Craig, Aaska, take two

It’s Monday and we’re back in Craig, Alaska. Rob will be working here the next three weeks, and I’m here to do some training for PeaceHealth. I’m winding down, about to enter my last full month of full time. Scary, daunting, exciting, a little surreal. Here we go!

This time we’re staying in a different place. When you do locums work (filling in for a permanent provider), a place to stay is part of the package. The accommodations can vary greatly. We’ve stayed in bed and breakfasts, efficiency apartments, cottages, hotels…The nice thing is that usually the place comes with basic kitchen stuff so you can have coffee and do as much cooking as you choose without going out for every meal. (I like to go out, but on rainy dreary nights, I just want home, and the comfort of getting cozy.) The place we stayed last week for Thanksgiving even came with a Butterball turkey in the freezer, the clinic’s holiday gift to each staff member. However, I did not choose to make the turkey for the two of us. We shared the holiday meal with several others and I brought my southern-style creamed corn and sweet potato casserole. The turkey (still frozen) flew home with us on Saturday and is now living in my freezer in Ketchikan. Hey, I’ll make a turkey dinner sooner or later…just won’t be this month, or in December.

We’re only a half hour flight from Ketchikan, on the island of Prince of Wales. We came over Sunday afternoon and I was surprised to see there is a lot of snow here. There’s a much bigger road system here than in Ketchikan, though not all of the roads are paved. This island was a major logging site years ago and a lot of the roads are from that era.

These little outposts are interesting. You never know what you’ll find in the way of stores and amenities. It can be hit and miss. I’m actually amazed at what is here when I realize that everything is either flown in or barged in. When you can’t drive in, the price of everthing goes up. Way up.

I enjoy the glimpse of small town life. Well, Ketchikan is small, but this is really little. I grew up in a small town, so this feels familiar. What’s different is the degree of isolation you experience on remote islands. Ketchikan has Alaska Airlines flying in and out several times each day, and the major state ferries stop there. You can’t drive out, but you can get out pretty easily. Not cheaply, but easily enough. The ferry from Prince of Wales (POW, locals call it) takes three hours to get to Ketchikan and the connection point for other travel. Or you can fly, but that’s pricey and baggage allowance is limited. Most folks here do an occasional ferry trip to Ketchikan to make a Walmart run or for some specialty need in healthcare. Women go over a couple of weeks before giving birth to deliver in the hospital there. There is no hospital here, just a couple of clinics on the island doing primary care and visiting clinic care.

Tuesday…Today the clinic has a visiting specialty provider coming over, and someone is coming for the day to set up the scanner and computer for the training I’m doing. Weather yesterday pushed both these visits to Tuesday. No planes were flying on Monday. But people around here are used to weather ruling. Ir makes a lot of decisions easy…bad weather, no flying. Really bad weather, no boating, although the ferries are big enough they usually keep to their regular schedules.

Ah, life on the frontier! Some things are so “normal,” you’d think you were on Main Street USA. There’s cable tv and Starbucks coffee in the grocery store and everyone has cell phones. But just when you think you know what to expect you’re caught by surprise…some pieces of life just work a little differently.

I’ve learned to accommodate. I bring my heels for work in a backpack and wear my snow boots. I bring snacks and a few basics. In some of these small communities the grocery closes at 6:00 and restaurants may or may not be open. Some businesses are only open seasonally. I’ve learned the hard way to be self-reliant, at least for the first night in a new place.

I often wonder if life will look different here years from now. Change comes slowly, but it does come. Who knows? But the weather, the remoteness, the ocean…nothing will change that. And for the people who choose this as home, maybe that’s a good thing.

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Choices

This week I made a choice I did not expect to make. I chose to not travel to my grandmother’s funeral. She passed away late Tuesday night, and over the past few days, knowing she was in the hospital, I had mentally been preparing to fly back to Mississippi. But at the moment of decision, I suddenly knew it was the wrong choice.

