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Laima Vince is a novelist, poet, playwright and literary translator from Lithuanian into English. Her novel, This Is Not My Sky, has been translated into Lithuanian and published by Alma Littera, the largest commercial publishing house in the Baltic States. She has written five works of literary nonfiction and five plays. Laima Vince earned a MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a second MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of two Fulbright grants and a National Endowment for the Arts award in Literature, as well as a PEN Translation Fund grant.

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Graphic Novels

Photo from the Laime Vincė personal archive

Laima Vinceby
Laima Vincė

 

 

I

I hadn’t been back to Alaska for thirty years, not since 1991, when my Uncle Ray and I hiked up Mt. Marathon in his hometown of Seward. The only people I knew who had been to Alaska had driven there. They drove old cars or vans on the Alcan highway through the remote mountain ranges of Canada. Part of the allure was to earn fast money working in Alaska’s canneries.

Four Portraits of Lithuanian Americans in Alaska 08

 

As a young man, Uncle Ray was fed up with the pace and confines of New York City. One summer in the early seventies he drove as far North as the road would take him and ended up in Alaska. He worked in the canneries, on the Alaskan pipeline, and didn’t drink away his paycheck like so many others, but instead invested it buying up lots. Selling those lots enabled him to buy a boat and become a commercial fisherman in the Alaskan waters. By the eighties he and his wife, Leslie, owned and operated a successful seafood restaurant in Seward.

I was stunned by the majestic beauty of Alaska, by the snow-covered mountain ranges, even in summer, the pale verdant glacial waters, the slate grey water of the frigid Pacific. I was awed by the danger of living so close to untamed wilderness – a grizzly bear could maul you or cache your body for sustenance, an owl could swoop down and dig its talons into your pet dog or cat, you could make a wrong turn on the trail, get lost, and freeze to death or slip and fall off a boat or a dock into the treacherous ocean where you could die of hypothermia within minutes.

I was just finding my voice as a poet back then and I took my craft seriously. Alaska taught me that nothing I could ever write could match the beauty of nature’s pallet. When my Aunt Leslie handed me the keys to her station wagon, packed a moose rack into the back, and directed me to drive to the taxidermist in Homer to drop it off, after Homer I just kept going all the way to the Artic Circle on the North Slope Haul Road. Amazed by the natural beauty I witnessed on that road trip, I almost despaired of my ambition of becoming a writer – who, after all, could write anything that could compete with mystical power of Alaska’s mountain ranges or deep aquamarine glacial lakes or fields of purple lupins and red poppies. The magnitude of Alaska nurtured in me a new reverence for the divine as experienced through nature. I felt as though my entire life my soul had been shrunken by the urban landscape of New York with its skyscraper wind tunnels, trash filled vacant lots, and the putrid stink of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Now, thirty years later I had returned to Alaska for Uncle Ray’s funeral. On the morning of June 2, 2021, our families boarded The Legacy and motored out of Seward Harbor. For about an hour we glided past an honor guard of snow-capped mountains. It seemed as though they were there to take their final bow to Ray Simutis. He had travelled past them for so many years on his way far out into the Pacific to fish in peace in quiet.

We finally reached the mouth of Resurrection Bay before it opened into the endless horizon. This was the route that Leslie and Ray took when they could get away from the never-ending work of the restaurant, steaming to their favorite spot, a cliff face, thick with slippery bellowing sea lions and the raucous screams of a riot of indignant swooping gulls and puffins. Janina leaned over the edge of the boat, holding the box containing her father’s ashes in her hands – she had taken care of him the last three years of his life as his health declined. She told us a story about how when she was a little girl her father would maneuver his boat in as close as possible to the cliff where the sea lions lounged, so that her mother could enjoy a better look. Janina would panic and plan which direction she would swim to if the boat were to hit a rock and sink. Brushing back her tears as she laughed, Janina released her father’s ashes into the ocean.

All I could think was that a man who stood six foot seven and was larger than life in many ways had now been transformed into a few handfuls of ash. As we all will be one day… Ashes to ashes… Leslie’s ashes had been released here when she died suddenly, too young, seventeen years ago. Leslie and Ray loved hard, worked hard, played hard. And now they both had returned to the ocean’s icy depths to take their final rest within its restless swells.  We each took a pair of red roses from a bouquet Janina had brought onboard and tossed one for Ray, one for Leslie, into the ocean. And then it was done. As we motored back towards the harbor, the roses floated away from us in a trail.

