The Changing (Legislative) Seasons

juenau
rare sunny day

Every day it gets a little bit brighter, but not by too much. The sun sets a couple minutes later than it did the day before, and while the difference is gradual, I feel a new buoyancy and relief in me. Spring is on the way. But before that, it’s still winter, with cold snaps and crisp blue skies followed by weeks of straight snow, falling in tufts, coating and cleansing all it touches.

With January comes the legislative season in Juneau, and the city swells slightly with legislators and their staffers and journalists and lobbyists and whoever has a vested interest in politics. I’m grateful for the new energy, my curiosity bobbing its head to peek at what the ongoings of local politics brings to this place: drama! confrontation! compromise! history!

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I stepped foot into a legislative building for the first time last week with a few other of my program fellows, wanting to witness the beginning of the legislative session and all its performance. We followed our point of contact, the founder of the program and a local state representative, through the capitol building as he weaved up staircases and past offices and people held up by their suits and pencil skirts; and as he marched straight into the legislative chamber, we briskly followed, and were stopped abruptly by the pages standing outside the opened double doors.

“Hey, woah, where are you going?”

We reared back like surprised horses and stood awkwardly to the side, pressing ourselves against the hallway walls as legislators and staffers walked in and out and boomed their greetings to one another, ignoring us. Our representative friend was nowhere to be seen, and we bemusedly absorbed the procedures required of us. No jackets or bags, we can put them away for you, and there’s no more standing room, so you’ll have to wait outside the doors during the introduction; the girl scouts will come in an recite the pledge of allegiance, there will be an elementary school brass band, and then people will leave the gallery and you can take seats.

I felt like an insect, huddled to the side and feeling like a nuisance, and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. While the session was public, this was hardly what you’d call accessible.

After the ceremonial reciting of the national anthem and some other talk about a nation under God (bleh), we shuffled to the now open seats in the gallery. What followed was fascinating to watch, a whole system of processes for decision making and value signaling which will happen almost every day in these strange, gilded halls: legislators passing notes, guests being introduced, objections, recesses called, simmering tensions and questions. I’m looking forward to getting acquainted with all of it (and sneaking into receptions held throughout the city and talking to anyone, everyone).

lmao
lmao that uncomfortable hands clasped in front of body energy

The end of winter is the cusp of an outpouring of energy. When the snow melts and the clouds clear and the sun remains in the sky into the evening, everyone in this city will change. One of my friends here is a full-time writer in the winter, but can never write in the summertime because he’s constantly working outside, jumping between the luscious islands of Southeast Alaska, working on a documentary or hunting with his family. “I almost don’t want spring to come yet,” he said laughing, “I’m not quite done with this book, and soon I’ll be itching to be outside.”

While winter’s been difficult, it’s also been a special, specific season of quieting down, listening deeply, groping around in the dark and discovering other senses with which to perceive the world. And I’ve been moving, keeping warm through an internal energy: sending letters back and forth to one of my closest friends from college; participating in an email chain with some friends where we update each other on our lives and projects; writing and dancing (in my room) every day, skiing every Sunday; working on video projects; getting over heartache with the practiced motions of a Buddhist or stoic or dancer or whoever is supposed to be able to let things go when they need to go.

I wonder what springtime will bring? I already feel myself, petals itching, preparing to bloom.

A Little Darkness

“Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” — Mary Oliver

dark

I have been thinking about winter.  About the cold of Juneau in December, the evening which comes at 3 PM, the stifling stretch of concrete between my apartment and my office, the walk between which always feels a little treacherous and incredibly stunning. Mt. Juneau looms above, and I’ve seen it change at its mountain-pace; as the winter chill encroached, so did the snow, dusting the treetops until one day I woke to a gentle white giant above the city. The first few snowfalls. Slush and slippery ice. Frosted breath, red cheeks. Winter, I think, gazing at the swirling, fluttering snowflakes that skim my eyelashes before I blink them away, This is winter.

I have been thinking about what winter does to people here, and how I came to Juneau because I fell in love with this place when I spent a summer in Southeast Alaska. I knew that winter would be different, this city different than the uninhabited wilderness. But I couldn’t know what winter would do to me. It’s making me tougher; this chill and darkness and isolation strips me of my energy and leaves me with nothing but what is essential. I feel myself curling inward, protecting myself and tending to the fire within, lest this cold winter deprives me of even that warmth. It feels like I have no choice but to take care of myself—to forgive myself for small transgressions, to light candles and write letters, to put aside pinpricks of self-doubt in favor of movement—or else I would go mad.

