Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miraclesby Heather Lende
The Alaskan landscape—so vast, dramatic, and unbelievable—may be the reason the people in Haines, Alaska (population 2,400), so often discuss the meaning of life. Heather Lende thinks it helps make life mean more. Since her bestselling first book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, a near-fatal bicycle accident has given Lende a few/i>… See more details below
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The Alaskan landscape—so vast, dramatic, and unbelievable—may be the reason the people in Haines, Alaska (population 2,400), so often discuss the meaning of life. Heather Lende thinks it helps make life mean more. Since her bestselling first book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, a near-fatal bicycle accident has given Lende a few more reasons to consider matters both spiritual and temporal. Her idea of spirituality is rooted in community, and here she explores faith and forgiveness, loss and devotion—as well as raising totem poles, canning salmon, and other distinctly Alaskan adventures. Lende’s irrepressible spirit, her wry humor, and her commitment to living a life on the edge of the world resonate on every page. Like her own mother’s last wish—take good care of the garden and dogs—Lende’s writing, so honest and unadorned, deepens our understanding of what links all humanity.
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"Lende has a knack for subtly illuminating the remarkable in the commonplace, the transcendence in tragedy . . . Her voice, which alternates between folksy and formal, playful and prayerful, entertaining and elegiac, is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, Krista Tippett, Tom Bodett, Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The book is full of vivid characters . . . [Lende] has a simple, chatty style most readers will find oddly comforting. Life does, in fact, go on.” Los Angeles Times
“Here is the real thing good old-fashioned American values coming from small-town Alaska.” The Boston Globe
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Take Good Care of the Garden and the DogsFamily, Friends & Faith in Small-Town Alaska
By HEATHER LENDE
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2010 Heather Lende
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage
Dear God, have mercy on me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small. - Fisherman's Prayer
The first day of spring was not March 20, and it wasn't one day but a handful of early April days so bright that the residents of this little seaside Alaskan town crawled blinking out of our snow caves and welcomed it like sleepy bears. Spring fever hit so hard that everyone was smiling and doing their best to push winter out the door. Blankets and pillows were aired, decks were shoveled, and icy walks were chipped off. Anglers post-holed through the snowy riverbanks to cast for the first fat Dolly Vardens. The Public Works Department foreman even took a snow-blowing plow truck to the high school track and carved out a four-hundred-meter oval in the shoulder-high snow so the team could practice.
On Sunday afternoon, I walked in the dripping sunshine to the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Actually, it was only the third or fourth blessing of the Haines harbor fishing boats that I can recall in my twenty-five years in Haines, but it may become yearly if this one works out. It's not that we don't all support the idea of an annual blessing, but community events require organizing and advertising and choir practicing and program printing and cookie baking for the inevitable reception following. This one also needs a nice day and well-spoken ministers. What I mean to say is, traditions don't just happen. People make them happen and, for all kinds of good reasons, some years they do and some years they don't.
As I walked to town, I realized that spring truly was here because no one asked if I wanted a ride. Even casual drivers-by could see it was a fine day for a walk. One pickup truck passed me, slowed down, and then parked at the bottom of Cemetery Hill, where my neighbors hopped out and took a stroll down Mud Bay Road, smiling at the views of the Chilkat Inlet, Pyramid Island, and the snowy mountains that look the way the Alps would, if Switzerland had a beach.
I was more than a little relieved that this April was already so much better than the last two. I'd been starting to think that April might really be a cursed month. April 2005 should have been terrific. My first book was just about to be released and my oldest daughter, Eliza, was just about to graduate from Bowdoin College in Maine. We were planning the book tour around her graduation. That way, I could start on the East Coast and make my way back home. In preparation, I had bought a suitcase with wheels and a pair of nice shoes that I could walk in. On Thursday, April 7, I volunteered to host the local morning radio program - two hours of playing music, reading the announcements and weather, and keeping every one in Haines, Skagway, and the nearby Tlingit village of Klukwan company.
After the show, since it was such a nice warm morning (about forty-five degrees by eleven o'clock), I took my bike out for the second ride of the season. I was thinking about what I'd say when Oprah interviewed me about my book (not likely, but, just in case, I wanted to be ready) when I saw a truck stopped at the stop sign on an otherwise quiet cross street overlooking the harbor. The driver, Kevin from the grocery store, glanced both ways, and seeing no cars (or, apparently, cyclists), pulled out and ran me over. I was medevaced to Seattle's Harborview Trauma Center and put back together. I spent three weeks in a nursing home there and another ten weeks confined to a bed or a wheelchair in my living room. By Halloween, I was able to walk without crutches but was still frequenting physical therapy, acupuncture, and massage therapy sessions once a week. These would continue until January. (I'll tell you all about it later.)
Just as I was feeling almost like myself again, my mother's chronic lymphocytic leukemia went bad, really bad. I spent the rest of that winter and spring going back and forth between Alaska and my parents' home in New York. I was on my way there on April 7, 2006. She died on April 20.
