For the past ten years, on the things I hated list were: cold, dark and 3am. I was afraid of night, especially winter ones.
But something happened this year. Maybe it was the nutritionist who helped my liver function, allowing me to metabolize fats and not be freezing all the time or maybe it was a readiness to walk into the unknown.
This past week, I sent myself to Alaska, to walk out into the unknown and gaze at the Northern Lights. A doctoral student with no "right" to take a glorious vacation, I decided to be unreasonable. NASA said this year was the end of the 11 year Northern Lights peak. I wanted to see them...
With 70,000 flights cancelled around me I flew out of D.C. into Chicago, Seattle and then Fairbanks Alaska all on time and all with out a hitch. Well, we were 5 minutes late.
By the time I landed, I didn't really care about the Northern Lights. I just wanted to breathe the fresh air and gaze at the night sky. Within 12 hours, I found myself at a local dog mushing competition...then at "Jester's Palace" a local bar Nenana, a native village somewhere far north of Fairbanks. I talked to the locals and bet on when the Tripod would fall through the Yukon River, an annual tradition. When I win (I bet May 5th, 5:55pm), I will receive a $300,000 check. Fantastic.
The next day I found myself at Chena Hot Springs. A 106 degree hot spring on a -20 degree night.
But here's where courage and magic took over. I had to walk into the hot springs, in the dark, unable to see the water or the stars. The mist covered my view. So I walked, half-naked on a -20 degree night somewhere near the arctic circle into warm water. The handrail was covered with ice, otherwise your hand would have stuck to it. I wade into the hot springs, dunked my head and within minutes found my hair stark white covered with icicles.
The next day, we drove to the Arctic circle. Hundreds of miles along the Alaskan pipeline with nothing but snow, spruce, birch and moose (actually, apparently some native people still brave the winters in this territory)
Joseph, sweet man who had moved from Texas 20 years before drove. He told me how he met a polar bear. He used to deliver mail via plane to remote locations; the bear was waiting on the tarmac, I guess for his mail.
We drove 3 hours past the Drunk Forest (the snow laden trees lean on each other), Beaver Slide, a hot springs that has become a red light district for local tribes. Parts of the road were named by Alaskan oil truckers: Oh Shit, Roller Coaster, and Beaver Slide.
Magic was everywhere.
Ahead of us a rainbow hopped over the sun in a single arch in what's called a "sun dog."
By nightfall, we reached the arctic circle.
I found a quiet place alone and looked up at the stars...there are about 100 billion in our galaxy alone. (and I hear about 100 billion galaxies)
It takes courage to be alone.
My thoughts were not profound. I just stood there looking up...palpably aware that we are floating among all those strange glowing orbs and that, left alone, I would die within days.
We saw one strip of Northern Lights as we passed by the Yukon River.
It wasn't until the 4th night that the skies danced.
The image above was taken by Joyce, my fabulous local guide, on our night out. It's called a Corona..it happens overhead. It looked like a photoshop version of space. But it was real. I was either dying and seeing the "light" or just remembering our connection with all that is.
I stood alone in what serves as a hayfield in the summer and looked up as the Northern Lights put on a rare display.
Apparently, on the light activity scale that runs from 1-10, we had a 10...this means full lights activity. This was an anomaly because there were no sun flares at this time.
A clear night and more lights activity than anyone ever expected.
Guides were telling us that only 2% of tourists see the activity we saw.
One said in 25 years of watching the sky only 3 nights had been that wild.
...Joyce was so excited she drove our car into a ditch. She called a tow truck but we didn't care. The skies danced, swirled, looped around all right before us.
They are warm and friendly lights. A soft green glow. But I was delirious... you stay out all night and go dog mushing during the day. There isn't much sleep and the cold takes a toll.
I drifted in and out of consciousness not having words for what I was seeing.
There was no comparison. There were no metaphors, similes or other analogies...it just was. We were seeing it.
Here's a poetic try: it felt like being alone with the cosmic goo..the primordial soup from which we all came.
It felt oddly home-like, oddly warming.
Standing in the field, I didn't know which way to look. The lights danced everywhere and changed by the second. They would flare, cascade across the sky, meet in the middle and fade. Then do it again.
Apparently whatever happens in the North happens in the South. So the penguins on Antarctica were having the same show.
Animals seem to appreciate these performances.
The sled dogs increased howls as the light activity increased.