I struggle to find the words to describe this moment of letting go of my uncle. He had taught me to dare to live life, to take risks, to be curious. He had spent his later years on a spiritual journey and when he was told the day before Christmas Eve he would die of an aneurysm within a few weeks, he peacefully said goodbye to each of us. When his end came, he was excited to go, “to explore new realms in the beyond,” as he put it, to take the road beyond the point where it had ended in Alaska.

I write these words, accepting the simple truth that the creative act of writing can only attempt to replicate the full power and magnitude of a life lived, of the final frontier, of what one experiences in one of the last wild places on earth, and in the wilderness of the soul.

Julius Rymas “Ray” Simutis was born in New York in 1943, the son of Janina Čiurlytė-Simutienė and Anicetas Simutis, who was born in 1909 in a Židikiai, a Samogitian village in western Lithuania. My grandfather was educated as a child by one of Lithuania’s first classic women writers, Marija Pečkauskaitė, known by her nom de plume as the “Witch of Šatrija.” For over half a century Anicetas Simutis served as Consul General to a country that had been erased from the maps after the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1944. Later, after the reinstatement of Lithuania’s independence, Anicetas Simutis became Lithuania’s First Ambassador to the United Nations.

My grandparents left Lithuania bound for New York in 1936 when they were newlyweds, 26 and 18 years old. My grandfather had been assigned to a post in the Consulate General of Lithuania in New York, serving under Consulate General Jonas Budrys. They planned to return to Lithuania in 1939. World War II began, and they could not return home for fifty-three years. Had they returned, they would have been immediately deported to Siberia. My grandfather became a diplomat in exile, serving his country until Lithuania’s independence was re-established in 1991.

 

 

II

Four Portraits of Lithuanian Americans in Alaska 03Svaja (Svajūtė) Worthington, the Republic of Lithuania's Honorary Consul in Alaska. She is the founder of the Little Lithuania Museum & Library in Chugiak, Alaska.

 

I thought that my uncle was the only Lithuanian in Alaska. On this visit, I learned that there are about a dozen adventurous Lithuanians who have made Alaska their home. Three of them are writers, and they have not forgotten Lithuania.

On June 18, 2021, the Little Lithuania Museum & Library in Chugiak, Alaska officially opened its doors to visitors. This delightful historical museum was created by Svaja (Svajūtė) Worthington, the Republic of Lithuania's Honorary Consul in Alaska. Svaja's family has a long and distinguished history connected to Lithuania. Svaja's grandfather, Stasys Šilingas, was the Minister of Justice in pre-World War II independent Lithuania. When the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Lithuania because he was an intellectual, and because of his service to his country, Stasys Šilingas, his wife, Emilija, and one of his nine daughters, Raminta, were deported to the Gulag in Siberia, where they were tortured by hard labor and starvation. Stasys Šilingas survived ten years in prison while under an Article 58 death sentence not knowing from one day to the next if it would be his last day on this earth, and then he survived 10 more years in the Gulag after the death sentence was lifted, but he had the honor of dying in Lithuania.

Svaja, who is a retired professor of Literature at the University of Alaska, created a website to honor her grandparents’ and aunt’s memory. Svaja writes on her website: “My grandfather was then Minister of Justice, a leader in the intelligentsia of Lithuania, and a tireless champion of Lithuanian autonomy and independence. He was a patron of the arts, a poet and writer, and his home, Misiūnai, was a gathering place for artists, writers, poets, philosophers. He was an orator described as ‘the Cicero of the North,’ renowned for his ‘fiery, patriotic speeches’ according to Encyclopedia Lituanica. Others called him ‘The Soul of Lietuva’ and ‘The Father of Lithuanian Independence.’ With a full beard and intense, passionate eyes, to me, he always looked like Leonardo da Vinci, or God.”

Laima, Svaja's mother and one of the nine Šilingas sisters, understood that under the Soviets only one fate awaited her and her family – deportation to the hard labor camps of Siberia. Together with her husband, Mykolas, she escaped Soviet occupied Lithuanian, seeking asylum in the Allied occupied territories of Germany. Soon after they left home, their horse was commandeered by soldiers. The young couple continued their journey on foot to Germany, carrying a wooden suitcase containing all their belongings in one hand and two-year-old Svaja in the other. Covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, Laima wore out her wedding shoes and continued the journey barefoot. The route they took is documented on a map displayed in the Little Lithuania Museum along with the suitcase and its modest contents.

