How should I begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

Post #1. In which I tell you who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.

Kristin Prugh

4/9/202410 min read

Kristin Prugh typing at the kitchen table
Kristin Prugh typing at the kitchen table

I’m going to take a moment to tell you where I am right now, so that you know, in the spirit of Joan Didion, “precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.”

It’s early April 2024, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in the upstairs apartment of an Airbnb in Anchorage, Alaska, looking out a large picture window at snow falling hard. This is not the same kitchen table I was sitting at three days ago.

From the outside, nothing has changed. I’ve been sitting at this table revising a manuscript I uncovered recently that I’m calling Diary of a Thinking Mother. I wrote it almost ten years ago, but when I started reading it, I knew that I needed to finish it, and urgently. It begins with a quotation by Jacques Derrida:

A philosopher couldn’t be my mother. That’s a very important point. Because the figure of the philosopher is, for me, always a masculine figure. This is one of the reasons I undertook the deconstruction of philosophy... My mother as a philosopher would be my granddaughter, for example. An inheritor. A woman philosopher who would reaffirm the deconstruction. And, consequently, would be a woman who thinks. Not a philosopher. I always distinguish thinking from philosophy. A thinking mother—it’s what I both love and try to give birth to.

The manuscript I discovered responds in this way:

Derrida brilliantly recognizes the centrality of the question, and he works, with all of the subtle means at his disposal, to shore up the questioning philosophies of Heidegger and Levinas. He insists upon the question as a question and tries, from a hundred different angles, to pose the question without allowing the questioning to collapse into an answering.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that living is a form of answering. Every day, every thought, every word, every action, every decision is a kind of answer.

The writing that follows in the original manuscript of the Diary draws out the impossible position of thinking: the need to arrive at a questioning from within a life that is inevitably an answering. Which probably means that I owe you an account of my living so that my answering is out in the open if we are going to make our way to the questioning. That this is not the same table I was sitting at three days ago is an opening onto a question, but its roots are in the answering defined by the very particular events that led me back to this table in such a way as it can be both the same and, at the same time, wholly, utterly different.

Three days ago, my husband and I and our four children—two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 15 to 6—had been living without a car in about a two-mile radius within Anchorage, the place we landed last December after being more-or-less forced off of our sailboat/floating tiny home anchored near the coast of Florida. We had been living, working, and traveling on our little sailboat for most of the past six years, searching for a life in which we could feel poetry and dwell together as a family, with a light footprint and a small bank account.

Then the heat and the storms got ugly, the politics of anchoring in Florida got uglier, and we were suddenly without a place to stay near the boatyard where my husband was working at the time as a boat mechanic, the day job which helped to support his family and his art. We barely survived the hottest summer we had ever seen down there, and we were drowning financially because of food inflation and the Florida housing crisis. A thousand people a day had been moving to Florida since Covid—housing prices and food prices skyrocketed as a result, and the infrastructure of docks and mooring fields upon which we depended as full-time liveaboards became overcrowded, expensive and more and more regulated as all of the new residents from the north purchased boats for weekend excursions. Rent (on land or on the water) combined with the increased cost of food created an impossible equation for those of us living on blue-collar wages, and before long conversations among the working class drifted more and more toward a question about how to get out of Florida, and soon.

When the anchorage we relied on passed a law to limit stays to 60 hours in 60 days, we tried to find a dock or a mooring field we could afford to rent long-term, but there was nothing viable, and even if there had been, the local sheriffs and fishing authorities had taken to openly harassing boaters on the water, which made liveaboarding decidedly stressful and unpleasant. So we put the boat in storage and moved into a tent in the local state campgrounds, where you could still camp on a rotating two-week basis not to exceed 56 days total in any calendar year. This meant that if you could find six or seven campgrounds within driving distance of your place of employment, you could live for a reasonable amount of money in a campground year-round. We met more families than you might expect trying to hang on by their fingernails this way.

If you couldn’t find a sufficient number of state campgrounds in the vicinity, your only other affordable option was to take up residence in a motel, but that, too, was becoming more and more difficult. We did it for a month near the beginning of Covid, but the motels were getting impatient and began passing all kinds of regulations to restrict or outright prohibit families staying long-term in their rooms. Campgrounds were wising up to the situation as well, and it wasn’t going to be long before they would pass regulations to close the last loophole for affordable housing in Florida, at least for those of us under the age of 55. If you’re over 55, you can have your pick of affordable trailer, condo and vacation homes in age-restricted 55+ communities all around the state. But Florida isn’t interested in protecting affordable housing for families, and it isn’t interested in protecting people living on their boats either, so eventually we got the message and started to seek life elsewhere.

My husband, Brian, who is an artist and thinker first, started looking for any job anywhere outside of Florida. And that is how we landed here, in Anchorage, Alaska, where he is employed as a steward for the Alaska Marine Highway System—the ferry that connects the Alaskan coast with the Lower 48. We’ve been here since late December 2023 living without a car, making use of the bus and taxi system to get provisions. We’ve lived without a car many times before, so this wasn’t a huge shift for us. What made it bearable is that the Airbnb we rented is just down the street from one of the most beautiful lake skating rinks in all of Alaska, and there is a used sports store just up the hill—so we were able to buy six pairs of used ice skates and spend this first magnificent winter out of doors, skating around Westchester Lagoon and looking out at the Chugach Mountains in the distance.

One week ago, literally overnight, the rink became unskatable. The above-freezing temps in mid-March melted it beyond the safe point, and just as quickly as they came, all of the fire barrels and city-provided bins of firewood disappeared, the city trucks stopped coming to add layers of smooth ice to the surface, and what had been a vitally alive outdoor public space became barren and empty and kind of sad, the way spring can be sad in Alaska. Of course, after the long winter, everyone looks forward to the new and different landscape and activities of summer—but spring isn’t all sun shining and birds chirping and flowers blooming like it is in the Lower 48. It’s mostly snow and rain and mud and more mud as the snow melts in the mountains and begins its rapid rush to the sea. In the bush, travel is basically impossible until the rivers melt fully and become safe for passage by boat.