This April had no dark cloud over it, so far, and I have never seen a piano or a safe being hauled into an upper-story window with a block and tackle in Haines (or anywhere except in those Wile E. Coyote cartoons), so I wasn't anxiously checking for one to fall on my head. Still, as I walked down the quiet road, I gave passing vehicles plenty of room and tried not to jump when a truck with a loud muffler roared up behind me. I did think that praying for other people to be spared accidents or death (for a season, anyway) at the Blessing of the Fleet was a positive way to honor my tender feelings. I am not the same person I was three Aprils ago. I'm still an awkward hugger and may always be, but at least now I want to hug people.
The ceremony began so perfectly that I knew I'd been right to come. It was well organized, simple, dignified, and featured plain prayers that didn't ask for more than what was possible, beginning with "Dear God, have mercy on me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small." It appeared that there would not be, as my mother used to say, any "wailing or gnashing of teeth" over the departed today. The Salvation Army captain was in his festive red and black dress uniform with the long overcoat and ribbon-trimmed cap, the Catholic priest wore his black shirt and pants and white collar under a thick fleece jacket, and the Presbyterian pastor had on a warm coat, jeans, and brown rubber fishing boots. In the harbor parking lot, the wind off Lynn Canal was still cold, but the sun was warm enough that water was running everywhere, off nearby roofs and down drainage ditches.
The first hymn was "Praise to the Lord, the almighty, the king of creation," and we all sang from the words printed in our leaflets. It started me thinking about the beginnings of life, of spring and birth. It is often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. It seems to me that shelled bunkers would be full of skeptics. In the middle of a war it must be harder, not easier, to believe in a good God. If it were up to me, I'd change that line to there are no atheists in delivery rooms or adoption agencies, but maybe that's because I have given birth to four children and have adopted one. Maybe. I do know for certain that to witness spring hit Haines and the Chilkat Valley is as close as I'll come to being present at the birth of the world. The words we often use to describe our Alaskan landscape are even biblical: majestic mountains, shining seas, rivers cleft from rocks. We actually have leviathans - humpback and killer whales - in our deep, and we know what it means to soar on eagle wings. All we have to do is look out the window.
The Men of Note, an a cappella chorus of a dozen or so guys directed by Bob Plucker - retired music professor from the Midwest - that includes a fisherman, a physicist from Los Alamos, the school maintenance man, a minister, a couple of high school boys, and a heavy equipment operator, sang so well that everyone clapped when they finished, even though it was a kind of open-air church service.
But then, as often happens when all is right with the weather and with the community and with my heart, everything veered dangerously off course. The bell at the Presbyterian church across the street began tolling, once for each death the previous year, and every name was read out loud as their loved ones each dropped a flower in a straw laundry basket that would be floated off the dock after the service.
I had thought that we were praying for the future, that we were launching into a new season on the water, that we were looking forward with hope, not aft in sadness. I like the idea of blessing commercial fishing boats, kayaks, sailboats, and even ferries. I see no harm at all in saying prayers, sprinkling holy water, or wafting incense out over all the boats in town. What a good deed to do. Of course, I could see how we might want to remember those who had died at sea since the last blessing. There could be a moment of silence before the festivities, but the thing is, no one had died at sea last year. I know this for certain because I write the obituaries in this town, and the editor at the Chilkat Valley News, my friend Tom Morphet, insists on my reporting detailed causes of death. No one in Haines dies of "natural causes." As Tom says, a heart attack is natural; so is a brain tumor and so is drowning, but they are very different ways to die. Which brings me back to my point. No one had died in water anywhere near Haines the previous year. I had thought that this was a very good sign. It meant the hymns and prayers from the previous blessing had worked. Maybe that's what explained the big turnout.
All had gone well for twelve whole months. True, Guy Hoffman did die on Chilkoot Lake, but he didn't even get wet. Losing Guy was a shock. He wasn't old and he wasn't sick and he was mostly happy. It was Guy who said that if you want nice weather, then make your own high-pressure system, and he did. Guy was skiing across the lake on a beautiful, sunny late-winter day with two of his closest friends when his big heart stopped and he lay down in the snow and died. But his name was still called at the Blessing of the Fleet, because every single person who had died in Haines or nearby Klukwan - in bed, in cars, in the hospital, watching Everybody Loves Raymond, as Gene Philpott had - was announced. So were the names of many more people who hadn't died here but were dead nonetheless. They had been related to or were friends of people who live here. They even added the dead from the first few months of this year, just to be sure no one was forgotten and maybe in case we don't have a formal Blessing of the Fleet next year.
Well, there were more than you'd think.
But that was not all. When the representatives of the Haines Ministerial Association finished with the recently dead, they went back to the theme of the day and began calling the names of everyone who had ever drowned in our sea, rivers, lakes, or swimming holes. "The Sullivan family," the pastor said, and then read the names of the seven Sullivans, all of whom (and their dog) had died before I moved to Haines when their skiff capsized on the way home from a beach picnic in an unexpected afternoon squall. By now my soul's own little sloop was sideslipping toward the rocks.
T. S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month. You know, with all due respect, it is not the best month for me, either. I do not want to remember my accident or my mother's death. I want to remember my recovery and the way my mother was before she was so sick.