Four Portraits of Lithuanian Americans in Alaska 04

 

Laima was pregnant when she fled Lithuania in August 1944. Svaja’s younger brother was born enroute in Czechoslovakia in 1945. The family lived for five years in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. All that Svaja remembers of those years is the blue and white checkered blanket that hung over a rope, separating their living space from the next family’s. The checkered blanket is now on display in the Little Lithuania Museum.

“I don’t remember the bombs falling,” Svaja said when we met for the first time in a café in downtown Anchorage. After almost 50 years in Alaska with little opportunity to speak Lithuanian, Svaja's Lithuanian was hesitant, so we spoke in English.

In 1949, when she was seven, her family crossed the Atlantic in steerage in a boat filled with refugees. They settled in Lyons, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago where there was more nature and less concrete. The surroundings reminded Laima of her home in Lithuania. “Back then, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe lived in that town,” Svaja recalled.

“I did not speak English at first,” Svaja recalls, “but I remember playing dodge ball with a group of children at school and someone called, ‘You’re out!’ and suddenly the English began to flow.”

Six of the nine Šilingas sisters escaped Lithuania. “My mother never got over the loss of her parents and her life in Lithuania,” Svaja confided. “I don’t remember that my mother ever laughed.”

Svaja recalls her mother telling her that they lived a beautiful life in Lithuania; although, their father did not spoil them. He made them work on the farm. But in America they struggled.

Svaja’s website narrates her family history, and her work as the creator and curator of the Little Lithuania Museum is documented on the museum website. This type of writing belongs to the genre that is known as life-writing. The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing recognizes that types of less formal non-literary writing, such as diaries, letters, interviews, reflections, journals, even recipes, is worthy of study as belonging to the genre of life-writing.

“I don’t think of myself as a writer,” Svaja explains, “but there are some things that need to be recorded and communicated.” Thus, for Svaja, writing is a tool of expression intended for a community of readers who might not otherwise be familiar with the tumultuous 20th century history of Lithuania.

Often trauma wounds are at the core of life-writing. The passion to record memories of a Lithuania before the World War II, and to show Lithuanian culture with pride, drive Svaja’s writing. Her work stems from the need to heal a family wound, and a historical wound. For Svaja, writing serves as a tool to tell her family story, and through telling her family’s story, to tell Lithuania’s story.

Although Svaja does not consider herself a writer, she has written about Šilingas and her family in Proteus and has translated most of his letters into English; although, they have been publicized only in part at Conference presentations. She also translated his poetry: Genesis of a Nation's Songs.

Svaja’s grandfather, Stasys Šilingas, was a man of the people, she explained. He held governmental and political positions in prewar independent Lithuania. He was active in bringing about Lithuania’s independence in 1918. For these activities, the Soviets named him an “enemy of the state. Svaja told me that the 1863 uprising against the Tsar of Russia, was funded by her great-great Grandfather Count Stanislovas Šilingas, who was exiled to Siberia for 10 years for his role in the Uprising. His estate house in Paberžė is now a state museum of the 1863 Uprising.

Recently, reading my great-grandfather, Jurgis Čiurlys’s handwritten diary, I learned that my great-grandmother, Elena Bilminaitė Čiurlienė’s grandfather participated in the 1863 uprising. Because of his participation in the revolt, he was deported to Siberia and died there. So here we were, two women seated in a café in Anchorage, Alaska, both descended from Lithuanians who were exiled from their country for being among those who were a “threat” to the Russian and Soviet totalitarian regimes because of their educations, their principles, their beliefs. We both had an ancestor who had rebelled against tyranny. Throughout the Soviet occupation, we and our families were the persona non grata of Lithuania. Love for Lithuania is in our blood. And yet, we are also displaced out of Lithuania. With each generation the ties with the homeland grow weaker. This is precisely why our ancestors were exiled – to break our ties with Lithuania. Both of us had dedicated much of our life’s work to preserving the memory of Lithuania.

Svaja and her husband Bob, and four of their seven children, (three were born later in Alaska) came to live in Alaska in 1975. When Svaja was a student, they had spent two summers in Denali National Park where Bob worked as a ranger. They fell in love with the beauty and allure of Alaska and wanted to come back. When a job as a medical technician opened for Bob in Anchorage, they relocated from New Mexico. It was the height of the pipeline boom and all they could afford was a log cabin outside of Anchorage in Chugiak with minimal electricity and water. “For ten years life was hard for us in Alaska,” Svaja recalled.

Svaja told me she regrets not having taught her seven children Lithuanian. “But all my children have Lithuanian names,” she boasts.

