get some good shots.

Now that I’m finally here with him, I’m learning that “be safe” and “get some good shots” aren’t necessarily compatible goals, and we have differing perceptions of risk. We spent our first afternoon scouting sunset in a mountain-bordered meadow outside of Jasper. Joel crashed through tessellations of creeks without hesitation. I cringed at every crack.

That night, I didn’t keep walking. I dug my heels into a tuffet of trustworthy earth, unwilling to go any farther, and waved him on. The tree-line on the far side of the field welcomed him with boughs extended, holding the day’s remaining light in green arms full of snow. Backlit, he appeared dark, an impression of impermeability that was as misleading as the sun dog we’d seen earlier in the day. Joel is transparent. He’d wanted so much to share his beloved mountains with me, secretly hoping their spirit would move me as it does him, that wonder and joy would surpass anxiety and discomfort. That I would make his faith my own. Instead we watched the sunset from separate viewpoints – Joel crouched behind his camera at his chosen composition, me pacing a labyrinth of uncomfortable questions. Where are the lines between being there for the person you love, and being there for yourself? Expanding your comfort zones, and honoring your boundaries? By the time the last embers of color had faded from the peaks above, I’d stomped a hollow of answers into the snow. I couldn’t read any of them.

Back in Jasper, we talked about our differing reactions to the outing. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Joel. The landscape photographers he most admires all work alone in remote settings, exploring the fringes of the day by headlamp. My fear baffled him. “They were just little streams; the worst that could happen is you’d get a wet foot.” He wondered aloud if there’s anything I love that scares him. If there’s anything I chase the way he chases photos – charging onward to a destination known only to me, unfazed, while he wonders why I would possibly choose to do such a thing. Why I would need to.

Three days later, I am still hearing my response, a steadying echo behind this lake’s heartbeat and my own. Writing. I believe in stories like Joel believes in mountains: leaning on them, grateful to have found one thing solid enough to hold me up. It wasn’t a surprising answer, nor was it what Joel had meant. He’d been looking for a physical parallel, like the way he delights in scampering steep ridges and I definitively do not. But it was a true answer, and like a bone glinting in a wound, the trueness of it mesmerized me. It has dogged my heels through every pre-dawn hike and hillside scramble in the days since, and now, shuffle-stepping my way across this eleven inch ice on a meditation of art, fear, and love.

Joel and I are both artists. Whether by image or by words, we both have a need to capture and share our experiences of the world around us. But there’s a difference between his art and mine, and it’s as significant as the difference between eleven inches and one. Joel suggests I sit these missions out. Knowing where his next shoot will take him – knowing how I’ll react – he says sleep in, stay in the motel, we’ll meet up in a coffee shop after. I shake my head, unwilling to accept kindness I can’t return. As a memoirist, I tread across ice far less stable than this. I agree to be vulnerable, risking exposure, judgment, shame, for the relief of an honest, scary sentence – and in doing so, I yank my loved ones onto the ice with me. My art doesn’t include an opt-out. That’s why I’m still walking. Knowing the privilege of the option to turn back, I force myself to go on.

Dragging my gaze up from my boots, I study my sweetheart. He’s a charcoal log in the distance, shooting low, lying on his belly to peer through the viewfinder. He can hold this position for hours. Never complaining about the cold, never losing patience. Fully engaged with his art and himself. Leaving renewed, soul-fed, even if he doesn’t end up with a great shot. This is how I want to know my partner, even when I don’t understand what he does. Even when it scares me.

He’s spent the past few years teaching me how to know him this way. My writing has scared him. He doesn’t always understand the places I’m willing to go – the places I feel I have to go. But he’s never suggested I not write. He’s stood by my art, knowing my decision to expose my life means exposing his.

 

The sun fizzles without any of the flamboyance Joel had hoped for. He packs away his camera and folds up his tripod, and together we walk back to the shore. We talk about what a beautiful evening it was anyway, and how eager we are for dinner at the brewery next to our motel. My body moves more agreeably, heading towards land.

We’ve just gotten back to the car when Joel notices a purple edge scalloping the western horizon. “Oh, shit. Is that going to spread?” He stares, waiting to see if the ribbon will unfurl, and glances back to the ice.

“Go.” I prod him. “You have to go.”

Cursing himself for having left his spot too soon, he tears back down the snowy slope and across the lake. This time I stay on the bank, and I watch with a smile.

 

Joel Brady-Power, Vermillion Lakes

 

To see some of the shots Joel got from this trip, visit Joel Brady-Power/500px and Joel Brady-Power Photography

 

 

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Being Female: An Unwelcome Reminder

When the Kathleen Jo pulls out of her stall at noon, I am there to see them off. My five year old shipmate waves wildly through the starboard window. As soon as they turn the corner, I begin the trek to my new home, eager to get settled in a private writing space. Mike’s sailboat lives in the neighboring harbor, the first harbor I called home as a child but have rarely visited since. It’s a panting raven kind of day, corvids parked in the dusty lot with their beaks hanging open, oil-slick feathers radiating heat. I stroll down the main float with sunburned shoulders and a broad smile.

