On Monday night I returned to North Carolina from a ten-day run of events in California and Alaska. It was a wonderful trip, and even had some downtime in it, which is not always the case in my crazy schedule. It also marked my fiftieth state to perform in professionally. Having offered concerts in Anchorage and Fairbanks, I’ve now played in all of them.
My longtime friend Gail Doering brought me out to Pleasant Hill, California to be the featured artist at the annual gala event for WomenSing, a long running women’s community choir in that area. It was a lovely night, and raised a great deal of money for that worthy project. I also had time for a bit of a hike while I was there, and made friends with some pretty amazing old oak trees.
From there, I was off to Anchorage. I knew Paul Boling years ago when I used to come through Springfield, Missouri to play at Drury College. Now he lives in Anchorage, and he brought me up to play a concert for the community there. A solid contingent of youth from AK Child and Family came along to the show, and I was grateful that they seemed to connect to the songs. Knowing that not many teenagers listen to folk music, I dropped a bit of Macklemore’s song Thrift Shop into the middle of my song Crawl Inside, and that got a few grins.
Following the Anchorage concert I had a day off, and Paul and his brother David took me down to Seward to see the Exit Glacier and Resurrection Bay. It was a perfect day, and great to stretch my legs a bit after a lot of time on airplanes. As one gets nearer to the glacier, there are small signs marking where the edge of the glacier was in particular years, and it was disturbing to see how rapidly it is receding due to accelerating climate change.
We passed at least a dozen wild swans, beginning their migration south for the winter, and were gifted with a stunning sunset as we made our way back to Anchorage.
The following day I caught a ride up to Fairbanks with two kind men who were on their way to the Presbytery of Yukon meeting where I was scheduled to offer a two-day workshop. Again, I scored extraordinary weather, which was particularly fortunate, given that Denali (a.k.a. Mt. McKinley) was out, in all its glory. I was told that Denali spends about 90% of its time covered in clouds, so one’s chances of seeing it at all are about 1 in 10. It is certainly one of the most striking geographical features that I have ever seen, and lived up to its name, which means “The Great One.”
Along the side of the road, we saw cross country skiers and mushers with dog teams practicing for the coming winter — the skis had wheels on them, and the dog teams were pulling ATVs in neutral. This time last year there had already been snow on the ground for a month, but Alaskans are nothing if not resourceful, and weren’t going to be slowed down by the lack of snow.
The workshops went well in Fairbanks, and, as is often the case, the deconstruction and reconstruction of Rosa Parks’ story was probably the most powerful part. Several indigenous women were a part of the group, and their insights and personal experiences were particularly moving to me.
Alaska leads the nation in suicide and intimate partner violence, and it was good to be with people who are working so diligently on those issues, as well as taking on environmental issues. Alaska is on the front lines of climate change, with villages needing to be relocated inland because of melting polar ice, glaciers receding, etc., in tandem with an economy that is dominated by the oil and gas industry. All of the complex issues and difficult decisions that the nation is facing are in stark relief in Alaska.
I met peace workers while I was there as well, including the sister-in-law of my good local friend Pablo Stone, a dedicated activist in my own small town in North Carolina. It is a small world indeed.
My final night in Alaska was spent on stage, offering one last concert in Fairbanks before heading home. After the show, which happened at the same time as the second presidential debate, I watched the debates with my friend Neill McKay, who set up that show, and his delightful family, then grabbed a shower and headed to the airport for the long journey home. The first flight left at 1:59AM, and I got home at 7:30 that evening. Before I left, though, Alaska had one last gift for me.
As I was getting my things together to head to the airport, about midnight, Neill called urgently from the back door. I ran to join him and we headed out into the back yard, where bright green ribbons of light were stretching up across the sky. I had seen a faint version of the Aurora Borealis a few nights before, and an even fainter one in Wyoming years ago, but nothing at all like this.
The ribbons twisted in the sky and spiraled gracefully like cigarette smoke, but clean and beautiful, and shifting color as it went. Then one long stretch began to spark with random vertical lines of light and color popping randomly along the length of it, as though a cosmic toddler were playing piano on it, striking random keys up and down its length. It is among the most beautiful and extraordinary things I have seen in my life, and I have been privileged to see many beautiful and extraordinary things.
Though photographs can never begin to capture it, Neill did get a few good ones, and kindly sent them to me.
And there it was, sprawled across the sky, the whole story. We had just watched this political debate that was extremely difficult to watch— dysfunctional, unkind, and sometimes dishonest. I had seen the receding glaciers and spent time with people whose lives and traditions are being irredeemably damaged by mental illness, environmental destruction, and so many other things.
And yet, I had also seen indescribable beauty, kindness, determination, resilience, self-sacrifice, courageous self-discovery, and commitment to community and growth. It’s all mixed up there together, in one beautiful mess. All of it is true. It is so easy to let the horrific truths of the world fill our consciousness, and we need to be careful there. We certainly do need to pay attention to them in order to stand against what is wrong and stand for what is right, but we also need to remember beauty. It is also true. And kindness. It is also all around us. It doesn’t make the headlines much, but it is everywhere. The work that people I met on this trip are doing in the world is noble and good. That is also true.
Hope is often painted as a naive thing, born of ignorance of how cruel the world can be, and sometimes it is that. There is a kind of hope that is naive. But there is also a kind of hope that is born of seeing the bigger picture, and understanding that our choices matter; that the fact that there are no easy solutions does not mean that we are powerless to move things in better directions. Vaclav Havel said that “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit.”
Hope is something we choose, not an observation. Giving up hope leads to nihilism and despair, and refusing to work for the world we want to see tends to lead to the conclusions we most fear. Working in hope, however, opens up the possibility for a better future.
I’m sticking with hope. And the folks I met on this trip are helping me to do that. I’m deeply grateful.
So now comes the obvious question… with all fifty states checked off, what do I do now? Should I just quit?
Nah… I think I’ll start over.