I will take you to a place I used to be.
I will take you for no reason.
I can tell you nothing.
I have no story.
I don't even want to go there myself.
-- From "Holy Land," by Sandy Kleven
At Anchorage's downtown market on a gray afternoon, Sandy Kleven takes the stage in spangles and scarves. She belly dances like a free-spirited Gypsy.
Maybe a couple dozen people are standing or sitting around picnic tables, watching as they eat stuffed potatoes and sip lattes. It's Kleven's show. She sewed the costumes, recruited her young granddaughter and other dancers to join her. She is as seductive as a 63-year-old should be in public.
Kleven is a woman with a lot going on, inside and out. Her job is intense. A clinical social worker, she has swooped into villages after suicides, trying to prevent more deaths. She has counseled young children hospitalized for bizarre or scary behaviors, treated alcoholics misdiagnosed for years as schizophrenics.
After about 30 years in the field, Kleven is trying to leave tragedy behind and remake herself as an artist. She works at being a poet, playwright, painter, jewelry maker and marketer, but she's unsure how to make a living with any of it. She dances, but that's just for fun. She recently discovered a name for what she hopes to become: "creative freelancer."
A life of gut-wrenching crisis work has shaped and damaged her. It's made her more real, more down-to-earth as a counselor, she says, which can be useful in her work. In her art, it's indispensable.
This past summer, her brother hanged himself in the trailer he shared with his stepson and nephew, the oldest of Kleven's four boys.
Everything that built up in her over the years, all the pain caught from other people's traumas, explode d.
Suddenly she was the wounded one.
LIFE AS DRAMA
Kleven found ways to put art into her life and work almost from the beginning.
Years ago, she produced plays about child abuse prevention. By 2004, she was writing poetry constantly. The next year she started a graduate program in creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. At 60, she says, it was "now or never."
For a while in 2005, Kleven set up a stand on First Fridays in Ship Creek Center. "Poems $1," her sign said. She told passersby she'd write about "any topic, while you wait." She cranked out little pieces with a purple Sharpie on friendship, jobs, music, illness, whatever people wanted.
For a woman with a pain in her belly, Kleven wrote about "an impulsive leap toward destiny, without fear of how you hurt me." For one whose boyfriend was ambling around the shopping center somewhere, she wrote about love lost.
In 2006, she surprised herself by selling several abstract works created from torn paper -- collages made from children's art.
That year, she put on a six-week '60s-esque workshop that promised "three life changing visionary experiences" and more for $85.
"She had us doing everything from left-handed portraits of ourselves to ... spontaneous dramatic scenes," said Erin Wilcox, a writer who attended the workshop and now is Kleven's editor.
"The way I think of it, any strong trait has a shadow. For all the light that Sandy brings into a room, she's been through a lot of dark times," Wilcox said.
Kleven tries to guide emerging artists. One is Stanley Mute, in prison in Arizona. He's serving what Kleven believes is an unjustly long 25-year sentence for sexually assaulting his common-law wife -- who refused to testify against him -- and breaking the arm of the woman's brother, all during one drunken night.
Ten years back, Kleven wrote to him in prison and told him she remembered his sketches from way long ago. He's sent her hundreds of colored pencil drawings since then. They show the Yup'ik life he lost -- men in a steam bath, an iconic salmon, celebrations. Kleven is his agent. Not everyone approves. She sells what she can for him.
As a child growing up near Seattle, Kleven saw social work from the receiving end. Her mother got pregnant at 15, married the father, had Sandy at 16. Her father was a carpenter and fundamentalist Christian who played bass fiddle. Her mother was a Lutheran who took care of welfare babies waiting for adoption.
"Some of my brothers and sisters and me got saved every Sunday," Kleven says.
When she was in the fifth grade, her parents split up. She moved with her mom and the kids to Kenmore, north of Seattle. The family went on welfare, got a gift box at Christmas. The kids ate free lunches at school. The charity humiliated Sandy.
Her mother worked nights at a tavern, a barmaid, Kleven says. The six children knew not to pick up the phone unless they heard their mother's code -- two rings, a hang up, a call back. Otherwise it might be someone who couldn't know that Mom was working.
Sandy had to take care of the younger kids. She was mad about it, mad about being poor. She said mean things. Her mother objected with slaps and broomstick swipes.
"There were a lot of rough times but an awful lot of good times, too," said her mother, Betty Gardiner, now 80.
In high school, Kleven hung out on the fringes of the older cooler kids, the ones into art and theater and '60s social change.
Then "I followed the family tradition. I got pregnant as a high school senior," Kleven said. The school kicked her out.
She got her high school diploma at a technical school. She moved to New York City with baby Michael and a boyfriend and became a "hipster arty person," modeling nude for drawing classes. The relationship didn't last.
Kleven ended up back in the same community near Seattle where she went to high school, no sign yet of her social work vocation -- a go-go dancer at a tavern. One night, her secret sixth-grade crush, Richard Kleven, showed up. The next night, he gave her a ride home.
"After that, in a sense he never let me out of his sight," Kleven said.
They've been married 41 years.
Kleven graduated college late, in her mid-30s. One of her first jobs was as a Vista volunteer advocating for kids in Bellingham, Wash. She created an outfit called the SoapBox Players to teach abuse prevention through theater. She turned one of the plays into a book called "The Right Touch," in which a mom tells the story of a little girl lured into a neighbor's home to see non-existent kittens. The book, published in its current form in 1999, still ranks near the top of Amazon.com sales for child abuse prevention books.
In 1984, she landed a job as an alcohol abuse counselor in Bethel and moved up with Richard and their three younger boys.
"I knew it wasn't going to be postcard Alaska. I knew about the mud. I knew something about the problems," Kleven said. But the problems of poverty and alcohol and abuse were deeper and darker than she had ever imagined.
