Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Ghosts in Our Old School House

This is where I want you to be afraid.  Stop for a second and feel the air around you. Is it suddenly a little cooler? Can you feel the cliché, the hair standing on your neck? Is there someone reading this over your shoulder, perhaps a shadow standing in the doorway?
I'm twelve. It's Halloween.  I live in a small apartment inside an old school building on the bumpy Alaskan tundra in a Yup'ik village. The building has something of a history. My friends tell me this. The villagers who teach in the school with my mom won't stay in a classroom alone.  The school cook takes students with her to retrieve supplies down the long corridors that connect the school to the boilerroom, storage, and abandoned teacher's quarters. In a village with each house cramped, every inch of floor covered with a body and a blanket at night, there are three vacant buildings.
Each one, connected to my house by a long narrow hallway that leads to darkness.
A teacher wrapped a rope around his throat and swung from a rafter in the abandoned teachers quarters. Another died of a heart attack during a school Halloween haunted house. This is the school building I called home for a year of my life.  I would be lying if I told you I wasn't slightly terrified of that place then, or even today after they razed it - a new school built over the top. 
It wasn't so much the lights going on and off, or the windows and doors opening and closing. Or hearing the balls bouncing, and thinking the janitor might want to shoot hoops - only to look down the long dark hallway to an even darker gym.
Even that Halloween night, when I sat there - lights off - in the school office chatting on the phone, when one of the gray filing cabinet doors slowly rolled open with a metallic groan - even then I wasn't as scared as I am now.
--------------------Because now I know something I didn't know then. ---------------------
See, my mom could explain things.  She could explain the lights turning on and off. She could explain the footsteps in the hallway. She could even explain the cabinet I watched open from some invisible bony hand. The lights, she said, were part of the generator problem, and the doors and windows opened from the strong arctic drafts rushing through the building. The footsteps? Those were the building shifting from the permafrost, or a janitor working late.  The cabinet? It always opened like that -  why else would she tape it shut? The tape must have come loose.
This was how I became a skeptic.  This was how I stopped believing. Things can be explained. Everything had a logical explanation. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Then one cold dark Alaskan night ----- make it stormy, too ---and don't forget that figure standing in the doorway ----- mom explained something else.  She explained away her explanations.  Those were the worst nights of my life, she said. With your dad working in Bethel.  Just your sisters and you, and me.
------------------And the ghosts.
It was all a lie ========
- like Santa and that damn chocolate egg laying bunny ……….
She lied about the lights,  she lied about the footsteps, and she lied about the voices - yes I forgot to mention the voices because it's 2 am and as I write this I'm scared, again.
 She lied because she, "didn't want us afraid in our own home."
 She didn't want us to fear the place like she did.
 She even spoke to the air and said, "Look, I live here now too.  Don't you bother my babies."    
But they did.   
One night my sister Beth, Shirley Temple curls, four or five at the time, stood at Mom's bedside and whispered, "There's someone standing there."
Mom let Beth crawl in with her, but she could feel it too. Whatever it was, whomever it was, standing there beside them at the edge of the bed. 
She covered their heads with the blanket and prayed for sleep.
Thanks. Thanks a lot, Mom.
Now I live in my own home, and I'm scared. Not because of the ghosts in our old school house, but because now I have to confront these ghosts. I have to believe.  I can't just want to believe.  I have to somehow, believe the events I witnessed, the events we all witnessed were real. The events we experienced during that year were real. And now they are some sort of evidence.  But evidence of what?  Of life after death?   
To believe in ghosts, is to believe in spirits.   
Then too, spirits must leave a body at some time, and where do they go? Old school buildings on the tundra?
Is it too much to believe? And, why all the fuss about believing in the unbelievable anyway?  What propels this desire to need something other than the ordinary life to believe in?
 Why look to the heavens, the mountains, the undiscovered country, the darkness -  for answers to questions we won't listen to? 
- - -  is there no one right question to ask????????
Not one, particular piece of pie to solve the equation, or prove beyond all doubt and reason,  there is anything left in which we should (not) believe?
And those GHOSTS… those footsteps in the hall? Those basketballs bouncing in the darkness? The voices?  Am I supposed to believe they are the proof I need?
The proof we all long for but refuse to  accept?

[This is an excerpt from an old essay I wrote a while back, thought you might enjoy it for Halloween! If you're looking for a scary read check out my novel The Raven's Gift.]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Alaskan Book Week and You...(Alaskans and all!)

Alaskan Book Week is in full swing, my friends. Crazy bookish events are happening all across our state. This is a beautiful and important new event. As a someone who teaches preparatory writing at the college, I see more than my fair share of students who are under-prepared for college level work. They nearly all share the same sad history of one key element lacking in their lives. They don't read. Most, probably 95% of them haven't ever read a single novel. This isn't a failure on their part, it's a failure on our part. Of our schools, our families, and our communities. We can combat this lack of a love for literature. That's something I plan to talk about this week at two separate events.

In my mind, Alaska Book Week is as much about getting more Alaskans reading and inspiring young future writers as it is about raising the profile of all the amazing writing being done by Alaskans.  I'm doing my part by participating as much as humanly possible this week. I even accidentally found myself over booked and will sadly miss an event at my own community council meeting tonight, but that small local meeting has to give way for a much larger event, a talk and reading in Girdwood that will be broadcast at libraries around the entire state of Alaska at 6:30.  Some participating libraries are: Girdwood, Glennallen, Craig, Kenai, Cordova, Seward, Bethel, and Valdez.

I'm also the keynote speaker for the Great Alaskan Book Fair, this Friday night! More info at

Have a great Alaska Book Week, and if you can get out and support your local authors, and make time to read to the kids (or if you're without kids of your own, go volunteer to read at a local school!).

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Deliquescence: A Meditation in Seven Parts

Liz Bradfield, and amazing poet friend of mine from grad school at UAA is doing some cool new work. Here is a piece that just appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, and also has been featured as a trippy new video on AQR's new YouTube Channel. Check it out, and listen to someone who will be recognized as one of America's great new poets. (Mark my words!) And give the video some love with a thumbs up and share it with your friends!