The Speech They Never Heard…(My Unsaid Remarks at The AlaskaOWL Sustainability Summit)

I was speechless, except that I wasn’t; and by that I mean that I had a speech prepared.

Sort of.

It was about coincidences and chance meetings, and would begin with an apology about that remark in the Gates Foundation Video about outhouses and no running water—realizing that I was not off the mark, but offering that our family had also lived in those conditions in McCarthy. It’s just the way it goes when talking about life in the Alaskan Bush.

But, this is the speech you never heard…

It was Abraham Lincoln, I think, who claimed that his best friend was the man who gave him a book he had not yet read. I have quite a few best friends. Call it a hazard of the job—people inquiring have you read this? That? That other one over there? One friend in particular shares literature with such abandon and enthusiasm that he is impossible to ignore. He pressed a book by Haruki Murakami, “Kafka On The Shore.” He was so insistent that I drop everything and read it that, in self-defense, I downloaded the audio-book from ListenAlaska and started listening to it when I reached the Ketchikan airport yesterday. Why not? I’m travelling. I’ve got nothing but time.

Now, two hours into the audio-book, I think we’re still in Chapter 5, and I find myself with Kafka in a public library owned and curated by a wealthy private family. Yet, while my friend has, undoubtedly, a “thing” for libraries, I discovered even earlier the reason why he pressed the book so fervently on his “favorite librarian.”

15-year-old Kafka has run away from home. No, it’s not that. But, he has a chance encounter on a night bus. A girl, a few years his senior, befriends him and says: “’In travelling, a companion,’ as the saying goes.” She then asks Kafka how the saying ends. The whole saying, which must be beautiful in the original Japanese, translates: “In travelling a companion, in life, compassion.”

“So what does that really mean? In simple terms.”

  “I think it means,” I say, “that chance encounters are what keep us going.”

Now, no lie, the ground crew called for boarding, so I switched off my ancient-of-days (2003 vintage Nano) iPod and gathered my things. I shuffled down the gangway, smiled “hello” at the stewardess, and scooted my way toward the back of the plane.


Now, I’m pretty sure everyone thought I was seeing someone who I was sure had been dead or missing at sea or something, but there was Scott Vorrath—the diver from the video you just saw—sitting on the plane and beaming at me.

“I think it means,” I say, “that chance encounters are what keep us going…..”

I met Scott and Mariah back in October 2010. I mention this because that truly is the beginning of this story. October 2010. Two divers walk into a library. If you’re waiting for the punch line, please continue to wait, because you’ll love it. Mariah grew up in Edna Bay up on Kos, an island to the northwest of Prince of Wales. She grew up in my library. She and Scott were working the geoduck fishery. I used to dive. I know I don’t look it now, but in my younger, much wilder days, I worked with treasure hunters on shipwrecks in Cape Cod and points south. So, we made the connection—that link. They were around town for about three weeks. And then they were gone.

In December 2010, the AlaskaOWL Project launched. I met Karen Archer Perry in Anchorage. I gave her my card. “Come fishing,” I smiled. She laughed. I took the card and scrawled “Come fishing” on the back.

On the plane, I settled in, waited to hit 10,000 feet, and switched on the audio-book. Kafka and his newfound friend, Sakura, reached their destination—Takamatsu Station. My eyes closed….

“My cell phone number,” she says with a wry expression. “I’m staying at my friend’s place for a while, but if you ever feel like seeing somebody, give me a call. We can go out for a bite or whatever. Don’t be a stranger, okay? ‘Even chance meetings’…how does the rest of that go?”

“Are the result of karma.”

“Right, right,” she says, “But what does it mean?”

“That things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even in the smallest events, there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

I don’t remember falling asleep.

“I remembered!” her voice was clear in that waking dream. “We flew down on Alaska Air, and there were these fish boxes coming off the plane and I remembered you! ‘Come fishing’ you said!” She looked slightly mortified. “I hope you don’t mind that I associate you with a fish box–”

Even in my dream, I’m smiling. “Whatever it takes…”

“…That even in the smallest events, there’s no such thing as coincidence…”

When the telephone rang with Christina from the Gates Foundation asking about a good fit for a fisherman or woman for the video, all I could think was that they had missed the seine season and even the processors were gone. Now? You want to come NOW? There’s hardly anyone around now. The season is over. It was with no little trepidation that I placed the receiver back on the hook.

“If Scott and Mariah walked through the door right now, it would be perfect…”

Except that I knew that they were down south—and had no plans to fish ‘ducks that season. I had run into Mariah at the Craig Pool back in July when she was in town working on a troller without Scott.

“No, we have other plans this year, I’m sorry we’ll miss you,” she had said.

I chewed my lip.

The season was over.

That was Wednesday.

On Friday afternoon, I was still weighing my options, when Mariah walked into the library.

“Surprise!” she beamed.

“What the–” I started, laughing.

“I have a surprise for you,” she continued.

Scott walked in behind her.

“I think it means,” I say, “that chance encounters are what keep us going…”

 “…That even in the smallest events, there’s no such thing as coincidence….”

While I’m not an adherent of karma or a believer in fate that is tied to past lives, I do believe that it is the chance encounters that keep me going, and there is no such thing as coincidence. Einstein said that there are two ways of looking at the world—that either there are no miracles or that everything is miraculous. I’m with Albert on that one—everything in the world is a miracle. Everyone in the world is a miracle. I believe that once we get our heads around that, we’ll see there truly are no coincidences—that everything is where it should be, it’s just up to us to recognize it, and that every encounter—chanced or by design, keeps us going.

It also helps, I suppose, that I am unclear on the concept of when to shut up.

We are where we are for a reason. We live where we live, we see who and what we see, and we act and react in our own spheres with a purpose and for a reason. We can seek out the opportunities, we can make the connections and move mountains or divert rivers, or change lives. I think it’s that last bit that I’d like to achieve—change lives for the better. When the staff from The Office of Letters and Light was up for that whole Week of Literary Mayhem thing, Chris Baty shared one of his “Batyisms” and it’s this: “Whatever you believe you are, you are so much more than that.” Whatever you believe The AlaskaOWL Project is, it is so much more than that. Whatever you believe your role in implementation and programming and outreach is, it is so much more than that. And whatever you believe the outcome of a video conference is or what a creative program does to touch a life or provide an educational moment or lead to a flash of insight … it is so much more than that.

“In travelling a companion, in life, compassion.”

Naxtoo aat…. Let’s go….