A few weeks after we arrived back in Alaska, I received a letter from my friend Ben, which he had apparently written while on a trip to Nepal, coming off the back end of a ten day Vipassana silent meditation retreat. As best as I could figure out, Ben hadn’t been able to converse with anyone for almost two weeks, and when he emerged, the only person he found to talk with was an expatriate clown who invited him to make balloon art with him during a performance at an upcoming Nepalese festival.
Thus, the letter. It was, and I say this with great care, the strangest letter I have ever received. By the time Ben came around to asking the question which was the purported purpose of the letter, I’d been treated to a 30-page soliloquy that connected topics as disparate as fighting fire and building balloon arrows. He balanced paragliding into Himalayan villages with an extended metaphor wherein Santa Claus and his elves delivered the spirit of Christmas via outhouse holes with teleportation capabilities.
It turned out Ben wanted to know what I thought the crappiest job in Santa’s workshop would be (pun intended). I had no idea, and I dismissed the letter as an example of the dangers associated with spending too much time apart from language. Rather than pondering strange metaphors, I turned to practical matters.
I started writing again, in earnest. Or to be more specific, I embarked on the awkward process of revising every essay I had left unfinished during the months spent in Missouri and the months walking the Appalachian Trail. I sent out a few pieces. After almost a decade working on one particular piece about the Arizona desert, it was picked up by a journal that specializes in spiritual literature. That I’d written a spiritual essay was news to me, but I was ecstatic nevertheless.
After a doctor’s exam to be sure I was tuberculosis free, I started substitute teaching at an elementary school down the hill, and it turned out that I was pretty good at being a sub. When you’re a sub, nobody expects much from you. If no students from your classroom turn up in the principal’s office, they call you an excellent teacher. No curriculum, no commitment, lots of praise. It’s great.
A neighbor who knew we were writers set both Mollie and me up with jobs as freelance journalists. For over a month now, we’ve been churning out articles about the Bristol Bay region—walrus regulations, reindeer shipments, kayakers, business and science symposiums—we don’t really get the juicy stories. Since we don’t live anywhere near Bristol Bay, we struggle to find local flavor. In lower 48 terms, it’s like we’re features reporters for a newspaper in Milwaukee, but we live in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. I spend hours plumbing the depths of the internet for bureaucratic announcements and corporate press releases, and then spend days trying to sort through the quagmire of federal, state and tribal agencies that make up the governing body of Alaska. It pays better than any writing I’ve ever done.
Mollie and I have fallen into a schedule with the dog yard. Scooping crap, feeding, watering, moving dogs to exercise lines, scooping more crap. I’ve begun to think the worst job in Santa’s workshop must be the guy who cleans up after the reindeer.
It hasn’t taken long for us to lose control of our routines. After six months with a singular focus, working three jobs that aren’t really jobs has left me feeling thin. Even the activities meant to relieve this stress—brewing beer, sewing fur hats, reading, binge watching bad TV shows—wear me out. I tell people that unemployment takes more work than I thought. Mollie and I tell ourselves that we’ll be able to slow down soon, but I don’t think we really will.
Let me be clear: I’m not complaining. The truth is, I sort of love getting pulled in many directions. I like the challenge that comes from balancing journalism with creative writing, from balancing running dogs with brewing ale, from learning to share a home and learning how to give each other personal space.
At a job interview last week, one of my interviewers asked if I’d found it hard to adjust back into regular life after all those months on the A.T. I admitted that it had been a surreal experience, that the New Jersey Turnpike had left me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. I didn’t mention that I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust to the so-called regular life.
I love Mollie for many reasons, but I take particular pride in the fact that she refuses to accept an easy path. It’s a struggle we share, this sentiment where we’d rather feel stretched out than confined. Perhaps this tougher trail has opened our capacity to embrace beauty.
As the mild winter of the coast opens into spring, as new job prospects appear on the horizon, as Mollie and I contemplate our future with a growing optimism, I find myself looking back to that letter from my friend Ben. The dreamers and dabblers of the world might overthink things, but we have also learned the value of seeing into the meat of a given experience.
There are moments when the idea that the choices I’ve made in life have led me to this place, right here, at this instant, breaks open like the sun over the glaciers across the bay. It happens when the reflection in a piece of dusty glass seems more glory-stricken than anything most people see in a lifetime. I mean this literally—the full moon lifting above the mountains, shimmering down on Kachemak Bay can be witnessed in the garage window, and the effect is not figurative.
I may never give an answer to Ben’s question about the worst job in Santa’s workshop, but I do know that neither Mollie nor I is employed in that position right now. True, I might feel the stress that comes from taking on more work than I can manage, but the work gives me pleasure, and when a person’s work has meaning, it might be okay to feel a bit tired. Or to put it another way: when our brewing manual tells us to “Relax. Have a Homebrew,” I like to think we’ve earned it.