No Exit

No Exit: Guest post by Leslie Leyland Fields

I push through the doors of the Ted Stevens airport, the last door on the strip. I am late, of course, but I am not worried. This is ERA I am flying, after all. I’m just going home to Kodiak. No airport security, just fly through the check-in 20 minutes before the flight, show a boarding pass and ID and walk the tarmac out to the prop-winged bird. But it is Frontier Air now, I remember, yet another airline re-shuffle in these unstable times. I check in and find out that the Frontier departure gate for Kodiak has been moved and is now at the other end of the terminal. I buy some crackers for dinner and roll my carry-on down the new hallway.

The tunnel is distant, twisting and empty; it is Kafka-esque, I decide, and I wonder, as I’m eating my crackers and rolling my suitcase, if some grotesque metamorphosis is even now rearranging my cells. But when I reach the end, I change my mind. A sudden city of people has appeared, crammed and clustered in a narrow cell of a waiting room. They all look strangely settled, as though they’ve been here for an age. I decide Kafka is out---and Sartre is in, in this chillingly accurate replica of “No Exit.”

I find out the weather in Kodiak is bad. That the last two planes, the Frontier dash-8 and the Alaska jet both flew gallantly all the way to Kodiak, looped successive ellipticals, in hopes of a fissure in the impenetrable fog and clouds, then defeated, circled back. This city in the cell, then, is populated with returnees, Loopers, fatigued but dogged people, trying again.

I know that feeling. I’ve done the Kodiak Loop too many times myself in my 32 years here. (My husband may hold the record, though---five loops, five tries to Kodiak before he finally touched ground.) Tonight, I just want to get home, rest my swollen cheek and throbbing jaw, from root canal surgery done the day before, on my own feather pillow.

I sit next to two women I know. We compare weather reports from our families back home. All reports agree---the weather’s getting worse. Heavy rain, heavy clouds, heavy fog, and winds coming up. A voice from the ceiling speaks, “We’re waiting on the weather to board, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll see what the weather wants to do. We’ll let you know as soon as we know if we’re going.”

Debbie and Christy and I decide they should just cancel. We should all go back to our hotels, go out to a really nice dinner (Orso’s, say Debbie and I ) and return to Kodiak tomorrow---well-fed, rested, swooping home in a single declarative flight, no questions (will we board? Will we land?) hanging. Fifteen minutes later the voice announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the weather has improved enough to launch. If it doesn’t get better while we’re flying, we’ll land in Homer to refuel, and then take another look at it from there. We’ll be boarding in just a few moments.”

We roll our eyes at each other. It’s good enough to launch, but not likely good enough to land. Neither place, Anchorage or Homer is home, but getting stuck in Homer is worse than getting stuck in Anchorage. We slowly reconstitute ourselves, get up and dumbly, reluctantly stand in line. We all know we’re players in Sartre’s theatre after all, but we have to follow the script. We have to try, at least.

On board, the seats are full. No one bothers to look out the cloud-blinded windows. My seatmate mutters to herself, “This is why I don’t live in Kodiak anymore.” I entertain Debbie across the aisle with another flight story, this one of a three hour flight delayed in Seattle, then an unexpected midnight landing and refueling in Yakutat, in case we had to circle extra long before landing. We don’t talk about the planes that have crashed.

Fifty minutes pass. We’re past Homer now, surely. We’re going all the way, then. We feel the plane descend, hear the engine straining at another pitch. The landing gear drops mechanically; my seatmate and I exchange hopeful, nervous smiles. All eyes strain at the windows, trying to pierce the curtains of fog. We lean forward in our seats, pressing toward home, but still no sign of earth below. Someone behind me, across the aisle says “Look! I see some cliffs!” Hope stirs , the plane buzzes louder, our stomachs drop, a runway appears and we fall onto it gracelessly but beautifully.

A few months earlier, while traveling home to Kodiak from somewhere far away, I limped up to the ERA counter at the Anchorage airport. Almost home. One leg remaining. I was tired. I handed my commuter coupon to the woman behind the counter. There was a problem. She studied my coupon, reads my itinerary aloud to herself, “Okay, let’s see, Anchorage to Yuck, Yuck to Anchorage”.

I looked at her through night-flight eyes, blinked slowly, incredulously, then asked. “What did you say? Did you just call Kodiak, yuck??”

She laughed unselfconsciously. “Oh yeah. We all call it that. It’s the worse place we fly. That and Dutch Harbor. It’s always causing problems—wind, rain, fog, so hard to get in and out of. What a pain.”

She did not consider the fact that I might live there. She wanted me to feel sorry for her.

