Storytime: An excerpt from my book

I have been pounding away at the first-draft of my first book for a solid five months now. To my excitement, surprise and horror, I’m nearly finished with the thing! I only have another section and a half to write before I can officially say that I have finished the first draft of my first book! Holy fuck!

Right now, the thing clocks in at just shy of 90,000 words. To give you some perspective, The Joy Luck Club is 95,000 words. So no matter what happens, I can officially say that this is the longest writing project I have ever done in my entire life. Period.

So far I have worked in a kind of denial about publishing it. Yes, that is the goal. But no, I don’t have a book deal. (Yet!) To be honest, I had to see if I could even do this before I wanted to go through the gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, rejection-filled process of begging someone to take a chance on me. What if I couldn’t even write more than 10,000 words? For my own sanity, I have had to take this project one baby-step at a time.

But now I am feeling a little more confident, enough at least to share a small little piece of this project with you.

What is this book about? That is the most difficult question, by far. I am utterly inept at answering it. The best I can do is to say that this book is about how I learned to heal the damage in my heart and find true happiness. I stared down the demons of the past, sometimes literally traveling thousands of miles to face directly what I feared. I went to Alaska, Oregon, Illinois, all over Nevada and many parts in between. This book is part auto-biography, part American road-trip travelogue and part self-help.

Here is a tiny piece of the puzzle of my book. It’s a light-hearted piece. I hope you enjoy it. (And please remember this is an unedited, first-draft.):

Sing Loud in the Forest to Startle the Moose

“From distant star to this here bar. The me, the you. Where are we now?”

— Pixies, “Allison”

My first year in Wasilla was full of adventure. I was chronically geeky and precocious as a child and so I found myself alone a lot. My experiences in Wasilla seemed to heighten that as the places we lived, a couple of apartments and finally a house on the-then out-skirts of town, were all isolated and surrounded by deep woods. Forget neighbors. With few exceptions, I had no neighbors. While this increased my sense of loneliness at times, it was also kind of liberating to just wander about, climbing on trees and building forts or sitting on a stump reading a book. Nobody would bother me or tease me for being a nerd or out of fashion. Nobody would complain if I was too loud or was uninteresting. And since everything about Alaska seemed utterly foreign to me, I had a lot of exploring and learning to do about my new environment.

The first apartment we lived in was the across the street from an A-frame house, a common structure in Alaska. There was a girl my age who lived there. She was genuinely excited that I had moved in as there were no other children on our forest-lined street. We became friends and I was grateful for the company and her tutelage on all things Alaskan.

My first big lesson was something called Break Up. Those places in the Lower 48 that experience four full seasons (and now that I live in Las Vegas I know that there are less than your elementary education leads you to believe) have summer, fall, winter and spring. Alaska has summer, two weeks of fall, winter and break up. It’s pretty self-explanatory. All of the sudden winter ends and all the ice and snow “break up” and melt away in one heinous, messy rush. There’s a whole cottage industry based on predicting (and sometimes betting on) when certain rivers will break up, meaning their ice cracks and gives way. It’s a glorious nose bleed of water, mud, dog shit and anything else that was buried in your backyard for six months.

The first time you experience break up, it’s insane. Low-lying houses and streets flood. You go through a fresh pair of socks every time you go outside. The dripping off buildings sounds like the tapping of rain. It’s as if the entire state is trying to flush itself all at once. I think adults universally detest break up because it’s just one big mess, the only bonus to which is that it is a sign that winter is at long last done.

But for a girl who used to make mud pies on her grandma’s farm in Illinois, break up was awesome! This was amplified by the fact that my friend across the street lived on a very low-lying lot. Her house and the driveway to it were built up to avoid flooding, but all around it were giant, shallow ponds of muddy water. If I had been any older, I would have found the whole thing rank and disgusting. But I was just young enough still to be thrilled at the idea of floating on a raft on the newly formed “lakes” all around my friend’s house. Unfortunately, my mother was not as thrilled, as I quickly went through all my pants and socks in the space of one weekend after falling into the water many, many times. We were doing our laundry by quarter-operated machines in our building, so it got expensive.

The other thing about break up is that it is much later in the year than most people experience spring. It’s generally in April or sometimes even May. It lasts a couple of weeks and then it is on to full-force summer and endless days. So as I grew more and more into an Alaskan kid, I began to look forward to break-up as a sign that school was nearly done for the year.

