In 2020 we were disconnected from the world. Like many of you we’ve been sheltering-in-place so no physical contact with our grown children and grandchildren. This situation is heart-wrenching. I want to toss the anger and frustration into a muskeg pond and let it sink, bury heartache and grief beneath an old spruce tree. But when I started reflecting on 2020, I realized there are things I want to remember, to cherish, to holdfast. A holdfast is the root structure fastening seaweed to a rock or other hard surfaces. You’ve seen them on the beach. The holdfast anchors and allows seaweed to thrive, to stay put, to be strong, to survive.
Here’s what I learned to hold fast and to let go this past year:
Hold fast to blueberries: If you hold blueberries too tight and for too long they’ll stain your hands. But it’s a good stain because it’s proof we’ve harvested and picked berries and boosted our immune system. Many of us had to exclude family from harvesting because we couldn’t get close, but harvesting kept many of us sane. The forest held us up. This year we learned to hold fast to our health and not take it for granted.
Hold fast to your breath: In and out. Just breathe. Take a lesson from the lichen: Best to harvest windblown lichen from the ground or from the broken off branches, and only take a small amount. If you must, carefully remove the lichen from live branches. It’s okay to use what’s broken, to take a small piece of that anger or sorrow and make it something good. Breath in and out and then walk the brokenness to the old log by the creek and place it into the hollow spaces. It’ll become nutrients for the little hemlock seedling. Someday that tree will be draped in lichen. Lichen lessons: Hold it, then let it go.
Hold fast and let go like a spruce tip: Harvesting traditional foods in a pandemic means there’s less help from family and friends who are also sheltering or keeping their social bubbles small. Spruce tips emerge in spring with a short harvesting window. Harvesting them is tactile and intimate. Sharing these moments with family gathers us up among the family of humans and trees. It connects us. But when harvesting season is over it’s time to move on. Be like a spruce tip and enjoy the moments as they happen.
Hold fast to hope and hold that book: Hope is hard to find and hard to hold onto. As 2020’s spring arrived, nature gave me hope. But as the pandemic news grew grimmer, as illness and death counts rose, I felt hope slipping away. I searched for vaccine news every day. Would there be a vaccine? When would it happen? When it felt like I had no hope I did things that gave me hope: I went out into the wilderness. I played dice and card games with my dad. And I read books. I read my way through 2020 because writing was more difficult. In 2020 sometimes hope was sitting by a window with a book in hand reading a poem.
Hold fast to stories: 2020 allowed me time to listen to other’s struggles, to practice listening. In writing my column “The art of salmon,” I listened to skipping rock sockeyes and diving dog salmon. It was story weather for most of the summer—a lot of harbor days. And there were sport fishing salmon closures that affected access to getting enough salmon for the year. I had to let go of frustrating weather and salmon regulations. But, the downtime gave me the gift of listening. A story carved its way through an elders hands from a block of cedar sliced into a salmon pegs. I hold fast to the stories.
Hold fast to the work of other artists: My friend Kristina often calls me to check in. Sometimes she texts me photos of her latest doll diorama.
I wrote a column this year about her work reviving Tlingit doll-making. Watching how other artists have struggled, thrived, and survived this year gives me a hold on the real world. Lily, my clan sister, wove earrings and offered classes online. Aakatchaq created art for the Juneau community. Gigi Monroe’s Zoom drag shows helped me get through tough days. In 2020 I connected to art by celebrating others who were doing the hard work of creating a better world.
Know when to let the crabs go: This year I wrote about crabbing in Wrangell. You have to know how to hold the crab just right and how to identify the ones you have to let go. Taking lessons from crabbing, I got rid of books I’d already read and the hoodie I hadn’t worn in two years. I made my own regulations: If I hadn’t used something in a year then off to the thrift store or to a friend that might need it.
Hold traditions, let go of expectations: Some traditions we had to let go of because we couldn’t gather together. Wrangell’s famous July Fourth celebration was scaled back and people relied on home BBQs or campouts. We had a social distance parade and fireworks.
We made the best of it. Traditional birthday parties didn’t happen, either. Instead, we sang happy birthdays via video. We started a new tradition Zooming dice game with family on Friday evenings. Game night continues into 2021 and who knows how long that’ll go on. In these hard times we learned what traditions sustain us and how to adapt those practices to a changed world.
Let go like a bunchberry: Sometimes we have to let go of something so it doesn’t destroy us, so it won’t come back again. Let go like bunchberry pollen on a blossom. The filaments underneath flip the elastic flower petals and fling pollen into the air at two to three thousand times the force of gravity and 10 times the height of the flower. Bunchberry pollen release is one of the fastest in the world. So if you need to let go of any part of 2020, let go like a bunchberry.
Hold fast to our gifts: As vaccines rolled out and 2020 was about to end, our brother-in-law, a veteran with two Purple Heart medals, died of COVID-19. He died on Christmas Eve, so the end of the year was filled with sorrow and hope. I focused on gifting in my winter seasonal column. It was a struggle. But despite the grief there was also joy: My dad received his vaccine. There is hope. My social media is filled with photos of people receiving their vaccines and each time I see one I tear up. These everyday things are the best gifts. My children gift me videos: Grandson
Owen is singing karaoke, “Johnny B. Goode,” and he and his little brother, Chatham, surf in Sitka’s winter waves. Another video shows Grandson Jonah opening a science kit and Grandson Bear babbles his first sentences. These gifts are my holdfasts.
What things will you hold fast from 2020 and what things will you let go? I’m predicting 2021 will be messy and complicated, but consider the seaweed swaying in the ocean, that anchor, that holdfast. We can be a holdfast for one another. In 2021, learn when to hold fast and when to let go, dear reader.