Originally published in Thrive Global on February 17, 2017.
It is the end of summer. I am away from the press of Silicon Valley on vacation in Alaska by myself. I am far from home — a distance that allows for my own thoughts, a distance that drains my mind of my daily myriad of shortfalls: should do, should be, should have. All those back breaking, mind electrifying shoulds. The get shit dones of life that are impacted by gridlock, overflowing email, and late-night Facebooking. These are in the rearview mirror, for now. Hour by hour the Boschian energy that has been sliming me back home is slipping away. A slice of the Inside Passage is framed perfectly through the oversized picture window in front of me. The enormity of nature is working its medicine.
I am thinking about the Fall, meaning the Fall from Grace — not the time of year that heralds fiery colored trees and back to school supplies. Looking on this view, I wonder how the Garden, the biblical Garden of Eden, could have ever possibly surpassed it.
I am thinking about second chances.
My first time to Alaska, my father brought me on a one-on-one excursion. He wanted to show me my heritage. He wanted to do a little fishing. My father passed away five years ago. Now, this place has become a place of connection for me.
My grandmother was born in 1898 on Unga Island, part of the Aleutian chain, the strand of islands that demarcates the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. The island is 15 miles across and my great grandfather, a Dane, worked for the Apollo Mining Company. They came to Douglas Island by way of Kodiak Island when Grandma was still quite small. She moved to San Francisco in her late 20s. Today, Unga is a ghost town.
My dad loved Alaska. He visited Juneau and Douglas with his mother and baby sister once as a small child in 1935. He was six years old. He did not return again until late in life, after his mother died. I’d like to think one of the reasons he loved Alaska so much was that it enabled him to be close to his mother, even after she was gone.
Getting to know Juneau and Douglas was getting to know Grandma’s other dimensions. The parts of her before she became a wife. Before she became a mother. Before she lived in the big city of San Francisco.
Why not a second chance?
In Christianity, isn’t Jesus supposed to be the ultimate second chance? If you compare old and new testaments, God has chilled out quite a bit. So, why not?
It couldn’t hurt to ask.
On my second visit to Alaska, I arrived in mid-October for a whole month by myself. I was taking a year off of work. A year to heal from burnout. A year to heal from the pace and pressure — to restore what I had done to my body and mind as a result of that abuse and the depression it had caused. A year to process the significance of my father’s death, and this new reality without him. A year to pursue my passion of writing. Alaska kicked off this year.
Needless to say, the time off was not supported among some of my family and friends. There were the looks askance, the hushed murmurs about irresponsibility behind hands as well as straight to my face. The sheer worry in my mother’s eyes. What about your mortgage?
Thankfully, there were a few stalwart, “go get ‘em” supporters. They were the ones who had seen the strength of my spirit erode over time. “Don’t ever do that again,” a friend in my book club had said. I had sunk so far into depression that I knew that this time off was an imperative, not a choice.
I was in a scary and lonely place, striking out with no income, burning through savings to pay the mortgage and no guarantee that I would land on my feet on the other side of the year.
The devastation I had felt at my father’s passing coupled with a job that had not worked out after nine years, a distant divorce, no relationship or family of my own in the latter half of my forties, led me to a series of existential questions.
One of the most important questions in my turn around was about my dad.
How could I best honor him?
I was struck by the immediacy and force of the response.
Coming to Juneau for that month was my attempt to get back to the Garden. I had a very long journey ahead of me to climb out of my depression that would be marked by baby steps and small successes, some back sliding, and a lot of praying and meditating. I would eventually fully recover, but this “coming home” of sorts to Alaska was the first step. It was a major one.
There was another important question that I continue to ask but the answer is slower to come. I will perhaps always be working on this one.
What is true for me?
After my time off, I was healthy and strong and centered and happy. I went back to the same line of work because it was financially expedient. Oh, how I wanted to fit in! But, in the patriarchal world of semiconductors, the cards are stacked against me. In that world, I am outnumbered. I feel deeply. I express freely. I am artistic. I am a woman. I care as much, or perhaps more, for the people that report to me as I do for my superiors. I am willing to question power as warranted.
Here is the real problem: I am becoming less willing to fake fitting in. In fact, I am becoming less and less willing over time to fake anything at all. I will no longer stuff myself into the constrained boxes of contrived acceptable behavior that is exclusive to women, and I am no longer apologetic about it.
This is true for me.
Once you uncover truth about yourself, there is no choice but to accept it, and also to honor it. Even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if it will put you on the outside looking in. Happiness isn’t about logic, a theoretic of a life well lived, or “shoulds.”
Happiness is about being in touch with your feelings. It’s about prioritizing your health and your relationships and being of service. Happiness is firmly rooted in being true to yourself. It’s about not conforming for the sake of conforming and letting your truth shine out loud. It’s about being fully present. It’s about the affirmation of life.