A smile that freezes as two men approach me.

I know these men. Sammy, a golden can of Coors clutched in his hand, worked at a local business until drinking cost him his job. The other is Carl, a man I crewed with a lifetime ago, then re-encountered last summer. A man who’d expected that sex would be part of the package, working with a woman.

Both men move toward me with the ursine lumber of the wasted. Maybe it’s freshly achieved today, maybe it’s the result of lifetime pickling; I can’t tell and it doesn’t matter. Their blurry gazes sharpen.

If you’re a woman reading this, you and I know how to do the same math. With a single sweeping glance, we can measure a sidewalk, dividing width by threat. Where am I? What time of day? Anyone else in sight? The research that says female students test lower in mathematics doesn’t consider our aptitude for equations like this. Painfully practiced, we’re at the top of the class.

Here, though, standard calculations don’t apply. A dock is not a sidewalk. Crossing the street is not an option. The water I usually look upon as a friend is now an oppressor.

This harbor’s wooden walkway is generous. There’s ample room for two people to pass comfortably if both follow the rules of personal space. But this equation involves three people, two of them, one of me, and Carl is not following the rules.

I step to my right, hugging the far side.

Carl steps to his left.

I veer to my left. No. Not that way – don’t put yourself between them. I overcorrect back to the right.

Again, Carl mirrors me.

In another place, using different math, this awkward step-shuffle-step would make me laugh. “Go ahead!” I’d grin, and my accidental dance partner would sweep their arm out, “No, please, you!” Here, I am not laughing. Here, Carl stands before me, blocking my path.

His voice is raspy, words spilling quick and loud. He asks if I know Sammy. “I been telling him how I worked with you when you were just 20 – goddamn, that was 15 years ago! – and I gotta tell ya, Tele, I do a lot of crazy shit, but I never meant to disrespect you. You know, like when I got you that T-shirt from Rosie’s?”

An Alaskan legend, Rose’s Bar sells clothes emblazoned with her red-hot ink urging, “Take Your Pants Off… Let’s Have a Party!”

My words step out slow, several pitches lower than usual and balanced on the center of my tongue; they are careful not to rock this boat. I tell Carl no worries, dude, I don’t even remember, and it’s true. I don’t remember anything about that season, other than how it ended.

Sammy tugs Carl’s arm. “C’mon, man, let’s go. Let her walk.”

I wonder if Sammy is perhaps not as drunk as I’d thought. I wonder how far I can count on him, a man so slightly built he could practically fit in the pocket of Carl’s Hawaiian shirt. I wonder why I’m looking to a man for an ally.

Carl shakes loose. “Nah, man, I’m talkin’ to her! I got important things to say.”

His eyes are overly intent on mine, shining too bright, as he admires my tattoos and claps my shoulder. Skin, burning skin. I will myself to become part of the dock’s weathered wood, to hold his gaze, hold my center. To not flinch.

Sammy prods Carl again. In his distraction, there opens a window. I move around him, circling wide as the dock allows.

The cool dismissal tossed over my shoulder is remarkable in its nonchalance, but a new self-consciousness pilots my feet. Approaching the sailboat that had been such cause for excitement, all I see now is its isolation. I take care to memorize the stall number. I make a show of knocking on the hull, pausing for an imagined invitation to come aboard. I open the door with warm chatter, as if my friend is waiting inside, not headed out on his first longline trip. Not gone for the next six days.

Stop it, sweetie – don’t go down that road. Don’t feed your energy into those scenarios.

I am suddenly very aware that there isn’t a good way to lock the sailboat from the inside.

*****

On my last trip on the Kathleen Jo, we caught 4000 pounds of halibut one day. Jeff mock-complained that he and his male deckhand had once put in a 9000 pound day. I teased him over our rockfish tacos. “Sorry we didn’t get more, Jefe. Must be my vagina.” He ducked his head, blushing bright. The next day, struggling to heave a 75 pound halibut onto the hatch, I cursed, “Dammit – if only I had a penis!” His wife and I delighted in teaming up on our captain, who wished he’d never said a word.

With these friends to whom I have nothing to prove, gender shrank to a joke we lobbed across the deck. Beyond our 53-foot sanctuary, it swelled into a grenade.

Tick tick tick… The captain whose black cod I helped unload, observing, “You’re sure pretty for this kinda work.”

Tick tick tick… The man on the VHF radio snarling that another fisherman had yelled at him on the drag. His outrage wasn’t over the exchange itself, but that it’d been “by a fuckin’ woman!”

BOOM. The commercial fishermen slapping bumper stickers on pick-ups, vowing that they’d rather have a daughter in a whorehouse than a son on a charter boat.

Dodging the shrapnel of encounters like these, I wonder how a person can find her greatest love and truest identity in a world that consistently says she doesn’t belong. How can I saunter these docks with more confidence, more certainty in who I am and my authority to be here, than anywhere else I’ve known?

