Lessons from Alaska

By Janice Lane Palko 

Last month, I went to Alaska on vacation. Before I went, nerd that I am, I scoped out where we were going and learned some remarkable facts about the state. Alaska has more land mass than the next three largest states of Texas, California and Montana combined. Alaska is so huge, if you superimposed a map of the state onto the center of a map of the continental U.S., Alaska’s Aleutian Islands would fall on San Diego in the west and the state’s eastern islands would reach to Jacksonville, Florida in the east. Alaska is so far west, portions of its island are technically in the eastern hemisphere. It has more than 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes. It is also the least populated state. 

Last Christmas, I was given Kristin Hannah’s fantastic novel The Great Alone, which is set in Alaska during the 1970s, and it illustrates how remote the state is, how great the emptiness there is, so much so that it has a sinister aspect. I knew all that going in, but that is nothing compared to experiencing Alaska’s vastness and aloneness. We probably saw 1 percent of Alaska, but for the most part, we saw nothing but mile after mile of mountains and eerie nothingness. While talking to residents, several emphasized that to survive an Alaskan winter, you must get into the sunlight and maintain social contact, or you could lose your mind or die.  

For the last nearly two years, many of us have been living our own “Great Alone,” we’ve been isolated from one another, and that’s not good as the rising suicide rates and mental health issues have indicated. Many of us have started to venture out, but for others, the world is still a frightening place. I understand that; I used to suffer with anxiety. But I have a greater fear. 

While we were in Alaska, my husband and I ziplined for the first time at Hoonah. It was billed as the tallest and highest zipline in the world. It sounded like a good idea when I booked it, but when we got there and saw how high up in the mountain the launch site was, I was thinking this may have been a mistake. It was a loooong way down. 

We took the 45-minute bus ride up the mountain to the launch site, where we were dropped off to hike down to the zipline site. On the way, we met a woman who was having some difficulty navigating the steep hill down to the site. We struck up a conversation and learned that she was 76, from Massachusetts, traveling alone because her husband had in her words “turned into an old curmudgeon and didn’t want to go anywhere,” and that she’d just had a hip replacement surgery in January.  

When I expressed that I was a little bit apprehensive about descending from what was equal to the height of the Empire State Building to the ground in 90 seconds at 60 miles an hour, she said not to be afraid, enjoy it. She’d ziplined six times in her life already. 

I did enjoy the zipline; in fact, it was the highlight of the trip, and I’ve thought a lot about that woman since. She also told me that during the lockdown, she made 200 quilts for charity and intended to travel as long as she could, saying “I’m running out of time.” 

I know life can be scary; it always has been, and it always will be. But you can’t crawl in a hole and hide. That will kill you as well—maybe not physically, but it will kill that spark of life in you. We’re all running out of time. We’re all on the clock, and we don’t know how much time any of us has until the buzzer sounds. So, do what you can, take necessary precautions, evaluate the risks, but get out there and live. We’ve already lost so much; how much more can we afford to lose? 

To me, the only scarier thing than dying, is not having lived. 

What does 60 look like? 

I turn 60 this month. I had to go back and look at those digits and ponder them after I typed them. They look so foreign. Me 60? Recently, when people have learned that I was coming up on a milestone birthday, several have kindly quipped, “You don’t look 60!” But after the third person told me that, I thought, Well, what exactly does 60 look like? 

When I was a kid, 60 looked ancient. That was my grandparents’ age. When I went to work, and a I was PYT (Pretty Young Thing), 60 looked like those old ladies in cardigan sweaters on the executive floor. Now, that I’ve arrived at 60, it doesn’t seem that old. Here’s a little secret for all those not yet 60: it’s not that bad. Sure, I’m not as svelte or supple as I used to be, but on the inside, I feel the same as I did when I was 16–only a whole lot smarter. I know a lot more; I figured a lot more things out; I’ve achieved a lot more; and I’ve come to learn what is important in life. I think you spend the first 20 years of your life becoming you and then the next 40 creating and living your life—getting married, having children, building a career– and then all of a sudden you’re rounding the bend and sliding into third at 60.  

If I could go back now and visit my 20-yearold self, I think young me would be delighted and relieved as to how I have ended up. I’ve been blessed with so much and by so many people, it’s hard to mourn the passing of the years.  

As I mentioned in a previous column, I was fortunate to go on a Caribbean cruise (before the coronavirus hit), and the ship was primarily filled with passengers who were 50 and up, and let me tell you, they were having the time of their lives. Sure, there were a lot of people on canes or were wearing knee braces or didn’t exactly look like Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, but they were enjoying themselves, with a sense of they had nothing left to prove. They’ve married, had children, had careers, faced obstacles, become grandparents and survived. There’s no time to look back only time to enjoy the here and now and make the most of what’s left of your life.  

