Monday, July 30, 2007

The hills are burning!

Well they were two years ago. Now they're burning up with fireweed.

Two summers ago we had the big fire. Lightning strikes started several fires in the hills just west of the village. Smokejumpers contained one and water tankers (aircraft) got another, but a couple of others got away from the smokejumpers and joined up, causing what would eventually become a 10,000+ acre burn.

The town was threatened and BLM assembled a big team to battle it. If my memory is firing on all cylinders (not very likely), I believe we had about 12 crews working it, plus all the overhead/support personnel. It was a big deal.

I remember watching the fire move steadily toward town while BLM took "forever" to assemble the crews. The smokejumper in charge kept telling me "no worries; as long as the wind doesn't kick up we should be able to save your town" (not exactly the level of assurrance I was looking for). One afternoon, looking west toward the blaze, you could see the smoke ascending thousands of feet into the air, lit up spectacularly by the sun. It was awesome; looked like armageddon or something.

At one point the blaze was only a couple of miles from my house. Given the extremely remote location and subsequent lack of roads, we were all pretty concerned. BLM organized town meetings to discuss evacuation plans and installed sprinklers on the houses along the western edge of town. Elders and children were encouraged to relocate to Fairbanks. On bad days smoke reduced visibilty down to a few hundred yards and aircraft were grounded. When conditions were better, our airstrip looked like something from the Viet Nam war; fixed wing aircraft coming and going, cargo stacked everywhere, crews assembling in staging areas, helicopters carrying personnel and sling loads of gear buzzing around like a swarm of angry hornets. The local school became the "Incident Command Post". Things got...interesting.

Then, a couple weeks later, it was contained. Eventually it was out and faded into memory.

This summer it's burning again and it's a lot prettier this time. All the burned area is covered with fireweed and in full bloom. Imagine about 10,000 acres of rosey pink hills. When the sun hits it right, it's beautiful. I think that's why it's called "fireweed"; it's usually the first regrowth after a fire. All I know is I sure prefer this kind of "fire" over the other one.

The bloom of this moment too will fade. First the fire, then the fireweed. Eventually even those of us who experienced it will be gone. Life is fleeting. Makes you want to keep your priorities focused on the eternal; the things that last.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Love, romance and old age

I think I've found the key to a lifetime of happiness...well, maybe not THE key, but a key anyway.

As a student of the Bible I've long been aware of the three kinds of love mentioned in the New Testament; "phileo, eros and agape" (in the greek). Perhaps you know this stuff too. "Phileo" is usually thought of as a brotherly love (Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love). "Eros" denotes a sexual/sensual love (hence the word "erotic"), and "agape" most christians know as the "God-like" kind of love (unconditional).

Here's what I didn't know. According to one Bible teacher, phileo is the love of give and take. It is a friendship love. Your relationships with family and friends are usually along these lines; a two-way street. You give AND you receive.

Eros, however, is a one-way love. You love in this way primarily because of what you get (I'm not a scholar so I might be a little off here, but this is my understanding) You won't "eros" some one based on what you can do for them; it's more about what they do for you ( do they make YOU feel good; do YOU find them attractive, etc. It's about you). This is the love of passion; an important point to remember.

Agape, also being a one-way love, works in the opposite direction. Agape is about what you can do for THEM. You "agape" someone when it is their best interest you have in mind. You love without regard for what you get (or don't get) in return.

Typically, when a young couple meet and fall in love, it's all about eros (especially guys, but then this is no secret. Girls probably rate higher on the phileo, but eros is still the big factor) Our couple finds each other attractive (lots of eros) and over time they decide they're compatible (here is where phileo enters the picture) Then we have a wedding. So where's agape? With most young couples I doubt it's much of a factor; IT SHOULD BE, but probably isn't. It would take a very mature couple to be thinking agape at this stage of the game. Good pre-marital counseling would attempt work on the phileo and agape areas, but you never know.

As our couple grows older, has children, etc, the eros usually cools off and the phileo increases, and hopefully agape has entered the relationship. Over the course of time (5, 10, 20 years or more) it's very common for eros to be put on the endangered species list while the marriage is running on phileo/agape. That's why most middle aged couples aren't very romantic, and usually why many marriages fail. The eros is gone and they're plodding along in a relationship that runs on friendship/commitment. Then, if the friendship wears out you're down to just commitment. That can be a real bummer. And bummer is a hard place to live day after day, year after year.