In the cities, on the road system, things are both better and worse. Better, insofar as days without snow and ice become more regular; worse insofar as potholes emerge from under the ice and the weather goes from summer to winter and back again rapidly and without warning. You can’t grow complacent and think winter is over because it’s not. One day you need winter gear, the next day you need “Alaskan sneakers,” the ubiquitous Xtratuf boots that Alaskans are perpetually clad in over the summer. One day, it’s raining, the next day it’s snowing and the melt is turning to ice.

So here we were, living in the upstairs apartment of a house in the city, surviving our car-less indoor lives by escaping to the ice rink to skate for hours everyday, and then one day, just like that, we couldn’t. We tried taking walks along the many magnificent walking paths in our part of the city, and that was lovely insofar as we could shed some of the weight of our winter gear and enjoy a freer, lighter trek along the ocean. But the snow was beginning to melt and weaken like the ice, and just walking became a challenge of epic proportions, trying not to slide this way or that on the melting surface or to get stuck in what we now call a “sudden sinking event” in “quick-snow”—which is when the snow gives way suddenly under your weight, and you go in up to your knees or waist and need someone to help pull you out. A few days of this, and we found ourselves sitting sullenly around this table, staring at one another and wondering what to do.

Enter the car. Our car had been living with my parents in St. Louis in the Lower 48 over the winter because we tried to drive it to Alaska along the Alcan in December and discovered—perhaps unsurprisingly—that even after weeks of preparation and research, neither we nor our car were ready for that journey in winter. We got stuck in a hotel for three days while the roads remained closed after a snow and ice storm just a few hours across the Canadian border, and after several difficult days looking ahead at the long distance and the high mountains to come and back at the long distance and high spending behind, we finally decided that we had to turn back, leave the car in St. Louis with my family and fly to Anchorage instead.

Our car is a 2006 Kia Sedona minivan converted into a micro-RV. We turned it into a van conversion for the six of us after we met an indigenous family of six in a campground who had just upgraded to a pop-up trailer after living in their converted minivan with four children, four dogs and three cats for the past four years. It was their modern tipi, and they were on the road, moving and seeing the world, living day to day and trying to spend as much time together as they could because the mother had a terminal disease and an uncertain future. To lean on a cliché and say they were inspirational wouldn’t begin to describe the meaningfulness of that encounter and its impact on our thinking and our vision of what is possible.

We lived in our own van conversion for six months full-time, and then in concert with our boat and a canvas bell tent for another six months after that. I had a feeling when we bought that car that it would be the car to take us where we needed to go. I didn’t know where that was at the time, but it felt significant, like there was somewhere we needed to go which would only become clear in time, and that our minivan—which we dubbed White Dove II after our first White Dove, the row dinghy for our sailboat—would take us there. So when Alaska became a reality, I figured we would drive. And when arctic winters became a reality and we had to turn back, I felt a little lost and began to doubt that we were on the right path. It turns out that “Dovey 2” (as our kids affectionately call our van house) was going to take us where we needed to go, just not in the way we expected.

As the melting snow radically altered our surroundings and we languished around our kitchen table, Brian got clearance to ship the car on the ferry (as part of the moving assistance offered with the job). We made plans with my parents for my mom to drive our minivan to Seattle, where it would get put on a ferry and shipped (in the most literal sense) to us in Alaska. The first ferry in years was scheduled to sail from Bellingham, Washington all the way to Whittier, Alaska, about an hour south of here. Brian made arrangements to get a ticket for our van, I made arrangements to get our van on the ship, et voilà, we were set to have our car within a week. Three days to Seattle, three days to Whittier, one day to Anchorage, and we’d be ready to hit the camping road this summer.

And then, totally unexpectedly, the engine broke—not the engine on our car, which has been a surprisingly reliable vehicle for us, but the engine on a lifeboat on the ship which was supposed to deliver our car to Whittier. Within hours of their scheduled departure, the Coast Guard declared that the ship was not sufficiently seaworthy to sail cross-gulf to Whittier, and the ferry would go no farther than Haines, a port they could reach via the protected inside passage.

Haines, Alaska. It’s in the state of Alaska, just two stops short of Whittier, so it can’t be that big of a deal, right? Sure, put it on the boat and we’ll figure it out.

And then, we began to try to figure it out.

The car was on the ship en route to Haines. There wouldn’t be another ship coming to Whittier for the foreseeable future, maybe ever as far as anyone knows. Haines is the last stop. The car is there. We are here. So we have to go get it.

Our first thought was to fly Brian down and have him drive the car back by himself. But the flights were so expensive that we could drive a rental car for about the same price, which would give us the advantage of having an extra vehicle in the event of mechanical problems or blown tires or what have you on the way back. This was our answer. An answer for spring and for being cooped up in the city. An answer to the very straightforward practical problem of how to pick up the car. An answer to a question we could not possibly perceive that we had been asking.

We made a reservation and began plotting the route and reading the Milepost to try to get a sense of what we could expect. And here is where the limitations of all of our communications and vast information networks begin to reveal themselves. Because nothing—and I mean nothing—we could have read or watched on YouTube or even imagined could have prepared us for what we encountered on our three-day journey from Anchorage to Haines, Alaska and back again through the Yukon and British Columbia on the edge of spring in the arctic. Nothing could have prepared me for the happening which changed this table I am sitting at now, writing different words than the words I was writing before we left, looking out the window with a different view than the view I had looking out that same window just three days ago.