It is always with some difficulty that I start any social media piece about 9/11 (and for those who may be interested, I have personally blogged about the date most coherently here and here.) For many, this date is loaded, so having it be designated one of two days of mandatory service can be a double-edged sword.
However, on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, the service our VISTA cohort provided to the Fairbanks Fire Department felt so incredibly comforting. For the first time I felt like I was contributing something of value on such a loaded day. Helping to clean up the Fire Department training ground (complete with sledge hammer use) helped our cohort meld in such a demolition-great way. As you will see in the slide gallery below, the firefighters not only worked alongside us for a portion of the morning, but also were incredibly generous with their time to our littlest helpers; I expect they now have two new firefighter recruits.
My deepest hat tip to those who run directly into situations most of us try with our best efforts to avoid. Our VISTA day of remembrance/service with the Fairbanks Fire Department was a true highlight of my beginning time here in the Golden Heart City.
The beginning of any VISTA service year is new with all the possibilities. One of this year's cohort has taken the opportunity to pen (and photograph) her first impressions. This is an expanded essay from a shorter piece recently published in LION's September online issue. I hope to make this long-form essay a recurring item over the next year, and will encourage all of our cohort members to contribute. This humanities-loving gal is thrilled with this initial installment.
I had no friends in the area, no family, not a soul around that I could lean on. Despite this, though, I wasn’t afraid of making the journey. Because what my uncle didn’t realize as he was saying farewell and leaving me, was that I was one of the people who was heading up to Alaska to disappear, too. I wasn’t afraid of people looking to start anew.
I wasn’t trying to disappear because I’d killed a man in Reno, or because I was obsessed with living off the grid where the government couldn’t find me, or because I’d just had a terrible divorce and wanted to find a second chance at love with a burly lumberjack. My reason was much more simple, unexciting, and relatable; I wanted a fresh start. A clean slate. Like just about everyone else, I’d had my share of hardships that I was more than happy to put behind me in my rearview mirrors. And this was my exciting opportunity to put my pre-Alaska life behind me and gain a sense of independence and self-sufficiency that I’d never had in the lower 48, where I was cushioned with friends and family and familiarity.
Having just graduated from college and being 22 years old, single, and virtually untethered, I’d accepted a position with AmeriCorps. I chose to drive my light blue Prius all of the way up to Alaska mainly because I’d romanticized the North much like Christopher McCandless had when he abandoned his car in a desert, burned his cash, donated his trust fund money, and set off into the wild. I was attracted to the idea of nature for miles and miles, no concrete jungles, no crowds. No oppressive society or money obsession. A life that I perceived to be more humble, slow-paced, and solitary beckoned me up to the great North, and I was ready to sink into it like a mattress after a long day.
As I travelled upwards through British Columbia and the Yukon, I rarely spoke to anyone. I sang at the top of my lungs down roads where I was the only car for miles and miles. I only told people my name when I was checking into motels or shaking hands with a bartender. And when I did introduce myself, I was tempted to use an alias like Lily or Rowan or Fanny. I could add an accent, too, if I really wanted to. Russian, maybe? French? German? I could even say that I worked for NASA and held a Guinness world record for something incredibly niche and impressive. I could say that I had twenty siblings and forty pets. To everyone driving by me, handing me my eggs at a diner, and tossing me my room key, I was anonymous and blank. Just another passing face that you could make up a story for. I could be anyone and everyone and nobody at all.
And I loved that.
Sometime past nine o’clock on a recent Tuesday evening in Fairbanks, my housemate, Abigail, got a text about a nearby moose. The three of us roommates, in our sweatpants and pajamas, walked out of our apartment and down the sidewalk to find it. After five minutes, we saw a biker stopped ahead with his cell phone camera out, gazing towards the trees.
The moose was loitering in a clearing of tall grasses near a bike path. Two long-legged babies stood beside her, barely poking their heads out above the grasses. I moved closer, and they lifted their heads to see me. The mother, however, didn’t. Tremendous humps on her back reminded me of a camel, although I’d never seen one of those before either. Her jaw moved rhythmically round and round and round.
I wasn’t about to be one of those clueless people that you heard about on the morning news who’d gotten trampled trying to snap a selfie, but I’ll admit to having the overwhelming desire to touch her. She was the first moose I’d ever seen, and I had been searching for one like her ever since I’d made it to Fairbanks. I wanted to gently glide my hand against her coarse fur, scratch behind her ear, give her babies a pat on the head, and tell her that I was thankful for seeing her. I wanted to walk with her into the woods, my arm around her neck, and sleep beside her. I wanted to whisper to her that I’d been waiting to see a creature like her for years and years, and that I loved her. I wondered if maybe she’d be different with me than with others; if we’d have this understanding of one another that others didn’t have-- the tourists, the silly people. It was naïve to think so; she was wild, and I was practically a tourist myself. I was no different than the biker with his camera. But I couldn’t help but entertain the thought.