I was so excited to come home to San Jose, and when I landed at the airport and walked out into the arrivals area, I felt dazed. The light of the sun fell on my face and I closed my eyes at the sensation, feeling drunk on both the particular feeling of the sun on skin and sleep deprivation. It’s almost as if I emerged out of my cave too early, momentarily stunned by the light after beginning to be adjusted to the night. But hibernation was never a part of my history. In that sun, I bloomed like a flower.

I don’t know what’s happening to me this winter, but I’m trying to think about this as a natural phenomenon.  Living with the seasons as they come is also a part of a relationship to the world.  During work when I sat with Saralyn in her office, peering out her window to see more and more snowfall, I remember being struck with a sensation of here-ness. There was no where else I could be, sitting in that office with her, staring out at those trees which I still don’t know the names of, other than Juneau. I looked back at her and in hardly a moment, took stock of all I know and have come to know by being in this place and doing the work of listening and collecting stories and learning about the people here—they can only exist as they are, here, because they are here: Juneau, Alaska.

I’ve rarely been struck with that sensation of here-ness, where the place I am feels like a presence. Usually, when I’ve driven around in LA or sat at home in San Jose or drive down a highway somewhere in Germany, I think I could be anywhere, or at least in many other places. I know that’s not quite true, that each place is its own place, but I’ve never felt that before. Place—I’m talking geography, climate, socially constructed meaning, and history—has never really been in my realm of perception, and Alaska has unlocked a hidden sense in me that has been ripe for exploration.

What was I talking about? The wintertime. My body as an animal reacting to the change of seasons, acting like any other animal might: a drawing inward, an economy of motion, a gathering of the essentials, preparing for patience and waiting, and nestling and remaining still with no task but staying alive against the fading daylight. In this winter, our animal bodies and sensibilities run up against those of others, and there is tiredness in all our movements—but it is the bone-aching tiredness of purpose. This tiredness is assured. We know what we must do; else, perish.

Did I need a little darkness to keep me going? A leaving of everything I knew into the dark, where the dark has eyes to see its own? What did I need to find there?

Being surrounded by suffering, by the reality of trauma and history and the brokenness that all human beings have somewhere inside of them—did I want this? I spent the last two weeks of my time in Juneau before heading home for break in a state of mental exhaustion. I felt like I had no energy to hold up myself, as I held up the stories of others, as I fell in a heap each night at home, as I cried at work and bemoaned about how all I wanted to do was to see the sun, to be held, to feel bursts of joy. But beyond all this, I held myself, and I realized that I could hold myself much longer than I thought. Throughout this exhaustion, this scarcity of mind and energy, I found a wellspring of fortitude and forward motion.

What do people find in the darkness, in the winter?

Something About Alaska

There’s something about this place, that’s for sure.

I don’t know if it’s the dizziness around race and history and displacement that I feel. The constant dialogue around inclusion and diversity and language that makes my tongue feel starchy. The influx of information about Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian history and values, indigenous frameworks which are simultaneously fascinating and overwhelming. I want to know more, to read as much as I can about this place and people—there are lecture series, books, and the archive; but the popular history is lacking and the historical narrative is still being rewritten. Place names are being reclaimed, youth are learning their language, and land claims are still being contested. I’m becoming accustomed to the shape of “gunalchéesh” and “T’aaḵu Kwáan” and “A’akw Kwáan” in my mouth. (what the hell am I doing here? This isn’t my story! But curiosity is a wily beast.)

IMG_0845This place feels raw, still wounded and tender. It wasn’t long ago since glaciers covered this region, and as they continue to recede, the land mass underneath expands like a sponge does as pressure is lifted off of it, and life slowly takes the place of ice. Southeast Alaska is a vibrant, beautiful ecosystem still coming into its own. But tender. In Juneau, it feels like everyone I know knows someone or is someone who has experienced sexual assault, suicide, or some form of violence. Drugs and alcohol work, one of my coworkers told me, and sometimes it’s how people survive, herself a former addict, survivor of violence, and a native woman. And the concepts of intergenerational trauma and healing seem to be a common language, especially among native youth. So many are still reckoning with the trauma of their parents and grandparents who went to boarding schools where they lost their languages, culture, and sense of identity. With the erasure of their culture and values through the colonization.

I went to a youth conference last week, in Anchorage, which was surprisingly diverse relative to ethnicity, gender, and class. Youth delegations were brought in from all over the state, made up of high schoolers from villages which included those with populations of just a couple hundred people. During one of the workshops where kids had to brainstorms problems in their communities that they’d like to solve. I acted as a staff member in that session, meant to provide prompts and encouragement, and the kids had to start by filling in the blank: “There is too much _____ in my youth community.” I was sat with a small handful of native youth and one of them replied succinctly, “There is too much suicide in my community.” How does one respond to this, other than basic acknowledgment? Much of my time here has been of listening and holding space, feeling humble. And feeling a bit out of sorts, holding stories which clearly don’t belong to me (but are meant to be held and shared, anyway)

I also gave a workshop to the kids about digital storytelling and shared my own story around negotiating my identity as a Vietnamese-American woman; I spoke about not knowing my language growing up, about being resentful of my parents, and doing the work of reclaiming my familial history. I spoke of personal healing, and the discovery that I could heal my ancestors by healing myself: a concept which I only learned here, confronted by the language of native youth doing that very exact work.

