Ekphrastic Mama meets Mama Matanuska

Like a huge bird our airplane touches down on the tarmac and soon makes a turn–we are here in Cordova, Alaska, turning away from the mountains and rivers so immense it tries the mind, taking in this northern tundra from above–what specks we are, yearning for meaning, traveling at high speeds, and covering so much ground in a day that we may never catch up with ourselves.

Next stop Yakutat; just for fun, the milk-run flight.

Grounded for 45 minutes my mind turns back to home where a small urn sits on a shelf with all that is left to me of my mother, but once was arms and legs leading to toes turned into appendages from tadpole-like little pieces inside her mother, my grandmother. As we take to the air again, the image takes shape like a plane ride, the kind that turns upside down and right-side-up again just for the fun of it, the thrill that turns you inside out of self, like a soaring bird that breaks into song just for the joy of it.

Next to me is my youngest daughter, barely 14, gazing out at glaciers, and I wonder, how will this one, who appears so near perfect next to me, how will she turn out? Like her grandmother, she loves to sing, whereas I felt shamed out of my singing voice. Maybe I will find it again here in Alaska among the Mockingbirds singing at all hours of the sunlit nights. And maybe I will seek a new answer to the question of how I turned out in the eyes of my mother, now turned to ash.

We were disappointments to each other, hers turning to bitterness gathered up with all the others life offers, like a drink left out to ferment too long. Overlooking the Aleutian Islands before we touch down in Anchorage, I’m reminded of a determination to break the chain that links us like Russian nesting dolls, one daughter inside a mother inside another; I’ll not dwell on mother-daughter disappointments.

Nestled in the Chugach mountains north of our destination, Mama Matanuska unfurls her cathedral-like spires rising from silt and ice, her fissures and falls like portals beckoning us onto another world, an ethereal space of bright freedom. You hardly know where you are in this new space where air bubbles locked in ice, but carved out with a pick axe in minute amounts, melt slowly on the tongue. Sucking produces pre-industrial revolution water so clear and cold it expands the mind as Mama Matanuska groans beneath our feet–in approval or disgust I cannot say–but she moves and moans, sliding or receding in endless motion, always advancing or retreating, her body over 24 miles long and four miles wide at the terminus, and possibly half as deep–is that even fathomable? We stare at our MICA guide, Julian, trying to comprehend all he offers up.

If I tell you the truth it would be that we made our way to another planet, our feet leaving earth as we know it, stepping onto thixotropic mud that when agitated- pumped with continuous stomping–turns to quick-sand as the water is unable to escape the saturated silt, becoming liquefied soil, losing its strength so that it cannot support our weight. But with crampons beneath our feet we walk almost weightless upon Mama Matanuska’s thick skin, our toes facing forward, heels digging in deep as we explore this sacred space like an outdoor worship service, or an inner rotation of the spirit that sends our souls soaring. My daughter and I smile wide-eyed at each other, no bitterness here, only love and adventure.  Later in the week when the ground shakes during a 6.1 earthquake in nearby Chickaloon, we picture Mama Matanuska yawning, and go back to sleep.

We pass day after day in the land of midnight sun until our week in Alaska evaporates. And now there is nothing left to do but turn south and fly away again, fly home like we are birds, a cotillion of terns, twisting and turning as if outrunning a hurricane, in search of safety found in sturdy trees, our motherland state half-covered in forests, but we in our airplane possess a distinct need to touch down on a tarmac and celebrate home.

“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.” –Terry Tempest Williams





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