Last summer, my granddaughter Sadie, who was three at the time, was over at my house, and she was playing at me feet. I was wearing shorts, and she looked at my right calf that has a varicose vein that runs down the inside like a lightning bold, leaving a constellation of three clusters of spider veins. She touched one of the spider veins and smiled up at me. “Grandma,” she said, “I really like the blue spots on your leg. They’re beautiful.” 

I chuckled. Only a three-year-old could think a spider vein beautiful. “Why, thank you,” I said. 

A lot like a varicose vein. In one sense it’s an unmistakable sign of advancing age, and on the other its simply beautiful. 


 

I had the great fortune to take a break from winter and embark on a cruise in the Caribbean at the end of January beginning of February. We stopped at 12 islands and in addition to enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, refreshing saltwater washing over me and the warmth of powdery sand beneath my feet, I enjoyed something else—freedom.  

If you have never been on a cruise, you may not know that there are people aboard, passengers and crew alike, from all over the world. In addition, the islands are inhabited by people who have mixed races of African, Dutch, Spanish, English, French and local Indians depending upon which port visit 

Unless they were presenting a false face to us or it was the euphoria of escaping snow, not once did the citizens of any of the islands we met stress that they despised Columbus, felt oppressed, or focused on what color skin they had or you had. We were just people. Different in skin pigment and cultural practices but just people 

But they weren’t ignorant of their historyand they showed us the impossibly austere huts on Bonaire, where slaves lived while forced to make salt. We saw the Hato Caves on Curacao and the soot from fires on the cave ceilings left from the slaves who had hidden in there from their slave masters. In Puerto Rico, our taxi driver proudly showed us the monuments to Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon and told us proudly that Puerto Ricans are a mixture of Spanish, Taino Indian, African.  

In Antigua the store owners looked at us in amusement when we asked them if they knew where we could buy more sunscreen, implying do you think with my skin color I need sunscreen? On board ship, it was no different. My husband explained some things about the Super Bowl to an inquisitive man from India while watching the big game, and chatted for an hour with a man from Toronto who had immigrated to that city from Trinidad back in the 1980s. We laughed when he told me how cold his Caribbeanweight cloth pants left him when he arrived there in December.  

People on board engaged in games, enjoyed music, laughed, drank, swam, conversed, held elevators doors, and dined with people who did not look like them. It was so freeing. There was no looking back to the past and all the mistakes made there. There was only now. 

So, imagine my sadness when I recently interviewed a black businessman who had traveled the world and told me that he found Pittsburgh to still be very racist. I couldn’t argue with him; I don’t know. I’m not in his skin, but if it is, I’m very sad. Not only for him but for all of us. 

In the Bible they often describe heaven as a wedding feast, but sometimes I think it’s more like a cruise ship where all God’s children from around the world are enjoying themselves, laughing, dancing and feasting and the lyrics of Bob Marley are playing: “One love; One Heart. Let’s get together and feel alright.”  

By Janice Lane Palko 


By Janice Lane Palko 

“Your life is heading down one path, and then suddenly, in an instant, it all changes.” Those words were uttered by a former St. Benedict Academy classmate of mine over the holidays when she came to Pittsburgh from Florida for a visit after not seeing each other for 43 yearsSadly, she was forced to leave our high school back in 1976 when her mother suddenly died during our junior year. Several other classmates and I were able to reconnect with our friend after finding her on Facebook.   [Read more…]

 I Get It! 

By Janice Lane Palko 

With the coming holidays and the turning of the new year, I’ve already started to think about some resolutions for 2020. I mulled over the same old objectives: get in shape, spend less, pray more, etc. Recently, however, I think I’ve come across a key that may supersede all of those and prove to be more fruitful and more life-changing in the end.  [Read more…]

Where Was I . . . 

When it comes to veterans, we often hear about their alarming suicide rates, high incidences of homelessness, and how prevalent post-traumatic stress disorder is among them, and rightly so because too many veterans suffer from those maladies. But there is another side to veterans that no one that I know of keeps track of and that is the number of veterans who freely stand in the breech for us, protecting and serving long after their tour of duty or military career ends. It’s a phenomenon that I’d like to call Post Military Service Disposition or PMSD.  [Read more…]

My Commencement Address 

Janice Palko

By Janice Lane Palko 

We are in graduation season. And although no one has asked me to give a commencement address, that is not stopping me. Here are some things I learned after finishing school and beginning my career that might help all you recent graduates.  

Is That all There Is?  – Several weeks into working at my first job, I remember thinking: I worked hard all through school and landed a good job and this is all there is? Why was I in such a hurry to get here? I don’t care if you are pursuing your dream career and love your new position, entering the full-time workforce is a huge transition for a young person. You will have to deal with an alarm clock, traffic and minutiae that will test your patience. But take heart; you will adjust. I did, and eventually came to like and enjoy my job. Getting a paycheck helps with that (if you overlook the amount of taxes deducted from your pay).  [Read more…]