I Grew Up in Rural Alaska: Here’s My Best Advice for Staying at Home
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
When schools first closed in Seattle due to COVID-19 I thought being cooped up with my two boys, 4 and 7, while my husband and I work from home was going to be totally nuts. It turns out it’s pretty much my ideal way of living. I’m noticing a sense of calm I haven’t had in a long time; my nervous system is relaxing, I am feeling more connected to my family, I’m more of the parent I want to be, I’m cooking more, I have more access to creativity and playfulness. Staying at home with my little family is helping me return to my roots, to how I grew up.
Some of you may know that I grew up in rural Alaska. When I say rural, I mean it was an hour and a half from pretty much anything, including the grocery store. The school I went to, Glacier View, is K-12 and at that time had about 65 kids. I had 5 in my graduating class -- and if you think that’s small then you should know that one of my sisters was the only graduate in her class. We had friends we would get together with occasionally, but for the most part it was me and my little family of five and a lot of togetherness in our log home in the mountains.
As you might imagine, life is quite different when you live in a place where there is nowhere to go but outside. Now that we’re all getting a taste of living that requires we stay at home I want to share what I’ve learned. Here are my best tips:
Create a cozy space.
There’s a reason that the Danish term Hygge has become all the rage recently. When you live in a climate where it’s not practical to be outside much of the time, you come up with ways to make inside a place you want to be. Declutter and keep things picked up, light a candle, put on some cozy slippers, read a book, snuggle in a blanket. If you have a family or roommates, read together, play a board game, sit around and visit. Make your space a place where you can feel content, relaxed, and have a little fun.
Growing up, we would go to town for groceries and supplies about once a month. We didn’t have electricity until 1990, and prior to that my Dad would run a generator when we needed power. Until I was in middle school, we had one TV channel. We would flip through the giant JC Penny catalog to choose our back to school clothes and wait for them to come in the mail. What an event! My love for music grew through mail order CDs, where I would take a chance on music I’d never heard until it arrived in our mailbox. Almost nothing we had was on demand.
When you don’t have everything at your fingertips, you learn that you really don’t need that much. You get used to substitutions - in recipes, activities, projects.
I promise, you’ll survive with a lot less than you’re used to. See how long you can make it between grocery store runs. Finally cycle through foods in your freezer and cabinets. You can even *gasp* do without!
And, when you can’t do without - or if you want to support your local small businesses (please do!) - we’re so lucky to have so many options in these current times to access basically anything we need within a week by mail.
Embrace a Slower Pace
My mom has a “watching chair” in her bedroom. She looks out over the mountains, the sky, the clouds, the animals passing by, the weather constantly changing over the glacier. She knits or reads, does things on the computer. My dad tinkers around in the yard (there is always something to work on). He sits and enjoys his cup of coffee. This week he sent me a little video of a bunny that has been returning to their bird feeder daily, where he narrates as he observes the bunny. Thinking of them like this brings me so much joy.
Here in Seattle, things seem to be in constant motion - most of all people. We are filled with busyness and with it a sense of our own importance. Now with fewer places to go, hardly anywhere to be at any certain time (except let’s be honest - on Zoom), spaciousness is possible. Time expands. We’ve eliminated the stress of frequent transitions with young kids. We’ve gained back hours from commuting. Even with two very energetic boys at home, things feel calmer.
At first, this slowing down can be a little unnerving. Shouldn’t we be doing something? Working on a project, learning a language, starting a business, solving for world peace? At the very least, binge watching Tiger King?
The truth is, you can just sit and look out the window, notice the birds and the changing sky. Give it a try, I think you’ll like it.
Survive in Community.
One morning shortly after I’d moved to Seattle I was leaving for work and realized that my car needed a jump. I got my cables out and hooked up, and at that moment my neighbor walked out of her house with her daughter, who was probably about 8 at the time. I asked her if she would mind quickly giving me a jump, and let her know it would only take a minute because it was all set up. She replied, “No, I can’t. I don’t want my daughter to be late for school.”
Now to some of you, this may seem like a reasonable response. This totally blew my mind. In the culture where I grew up, I really can’t imagine a scenario where someone would have declined.
When you live in a rural place, in particular one with a very harsh climate, helping one another is not just the right thing to do, it’s potentially about life or death. And, that mindset carries over into the many ways people show up for one another.
I recall from my childhood a number of times when a stranger would emerge from our driveway bundled head to toe, their eyes barely peeking out from hats and balaclava, their eyelashes white with frost. Their vehicle had broken down, and they were looking for some help. Could they come inside to warm up and make a plan?
We’d always have them in and my Dad would jump in to help. Maybe he would have just the right part in the garage, saved for such an occasion. Or perhaps a neighbor was heading to town that day and would be able to swing into the auto parts store to get what was needed to get the stranger back on the road. Never was it in the realm of possibility that we would turn someone away, back out into the cold.
Even with neighbors who weren’t particularly friendly with one another, one could call on neighbors in a pinch...to borrow something, to get a hand lifting something heavy, to drop off some food if someone was unwell. You were much better off calling the neighbors if you had a chimney fire, because the fire department was much too far away to make any difference if they came at all. It’s still like this today. My parents and many others are often popping by to a neighbor’s house to help install something, plow a driveway after a heavy snowfall, share a bottle of cranberry liqueur, keep someone company they know might be feeling lonely.
This is what life is all about. It’s the reciprocity, the giving and receiving. It’s checking in on one another, picking up the phone, sending the text, dropping by the groceries.
Right now, staying home for one another is an act of community.
I see so many of us learning new ways of being in community right now. It’s happening all over the country, and it makes my heart sing. My friend’s sister lives by a senior housing community, and has been collecting (very specific) grocery lists and making grocery runs for many of her friends who live there. We’re finding new ways to connect. We’re hosting Zoom dinner parties, happy hours, workouts, anything you can imagine! Last week I had a two and a half hour happy hour with my parents and sisters, and it had never occurred to us to do that before. Neighborhoods are coming together to cheer for our health care workers and thanking the essential workers who are keeping our worlds safe and moving. We’re making workplace advances, like seeing each other more fully in our humanity by getting glimpses of home life and expanding remote working options. All of this will result in innovation if we do it right.
There will be many tragedies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and I want to honor the losses we will experience. At the same time, there’s potential for so much good to come from this time. I hope we don’t waste it. I hope we can use this time to reconnect to some of the tried and true old ways of living: being thankful for what we have, using resources more consciously, living at a slower pace, putting community first.
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