Gender doesn’t matter here. That’s the party line. Men and women alike insist, “It’s about whoever can do the work.” Growing up fishing, it was easy to internalize that refrain – even when I knew better. The value of all things – all people – existed in their relationship to masculinity.

At 21, I crewed for a captain who, in more than 30 years at sea, had hired one other female deckhand. When I peeked into his logbook at the end of our first day, blue scrawl assured me I was “a fine hand, as good as or better than any man.”

Male was the yardstick, and I was determined to measure up. I drank the Kool-Aid: disparaging femininity, mimicking masculinity, unconsciously promoting the toxic thinking that constructed these binaries in the first place. Believing that “one of the guys” was the best me that I could hope to be.

Of course that was a lie. But it was a lie I inhabited enough for my own conviction. Even if the surrounding fishermen knew better, they allowed the illusion. Theirs was a gift of omission, wrapped in affection.

Carl shattered that illusion when I saw myself as he saw me: not as a crewmate, but an obligatory sex partner. Fifteen years later, he’d done it again. In cornering me on the dock, Carl effectively cracked that measuring stick over his knee and tossed it into the drink. He forced me to remember that in a culture where gender, power, and violence are all connected, even the strongest fisherman’s vulnerability is never as distant as she’d like to imagine.

*****

Stepping off Mike’s sailboat and calling goodbye to the no one inside, I skulk back up the dock. The sun still shines. In the parking lot, the ravens still sit with their beaks agape. As if they can’t believe what they’ve seen. As if they don’t recognize me.

I feel the same way.

 

 

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Fishing Green: Last Season Aboard the Nerka

There’s something about last summer that I never told you.

Remember this August post, when I shared little glimpses into the first few days of our king salmon opening? And one of those glimpses was that Joel’s hands were giving him terrible, knuckles-of-ground-up-glass grief? And that you never heard what happened next, despite a cliffhanger ending and an assurance that I’d pick up the story on a later date?

Sorry about that, friends.

We did indeed claw our way through that nine day king opening. Back in Sitka, Joel went to the doctor, got some meds that didn’t sit too well with either of us. Over the following 15 day coho trip, every day – every hour – involved a reassessment of his well-being and what we should do, waffling between the confident “I feel good today, I think I’m fine,” to the cautionary “What if we really land on ‘em in the next king opening?”

You know that Joel and I are pretty attached to having the Nerka to ourselves. (And Bear, of course.) Optimistically “cozy” for the two of us, I can’t imagine life in the tiny cabin’s earlier incarnation: husband, wife, two energetic little kids, deckhand. When we finally admitted that we might have to hire a third person, we talked not about which dream troll deckhands we knew – they were all taken, anyway – but who we’d be willing to live with.

“What about Betsy?” one of us said.

“Yes!” the other enthused. That our friend Betsy had never been trolling seemed completely irrelevant. We knew her as an uber-competent, hard-working, conscientious, full-hearted and utterly delightful human – who also happened to be a professionally trained, fantastic cook.

We were both convinced. But Betsy and her partner Devon run a fuel tank cleaning business. How could she go fishing?

Trolling into a pocket of cell service, we called to ask, just in case.

Joel’s hurt? Sure, we’ll make it work.

Receiving such selfless love can be blinding. How did we get so lucky to have friends like these?

I didn’t tell you any of this at the time because I’m bad about continuing a storyline I wanted you to hear it from a different perspective. As a fisherman and a writer who writes about being a fisherman, I think a lot about how to translate experiences that are second nature to me, in ways that invite Hooked’s many landlocked readers into a foreign world. In some instances, like this unfinished business from last summer, I’m not the best person for the task.

Betsy, Scrubbing

But this woman is.

Luckily, Betsy is a great storyteller, and just posted a reflection on her time aboard the Nerka. I’m grateful for her time aboard and her willingness to relive it all on the page, and am delighted to share it with you now. Enjoy this snippet, with link to the full read below:

A fine spray of salt sea and fresh rain misted my face as I retched carrot cake-flavored Clif bar over the rail. Remorse washed through me. Not shame, though the shame of being so seasick as to necessitate puking over the rail was there, too; but guilt. I had managed to eat two things that day: an English muffin with honey and butter, and that Clif bar. It wasn’t the waste of food that made me feel guilty, either, but rather the simple fact that I had mentioned that carrot cake was my favorite flavor of Clif bar while Tele and I were shopping to stock the boat for a week or two, and Tele had generously bought an entire case of them for all of us to share. And I was pretty certain I was the only one on board who felt that way toward that particular flavor. Now, given my fairly limited adult history of puking, I was pretty certain that I would not be capable of stomaching carrot cake Clif Bars for a while. Maybe years…

Continue reading “An Adventure of Salmon and Self-Awareness (and a Healthy Dose of Self Deprecation)”

 

I wonder, friends… What helps you connect with someone/something that’s foreign to you? Are there particular examples (relationships, books, movies, conversations) that have helped you understand or identify with something otherwise outside your own life experience?

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