The Kenai Peninsula is, for me, a blanket in which is woven a sense of belonging. Sometimes, it's a layer that adds warmth in the midst of a seemingly cold and hostile world. Other times, it's a glittering piece of fabric that I proudly share with others.
"When just one element in a weaving is altered, its entire personality is transformed. There is constant excitement in weaving - of discovery, new understanding, and a growing appreciation of the flexibility of the art."
-- From "Weaving Techniques and Projects," by the editors of Sunset Books
Like the character in the Peanuts comic strip, I drag it wherever I go. But unlike that blanket, this one constantly changes. New threads are added on a daily basis. One minute, I think I have the pattern figured out. The next minute, it surprises me and changes before my eyes.
In the language of weavers, the warp threads, or base threads, are those reflecting my interaction with the peninsula's breathtaking landscapes. They provide a foundation for the shape and structure of this fabric I call "home."
Cook Inlet's salty air and the crisp breezes blowing down from the Caribou Hills have filled my lungs since I was an infant. The sound of waves rolling along the shoreline were a nightly lullaby when, as a child, I spent my summers at the family fish camp just north of Ninilchik. Salmon, moose and clams were the meat I cut my teeth on. My children and I have left our footprints along the riverbanks. My grandson and I line our pockets with rocks from the beach.
These experiences have been with me for so long, that sometimes I don't know where the strands of air, earth and water end and the fibers of my being begin.
But that's only half of the threads woven into this blanket. The people of the peninsula -- family, friends, acquaintances and strangers -- are the other half, the weft. Woven over and under the warp, they create an ever-changing pattern that makes this living, breathing piece of fabric exciting and different from any other.
As a writer, I have unique opportunities for examining the weft threads spun daily by the people that live here.
In courtrooms, I've listened to neighbors accuse each other of murder. I've watched tears fall from the bruised and battered eyes of a woman begging the judge to release the man who beat her. I've shared Easter communion with Alaska inmates.
I've recorded the impassioned testimony of borough residents as they accused elected officials of ignoring their best interests. I've sat in the corner of a church sanctuary and witnessed the faces of grieving parents. I've knelt in the snow next to emergency responders as they struggled in sub-zero temperatures to rescue passengers trapped in a wrecked automobile.
I imagine these experiences as dark threads. Coarse, rather than soft. Tense, rather than flexible. They are dyed in sorrow and anger, pain and frustration.
But still, they are a part of this blanket.
Then there are threads from the opposite end of the spectrum. Sparkling like highly polished mirrors, they reflect us at our best. Laid across the warp, these threads create a growing pattern of people with their hands extended to others in a spirit of care and concern. They tell the story of individuals willing to dig deep into their own resources in order to give what someone else lacks.
Some of these people are drawn to paths of specific training that qualifies them for occupations in the helping professions. Their education occasionally carries staggering price tags. Their commitment often results in demanding schedules and personal sacrifices.
Other peninsula residents simply have compassionate, tender and caring spirits. They know a need exists and they are willing to help satisfy it.
According to statistics collected on the peninsula by the United Way, which represents some 27 agencies, such kind-hearted individuals create necessary and unbreakable threads in the fabric of this community. United Way recorded nearly 8,000 volunteer hours during their fund-raising campaign. Using a national standard that places an hourly value of $14.83 on volunteer time, that equals a donation of more than $100,000.
The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank reported more than 6,000 hours donated by individuals who sorted produce, stocked shelves, tended the garden and distributed food.
Officials from the Women's Resource and Crisis Center reported that during Fiscal Year 2000, some 152 individuals donated a total of 4,511 hours of work. Halfway into the year 2001, that organization's number of volunteers has increased to more than 200.
Those threads add life, warmth and beauty to this fabric in which I've wrapped myself. But even more powerful are threads spun by participating, rather than hearing, about such opportunities.
Recently, my daughter and grandson and I joined hundreds of peninsula residents in the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Live." Most participants weren't researchers. Most weren't doctors. But we did what we could -- for 24 hours, members of various teams from across the peninsula literally put one foot in front of the other in the battle against cancer.
Infants in strollers and gray-haired participants in wheelchairs joined more than 700 volunteers who supported the event. Some helped organize. Some provided music. Some kept containers of water filled and cups handy for thirsty walkers. Some shared their experiences with cancer. Others generously pledged dollars to match the effort of those walking around and around the Skyview High School track. At last count, the event raised $65,500.
As evening came on, we continued circling the track. Around the center, the flames of candles celebrated the triumph of survivors and warmed our memories of victims.
The name of an extended family member -- a cancer victim -- flickered as I passed. Next to me, a stranger smiled a knowing smile.
Against the chill of evening, I pulled my blanket around me. Its richness and flexibility provided constant warmth.
As each lap was completed and new people entered the track, the threads increased and the pattern changed.
McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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