I didn’t know if my story would land, but it did. This morning I was at The Rookery, the local coffee shop in Juneau, with someone I’d met at the conference who’d also attended my workshop. We spoke of Alaskan history and native youth reclaiming their identities, and he’d told me that the talk was good for the kids to see. I asked him if anything resonated with him, and he ruminated on the language bit—that fact of parents or grandparents not encouraging their children to learn their native languages, even actively suppressing it, because they wanted the best for them. It’s strange to think of how recent all this history is, I thought, about my parents and grandparents being displaced from their countries by war; and how Alaskan Natives had their villages burned, their children forcibly placed in boarding schools, their language and land stolen from them just a few generations past. It’s a different culture and history, but I can’t help but feel myself grasping for similarities and lessons in this history. I’m trying to find belonging in a place and story that isn’t my own. Like trying to put together a puzzle with pieces that don’t fit quite right.

I think I long for coherency and completion in my relationship to the world. I long to understand what relationship to place and people might look like. And I’m still trying to figure it out. An activist I really like, Mia Mingus, has said this about being part of diaspora:

“Maybe this is just a part of what it means to be part of a diaspora. Always feeling in-between; always feeling that familiar longing and grief for what was lost, what was taken, what never should have been. I am part of different diasporas and each one pulls at me constantly. And each one holds that constant refrain: I am, but I’m not; I am, but I’m not.”

I asked my new friend if he felt comfortable calling himself an American, since I did not. He paused before saying “yes and no”, and went on to say that while indigenous peoples have always been on this land, many would be quick to call themselves Tlingit or Inupiat or Athabascan or otherwise, before they called themselves American. I couldn’t help but feel a wave of embarrassment wash over me as he spoke. I only asked the question because I was not only looking for a negotiation of self that I could identify with, something I could leap at and say “Yes! I understand that feeling, too”–I was longing for it. One of the reasons I’m so curious about the stories of Alaskan Natives is because I’m always looking for models of how one can relate the world, one’s families, themselves, and others in a holistic way: the type of relationship that could bring you whole. I’m surrounded by people trying to become whole, together—all while looking towards the past, untangling the knots of trauma, resilience, love, joy, beauty, and ugliness. My outstretched hands are also full of knots and threads, but the communities and histories I hold are different.

What will I find here? What can I give here?

Garden Growth

I started a garden a week ago, and I’ve fallen in love with it. The first thing I do when I wake is to go to the garden and sit on the edge of the raised bed I constructed, and I poke at the sprouts, endlessly satisfied by their perky green leaves. I have beets, kale, lettuce, radishes, broccoli, and mustard—perfect for autumn.

sprouts
Baby beets.  They’ll need to be thinned soon to make room for each other.

After the first few days of sowing the seeds, I forgot about them, not thinking much of the blank canvas of dirt. But once I saw the little green dots in the soil, that was it. I was entranced.

I started this garden in the hopes it would bring me closer to my mother. But I think it’s meant more to me than her. Home has been a tumultuous affair, and this little 4×4 patch of dirt has become my solace. I had a fight with my mother the other day, fought to my father about it, and ran out  to my sproutlings. There, I flicked away the topsoil which smothered the lettuce seeds and poked around the wet soil with a thin stick. My eyes were puffy and my nose clogged, but this was simple. I nudged at my plants gently and felt the sun warm my cheeks.

A garden moves at a different pace than a person, and it’s been disorienting existing at a human pace while slowly adopting a timescale of these plants. I think about how long it takes them to germinate, to sprout their first leaves and take in the nutrients from the soil and push further and further into the sky; and I also think about the job applications I have yet to do, the conversation I had with Urmila or that conversation with Thy; the argument with my mother that day; the silent, reconciliatory kiss on the cheek as I left to Oakland this day; the ebb and flow of my frustration at being home, my fear for an uncertain future, my joy—and the rapidity at which I flow between these moments. The day to day of my life feels so fleeting and light in comparison to these steady plants, pushing up to their own ancient, silent rhythm.

So every day, I try to meet them. In the morning I go to them, and sit with my fingertips brushing the dirt and breathe deeply just as they do. Taking in this, letting go of that—molecule by molecule—until I am left with nothing but this life.