Rob and I have had a difficult year. We have recognized that many decisions we made in the past few years have not been healthy for us, for our relationship, and that to correct that, we needed to make radical changes. To be honest, with all the amazing adventure that Alaska has offered…experiencing the Arctic, seeing dog sled teams race, traveling to remote and beautiful locations by float plane and ferry, seeing glaciers and northern lights…if I had it to do again, I wouldn’t move here. The distance from family is too great, and adventure doesn’t replace the ability to be present.

Still, this is where I find myself today. I looked at flying out today, knowing that Rob would spend the holiday and the next week alone, and I couldn’t do it. He’s a big boy, he’s spent a fair amount of time alone in the past three years due to work and travel demands. I know he could do it. But the point is, that choice has been a bad one. We are both weary of spending time apart for the sake of work.

I considered the reality that this was a family emergency, a moment to mark and honor a beloved woman in my life, and to renew my connections with family members that I don’t see often. But in the end, I think I am honoring my family. I’m acknowledging that this relationship, even at a moment like this, has to come first. It feels a bit selfish, and I have some anxiety that this choice will not be be understood. But after a time of reflection, I am at peace.

So today I’m sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a few others from the clinic where Rob is covering call. I will miss being with my family who have gathered to say goodbye to my grandmother tomorrow afternoon. I will miss seeing the little ones who’ve grown and the ones who have joined the clan since I was last with them. I’ll miss sharing the tears and the memories, the hugs and the smiles. It hurts my heart to choose absence.

But this morning, drinking my coffee and looking at this man who has been my life for the past 30 years, I knew I was right to stay. The lesson of the moment is that we have the present, and that’s all. We may not have the good fortune to live to 90 with all our faculties intact. The choices that we’ve made, we live with, and we look for ways to re-align our priorities with family and future needs.

And my grandmother? If I could ask her, I believe she would support my decision. She was a lighthouse, staying put, watching her children roam the globe, but I don’t recall ever hearing her complain about their choices. She was accepting that life has to be lived.

Rob and I had already planned a trip back in March. I regret that she won’t be there to sit with, to share with. But we’ll visit the cemetery then with my mom, and remember her, my grandfather, my dad, my uncle and aunt…all the family we’ve lost. It will be sad, but it will be sweet, full of happy tears that these people…human, imperfect, funny, wonderful, loving…touched our lives.

And until then, I’m where I belong.

Theola Jane Kite Burton, 1921 ~ 2011

My grandmother died tonight. She was my last remaining grandparent, and at 90, was still going strong until just a few days ago. She was a product of a time that lives in grainy black and white photos, history books, and memory. She was a child of the depression, married at 14, raised five children with few resources, loved my grandfather, Grady Clyde.

She was “Mama” to her grandchildren, and spent countless days of her life gardening for the family, or sewing, or cooking. She was a gardener of vegetables from necessity, for most of her life, making ends meet with lady peas, butter beans, tomatoes, and whatever else she decided to plant. Her thumb was green. She grew flowers out of love, and knew how to graft, root, transplant, and do amazing things with bulbs. She collected daylilies, and roses. She loved browsing the latest catalogs of flowers. A visit to her house was never complete in the growing season without a tour of her plants, mostly moved outdoors to grow in the hot Mississippi summer.

She was a woman of faith. She believed, and she believed strongly. She was a pretty good preacher too, when the occasion and the grandchild required. Mama was no story book grandmother. Although she loved us all, she could scold when she saw the need. She was always ready to make some point, and I remember that she encouraged us as children to memorize the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes.

She was a seamstress and a quilter, and her winter project was often a new quilt or two for someone in the family. Now her quilts will have a special meaning, because there will be no more from her. But the ones she left behind will be treasured.

She was a cook of country foods, southern foods, traditional foods. She made biscuits and cornbread, perfect every time, knew how to cook anything in a pressure cooker, was legendary for her fried peach pies. She made a creamed chicken dish that was pure comfort food, and knew how to make lady peas that were perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, served up with steam rising from the bowl.