After three years, she left, got a master's degree Outside, then spent a long stretch in Valdez, immersed in other people's worries.
From the safety of Valdez, she wrote "Holy Land," a haunting monologue about Bethel. It's in the voice of a Yup'ik man who can look into the mind and heart of someone like her.
From a visit to a graveyard in "Holy Land:"
Look around you, Gussaq
See babies burned up in house fires
when their parents were out drinking.
See the child who was sent
to his parent's bed to sleep and who
reaching under his father's pillow found
the hand gun
and pulled the trigger piercing his lower gut
It took him days to die.
This girl, a suicide
but that is not the whole story.
Kleven was afraid people in Bethel might be upset with her. But the reaction was good.
"It's great that somebody finally said this is how it is," said Gladys Johnson, who is Yup'ik and was born in a sod house in Hooper Bay.
"Holy Land" should be required reading for new teachers, social workers, health workers and business people in the region, because it explains so much, said Joan Dewey, a clinical social worker in Bethel.
"IT WASN'T ENOUGH"
By 1998, Kleven was back in Bethel. A 14-year-old girl who hanged herself in her bedroom became the latest suicide in Hooper Bay. Kleven flew to the village. "There is no job description for this. ... I carried out debriefings, attended funerals and community meetings and counseled children in classroom groups and individually but apparently it wasn't enough" because another youth soon killed himself, Kleven wrote in a story published in 2005 in an avant-garde magazine called Topic.
Kleven says she eventually learned that 20 Hooper Bay residents, mainly teens, killed themselves from 1997 to early 2005.
The state of Alaska had a plan to deal with suicide, she wrote in Topic, "but it might as well be a plan for planting daisies. There isn't a lick of emotion or energy in it. It's a self-help program that fails to grasp the fact that a tiny village with 20 dead is too shell-shocked to help itself."
Dewey said Kleven's work made a difference -- she knew how to listen and got help to people in need.
Kleven moved back to Anchorage in 2004 but kept working for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Until recently, she was flying across the state for weekend crisis duty. She still works in villages for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, helping Head Start teachers deal with kids' behavioral and emotional issues.
Kleven was on crisis counseling duty in Bethel in August 2004 when she met Jaye Ulak, a teenager from Scammon Bay, and his cousin Jimmy Walker. Ulak had tried to kill himself -- once with a gun at the village dump, he later told an Alaska public radio reporter -- and he was thinking about suicide again. Walker had tried, too.
Kleven discovered both liked to rap and had performed together. They wrote about the dark side of village life and called their group Blood Family. She figured out a way to get the boys to health gatherings in Seattle and Anchorage to perform. They played all over: Barrow, Fairbanks, Savoonga, Kodiak, Togiak. In 2005, they were featured at the big Bethel dance festival, Cama'i. They were treated like rock stars.
Ulak joined the Marines to support his twin babies. Walker moved to Anchorage and, the last Kleven heard, is working.
In an e-mail from Iraq , Ulak wrote: "it was because of her help i got a chance to travel alaska to perform for thousands of young native alaskans. ... she was like a mentor to myself and jimmy."
"It's not any packaged therapy," Dewey said. "She gets to know the person and helps them to see what strengths they have, what special gifts they have."
HER OWN CRISIS
This summer, a visiting poet at UAA read "Holy Land" and asked Kleven how she kept herself healthy through all the years of trauma.
"I said I don't. I'm totally wrecked. Ruined. Totally. Gone." Kleven was at her home in East Anchorage. The place is filled with art -- her collages, Mute's drawings, dolls from the villages.
Her husband, Richard, a retired carpenter, listened to her talk.
"I don't think you're ruined," he said after a while.
She talks of internal wreckage. He sees a strong woman.
In May, her brother called her in Bethel. He said he had money troubles and didn't think he could go on. He was executor of their father's estate and overwhelmed by the task. He wanted to kill himself.
Don't even think about it, she told him.
Two months later, her brother bound himself by the neck to a door knob and slumped to the floor. His stepson found him, dead, in the Seattle area trailer they shared. Some in the family lashed out, saying Kleven and others put too much pressure him over the estate. They were accused of being greedy.
"I knew grief caused weird things. But I thought they all had to do with death and dying and sadness and stuff," Kleven said. "I expected in our family, people would be on best behavior and that they wouldn't accuse each other of killing each other."
In an e-mail not long after the suicide, Kleven said she was learning from her family's experience. "This is giving me insight into the aftermath of suicide in the villages. And even why they turn into clusters. Our imaginings and theorizing, about cause, and impacts, have been too tame. It is a family catastrophe -- a village catastrophe, too, I am sure."
And in a later note: "The transformation that is there at the end of one's rope. Like every cell is changed. It comes after endurance and in the aftermath one is impervious to much that previously was troubling. Or one is damaged."
Now it's time to harvest her past life and move with what she knows, take who she is now onto a new stage.
Kleven is working on a new children's book and a memoir that she calls "House on the Sand," in which she weaves the story of Mute, the Yup'ik artist now in prison, with her own tale of coming to Alaska. She's helping her oldest son, Michael, promote his photography. She sells Michael's photos and Mute's drawings and ivory jewelry in Bethel. She won a writing award this year for a story about her grandson, who is developmentally disabled.
"Boundaries are wider for an artist -- I can be a bit wild ... daring, allow myself to be less 'proper,' " Kleven wrote. "As a social worker, my concern has been social justice, reform, families, improved systems of care ... these surface in my art and writing."
Kleven's monologue "Holy Land" ends like this:
A day will come when you and I meet again.
Your hand will reach
toward me and
I will see in your palm
what you have to offer.
I will see what you are holding back.
And I will know
if you have learned
anything at all.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.