Wonder. I felt wonder, awe, peace, and expansion...like layers of bullshit were freezing off me.
Joyce says, "we have no onions in Alaska, what you see is what you get."
And what we saw was quiet enough.
One thing I love about living in the late 20th and early 21st century is the ability to travel all over the planet. The summer before last, I visited 9 countries in 3 months. Of the 24 flights I took, only one was delayed (by an hour) and all of my things arrived safely, even my (then) boyfriend's $50,000 worth of Japanese samurai swords and his cat (which we hid under my seat).
This week I easily departed DC right after the "ice catastrophe" storm. It was a cloudy departure the day after the storm, but only for a moment.
One thing I love about flying on cloudy days is the miracle of ascending above the clouds. It can be raining, sleeting, snowing on the tarmac and if they let your plane take flight..within 15 minutes you're flying in the sun.
I often ask myself, why is it so hard to remember that it's always sunny above the clouds? Clouds can be noisy and create all kinds of precipitation, but if you can get up over them...it's clear and beautiful.
When things aren't going quite right...like when I'm making beet juice and the lid isn't on correctly (you should see beet juice fly) or larger problems (stomach flu, sick friends, etc)... I remind myself of the airplane.
Today was trying to find someone to take me up in a charter plane to rise above the clouds so I could see the Northern Lights tonight. They're supposed to be extraordinary, but it's cloudy and snowing in Fairbanks tonight. That's ok. I'll sleep well tonight knowing there is a celestial extravaganza happening just a few thousand feet above my head. I do not have to see it to know it's there.
It's too easy to see the failure all around us...like the organization that somehow lost $46 million that was supposed to help children in Guatemala or some pharmaceutical that was supposed to make you feel better but instead made you want to jump out a window.
So, I wanted to take a moment to discuss 3 winning places I discovered (or re-discovered) in 2013 that are doing most things right.
The first is Circle Camp at Fleur de Lis. Fleur de Lis Camp is an all-girls summer camp I attended for 8 summers (my cousins, aunt and grandmother also attended). The last week of the summer, the camp opens up to girls who have recently lost a parent. In August of 2013, I volunteered at the camp with these deserving girls and an incredible staff. You would have think the girls had won a visit to the Willie Wonka Chocolate Factory. They were so appreciative of the experience and of the friendships they made. There is something magical about Fleur de Lis. It's the one place on earth I know where friendship IS the point. The girls all arrived scared and withdrawn, but by the next morning where jumping around, sitting on each other and singing songs. I know..it sounds surreal. It was, it is...and we were all caught up in it. If you know a girl between 9-13 who recently lost a parent, please consider sending them to Fleur de Lis this summer.
The second place that works is Green Chimneys a school that supports NY State kids with emotional issues. The school is on a farm with amazing animals, including camels, llamas and all kinds of creatures. Working with the animals is part of the healing.
I had volunteered and lived at the farm as a volunteer back in the 1990s, returning this summer for the Farm Intern Reunion.
When I worked there, Green Chimneys would travel to New York City with a truck full of cows, pigs, miniature horses, rabbits and tame geese into Crown Heights, Harlem, and to teach city kids about animals. The famous moment was when Curly, the Scotch Highlander cow escaped at the World Trade Center, running free through the plaza until a former cattle wrangler threw his brief case to the ground and grabbed Curly by the horns. Amazing day!
Anyway, the farm looks amazing. They now how a swimming pool, climbing wall and their Birds of Prey rehabilitation center has expanded. The farm is open to the public and you can buy Maple Syrup made by the kids.
The school now has a psychiatric hospital on-site. And a staff to student ratio of 5:1. Samuel Ross, the founder, now in his 80s, still lives there and will tell you for hours about his big dreams.
The school is free for students in NY who the public schools decide they need special assistance (bipolar, schizophrenia, spectrum kids, etc).
If you're in Brewster, NY take your own kids for the day and just enjoy the farm. I love Green Chimneys.
Do you know any teenagers who need a little help feeling great about themselves?
Well, send them to the Global Youth Leadership Summit for 1 week this summer.
This picture is of two of the Youth Coaches I met working at a related event. They are amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They really are that happy. They and others help teens really break through to adulthood and appreciate the unique aspects of themselves.
They love it...they say it really helps them living according to what they want..not what peer pressure tells them to want. Listening to the other teens, I had no idea how much pressure they feel. I forgot...