“What about your husband? He is American. Did he agree to giving the children Lithuanian names?”

“My husband said to me, ‘Our children can have Lithuanian names as long as I can pronounce them.’”

A few days later, I met Svaja with her husband, Bob Worthington, for drinks at the Crow’s Nest bar on the 20th floor of the landmark Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. Perched on barstools with a bird’s eye view of the mudflats that surround Anchorage, as a conversation opener, I asked them how they met. Svaja explained that they met in the early sixties when she was a graduate student of Literature in New Mexico. Bob told her that he was ready to parachute into Lithuania and join the freedom fighters to fight for Lithuania’s independence. That was enough for Svaja to fall in love.

I thought to myself that those words may have been spoken to impress a young Lithuanian refugee woman. However, the story turned out to be literally true.

“Let me explain,” Bob interjected.

Bob explained that he had been in the Green Berets in the early sixties, and at that time, the Green Berets were funded by the CIA. He trained with a group who might have parachuted into Soviet-occupied Lithuania to aid the anti-Soviet resistance.

“I joined up too late,” Bob said wistfully, nursing his beer, “the Korean war drained off resources which might otherwise have gone toward resistance movements in Eastern Europe in the early 50s, and by the early 60s the Viet Nam war was doing the same thing. While I had truly expected to be able to take my fight to the Russians and would have felt honored to stand with the last best fighters in Lithuania, the resistance there had already been crushed.”

I wondered if this may have been the CIA sponsored program that was responsible for parachuting the leader of the Lithuanian Anti-Soviet resistance, Juozas Lukša-Daumantas, into Soviet occupied Lithuania in 1950?

I asked Bob for more details.

“It was all top secret,” Bob said. “One group never knew what another group’s mission was.”

Just before I left Alaska, Svaja spoke these words to me: “I’m proud of Lithuania today because Lithuanians are trying so hard to do the right thing in terms of politics, foreign policy. Lithuanians are talented, artistic people. I think they are enjoying their freedom. I really hope that Lithuanian independence will survive this time. Russia is such a threat in the region.”

 

 

III

Four Portraits of Lithuanian Americans in Alaska 05From Mar Ka personal archive

 

I met with Mary Kancewick (Marytė Kancevičius), a poet and essayist who sometimes writes as Mar Ka, at the Side Street Espresso coffee shop popular with locals for the political cartoons the old-timer owner penned with magic marker on a whiteboard. In these highly charged political times, people flock there in the mornings to drink their coffee and chortle over the latest political digs.

Mary shared her story. She is of Lithuanian heritage, descended from the first wave of Lithuanian immigrants. Her grandparents left Lithuania in the early twentieth century. Both of her parents spoke fluent Lithuanian and were active in the Chicago Lithuanian community. However, Mary admits that her Lithuanian language skills are rusty after so many years of not speaking the language. “The only thing my children know how to say in Lithuanian is “Aš myliu tave [I love you],” she said to me ruefully.

 “After earning a law degree, Mary came to Alaska in 1980 at the age of 25. She came alone, sleeping on the deck of the Alaska State Ferry through the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Haines, where she camped overnight in an abandoned ruin of a boat before catching, the next day, the bus to Fairbanks in Alaska’s Interior, a ride which took, as she recollects, some eighteen hours. In Alaska she found fulfillment serving as a human rights lawyer defending the rights of Alaska’s indigenous peoples, with whom she felt the connection of inherited trauma.

Over our coffee, Mary quoted Milan Kundera to me: “The year I came to Alaska,” she said, “Kundera, in an interview with Philip Roth that was published in the New York Times, threw down a bombshell that exploded in my mind. Kundera said that the Russians kept Lithuanians ‘on their reservation like a half-extinct tribe.’ I immediately saw that Lithuanians, as the indigenous people of Lithuania, share with Native Americans this history of suppression of language, of culture, of religion, and of attempts at both genocide and assimilation.”

“Over my years in Alaska, I have visited maybe ninety of the some-200 Alaska Native villages,” Mary said. “Village elders reminded me so much of my grandparents. I felt at home with these elders who spoke English poorly but who always welcomed me, feeding me food they had acquired through the labor of their hands. The subsistence life of hunting and gathering is not so different from the life of subsistence farming which was my heritage.”

Why did you leave Chicago?” I asked.