She laughed at herself or whatever was funny till she couldn’t talk, a trait that I think I’ve inherited. She loved a joke, although she couldn’t really tell one. She wasn’t a successful tv watcher, except for the news. She couldn’t stay awake through most programs. I think she was too accustomed to getting up early to watch tv in the evenings.

She lived in same small town for most of her life. She knew pretty much everyone, and could tell you the history of families, events, all sorts of things from past doings in Winona, Mississippi.

She was salt and light in my life: salt as a good seasoning, light as a lamppost to guide the way.

As an adult, I’ve recognized that many things that are part of my life she would have no understanding of. She didn’t work outside her home. She didn’t move about, although she did travel a bit visiting her children in different parts of the world. But in many ways, her world was centered in her community, her family, her faith. I like to think that although our lives are very different externally, there is some of her goodness in me; that her influence and her faith are in my heart.

She believed she was going to a better place at the end of her life. She believed she would see my grandfather again. She believed.

And so do I. Thank you, Mama, for sharing your life with me, and with so many. Thank you for the conversations through the years. Thank you for your love. Thank you.

Things I’ve learned

In the past few months, I’ve learned (or re-learned):

~ I’m not too old to be a risk-taker!

~ I have no interest in creating cake pops.

~ I’m a writer!

~ I like chalk board paint on lots of surfaces.

~ I am not into re-purposing T shirts for other garments or crafts.

~ I have a limited tolerance for drama.

~ I’m really good at recognizing a great idea and copying it.

~ I don’t have a big ego, I like to share credit.

~ I’m a mentor in the right settings.

~ Green onions really do grow when you put them root down in a glass of water. Who knew?!

~ I’m always on the hunt for the perfect brownie and the perfect bread recipe.

~ Never write the end of the story in your head before the real story ends…you never know how things will turn out, and frequently the real story will be very different from the version you thought was unfolding.

~ True grace is unfailing and doesn’t ask to be repaid.

~ You can’t have too much shrimp in your freezer!

~ Books that spoke to you once will speak to you again. Reread and see what new things you learn.

~ When you know you have freely chosen, you don’t resent or regret the work it takes to make your choice work out.

~ Doing the right thing reinforces every other right choice you make.

~ Love means saying you’re sorry whenever you need to say the words.

~ I am stronger than I see myself.

~ Winston said it best: Never give up!

My new favorite recipe – Salted Caramel Pecan Butter Bars

Tonight I tried a new dessert/cookie recipe, which I’ll share below. But first, let me tell you it incorporates a lot of good things. It combines butter, caramel, and (my own personal addition to the mix) chopped pecans. The dessert/cookie…haven’t decided which category it will ultimately fit in my opinion…is baked, so it has an ooey-gooey warm comfort feeling. It has a sprinkling of French sea salt over the caramel layer, so it has a hint of sophistication. You can cut this into squares, or if you want to serve as a more formal dessert, cut into wedges and add a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream on top…decadent, decadent!

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A few other notes: I made a half recipe, as the full version calls for a pound (a pound!) of butter, and it is my policy never to make such a large amount of a dish I haven’t tasted. Just in case, you know, that the combination of all the luscious ingredients listed is not greater than the sum of the parts. After all, it would be, at the very least, a small tragedy if I had a pound of butter baked into a dessert I really didn’t care for. So that was my choice for a first attempt with this recipe. Having made it, and now, tasted it, I can safely say that I wouldn’t hesitate to commit to the whole thing. Provided I had a good way to dispose of all but one or two pieces. Otherwise, I would be needing to invest in a new size of clothes very soon. These are that good. But I wouldn’t care, most likely, because, these are that good.

So, onto the details. First, credit to the site where I found this. Check this out for a great read. So funny! And thanks for the recipe, which I discovered on Pinterest.