So, that's all for now. I volunteer with these three organizations. Just promoting them because they are fantastic, contributing entities. And what's nicer than to take 30 minutes and sit here reflecting on what's so special about them?
I don't hate many things. Once I started studying genocide and hearing people talk about those experiences, I found myself reserving the term "hate" for really serious things.
But I think I can rather safely say "I hate heroin when combined with humans" Sure, there's nothing wrong with it as a chemical compound- I just hate what happens when people put it into their system.
If you grew up in the US in the 1980s, you probably remember the onslaught of "say no to drug" campaigns. If you also grew up in NY you may even remember the "cigarette mash" (30 seconds - cute), an ad in that convinced me (before the age of 10) that cigarettes were silly. I was the kid persuaded by all those public service announcements (brain on drugs, etc). I spent probably 30 hours a week watching television so it was a good place to find me.
Obviously, not everyone was convinced by women in brightly colored tights dancing on cigarettes in b or imagining their brain frying like an egg. If Phillip Seymour Hoffman had seen those commercials as a kid would things have ended up differently? If Corey Monteith had grown up in suburban NY in the 1980s would he too have been convinced?
A family member of mine who had some struggles with drugs asked me "Sarah, you went through some really dark times, why didn't you end up doing drugs?"
Interesting question: Somehow doing drugs would be the "natural" response to deep pain?
I told him this, "I figured I was already in enough pain and confused, why would I want to make things MORE complicated by being addicted to something?"
He said he wished he had thought of it that way.
We both wished that two of our other family members had thought of it that way. They both had found heroin.
I hate this drug.
I hate this drug.
I remember when these family members started pulling away...they were not themselves..they were distant...then I'm sure came the lying and stealing...the road to recovery is so long. And experts say that even 1 hit sends you right back.
The drug strips your nervous system of being able to handle emotional and physical pain, that's why it's so difficult to quit.
I hate that drug. I hated seeing the holes on my loved one's arm where she injected it.
I hate that it killed Alex Berg right after high school. He was just a great kid. He had this great red hair; my friend Ali and I would sneak outside his window and listen to him play drums at night. He was kind, appreciative, and just lovely.
Ok, obviously it isn't heroin's fault. Heroin itself didn't do anything...It's whatever makes people feel so much pain that they'd rather inject themselves than to ANYTHING else.
When millionaires do it, it really boggles my mind.
Do you have an idea how many resources are available to help you out of pain? Especially if you have $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. Though this is my path. I have travelled from Fiji to Brazil to find answers to my questions. Expensive learning, but a wild and delicious adventure. There are people and resources closer and they DO WORK.
The choice does not have to be suffer OR heroin.
But maybe the problem comes from the deeper cultural pattern of medication as a solution. "Have a problem, take a pill." It's so odd to me because I think of Americans as such resourceful people. Pills seem like a cop out (most anyway). Or at least pills that don't address the true cause.
Just to clarify in case there is any confusion:
THERE IS NO PILL THAT REMOVES A FEELING OF INADEQUACY !!
THERE IS NO PILL THAT MAKES SOMEONE LOVE YOU OR COME BACK TO YOU!!
THERE IS NO PILL THAT RESOLVES TRAUMA
THERE IS NO PILL FOR HAPPINESS
Ok, you get the idea. Feelings of not being enough will always be around...if you are a human. If you saw the Wolf on Wall Street, you saw how temporary drugs were as a solution.
If you want to be happy you want to exchange stupid problems (you don't like the paint in your living room) for better ones like, how are we going to feed all these children?
To find your way out of hell, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get better...call anyone, start somewhere. Who cares where? Wheatgrass, therapy, meditation retreat, 911..poll dancing. Some times you have to be friggin' CRAZY to ensure you don't go FRIGGIN' CRAZY.
I don't know what these people went through...and all the others on drugs. I cannot pretend to know their pain, but I know suffering. I have known what felt like chronic and unbearable suffering..and how to find my way out... It CAN pass.
So I just wish for everyone... that we continue to explore together better ways out of hell.
A friend just texted and his keyboard wrote "hell" ...then he wrote "Sorry, I meant "hello"" He intelligently observed, "gosh, it's amazing the difference one letter can make."
Just like it's amazing what difference a phone call can make.
Don't inject, reach out.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
Finish and Flourish supports writers struggling to complete projects.