"NOW IT'S TIME FOR THE KEY TO HAPPINESS!!!" (Meastro, drum roll, if you please)

Eros...yep, that's pretty much it. Eros. Eros is the key. Eros must be maintained over the life of the relationship. I know, I know...the thought of old people erossing around doesn't fit our popular culture, but so what. What worked "back then" still works today; not much has changed in a few thousand years. Old people can smooch with the best of 'em. I'm pushing 50 and I'm a firm believer that eros in middle age is MORE FUN than in the twenties. Here's why.

When you're newly married you don't have all the foundation that years of phileo and agape provide. You run primarily on one ingredient, and it's high octane. But as time goes by, assuming the marriage relationship is healthy, the relationship deepens. You become more bonded to each other. You care deeply about each other (agape) and you know one another thoroughly (phileo).

Sadly, as this is happening, the eros frequently begins to flicker and fade. The husband no longer brings her flowers. He stops telling her how attractive she is. He doesn't take her out on dates like he did when they were young. The romance dies. And you'll never catch them makin' out in the hallway or parking lot.

Wives too, let eros die. The busyness of running the home, caring for the kids, work and other facets of contemporary life are all mortal enemies of eros. These modern monsters will kill eros if they can...and eros will die, at least in the relationship. If it's not cultivated in the garden of love it will wither, but it will likely surface somewhere else. It can pop up like a weed in other places; places where it doesn't belong. Then you begin to have real problems.

My view is this...a healthy marriage is intended by God to have all three, all the time. Whether you're 25, 45 or 65. They're all part of God's plan for a healthy marriage. If you are a young man, control the eros (likely a raging beast) and work on developing the other two. Your wife will love you for it. If you're a woman who serves your husband because it's your obligation (agape) work on adding more of what's missing. If you're in a marriage where you just don't talk, strengthen the phileo. If you've been married a while and you just don't find your spouse that attractive any more, it's time to refire the eros.

Contrary to what TV and books would have you believe, love, real love, is largely the fruit of hard labor. It's the result of choice; choosing to love and acting upon it. Eros is a little trickier than the other two because it has the ability to get in the front seat and drive, since it's related to hormones and feelings. This is also why it is shallow and less reliable. But phileo and agape must be developed. Phileo relationships are built over time. Agape relationships are even more difficult to develop, which is why it requires the Spirit of God.

OK, swell...but how do I "re-eros" my old marriage? Well, you can act like your spouse is hot even if you don't feel it. Make up your mind to treat him/her the way you did back at the start of the relationship; you know, back when you were blind to all the faults and nearly swooned over all the wonderful things you loved about him/her ("she's perfect, man...absolutely perfect"). Well, do it again. Ignore the faults and focus on the positives. Put yourself back in the "love is blind" mode. Consciously decide to be romantically in love with your spouse; then act like it. Be charming and sensitive. Be sweet. Be exciting and a little unpredictable. Stop taking things for granted and act like you have to win her over, again. Somewhere along the way I would expect the Lord to change your feelings. The old eros embers will likely catch fire and things will heat up. Then get ready for some fun!

There's more I could say...but...well... there's a pretty lady in the other room and I've got to go....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Not Just Another Day...Part 2

Living in a small, rural village north of 60 changes things. Many of the “usual” rules don’t apply. When a person here dies the whole community gets involved, and life in the village is focused around the death / funeral / burial.

First the body is moved into the community hall, where it is cleaned and made presentable (and if the death was a violent one, this may be very difficult, even impossible).

The wheels are quickly set in motion because a body won’t last very long at room temperature and refrigeration isn’t possible. Family members living away must rapidly make travel arrangements to get here; the burial must take place in 2-3 days.

The body will never be left alone so people will be in “the hall” round the clock. Food will be brought to the hall to feed the large number of “out of towners” who come, and a lot of them come. They may be family, friends or others from neighboring villages. They come by boat (in the summer), snowmachine (winter), or by plane (I guess I should have mentioned there are no roads connecting our village with “the outside world”).

Usually the first evening will be the time “the raffle” is held; a fundraising event to help the family pay for the extensive travel and other expenses. People bring gifts to the hall to be donated and raffled off. At the same time there will be card playing / gambling, with the big black jack games running through the night. There is a definite party atmosphere amidst the grief and sorrow; especially with the late night crowd. You probably get the idea. Reveling AND grieving going in the same place, at the same time; seems kinda weird but that’s how it is. Lots of drinking, drug use and the requisite crazy behavior that goes with it. (I like to go to the hall in the mornings when it’s quiet…and sober). Evenings also include music and singing (local musicians) and a Catholic Rosary (this village has been Catholic for about 100 years)

During the couple of days between the death and the burial a group of men will clear a site in the graveyard (it’s in a forest so clearing trees and brush is a given) and dig the grave. If you keep in mind we’re located in the subarctic, you’ll appreciate the fact that digging is A LOT easier in summer. In winter the ground can be frozen 4 or 5 feet down and graves are dug by hand.