“I had nice job offers from big law firms,” Mary said, “but I couldn’t see myself doing corporate law. I couldn’t see myself doing criminal law. I volunteered with Legal Services for a while, but that didn’t feel right either. I drove West to seek counsel with an older friend who was like a big sister. She was teaching law at Berkeley at the time. On the bulletin board outside her office, I saw a flyer for a writer’s conference that featured poets I admired, in Fairbanks, Alaska. I had always written poetry, publishing since college. I felt guided to Alaska.”

“Was it hard to leave your family, your Lithuanian community?”

Mary took a sip of coffee. “In some ways,’ she said. “I loved my parents. But I had to leave the environment of ‘keep your head down, don’t question, don’t differ.’ My father would always say to me, ‘You belong to a club; follow the rules!’ My mother would say to me, ‘Sweetheart, please don’t rock the boat.” That was inherited trauma speaking. And that wasn’t the life I wanted for myself. I wanted to be free to question, to challenge, to risk, to learn, to grow infinitely as a person.”

I mused that the guidance of Mary’s parents would have been practical survival advice for Lithuanians living under Tsarist rule in 19th and early 20th century Lithuania.

Working as a lawyer for the Alaska Native communities, Mary met her husband, also a lawyer, whose work had addressed environmental issues. Mary’s husband’s family left Eastern Europe a decade earlier than hers, from villages in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. They were Litvaks. Mary’s Lithuanian heritage was an issue for her mother-in-law, who detailed the atrocities performed against Jews in Lithuania. Mary described her own reaction: “When I was growing up among the Lithuanian DPs, there was never any mention of the Lithuanian Jews or the Holocaust in Lithuania. I was shocked, and I was led to do my own research. When I visited Lithuania a few years ago, I made a pilgrimage of visiting massacre sights and the few synagogues that remain. I’m working on a sequence of poems in acknowledgement of these wrongs. At the same time, I am translating letters sent from family in Lithuania to my grandparents referencing family deportations to work camps in Siberia. The world is so full of suffering, suffering that we needlessly impose upon each other.”

Mary gifted me with a copy of her book of poems, Be-Hooved, published under the nom-de-plume of Mar Ka, in 2019, by University of Alaska Press. In the author’s bio she identifies herself as of Lithuanian heritage. I paged through Be-Hooved. Many of the poems reference the years Mary spent in Alaska Native villages. I find a poem referencing Mary’s Lithuanian heritage:

CITIZENS OF THE USA

Braids, traditional to both our cultures,
swing to the same point on our backs.
Our skin tones are a precise match: It seems
the daughter of peasant farmers can tan
as deeply as the daughter of hunter-gatherers.

She asks what tribe I am. I answer—Lithuanian.
She asks is that Athabascan. I say, no, it is
Indo-European. A raven lands nearby, making
the knocking sounds of the dominant female. We
give her space as we sink to the river’s bank.

She asks whether I speak my Native language.
I say that my grandmother taught me a little.
She says, “Me too.” We know that our children
won’t speak it, which is a shame and a distance.
We sound some words, to share the rhythms.

We talk of occupiers’ aggressions, oppressions
of language, of culture, of religion, of thought—
the attempts to transform another into oneself
when it—when we—cannot just be bzzzt out
of being using some version of a bug zapper.

Flexing jointly in the sparse, weedy grass, we chat
as we work to mend the old seine net spread
over our cross-legged laps, weaving a tensile web
of words, of wonders, with knots quick, tight, even.

Another of Mary’s poems, dedicated to Alaska and Lietuva, alludes to “epigenetic memory”.
These words are telling.

 

 

IV

Four Portraits of Lithuanian Americans in Alaska 06

 

Kathleen pulled up in her SUV and encouraged me to hop in. Pulling out onto the road out of downtown Anchorage, steering with one hand, with the other she rummaged around her bag and pulled out her book and handed it to me. Kathleen Witkowska Tarr:  We Are All Poet’s Here: Thomas Merton’s 1968 journey to Alaska, a shared story about spiritual seeking.

“After my divorce, I took my Polish maiden name back. I’m rediscovering my heritage.”

It was a rare day of pure sunshine and brilliant blue skies. We drove out to Flat Top Mountain to hike through a mountain pass surrounded by snow-capped mountains and Alaskan wildflowers shimmering brilliantly, showing off their colors in the northern sun. As we hiked, Kathleen told me her story. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents divorced when she was a child, leaving her mother to raise four children on her own, one of them deaf. Working menial jobs and struggling, the family was poor and disadvantaged. Eventually, they moved to Florida to get out of the cold climate zone.