Salted Caramel Pecan Butter Bars

For the Crust:
1 lb. salted butter room temp
1 cup sugar
1½ cups powdered sugar
2 Tbs vanilla
4 cups all purpose flour

For the Filling:
1 bag (14 oz.) caramel candies (about 50 individual caramels), unwrapped
⅓ cup milk or cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 T. coarse sea salt (optional)
1 cup chopped pecans (my addition, optional if you don’t care for nuts)

To make the crust:

In a large bowl, combine butter and sugars. Using mixer on medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. Sift the flour into the butter mixture and beat on low speed until a smooth soft dough forms.

Spray a 9×13 inch baking pan lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. (I found I used about half the dough for the crust and the remaining amount was enough for the crumbled topping.)

Preheat to 325F.

Bake until firm and the edges are a pale golden brown approx 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool about 15 minutes.

While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the cream. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir until smooth. If caramels are not completely melted, microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until smooth. (I did this step in a small sauce pan on the stove top. Just put the caramels and cream on a low simmer and stir now and then until all melted and gooey.)

Pour the caramel filling over the crust. If you choose to salt the caramel, sprinkle it over the caramel layer now.

Remove the remaining chilled dough from the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel.

My addition: Top with a cup of chopped pecans.

Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and lightly golden, about 25 – 30 minutes.

Let cool before cutting into squares.

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Other ideas: I’m thinking of sprinkling mini semi-sweet chocolate chips over the top the next time I bake this. Don’t overbake! The cookies cut beautifully after they cooled. Last, if you’re looking for a great shortbread recipe, this one is as good as any I’ve tried. I have never made shortbread with two kinds of sugar, but the dough was easy to work with and baked beautifully. It could stand alone as a wonderful shortbread if you want something a little less sweet, or a bit more simple.

Enjoy!

It’s almost Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving…can’t believe it will be here next week. This is an off year for us. Rob will be working out of town, covering call, so we’ll be a bit casual about our holiday celebration. Some years we’ve been able to connect with family, but this won’t be one of those times.

This year we’ll be on a small island in Alaska, where Rob works episodically. I’m working in Ketchikan through Wednesday afternoon, so I’ll take some of the fixings for our Thanksgiving over with me when I join him, but most likely, we’ll share the big meal of the day with a few others from the clinic who’ve stayed in town. And that’s the main thing. Thanksgiving is not a meal to eat with one or two people, if you can help it. It needs a large group, a full table, a mix of favorite foods, old and new, traditional and experimental, all blended together.

The image of the feast, the expectation of a crowd, whether it be family, or friends, or a mix of both, is so ingrained that I literally can’t imagine a different scenario that would occur by choice. To celebrate Thanksgiving at all is to acknowledge it as perhaps the most American holiday. The 4th of July is a celebration of a new government, a new nation being born. But Thanksgiving recognizes the survival of the people who came here to create what would become America.

Many people have a tradition of sharing around the table what each person is thankful for. This year I am thankful for a season of surprises. My year has had twists and turns. I began it thinking I would sell a house and move, change jobs, encounter other life altering decisions along the way. I am not (yet) selling my house, or moving…you can never tell what housing markets are going to do. My work is mutating, in ways I did not foresee; in ways that are challenging me to think about how I work, where I work, and why I work. Life is full, if a bit unpredictable. I find myself feeling grateful for what has worked, philosophical about what hasn’t, and curious to know what will happen next.

This year I’m thankful for family that is well, for the ties that bind, for friendships that have deepened, for a little one in my life that is growing and changing from a toddler into a little girl, complete with words and opinions. She’ll soon be two, our Riley girl, and quite a girl she is. She brings a smile to my heart. I’m grateful for all the family who send love to me, and who receive it in return. I’m grateful for the recognition that there is a passing of connection from one generation to the next. I feel it with my grandmother (90+!), my mother, my daughter, my son, my granddaughter.