I have ten trips to make Outside these next few months, for speaking and teaching. I try to show up on stage at conferences and colleges and perform as though whisked in by my own Lear jet. As though I did not miss my other connections because I couldn’t get out of Kodiak, as though I had not flown all night and the next day to get there. As though the passage from this island to the rest of the world were not exhausting and harrowing every time. I try not to talk about it, this endless subject. And I try not to feel like a martyr for living in a place nicknamed “yuck.”

I’m not always successful. I don’t want to play the martyr---or the fool. Kodiak Island is not a stage, but I’m acting out what is most of all, true in this world--- we only imagine that we direct our lives. Our comings and goings, our entrances and exits are fragile, our intentions and desires controlled by winds and clouds and waters whose own travels are measured and announced, but largely unknown. I yield to this, in my own stubborn way, relieved to know the out-there world is so beyond my one self. I am glad to be here at all, to have any part to play in this stunning, wind-and fog wrought theatre.

I say that in my best moments. In my deepest heart, I want my planes to take off and land by my own perfect script. When they don’t, I know nothing else to do but this: to sit by the window, rehearsing my lines---again.

Marauding Bears All Over Town+The Wisdom of Garbage

Marauding Bears All Over Town+The Wisdom of Garbage

“But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted.”    ---Wendell Berry

More than a dozen bears are ambling and gobbling their way out of the hearts of Kodiak residents. There’s a couple in my neighborhood too. One was shot and killed while raiding a chicken coop not far from my house.   

Removal of the bear shot while raiding a chicken coop.

We live on an island of more than 4000 Kodiak bears, the highest density of bears in the world. Most of the island is a federal bear refuge (everything in green on the map).

Our high school sports teams are, of course, “The Bears.”  Part of our fishcamp is on Bear Island. We teach our kids what to do when they see a bear (photo) .  We’re on the alert out there for bears swimming over to our fishcamp island. We have guns loaded on gun racks ready for a marauding bear. When we hike we fasten a canister of bear spray to our belts.  

But we’ve not had so many frontyard bears before. The reason? A new garbage system.  Central dumpsters have been replaced, inexplicably, with garbage cans (“rollcarts”)  placed out on the streets, creating an irresistible temptation  
to the bruin population.

Blame is being slung as fast and harsh as hash and hard tack. No one is blaming the bears.  Everyone is blaming the garbage; more specifically the ones who voted the new garbage system in.

Into this mess of blame and hash, I feel no need to defend the bear. The bear is himself an overwhelming fact of nature who can defend himself better than most (though not against guns).  Nor can I defend the planners who passed this plan despite vociferous and prophetic objections. 

I offer instead a few words  in the defense of garbage, which cannot defend itself. 

We hate it, of course.  We despise even our own garbage. We lily-wrap it in scented bags (I predict floral garbage bags will be next) that lock, snap and tie like a noose to choke out any possible leakage.  We whip it out our doors, out of sight and smell, as if it carried the bubonic plague. 

But garbage tells the truth about us. It has wisdom to impart. It reminds us that are not independent, self-sustaining creatures.  We must eat, drink, wear clothes, and clean up to stay alive and well.  Our lives, our breath and our body costs other beings, requires other lives and resources.  We cannot not create waste.  Even without wrappers or fast food, the cleanest foods, even water will turn to waste in our bodies. There is always something left over.  Only the dead produce nothing.

But we are wasteful in our waste. We tire of our clothes sooner than they wear out. We chuck our clunky-heeled shoes, no longer in style. We stuff the can with the turquoise coat too gauche for our taste this year. We serve ourselves too much food and throw away the rest. We throw too much away because we buy too much. We buy too much because we don’t know the difference between want and need. 

And even what we throw away other creatures want and need.   

I am not much different than most people.  I’d like to consume less---less of everything, especially plastic (but maybe not shoes and clothes—which I buy a lot of, but mostly used--Phew!)    

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus turned a boy’s sack lunch into a feast for 5,000, despite his ability to produce infinite resources, he threw nothing away. When all had eaten and marveled, he told the disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments. Let nothing be wasted.”  

Those words, both their spiritual and their literal application, are enough for me. “Let nothing be wasted.” Don’t waste pain, or fear or time or strength or resources or any of the gifts you’ve been given. Don’t even waste your waste. 

Reduce it if you can. Don’t refuse so much of your refuse. At the least, let it remind you of the cost of life, what costly creatures we are. 

Knowing this, don’t spend more: value everything you hold for all it’s worth. 

And sometimes, don’t let go.

Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer's Shelves (and Soul)

Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer’s Shelves (and Soul)

Our freezer is nearly empty. We’ve eaten all of last year’s fish and meat, which constitutes a near emergency. Tomorrow I’ll close my computer, ignore my writing deadlines and head back out by bush plane and boat to an island in the Gulf of Alaska where I’ve worked in commercial fishing with my family for 35 years.  We were so busy with the commercial season this summer we didn’t have time to put up our own fish for the winter, the wild salmon that will feed us luscious Omega-3 saturated flesh weekly through a long season of dark. We also harvest berries, venison, halibut and sometimes caribou. Putting up our own food stores, which goes by the shorthand term “subsistence,” is a normal and necessary part of most people’s lives in rural Alaska.

“Subsistence” is defined  as “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” In Alaska, however, where a subsistence lifestyle is as common as wool socks, it’s evolved into almost the opposite concept. We don’t hunt and fish and grow and harvest simply to live—we engage in subsistence to live well. We have access to cellophane-wrapped factory-farmed meat like everyone else—but it is expensive, saturated with antibiotics and hormones, and has been shipped a very long way to get here. We prefer to harvest wild-grown meat from our own piece of the land and sea. It’s one of the reasons we live here.

This last week I began another kind of subsistence: I started re-reading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s wise and extraordinary novel. Her profound musings on the worth of life, as spoken through John Ames, an elderly pastor, remind me how empty my writer’s pantry has become. The authors who have sustained me through the decades—Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggeman, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson—have become strangers of late supplanted by blogs, social media, and research for other writing projects. These are all quick, short reads full of good information, but I’ve been achingly hungry without knowing it.

I realize that my writing life is little different than my food life. I’m often so busy on the commercial end of the work—the marketing, creating the next book proposal, the social media—that I forget to do the real subsistence work. While I’m as tempted as anyone else to spend my time feeding on strategies to garner audiences and master social media, ultimately, I’ll starve on such a diet. Fifty-seven Ways to Grow Your Platform, while helpful, will do little to awaken mystery, stir my imagination, provoke paradox, unearth wisdom, deepen my humanness, all of which is why I began to write in the first place. I realize if I maintain a steady diet of techniques, I’ll soon be setting an impoverished table for not only myself, but also for my readers, who come themselves needing sustenance.

Subsistence work is not easy. Rather than grabbing cellophane packages of meat and fish from the meat counter, I have to go out into boats, I have to use knives and muscles, I have to cut off heads, pull out guts, spill real blood.

It’s a physical engagement with the material world. Reading the best writers is not unlike this. It takes more effort to read longer works. Blood will be spilled there as well as we wrestle with the deepest, hardest and most profound stories of dying and living. But this is how we will subsist and be sustained as writers for a very long time.

When I sit down to my first meal of grilled salmon this winter, I will remember where it came from, how it felt in my hands. I will be so well-fed, I will want to write about it, and will set the table for others to join me in the feast. I hope my work will feed others as well as I have been fed myself. With some labor, and yes, some blood, it can happen.

What kind of reading are you returning to for “extravagant subsistence”? How can we make more time for this kind of reading (and for sustaining physical labor)?

A Note To Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity

In the last month, I spent time with two younger women, both of whom had just released their first book. Sarah and Andrea are both fine writers whom I expect will continue to write and publish books. In the short time I had with each of them, I found myself dumping all my writing and marketing advice, talking about websites, blogging, Facebook, twitter. But I forgot to say the most important thing of all: honor your obscurity.

Very few young writers, musicians, artists value their obscurity. For good reason. We know if we’re to be published in any form, we need an audience, a sizeable audience. We know that most of the time we have to find that audience before that first book contract even lands on our desk. And once it does, and the book is out, we’re tasked to keep racking up bigger numbers. But how do we catch the eye and ear of a world that so often chooses the flippant, the crude, the gaudy spectacle over the good, the authentic, and the true?  If we’re the praying sort, we may resort to prayer, remembering the words another writer made famous a few years ago,

“O, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”

(Oh, dear Jabez, I want to say. How did you get away with that prayer?)

But we do it too, I suspect. The artists’ version would go something like, “O, that you would bless me and enlarge my platform, increase my followers, expand my twitter peeps and keep me from publishing harm so I will be famous, free from the pain of falling out-of-print.”

I can write this prayer because I know these desires. An hour ago I was on a nationally syndicated radio show, and I find myself, now, against my better will, glued to numbers, trying to measure “impact.” While guiltily number-stalking, a stranger writes me on Facebook immediately after the broadcast and asks how he can become a writer and speaker, like me. (He’s in his twenties and he hasn‘t written anything  yet . . .)   Someone else writes to ask me how to build a fan base for her blog.