I paraphrase a point the late theologian Marcus Borg made in a talk of his I attended once: If loving your neighbor as yourself is the Golden Rule, then you must learn to love yourself well. Because without that, you will short change the others.
It is possible to “should” yourself to death. I was a pathological “shoulder.”
When I begin to waver on being true to myself, invariably I fall off course and the depression returns.
I am in another job now but the same line of work. Here I am again. A third trip to Alaska. A short trip this time but nevertheless, I am asking for another chance.
Here is to second chances. Here is to third and fourth chances, too. It is never too late to turn a ship around no matter the strength and force of the culture, upbringing, career, friends or any other swirl of momentum shoving you around.
I rent a small room in Juneau. It doesn’t have a full kitchen but it does have a full view which is what I care about most.
When my father brought me to Alaska. He wanted to show me this heritage of mine. He had a vivid memory of his uncle who took him for a walk into the deep forest packing a rifle. He had another memory of his grandmother teaching him to tie his shoelaces.
Getting to know Alaska is getting to know my father’s other dimensions. The small boy in the woods with his rifle-packing uncle, protecting him from the bears. The warm meeting of grandmother and grandson for the first and only time. The candies she kept for him in her pockets. Whether he was conscious of it or not, his grandmother remained with him throughout his life. He only had to tie his shoelaces.
In returning, I carry not only the special relationship I had with my father, but the special relationship my father had with his mother. His love of fishing. The dimensions of my ancestors who were pioneers here. The wild blend of Irish, Danish, Russian, and Aleut all mixed up together. They have always been with me, even when I couldn’t see it or didn’t know it. In returning, I am learning about my own facets, both apparent and hidden.
The silence and solitude, the landscape and heritage are all important pieces of the puzzle.
Getting to know Alaska is getting to know myself.
It is ancient, this feeling. Learning to discover and embody my heritage. Beyond my grandmother, I never knew these ancestors in a physical sense, but I do know them in a very real way. I feel them quite deeply. Especially when I am here.
I sit at the picture window in my small, rented room. Through the glass there are boats skittering across the water in front of me. The gentle currents are backed by rounded mountains and are intermittently interrupted by tiny islands in Auke Bay. The round softness of Douglas Island, the dark green plush of rainforest, the sun overhead, gives this land a feeling of gentleness, calling up the soft curves of a nurturing mother. This belies the reality. The mountains are at the same time, giving and unforgiving. The smoky blue crags in the distance are perhaps more honest than the rolling slopes of North Douglas.
The water looks inviting. The sun-dappled warmth is deceiving because the water this time of year is approximately 51 degrees Fahrenheit. For context, this temperature is roughly midpoint between a 69-degree recreation-center pool in Southern California and the killer 28-degree arctic water that unsinkable Molly Brown bobbed around in as the Titanic went down. While the summer water temperature in Juneau won’t immediately kill you, it is something to respect. The temperature could knock you unconscious in an hour.
I see a bald eagle above the water, coasting toward shore.
I was twenty-eight before I saw my first bald eagle, our nation’s symbol. I was living in Colorado and it was a thrill. In 1963, two years before I was born, the bald Eagle was down to only four hundred and eighty seven nesting pairs due to the pesticide DDT. DDT endangered bald eagles to near extinction.
Because of this outrage to our symbolic identity and wildlife in general, they banned the stuff. There are lots of bald eagles in Juneau now. In fact, I’ve seen several just today, and it is only my first full day here.
The bald eagle got a second chance.
My boss challenged some of us on his staff the other day to do twenty-two push ups. The number twenty-two is significant because roughly twenty-two US veterans take their own lives everyday. The challenge is to raise awareness of the suicide epidemic among those who have served.
I did my twenty-two in the office the other day.
Today, I decided I would do it again. I got down underneath the picture window with the spectacular view and did all twenty-two without stopping, making me conscious once again of the suicide problem, of depression, and how much these people need help.
When I stood up from my pushups, I was face-to-face with a hummingbird, hovering there, inches from the glass above a red flower. It was a weird thing, seeing that magical bird so close to my face at eye level in the garden. But for the glass, I could touch it.
Being booted from Eden wasn’t a physical act at a point before civilization. It is a wholly perceptual knife-edge that we walk every day. Our heritage is both Garden and banishment. We embody both possibilities. To be happy, you have to choose it. Sometimes that takes effort. When happiness comes to you, it is a blessing. The best thing you can do is to honor it by recognizing and appreciating it. Maybe then, it will want to return.
I was doing twenty-two pushups for the twenty-two people who gave up, ostensibly because they did not have hope.
I lifted my head and hope slapped me in the face. Wings and heartbeat vibrated in upwards of 60 pulses a second or more before the hummingbird darted away. It had been right in front of me.
Follow Susan von Konsky on Twitter @susanvk_1