At this time there will be other men building the casket, and women will line and decorate it. Other women (usually “old grandmas”) make fur gloves, beaded moccasin slippers, crochet a blanket and get everything else ready to be put in the casket.

Then comes the funeral. It’s a Catholic funeral similar to most (I assume) with a mass. At the end is the “final viewing” before closing the casket…and this is when it gets rough. The indigenous people here are very demonstrative in their grieving (interpretation: native people cry and wail, long and loud). It’s also likely the deceased was related to many (or most) of the people present so you can have a lot of mourners feeling the loss acutely. Picture a couple hundred people in the building, one third of them were probably close to the deceased, the rest are connected in one way or another, and you start to get the idea. It can be a very heart wrenching time, even for visitors who don’t know the deceased.

The casket is then moved to the graveyard and buried. That night there will be a big “potlatch” at the hall, followed by another night of card playing; maybe even a baseball game. Its light nearly all summer so playing ball at midnight is no big deal. Then visitors return to their homes. Life goes on. And so does the process of grieving / burial. It’s a prolonged affair that won’t be completed for a few more years. But that will have to wait for another time…

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not Just Another Day...

So I’m driving “downtown” to the river bank to check on my boat when I see a lot of commotion; way too much commotion in fact. People walking around, people clustered in small groups talking, some looking down toward “two-mile”. There’s a woman in a rush carrying gas to her boat. Other boats are pushing off from the bank and heading down river. Something is definitely going on.

I drive over to a truck to ask the boy inside what’s up, but when I see his face I know there’s trouble even before I ask. Now I don’t want to know what it is ‘cause it can’t be good. I recognize the look in his eyes. I’ve been down this road before and it’s a rough ride. “Oh Lord, I wish I was some where else”…but I’m not. I’m here, and I must ask the question I don’t want to know the answer to. I have to know what’s wrong. I know it’s going to hurt, but I have to know. Avoiding it is pointless in this small town; it’s just a matter of time before I hear about it anyway. So I ask.

And there’s that sick feeling in my gut that I know too well. Maybe it came before I heard the answer, maybe at the same time…I don’t know, but it’s there. “They say my uncle “Ward” went under the river” (now, you probably get the meaning, but in case you don’t, around here that means he drowned) He’s crying. He’s about 14, he loves his uncle, and he knows his uncle is now dead. I know it too.

A few people standing around seem to hold out hope that he may still be alive. Others are crying. I look down river toward two-mile and I can see the boats. From this distance they look like ants crawling around on the water or bees swarming. I want to think there’s still hope, but I’ve lived here long enough to know. If enough time has passed for that many boats to arrive on the scene it’s already too late: there’s no hope for survival. We won’t be working on a rescue; it will be a recovery, hopefully. I say “hopefully” because when people drown in this river we don’t always find the body. And that makes it even harder on the family.

Skip ahead a few scenes and you’ll see me working in and around the shop. I’m cutting steel bars, pipes, chain. I’m bending nails and spikes, filing them to a sharp point and welding them to the bars and pipes. I’m gathering heavy wire, rope and whatever tools seem helpful. And I’m talking on the radio finding out what is needed. Men are coming by; some to help, but mostly to drop off stuff for me to work on or picking up stuff that’s finished. I hate this “stuff”. I’ve used this stuff before.

These are the tools of our grisly work; hooks on poles for probing the depths or drug along the river bottom in search of the body. It seems perverse to make something with sharp hooks hoping it will snag flesh…the flesh of some one you know. And it’s grotesque to fish for a corpse. You want the body to be found and you pray the Lord will help you, but you don’t want to be the one to pull it in. Yet it must be done.

He drowned in the morning and we recovered his body about 7:30 that evening. Thankfully it didn’t take long. Some searches have gone on for days, even weeks. You never know. You could find him in a few minutes, hours or days. You might find him in the fall when the water drops, next summer after break up, or not at all. You never know. But the body has been found and now the family and the rest of the village can get on with the business of burying him…