I’ve been learning so many new things. And I think that is what is keeping my mind fresh and myself engaged. I find it so easy to disengage from the world around me. I am actually a homebody. I prefer being at home to being almost anywhere else. I love curling up with my little Schnauzer next to me, enjoying a cup of tea, and reading a good book. Especially when it’s a little nippy out. Recently I experienced a first – I went ice fishing. Now to be honest, I was there totally as an observer! I did not get near the fishies or the poles. I was having a hard enough time walking out onto this humongous lake…a lake that was frozen. I was so nervous about it. But I saw teams of dogs and their mushers rushing around the perimeter, lots of other little, red fishing tents out along the lake, families walking with their kids and dogs along the lake, and even kids running around and JUMPING. Yes, jumping. I was nervous so the smarty-pants friends we were with all jumped in the air at the same time, to assure me the ice was thick and solid. I saw the auger, I saw the hole, but I did not feel the jumping. I felt much better. I got to go inside the tent where it is warmer and so quiet. I was amazed at how clearly you can see the fish swimming all over under the ice. I was told it was 3-4 feet thick (women are notoriously poor at measuring things using our eyes and I have no idea if they were playing with me or if that was an honest guess!) and not to worry. They were catching rainbow trout. In January. In a lake in Alaska. Seriously, where did I think the fish went? Migrated with the birds, going south for the winter? I had actually never thought about it, but nonetheless it seemed awfully strange to see fish swimming beneath 4 feet of solid ice. I walked around and spoke with friends, and got to see my husband catch a fairly decent-sized rainbow trout (it was THIS big). The wind had come up and I decided I had enough outdoorsiness for the day and headed back up to the lodge. It was a glorious day and I am so glad I fought my instinct to cuddle up with a book and went. Our friends are such good people and we had an amazing day. And I learned something new, living here in Alaska. I know I have so much more to learn, that I am glad I’m not too complacent about it!
Alaska has had an effect on us. We are happier in more remote places, with fewer people around. We are spoiled because there are pretty much no lines to get into for anything here, except perhaps hot coffee. If you thought Seattle was over-the-top with coffee kiosks, come on up to Alaska. Once I started noticing them, I found them everywhere. And entrepreneurs will take advantage of almost any sort of shelter to sell coffee from. There are abandoned train cars renewed with bright paint, promising an amazing brew. There are former film drop-off places now selling coffee. We have an array of ways and means to get coffee here and we drink more of it than you can imagine. Mostly because it’s pretty cold most of the time. But we’ve acclimatized to that, as well. I can survive a winter wearing a sweater, t-shirt, scarf, gloves, jeans, and short winter boots. Sometimes I will wear a coat if I am feeling chilled. But usually a warm scarf gets the job done. It’s weird, because my daughter-in-law remembers her first visit to us in Southern California for Christmas. It was about 67-degrees and I was in a coat and I was cold, whereas she was wearing just t-shirts and shorts most of the time. We laugh about it now, because summers here are in the high 60s and low 70s and we sweat buckets! Ha-Ha.
We have tried to acclimatize to other things and some things we are having a more difficult time with. The norms we experienced as people of faith are not present here and it creates a longing inside. I’ve resorted to reading and praying, in order to fill that void. I can relate to people who have been told they cannot worship their God by countries and political factions. It is certainly nothing as harsh as that, nor does it mean a life or death situation, not in the least. We have good people and good parishes to attend, but they are not the more orthodox expression we are used to and miss. Celebratory events are not the same. Some of the fervor is not there. Traditions are different. Much of the difference has been fun to learn – cooking, eating, drinking traditions – those are all fun to learn and try. I love how truly universal the Church is, when you see the multitude of expressions we have. In fact, this week, the Pope announced a new suri juris church in the world. That has not happened in so very long. Most people, when they think Catholic, they think Rome. Just like most people, when I say I’m from California, think Disneyland or the beach. And when you mention you live in Alaska, people assume you use a dog sled to get around and live in domed ice homes once called igloos. Pretty far from reality. Within the Catholic Church, there are as many Churches as there are nationalities and traditions. When Christ instructed the Disciples to go out into the world, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they did as they were told. They combed the earth and established His Churches all over it. And most of those Churches still exist. They exist as completely autonomous churches, in communion with Rome. That does not mean we embrace Roman traditions; we have our own. We are the churches where ethnicity is cherished and celebrated. I have personally been to parishes that celebrate the Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Persian, Egyptian, Indian, and Greek traditions and they are incredible (and there are many more besides this limited listing. And if I forgot one, please forgive me). Each one has its own way of expressing faith in God and can encompass singing style, dress, iconography, and celebratory foods. There are foods I feel blessed to have been introduced to, that I never would have had the courage to try, if I had not been at a parish that ethnically ate that way. And I miss some of them so very much. Each area, each church, has its own way of doing things. And none of these churches are Latin Rite or Roman, but each is as validly a Church as the Church in Rome. The patriarchs consider the Pope the “first among equals” and join with him in celebrating our Catholic/Christian faith. And I am glad I am open to learning new ways and new things. It has helped me to embrace a much larger, more universal faith than I had up to then experienced. Knowing there is more out there to learn about is exciting. I do, however, long for some of the traditions I was taught.