So I stood and half-listened. The voices reading the names sounded as if they were underwater. I watched an eagle circling high above the boats in the harbor. I watched that bird and let my heart go with it, gracefully looping higher and higher. I remembered that sharing my story about my own terribly bad times had helped me. I remembered that it had made them bearable and allowed me to appreciate the good parts of my story even more. I also realized that most of us have been hit by a proverbial truck at least once and that, as broadsides go, mine may have been one of the easier to recover from because it was so literal and so public, compared to breast cancer or a messy divorce.
I write a weekly Thursday column for the Anchorage Daily News, in the Family & Life section. I write about anything I want to: Haines, my family, community goings-on. I try to make each piece local, as I figure I'm the only one sharing the news about this town with the world, but also personal and universal - that way you don't have to live nearby to be interested. I spend more time on them than they are worth, but from the beginning I have felt an obligation to say something valuable. I looked to the Book of Common Prayer for guidance and found the prayer "For those who Influence Public Opinion." (It's an Episcopalian thing, these carefully scripted prayers for every possible need.) It says that those of us who write what "many read" (a writer can hope this is true) need to do our part "in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous." It sounds corny, and I know I miss the ball more than I hit it out of the park, but at least I'm swinging for the fences. I still say that prayer before I begin every column. Blessing words, like blessing boats, can't hurt. It may even help.
Anyway, I missed only one column in the year I was recovering from my accident, and that was the first one after the surgery. My deadline is Tuesday. (Well, actually it is the end of the day Monday, but I have learned that no one edits it until midday Tuesday, but that is another story.) I was hit on a Thursday, operated on on a Friday, and was still in and out of consciousness that next Tuesday. I made the following deadline and every one after that. Those columns were all about the shock, grief, anger, and even small joys that come with such a life-changing experience. I also shared my mother's illness and death with my readers. Describing events, articulating my feelings, and making it all mean something was healing. My friends and neighbors don't have the forum I do for the big stories of their lives. Maybe that's why the pastors and priest are reading all these names of the dead now, I thought, and why the people who loved and lost them want them to, and why they keep walking right up in front of everyone to drop a flower in that basket and then walk back, facing us all with solemn, often wet faces. This is my story, they seem to say, and this is why I am the way I am. For myself, it's why those kids smoking on Main Street make me so mad or why I cry at the school Christmas concert every year or why I forgot about last week's library board meeting. I am broken, too, and I have some stuff on my mind so please be kind to me, which is a long way of saying that sharing grief does help.
Then I heard Olen Nash's name. I watched as his mother, my friend Becky, walked up with a flower to put in the basket. Her husband, Don, was already out trolling for king salmon in his new boat. My son, Christian - he's almost eighteen - will join him as a deckhand as soon as school is out in May. They are both looking forward to it. It has been seven years since Olen dove off the back of the Nashes' sinking fifty-four-foot commercial fishing boat, the Becca Dawn, toward a life raft he hoped would save him and his brothers and a friend. He was the only one who didn't survive.
Before she reached the basket with her flower, Becky's face crumpled and she pivoted back into the parting crowd. I intercepted her, linked her arm around mine, and we kept right on walking - away from everyone, toward Lookout Park, while the bell rang and more names were read. It was warmer with the wind at our backs. Soon we were snuffling and then sobbing. Once we were out of earshot, we stopped and had a pretty good cry. It was such a mess, this remembering, so good and so bad at the same time. We were both so snotty and wet that we started laughing.
"You sure you want Christian to fish with Don?" Becky asked, wiping her nose with a mitten.
I wiped mine on my sleeve and said sure I did. "Besides, he could just as easily be run over by a truck."
Which made us laugh some more.
Becky wanted to drop the flower near Olen's plaque on the Fishermen's Memorial, and so we started to climb up over the rotting snow berm, but the sun had softened it and we sank to our thighs. "Oh, what the heck," Becky said, chucking the stiff pink carnation up and over the dirty snow pile. Then she said, "Let's get out of here. I've had enough."
* * *
That night the northern lights flashed and swirled above the roof of our weathered shingle home near where the Chilkat River meets the sea. Some of the white, swooping, teardrop-shaped lights tumbled like ghosts. Others spun in colorful hurricane swirls with long blue, green, and pink ribbons trailing off into the navy blue night. One golden banner above Mt. Ripinsky moved up and down in an electrocardiogram way, graphing the beating of so many hearts. I had never seen a light show like it. My husband, Chip, came out to look, too, and we called the kids: our teenagers Christian, J.J., and Stoli. (Our older daughters Sarah and Eliza were away; one at college, the other working at a ski resort in Utah.) By the time everyone made it outside the show was all over, without a hint of what had been there. Nothing remained except the stars shyly blinking. It was cold again; no doubt we'd have at least one more frost. I had on a down coat so, as the rest of my family went back inside, I stayed out a little longer, all by myself, standing in the gravel drive, looking up, watching and waiting.
Excerpted from Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by HEATHER LENDE Copyright © 2010 by Heather Lende. Excerpted by permission.
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