I do have advice: if you want others to read you and listen to you, you must listen to others. Do for others what you want them to do for you. That will not make you famous; that will make you better informed and more humble.

And second, fame is not what you think. Admittedly, I am not the best source here. My moments of “fame” are modest and sporadic. But I still know this: it isn’t what you think. It’s often over in a moment. It brings more responsibility than freedom. And if you’re not careful, it can pollute or paralyze your writing. I have a friend whose first book shot to the New York Times bestseller list.  His agent, his readers, his global fan base now hold their collective breath for his next book. “How do I write under this weight?” he asks me. He has so many others he must now heed and please.

“Honor your obscurity” is another way of echoing Bill Roorhbach’s charge to “honor your apprenticeship.”  Value these months, years of laboring toward your best work with fewer listening in than you would like. This quiet is your wilderness, your blessing. Here you will sharpen your art. You will lean closer to the sounds around you, for the fragile people who haunt the forests you watch, for the small voice that whispers names you didn’t know.

Enjoy the purity of your efforts, making art and worlds and essays out of the sheer love of words, of theatre, of longing and of hope. Enjoy it now before a woman or a publisher sits down beside you filling your notebook with a thousand necessary tasks, few of which have much to do with why you began writing in the first place.

Finally, what do you imagine fame will bring you? For me (and for many writers I know) I hope mostly to be able to keep on writing, to keep using “that talent which is death in me to hide,” as John Milton writes. If you’re doing this now, pouring life into the truest sentences you can make, you’re already famous.

Rest Works

For Matthew Sleeth, Sabbath-keeping furthers both our happiness and holiness.

We're overworked, stressed, constantly on the move. More than 90 percent of Americans stay connected to their mobile phones—which is to say, to their office—24/7.

Old news. In 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life (Tyndale), Matthew Sleeth, M.D., dashes off a prescription that is 3,500 years older: a return to the fourth commandment ("Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy").

As someone who has taken the dose, I have unexpected news to report. Halfway through, I felt so convinced of Sleeth's arguments for rest (and so exhausted from my previous Sabbath), I took a nap. Without guilt. My testimonial, then: 24/6 works!

Sleeth makes a winsome case for a return to Sabbath "rest, renewal and reverence." As the director of Blessed Earth and the author of Serve God, Save the Planet, he brings his dual expertise in eco-theology and medicine to the subject. A Sabbath, after all, is given to the land itself, and who would know more about workaholism than a former ER physician?

His diagnostic skills are on full display. We take comfort from our work obsession, he notes, because "[i]f work is the meaning of our lives, then more work equals more meaning." To balance hard work, we engage in hard play. But there's a biblical solution to our collective freneticism: work hard—then stop, a rhythm where "the work takes on more meaning and the stopping takes on holiness."

God's holiness is the very ground of the fourth commandment, the longest and most detailed commandment of the ten, Sleeth reminds us: "He rests because he is holy and everything that God does is holy …. Rest shows who God is."

He does address the usual issues around Sabbath-keeping: Which day? What constitutes work and rest? Does Jesus' grace nullify the commandment? He sketches these issues helpfully without getting stuck in the usual ruts of legalism or, on the other side, a casual libertinism that reduces the Sabbath to any personal moment of diversion.

For all this good, I confess to a few queasy moments along the way. The subtitle itself threatens a Joel Osteen-like "live your best life now." The vibe continues in the preface, which highlights a business owner who closes his store on Sunday and ends up, yes, a multimillionaire. Thankfully, Sleeth makes few prosperity promises beyond that lapse, but he clearly knows it will take some pragmatism and marketing to sell the Sabbath to a horde of workaholic pragmatists. Overall, though, the theologian in me is slightly disappointed. More should have been done to address the sacred/secular divide that the fourth commandment appears to establish and sanctify. The seventh day is named holy; does this imply the other six days of work and commerce are not? It's not until the last third of the book that the author enlarges the Sabbath from a single day to a "sabbatical way of life," but even to the last, I sense a dualism that isn't fully reconciled.

Admittedly, it's easy to find gaps in a small book that tackles a weighty topic. In the end, Sleeth made the right call. In resting on the seventh day, he notes, God showed restraint, which is "not doing everything that one has the power to do." The doctor has shown a similar restraint. Would an exhaustive theological treatise on the Sabbath urge fatigued readers toward a fuller life of reverence, balance, and faith? Not likely.

I expect and hope the doctor's prescription will lead to ditched cell phones and outbreaks of walks, family dinners, naps, and a furious shuffling of to-do lists, which may feel a lot like work at first. But not for long.

Can Christian Women Have it All?