I’m thankful for my husband who is by my side through the ups and downs, who still makes me laugh, still makes me tear up in a sentimental moment, knows what I am thinking most of the time. I’m grateful for a partner in life.

It is easy to take these people in my life for granted. Some of them have been present as long as I have been alive. Others have been part of my life so long I can hardly recall a time without them. Regardless, I want to acknowledge that the few people out of all the billions on the planet that touch my life, and in return, allow me to touch their lives, are the small group of family and friends that care, support, nurture, cry, rejoice, celebrate, encourage, and participate with me as I make my way. They are the ones who provide the color, the music, the faces of my memories.

It’s almost Thanksgiving. I wish you a joyful day, and a heart that is thankful.

Always 11

It’s almost the witching hour…11:11 on 11-11-11. Of course we already had a minute of this time today…this morning, but I was at work, so for me that didn’t count. I’m marking my significant moment as the evening one.

You have to admit it’s a great number. Like wonderful alliteration with words, 11-11-11 is memorable, for oh so many reasons. Easy to remember, primary, and perfect numeric poetry, symbolism and magic, all wrapped up in one. Any way you express it, all wrapped up in 1.

Years ago when our kids were early elementary school ages, Rob played a math quiz game with them at dinner. He’d give different combinations of numbers using addition and subtraction, and they would do the math to give the answer. And the answer was always 11. That became a family slogan (I think the phrase is from a movie too, but I’m sure we had it first!) and we’ve been surprised at how often 11 has been a significant number in our lives. Not that we’re superstitious or anything. I mean, we’re not picking lottery numbers with 11; 11 is not my password. But it turns up often enough that I notice – and wonder.

Today is also Veterans Day, and as the mother of a veteran, a veteran looking for a job, it holds greater significance to me than in the past. I appreciate all veterans, but viewing my son in that role brings the day and the reason for the day into sharp focus. I wonder, do I only value things that touch me somehow? And the answer comes, reassuringly, no, but like anything in life, a personal connection increases awareness and insight. So I see veterans with new gratitude, new appreciation for sacrifices. I see differently because I see through my son.

So, an important day on the calendar: a date that will be easily remembered for the births and marriages that occurred this day…easily remembered for whatever happened. Hope you made a great memory, celebrated, jumped for joy over something in your life.

As for me? I was given a great gift today. Something I thought was arranged for future work fell through. I was disappointed, deflated, dejected. And then I realized: this loss will push me more toward the kind of work I really want to do. The opportunity that evaporated was a safety net, a little bit of a sure thing (so I thought) for my finances as I step away from a “regular” job. But the reality is that I need the push to be out there, to make my own way. So, though it wasn’t what I expected when I got up this morning, 11-11-11 delivered. And it will be memorable for me. The best part? A husband who has my back, who took me to dinner, and toasted with me to our connection, and to 11-11-11.

A normal day

Today was typical. Weather for SE Alaska in November: rain, rain, more rain. Work: standard day. With all the changes on my horizon, still, my days are fairly predictable. (Update on this in January when I’ve turned things upside down by transitioning to a project-based work life and stream of income.) Family is well, relatively speaking; friends are well, as far as I know. Although some things in my life are ever-evolving, a never-ending work in progress, I’m able to recognize a measure of stability. And I’ve experienced enough roller coaster moments in life to appreciate the periods of relative calm.

Thank God for normal days. Not boring, not stressful, just normal.

This quote was in my email this morning:

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are… Let me not
pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. One day I
shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in my pillow, or
stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than
all the world, your return.

~ Mary Jean Iron

On the ferry

Monday, November 7…Rob and I are on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry “Lituya” this morning, traveling back to Ketchikan. He worked in Metlakatla last week and over the weekend, and I came over to hang out with him while he took call for the clinic from Friday through Sunday.

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Travel in Alaska can be unpredictable. You never know if weather will impact flying in small planes, especially this time of year, so the ferry is the safe bet. Today is beautiful, clear and no rain. What a great way to start a Monday!