About a year after the first apartment, we moved into a four-plex townhouse. It was set on a hill and completely surrounded by woods on all sides. (In fact, when I went to visit Wasilla for the first time in about a dozen years in 2008 I was surprised to see that there are now houses built all around the old place.)

Its location made it great for sledding and tromping around the woods as well as learning one of the most important rules of outdoor life in Alaska: Sing loudly when you walk through the woods. And I mean this literally. When I was living there no other houses were nearby. But I could cut through the woods in a few places to walk to different friends’ homes who were maybe a mile away or so. I would do this all times of the year and in the dark as well as the light. When I think about it, I realize how amazingly fearless (and stupid) I was in my youth.

So, one afternoon as the winter sun was setting (maybe around 3 or 4 p.m.) I was walking through the woods back from my friend’s house. It had snowed so my little trail was faint, but I really didn’t mind. I was crunching along in the fresh snow, when all of the sudden I heard something like a twig breaking. I stopped and looked all around in the dim, waning sunlight. (In the winter, even the full-day’s light is faint, like late-afternoon.) I scanned the woods a complete 360 degrees and then I spotted it – a moose. Well, for the most part moose are pretty harmless. They are huge herbivores and usually scare away pretty easily with just a little movement or sound. So I took my mittens off and clapped my hands and jumped around a little to scare the moose away from my path. But the moose was not budging and this made me nervous.

Moose are taller than horses, fatter than cows and run at a pretty swift clip when they feel like it. And while they are usually fairly docile, they are still wild animals. To put it another way: If you hit a moose with your car and you walk away unharmed, it’s considered lucky. They’ll stop a full-size pick-up in its tracks.

So here I am in the fading light, the gathering cold and in the middle of the woods alone faced with an unmovable moose. As it turned out, the moose had a calf in tow. That’s right, it was a Mamma Moose, the worst kind to happen upon. It’s a pretty well-worn truth in Alaska that if you happen upon a cow and her baby, you should book it the other way as quickly as possible. Most moose are calm and won’t bother you. In fact, there are photos of my husband hand-feeding carrots to moose off his parents’ back deck (which is at least eight or nine feet off the ground, might I add). But just like almost any other wild animal, you don’t mess with a mamma and her baby. Ever. It seemed like at least once a year you heard about someone getting mauled by a female moose because someone accidentally got too close to her young. Or they did the absolute worst thing: Got in between a mamma and her baby. That has spelled death for more than a few people, I’m sorry to say.

So I’m about nine or 10 years old walking through the woods and I’ve stumbled upon the worst moose situation of all. I’m alone. It’s getting dark and cold. And, for lack of a better way to express this, I was in a spot where nobody could hear me scream. If I stayed where I was, the mamma might charge me, just because they tend to be aggressive when they have babies around or she might wander away with her baby. But how long would that take? It was getting dark. And cold!

I can’t say this is a good idea, but it was the idea I had. I began to sing, loudly, and take baby steps in a direction that would give me a wide, wide berth around the moose. I am not a good singer. (At the time I was in my elementary school’s choir and the teacher was always telling me to sing quieter, which seems like a bad sign.) But when you are alone in the woods, who really gives a fuck what you sound like? I wanted to show the moose that I was not a threat, but that I was irritating enough to make her want to move further away from me.

Eventually, I was about even with the moose. She kept her eye on me the entire time and when I was just about to pass to the other side of her, the little calf started walking closer to where I was and the Mama Moose let out a sort of loud huff. I didn’t know what that might meant but I just started running like the wind. You know in cartoons when a character’s legs start spinning like a wheel underneath them and they zoom off with air swirls behind them? That was me! I don’t think I ever ran faster in my life! I didn’t even look back. I just booked it home as fast as I could.

It took me a while to get the courage again to walk to my friend’s house through the woods. And every time thereafter, no matter where I was going in the woods, I sang “Jingle Bells.” Yes, even in the middle of summer I would sing the Christmas anthem as I walked different trails through the woods.

Sometimes when people ask me what it was like growing up in Alaska, my mind flashes back to those moments. The answer, in a word: Surreal.

One thought on “Storytime: An excerpt from my book

  1. Absolutely Beautiful! You have certainly inherited your mother’s beautiful way with words. Your words put me right in the scene with you!

    Even though I haven’t seen you since you were that little girl making mudpies with my little girl at grandma’s house!

    I am so proud of you. Cindy

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