Can Christian Women Have It All? Debunking the Work-Life Balance Myth  
Why Christian women are needed at home and in the highest echelons of society

By now everyone who cares, and some who don't, have heard about Ann-Marie Slaughter's exhaustive Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." The sub-blurb heightens the controversy:

It's time to stop fooling ourselves …. The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here's what has to change.

I've always found cheerleading inexplicable, but while reading Slaughter's 12,000+-word treatise, I felt a powerful urge to don a flippy skirt, grab a pom-pom, and lead a stadium of women in a cheer: "Sis Boom Bah! No More La-Dee-Dah!" Slaughter, who broke several glass ceilings as the first woman dean at Woodrow Wilson School of Law and as first woman director of policy planning under Hillary Clinton, dared to do the unthinkable: She stepped down from her high-level position to spend more time with her struggling teenage sons.

Slaughter boldly takes on the myths of feminism perpetuated most recently by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Both women are addressing the persistently low numbers of women in high levels of government and corporate leadership, despite decades of feminist ideology and greater gains among women in education and influence. Sandberg blames it on an "ambition gap." Women are giving up positions of power to prioritize their families, but they can do better. If they're committed enough, if they marry the right person, if they sequence their childbearing correctly, they can have it all. Or so goes the mantra.

But Slaughter effectively guts these myths. The real obstacles to successfully managing both a career and family life, she argues, lie in outdated, one-dimensional thinking in our workplaces. For too long we have thought in exclusive categories: If you're committed to your work, you'll spend as much time as possible at the office. If you talk about your family at work, you're less professional. The greater your devotion to work and the more time you spend, the more productive you'll be, and so on.

She gives us homework we can all do right now: to begin breaking down the artificial borders between these essential parts of our lives. Slaughter leads the way. "When I was dean, I was very conscious of openly saying, 'I have to go to a parent-teacher meeting. I have to go home for dinner.' What kind of society doesn't let us say these things?"

Slaughter's unrelenting affirmation of the importance of family, and the need to rethink our workplace obsession, will endear her to some evangelicals. But I fear some readers will drop the magazine when she writes this:

"The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a 'new gender gap'—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders."
Despite this statement, Slaughter's cause célèbre is not feminism. She is intensely interested in the well-being of families, of mothers and fathers, of workers and employers. Her cause is humanism, the well-being of all. To advance this cause, we need to bring the best minds to the hardest problems in the highest realms of leadership. As long as our work culture virtually excludes women with families from rising to leadership positions, we're losing needed brainpower and perspective. The means of achieving better representation, creating a more fluid environment that places a higher value on family, will benefit all.

Where are Christian women in all this? Can Christian women have it all, too? Several Christian friends who read this article thought Slaughter's life and perspective were "sad" and "joyless," comments that reveal a suspicion of ambitious women. We—the church and even other Christian women—don't know what to do with highly educated and accomplished women. We often wrongly assume that those who aspire to powerful positions do so out of pride and self-seeking, and we offer the biblical model of the servant-leader as a corrective.

Yet it's clear to me that Slaughter and other highly placed women spend their days and nights serving—that is to say, leading, that is to say, serving for the benefit of many. I detect little ego in their extraordinary schedules and efforts. Nor do I require explicit joy from them. I do find much hope in Slaughter's words, and I sense an implicit understanding that "to whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48).

We Christians also tend, at times, to view women who are confident and successful in the workplace as less feminine, less submissive, perhaps even less godly than women in more traditional roles. As both sides run to Proverbs 31 to proof-text their choice, we must all admit that the virtuous woman is almost obsessively industrious, leading and serving inside and outside her household walls—as did Deborah the judge, Miriam, and Queen Esther, among other pillars of the faith.

Because of these biblical models, and after my own decades of experience in churches, colleges, and businesses run almost exclusively by men, my advice to young Christian women is changing. I still encourage women in their homemaking lives, a life I am immersed in as well. But I also encourage Christian women to aspire to graduate degrees and positions of influence. It is clear to me that the church, the government, and the culture in general will not become healthier without the involvement of more women. We will not earn those positions without a renewed commitment to faith, to education, and to the wider world.

But, as Slaughter so clearly outlines, we need more than that. With tens of thousands of Christian women graduating from U.S. state and Christian universities every year, the potential for godly influence is growing rapidly. But without changes in our work and home lives, without husbands and wives working together and sharing tasks, this potential won't be fully realized.

Christian women need to be empowered to follow their calling and their gifts. As Christian women, we can have it all and we should: which means, we must be full participants in the creation of a healthy, vital culture where work is honored, God is served, and families are loved and secure.