Abigail called to me and said, “I wouldn’t get any closer if I were you. In fact, I’d be a lot further away.” She was right, though I wished she weren’t. Slowly, I walked back to where she and Elisa were standing, their hands in their pockets, both of them watching me watch the moose.
I stood smiling and staring at the little family for the better part of ten minutes before Abigail and Elisa suggested we head back to the apartment. The three of us jogged back across the street. I glanced a few more times at the mother and her babies until I’d had my fill.
Before I fell asleep that night, three beads of water trickled down my cheeks and across my nose. Because despite having travelled thousands and thousands of miles to distance myself from my pre-Alaskan life’s worries, burdens, stressors, and hardships, I couldn’t help but look at the strong, silent mama moose and think about my own mother. I tried not to. It made my heart ache. It reminded me of my grief, and many messy times. But I couldn’t help it; I thought about her slowly walking around in circles in a nursing home back in Maine, making little sounds instead of words, gazing blankly at the faces of her children.
I’ve been in Fairbanks for almost three weeks now, working at a little public library and meeting all sorts of new characters. I have a new apartment, a new bed, and a new desk. I have a new favorite coffee place, a new friend, a few new houseplants. I have a new route to work, a new grocery store, a new time zone. And I can’t help but catch myself feeling sometimes like I’m new, too.
But, of course, I’m not.
Because what I’ve come to realize several times since arriving (most poignantly when I saw the moose) is that there is no such thing as a fresh start or clean slate. It was never possible for me to start a new life. We will always carry parts of ourselves into new chapters. We might move across the country, change our hair color or nickname, make new friends, get a new apartment... but we’re still us, right? Even if we’ve changed parts of ourselves? We have the same blood trickling through our veins and snorts in our laughter. We have memories, opinions, grief, and loved ones who don’t simply vanish just because we change postal codes. I still drink my coffee the same way, pick the tomatoes off my sandwiches, sing in the same off-pitch voice, and chase down dogs that I see on the street to pet them. And, dare I say, I always will.
Some people might find this epiphany of mine discouraging, because, at numerous points in our lives, we’ll all wish that we could start over. But I’m training myself to think of it optimistically. No, there are no real fresh starts, no do-overs, no takebacks. But there are second chances, changes, evolution, and growth. And any one of us can decide that today is the day we want to start driving down a new road. Just keep in mind that it’s okay to turn around and look back in the rearview mirrors, too, in order to acknowledge, respect, and appreciate everything that you’ve passed through and endured. How else would you be able to measure how far you’ve come?
Denise Lavoie, VISTA Team Leader
Daniela, Julia, Julia (!), and Nathanael will serve Fairbanks from August 16, 2021 - August 15, 2022. As full year VISTAs, they will build the capacity of their individual organizations through indirect service, and in Daniela's case, for the very first time at her site (trailblazer, she). We're excited to welcome them to the team and see the impact they have in the coming year!
Kenzley moved to Fairbanks with lots of excitement, both for the VISTA position and opportunities within the state and community. All of her expectations were exceeded! During her year as VISTA Leader, Kenzley recruited 19 new full year and summer associate VISTAs, supported them through any challenges they encountered (thank you COVID…), and celebrated their many accomplishments. Her favorite VISTA memories include planning and implementing the first annual Kids Literacy Farmers Market and being inspired by the motivation, energy, and kindness of the VISTA cohort. Kenzley has fallen in love with Fairbanks and is excited to stick around as the Energy Justice Organizer with the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition.
Kenzley Defler is the ultimate professional! She excelled in every aspect of the VISTA Leader position. She built upon previous VISTA Leaders’ work and blazed a path for future VISTA Leaders. Kenzley successfully advocated for two expansions to the program resulting in the program growing to 16 full year VISTA positions, 14 Summer Associates, and the Team Leader position. I don’t think the VISTA program has ever been this large in Fairbanks and it’s due to Kenzley’s efforts. Growing the program was just a small part of what Kenzley did. Her main contribution was the impeccable leadership she gave to the VISTAs. She was a mentor, fierce advocate, active listener, and a role model to the VISTAs. Everybody respected and appreciated Kenzley for her leadership. Under her leadership the VISTA team became one of the most cohesive, drama free, and productive VISTA year groups I have ever seen. Kenzley is amazing and I am excited to see what her future holds!