In the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, we only have Divine Liturgy (during regular times, and not Lent or the preparatory time before Christmas) on Sundays. And only once on a Sunday. There are not a myriad of times to choose from, because in the East, community is almost as important as our faith. We keep together, worshipping and celebrating as one community, at the same time each week. We enjoy Vespers two to three nights each week, and within the vesperal readings and prayers, we learn about all the heroes of our faith, and these readings also help us prepare for the fasts and feasts coming up. There is no surprise. “It’s a Holy Day today? What one? Who’s that saint? When did we start doing this?” We don’t have that sort of experience, because vespers lead us to the days of the church, in each year and cycle of the faith. We also do not become complacent in our celebration of Divine Liturgy, because it is only one day per week… not daily, nor several times a day. There are many other traditions in prayer and worship that I love and miss. I miss the exuberance expressed by our priest and our cantors, and even our deacons. They will shout when it is called for. They will be quiet when we need to be. The lead us in celebrating; they lead us in repenting. They lead us towards an exciting faith experience each time we attend vespers or Divine Liturgy. I miss the exuberant distribution of incense. There were days when we would open a window or a door, just so we could see. The incense was so thick and the scent was amazing. If you do it right, incense just enhances your sense of smell. If it is done wrong, you will burn the incense and smoke and stink everyone out – coughing and hacking instead of worshipping. I remember my eldest son assisting as an altar boy in his teens. He and the other altar boys had a contest to see who could make the most smoke during Mass. The priests were trying not to laugh and trying to be diligent about getting the incense under control, but we had to open two side doors, just to breathe. It was so funny. In the western, Roman Church, incense has been reduced to holy days in most parishes. In the East, incense is an integral part of our Liturgy. And I love that. The sights, sounds, and smells of our faith experience cannot be understated. It is integral to the entire experience, and I miss some of that exuberant expression.
I know that I am still learning and adapting to an environment I could never have imagined living in before. And I am glad I am still adept at adapting (love that play on words) because change can make us cranky people. If we embrace where we are, realize it is where we are, and learn from it, we can find happiness. I cannot continually long for the “good old days,” but I can share what I have experienced along the way. I can share foods and traditions that many up here have no clue about. I can share the history I know, and I know that will shake some people up. But if we can somehow share back and forth, and experience a more give and take environment, I know we will all be better for it. Learning how universal our Church truly is, well, I think that is a blessing. The Disciples did as they were told and went into the whole world, bringing the Word of God into each corner. I bring my Southern California and Washington experience into the “last, great, frontier” and in turn I am shown things I could only imagine. My prayer is that we can all be open to “other” and “different” and see that God enjoys the many and varied ethnicities who worship Him in song, celebration, foods, and dances. For a SoCal gal to go ice fishing is pretty amazing. For someone from a warmer climate, and all the foods and traditions that come with it, to adapt to this environment (at my age no less) is pretty much wonderful. I am just hoping this environment will allow the warmth and traditions from the lower 48 to enliven what they have, too. It would be a win-win! And no one has to jump up and down to prove we are sturdy and solid in our faith, we know that. Although I will admit, out on that frozen lake, I appreciated the sturdiness!! I am hoping to continue to grow into a more well-rounded Alaskan, experiencing the amazement this land has to offer. And I hoping I can share where I’ve been and what I’ve learned along the way, enlivening all of our lives of faith.