Speaking rapidly while taking energetic strides, Kathleen told me about her Lithuanian heritage. “My father’s side was Polish, but my mother was of Lithuanian descent. My great-grandmother’s name was Marcella Rutkowskas and my great-grandfather’s name was Motiejus Dobrovolskis. Other than their names, and an old photograph, all I know about my Lithuanian heritage is that my great-grandfather came from Lithuania to Pennsylvania around 1903 to work in the coal mines.”

Kathleen paused to observe a patch of wildflowers pushing up through the late spring snow, then continued:

“It's been a long and surreal road to get from my Pittsburgh childhood and from me asking my single, tired and overworked mother, ‘What am I?’ and her answering, ‘Why, you are Lithuanian!’ And me as a 10-year-old knowing nothing else at all about this heritage. ‘What's a Lithuanian?’ No real explanation was ever given. No geographical hints. Nothing.  But while growing up, I watched my mother eat latkes, and pickled pig's feet, and stuffed cabbage, and other cultural connections that flashed through time. I lived in Krakow for most of 2014, after the break-up of my longtime marriage. And living in Poland brought me closer to Lithuania. In the fall of 2019, I traveled solo to Vilnius, bound and determined to see the mysterious little country with my own eyes!  I only had four days' time there and hoped to learn more details about my Lithuanian great-grandparents on my mother's side, but alas, time was too short.” 

That was just before the beginning of the pandemic. Kathleen met with writers at the Lithuanian Writers’ Union in Vilnius and is excited to learn more about Lithuania and to possibly travel there again after the pandemic.

While in her early twenties, Kathleen traded the tropical heat of Florida for the frigid cold of Alaska. She traveled from the flattest state to the one with the highest mountain peaks.

“Maybe it was my northern blood calling me,” Kathleen mused, “Alaska ignited something inside of me.”

In We Are All Poets Here, Kathleen writes about Alaska:

The giant territory had always attracted loners, alpine adventurers, fortune-seekers, Siberian explorers, Russian promlysheniki (fur traders), and Japanese enthralled by the aurora borealis and its imagined mystical powers. The eternally restless ones, people who longed to break free from their ordinary, lackluster lives, and to escape their troubled pasts, as I had done.
People looked to the north as a kind of medicine for whatever ailed them. (Tarr 284 – 285)

Kathleen arrived in Alaska, age 23, completely unprepared for an Alaskan winter. She found work where she could. Eventually, she met her husband, who was studying to become an air traffic controller. After they were married, his first assignment was in isolated Yakutat, Alaska, a Tlingit Indian fishing community on the north Pacific with no road access and one Alaska airlines flight in and one flight out each day. There, Kathleen befriended Tlingit women and for the first time experienced a closeness to nature and spiritual awakening. In her late 40s, she came under the spiritual spell of Thomas Merton, world-famous Trappist monk and spiritual thinker who spent several weeks in Alaska in 1968 shortly before he died in Thailand. Kathleen’s meticulously researched book is partly the story of her own life journey and partly the story of Thomas Merton in Alaska. Her spiritual seeking and growth intertwine with the life and path of the famous monk. The Alaskan mountains and Native people teach her a new way of being, a stillness, a respect for all of life.

Yet, she still experiences moments of self-doubt: “Wouldn’t I feel more useful to the world as a nurse, radiologist, engineer, geologist, carpenter, fisherman or net-hanger? What kind of ridiculous vocation is this that brings in zero financial returns for years of effort when I could work on a fishing boat as a deck hand and have cash to take to the bank?” (Tarr 318)

Despite her doubts, Kathleen is still writing.

I left Alaska with gratitude for the splendors of nature I had witnessed and the hospitality of these Alaskan women who all share a connection with Lithuania and a love for the written word. Thirty years ago, I despaired at my inability to express the magnitude of Alaska through words. Today again I struggle to find the language to describe exactly what it is that pulls us to the last frontier. All I know is that mountains are the keepers of their secrets.

 

Photos from the Laime Vincė personal archive

 

Works Cited

Ka, Mar. Be-Hooved. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2019.

Tarr, Kathleen Witkowska. We Are All Poets Here: Thomas Merton’s 1968 Journey to Alaska, a share story about spiritual seeking. Anchorage: VP&D House, Inc., 2018.

Worthington, Svaja Vansauskas. Lithuania Legacy. http://afsvw.uaa.alaska.edu/wolf.htm

 

Four Portraits of Lithuanian Americans in Alaska 07

 

 

 

 

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