The Alternative Flute

Written last night after a long (but satisfying) day working on a family construction project at our lake house in upstate New York:

I stopped and started writing a few other things tonight but writing this story on this evening just feels right.

I’ve barely had time to think about where I was ten years ago today: Mr. Gunn’s eleventh grade U.S. History class. It was our first day and we were supposed to take a test on our summer reading, The Unredeemed Captive — the story of Eunice Williams captured at age 7 by the Mohawk during the Deerfield Massacre. (I don’t remember much of the story other than Williams decides to not return to her family in Massachusetts and, instead, lives out her whole life with the tribe — a choice that left an impression on me.)

I remember franticly looking the book over to cram for details before class. Before Mr. Gunn walked in. Before he sat down and told us about the “Twin Towers.” Before I had any idea what the Twin Towers were or looked like. Before September 11th was a date that meant something.

I remember by our afternoon English class everyone was talking about the draft — that this would become our Vietnam and all the boys I knew would go off to war. I remember thinking that was a pretty rushed conclusion to come to in a day but feeling the fear of it all the same; feeling like it could become real. And that possibility alone was enough to make the world suddenly become a place that was terribly unknown to me.

And this feeling has lingered. It’s lingered through a decade of choices from our leaders and everyday American responses that I can’t understand. I remember standing next to a man on that March day in 2003 when President Bush declared war in Iraq. I was in Florida with my family on vacation. He was cheering at the television. I felt so isolated in that moment — by his response and by my own nation’s.

This past decade has been filled with many moments like these for me; moments where I can feel the widening chasm between the collective actions of our country and my own beliefs.

But I don’t want to spend tonight dwelling on that. I want to close this day with a story about peace. It’s about making peace in your own corner of the universe, however you can:

The night before the fourth of July this year I was in Seldovia, Alaska. Originally established as a Russian fur trading post in the late 1700s, Seldovia is now a fishing town of 300. There are no roads connecting it to the rest of Alaska so people use boats or planes to get there. In true Alaskan charm, the tides are so high that houses are even built on stilts in some sections of town. (In fact, originally, the whole town was just a system of stilts and boardwalks.)

Sign going into Seldovia's bay

View of Seldovia's deep water dock at low tide

That night, I was at the bar (there’s only one) with Mike, a long-time Alaskan fishermen who retired and started an oyster farm (only to find out it’s a full-time job as well). I had worked with Mike for about a week on his farm in a nearby bay. We got along well — something not too hard when your boss has a sailor’s mouth and a killer heart. After about two hours of Alaskan amber (me) and tequila on the rocks (the sailor), we decide to find the rest of our underage crew on Seldovia’s outer beach.

But before we get there Mike wants to make a stop. He wants to go see Otis. Reaching the cemetery, I learn that Otis was Mike’s first skipper who passed away at the ripe old age of 80 after a life at sea trolling for halibut and salmon. He died last year but is supposed to have a tombstone now and Mike wants to see it. We start to look around.

Mike, Jack and Bear on our way to the farm one afternoon

Seldovia’s cemetery is exactly like the cemeteries in the old New England towns I grew up around: scattered plots, crumbling tombstones, weeds and trees all around. It feels empty in a beautiful way — like that refrain from that poem by Margaret Frye: “Do not stand at my grave and weep, / I am not there; I do not sleep. / I am a thousand winds that blow, /I am the diamond glints on snow… / Do not stand at my grave and cry, / I am not there; I did not die.”

We weave around the patchwork of stone and fireweed looking for Otis for a long while. We find some stones that say “Died at Sea,” and one of a young man Mike knew who drove his car off the road after too many drinks. I had met his seven year-old daughter earlier that day. And, as we walk, this music reaches us from down in the inlet where the tides roll in. Someone is playing a native flute. I don’t know how to say it other than it felt reverent — to stand in that place with the soft light of the evening sun, to be surrounded by all these lives in miniature, and to hear this pure, haunting, peaceful melody envelop us all.

Mike and I find Otis towards the end of a line, down the hill. His stone looks newly carved. It has only his name and his dates. It says nothing about the man Mike has told me about. Nothing about his gruffness. Nothing about how well he knew his trade. Nothing about his tall tales and crude humor. And there is this feeling: that nothing can really a capture a life that’s now gone. Not a stone. Not a eulogy. That maybe what really comes the closest is the sound of that flute.

The next day we are back in Seldovia to celebrate our nation’s independence. After a day of small town activities (pancake breakfast, parade with children throwing candy, library book sale) and “Sourdough” ones — what Alaskans affectionately call those who have lived through an arctic winter or two (ax tossing, log rolling, canoe jousting), I end up at a party around a firepit. We are on a hill, on the other side of the inlet from the cemetery, overlooking the stilted houses of old Seldovia. It has been rainy all day but the sun has now come out and so everything feels alive with a coat of water and light. I go to the edge of the hill to take it all in.

People dressed in costumes for the July 4th parade. Here they are dressed as Seldovia's historic stilted houses.

Out there, I meet Brian, a sixty-something man with a gray ponytail and kind blue eyes, who’s also taking it all in. He’s wearing a “Veterans of Seldovia” hat. I soon learn that he went to Vietnam and came back disenchanted with the world so moved to Alaska in the 70s and Seldovia soon after. He loves Seldovia. He cares about the community deeply. He hates to see the small town rivalries, the petty bickering, the solace people find in a bottle. “There is so much healing that needs to happen here. There is so much healing that needs to happen in our world. That’s why I play my flute.”

I can barely believe it — and yet, I can, because Alaska has been a place for me of amazing coincidences like these. “Were you playing yesterday — at night?” I ask him, breathless. “Yes, I always play at that time.” “Brian, I heard you!” And I tell him how his playing filled that moment in the cemetery with such an overwhelming sense of peace. He tells me how sometimes he plays out of anger, out of frustration, out of despair. “But last night I was really playing out of peace. I was hoping someone would hear and be healed by the sound.”

He goes on to tell my ringing hears how sometimes he feels unsure if he’s reaching anybody but then someone will stop him in town to thank him or, when he hasn’t played for a day or two, someone will ask why he hasn’t been. He swears too that sometimes he sees sea otters circling in the inlet below his house just so they can stay and listen.

It’s here, picturing all of us — man and beast — listening to his sound, that I realize something about the power we all possess to try and right the wrongs in our world; to connect all our private lives together and bring some healing, even if it’s just for a moment.

I’ve been feeling more and more these days how acutely our country, our world needs some healing. Badly. It’s a feeling that comes with a certain darkness, a certain despair, a certain nagging question of what does it all matter anyways if I will just end up an unknown stone on a hill.

But, in these moments, it’s good to think of Brian standing on his porch, flute to his lips, pouring his whole soul out for the world. He’s not sure if anyone is listening. He’s not sure, even if they listen, that they will understand. But I think the point isn’t even about the people or the animals he reaches. I think the point is this: that there is an alternative to despair and that is hope; there is an alternative to anger and that is forgiveness; there is an alternative to killing and that is healing; and there is an alternative to war and that is peace.

Maybe that’s why Eunice Williams stood out to me ten years ago. She questioned and chose the alternative. Like Eunice, we all possess the power to chose differently. It’s not just the leaders of our free world who make the choices. We have to chose too. We have to chose what we believe in and how to respond. And I hope, in this new decade, we will consider the alternatives. We will be more like Brian and his flute.


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