OPINION: Celebrating life, with all its joy — and grief

I recently celebrated my 74th birthday.

A lot is packed into that simple declarative statement when a fella gets to thinking about it, which I’ve been doing. First, there’s the age thing. Seventy-four years old. How did that happen?

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I first arrived in Alaska, a 24-year-old geologist fresh out of grad school, to work on a field crew in the Brooks Range wilderness. Yes, a half-century’s worth of experiences and (I like to think) growth has happened since then. But 74? A young 74, I might add, though I understand that a lot of old-timers imagine themselves to be younger than they are.

I could take this in any number of directions, but what my 74-year-old self is most interested in today is the word, the idea, of celebration. To celebrate. This seems appropriate for a couple of reasons.

First, we’ve only recently departed several weeks of celebration, namely the holiday season, which in the U.S. stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (some might even extend it back to Halloween) and includes all sorts of religious, spiritual and secular holidays.

These holidays seem inextricably linked to the concepts of “happy” or “merry” and our greetings to one another during such times almost always include these words, even when our personal lives, or the world more generally, don’t seem especially happy. In fact, as we all know, there are many people here in Anchorage and around our nation, as well as across the larger world, for whom the holidays — like other times — are forlorn.

This juxtaposition of celebration and sorrow is one of the things that’s been coursing through my thoughts; the ways that we make room for both.


Which brings me to my birthday. Across my 74 years, I’ve had joyful birthdays and lonely, miserable birthdays — and probably everything in between; live long enough and you’ll experience the full range of human emotions, no? I suspect a person may not even have to live very long for that to be true.

This year’s birthday was a memorably wonderful one, though it began on something of a disappointing note. Snow was falling heavily when I looked out my west Anchorage home the morning of Jan. 4. Not what I wanted, because I planned to go adventuring in the mountains with my sweetheart plus a longtime friend and two delightful dogs, and I preferred not to slog through a lot of new snow while ascending the flanks of Wolverine Peak on foot.

In the face of this stormy weather, I decided to practice the art of “letting go” and headed to Jan’s Hillside home ready for whatever the weather gods hurled our way. There, the snowfall was much lighter, a promising sign. By the time the five of us had reached Prospect Heights, the snow had stopped falling altogether, patches of blue sky mixed with gray clouds, and only a quarter-inch of new powder covered the ground. It had been the rare event when Turnagain received considerably more snow than the mountains.

Any hint of gloom or foreboding I’d felt earlier in the morning had by this point vanished, leaving me a happy, gushingly excited hiker who kept repeating, “It’s so beautiful up here! What a beautiful day it’s become.”

Then I got another delightful birthday treat: Only a few minutes into our hike, I spotted a spider slowly crawling across the snow. “Woo-hoo!” I shouted to Jan. “Look at this.”

I won’t get into the details here, but for more than a decade, one of my passions — some might call it an obsession — has been to find Anchorage-area bugs (either insects or arachnids, the latter usually spiders) active outdoors every month of the year. To me, it’s a marvelous thing, that tiny ectothermic life forms have evolved ways to survive even winter’s harsh conditions here in the far north. This “snow spider” was my first winter bug for January. And it had called out to me on my birthday, no less — clearly cause for celebration.

We hadn’t even reached the base of Wolverine Peak, one of my favorite mountains, and already my spirits were soaring.

My spirits remained high the rest of our time in the Chugach Front Range (and during the hours afterward), though we didn’t meet my goal of reaching a landmark called “The Rock Pile,” about halfway up Wolverine’s western flank.

The air was calm when we began, but within two hours, fierce winds raced across the mountain landscape, creating huge snow plumes on the upper reaches of Wolverine and neighboring peaks.

Those headwinds took the snow that had been scoured up high and deposited much of it on the trail we were following, while at the same time slowing — and eventually stopping — our progress. Yet the sunlit plumes above and the pounding, rushing gales that greeted us had an enlivening effect on me even as we turned back.

If anything, the raucous weather added to my pleasure of the day.

It did seem cause for celebration. And that celebration included the wildness of the weather, the mountain, the spider, and the many small songbirds — chickadees and redpolls and crossbills — that graced us with their own bright presence. And of course ravens too, members of that clan returning to their nightly roosts in the mountains even in the face of stormy weather. And of course, the celebration included my companions, both human and canine, and our shared experiences on that mountainside.

This is part of what I want to say: the celebration was in being present, “in the moment.” And that remains one of the greatest gifts that this miracle of a world — especially as manifested by wild nature — presents to me, not only on “special” days but every day if I choose. It offers me the chance to leave my head, my too-busy mind, my fretting and planning and judging self, and enter more fully the entirety of my animal body, with its rich emotional life and ego-less wisdom. Somehow mind, body and spirit become one. And I become more deeply connected: to myself, to my loved ones, to the larger world of which I’m part.

That’s when the celebrating becomes most meaningful.

And then the enchantment passes when I begin thinking about it, when I move back into my head, trying to understand.

Here’s something else to consider: When I truly celebrate life, I find myself more in balance. I not only feel more bursts of cheer but also more easily and openly move into the grief that is part of being truly human and which naturally comes with the loss and anguish that is inherent in our world, our lives. A deeper, richer grief. And joy.

Maybe that’s one of the blessings of getting older: I more readily embrace both joy and grief and can more easily hold them both within me, neither diminishing the other. And that, as much as anything, seems worth celebrating right now, in this moment of barely being 74.


Anchorage nature writer and wildlife/wildlands advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."