“Letter” by Lara Messersmith-Glavin: How Fishermen Really Feel About Care Packages.
Lara’s essay “Letters” from her book Spirit Things is a gift to partners of commercial fishermen because she shares what it’s like on the receiving end of the carefully curated care packages we send our fishermen each year. Sure, our fishermen say they love them, but “Letters” shows us how it feels to be remembered by the ones you love.
I bought a copy for myself and my sister-in-law, underlined and dog-eared most of the pages. I often read a passage, put the book down to digest what I had just read, and said, “Damn, Lara can WRITE!” I could have ripped through Spirit Things in one sitting but, instead, self-managed to read one chapter a day to savor each page.
(And, yes, I was sad when it was over. IT’S THAT GOOD.)
Here’s a link to buy the book from the publisher. For signed copies of Spirit Things, click this link to Annie Bloom’s Books, and you can add a note to your personalization request. Also, please join me as I fan-girl Lara through her Instagram and website. 🙂
I can’t wait for you to read this beautiful passage, and I hope you enjoy Lara’s poetic prose as much as I did. Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts; please share what part speaks to you in the comments below! Let’s dive in!
Letter by Lara Messersmith-Glavin
Dear Sir –
Though I have never seen the ocean, I think I would bring good karma to your ship.
Dear Skipper –
Me and Johnny have been working at the Barrel O’ Fun, so I got good experience working with others. My grandpa used to take me fishing up in the lakes, so I know my way around a fish.
I hear there’s a lot of money to be made fishing in Alaska, and all I can say is, I’m in!
When the book was published that explained how lucrative salmon fishing was in the 1980s, it offered a recommendation: write letters to highliner skippers in advance of the season to secure a place on their crew. It also provided a list of skippers’ names and addresses, which included nearly everyone in the fleet, with the exception of the author.
My parents received a flood of hopeful, clueless missives for years after the book came out—dreamy, earnest, bizarre letters from landlocked readers, all hoping to make a fortune in the course of a few months’ work. In retrospect, my folks wish they had saved them all, a time capsule representing a little slice of an era.
The senders’ often misguided and even hilarious attempts at self-promotion represented a spectrum of backgrounds, yet they also illustrated a deep and widespread longing for adventure beyond the options their own lives offered. They were hungry for something intangible, a fantasy that fishing in Alaska put within reach. My parents had both gone north for much the same reasons when they were younger.
Letters have always been related to treasure-seeking in Alaska. Much of the pressure to improve the mail delivery system in the Far North came from the huge influx of post sent to those prospectors who came to Alaska during the gold rush. Mail traveled by dog sled along the Yukon River and Iditarod Trail; dogs could only handle so much weight, particularly during the winter, and people often waited months for word from home.
For us, any letter or package that made its way to our hands on the fishing grounds was brought by a tender after having arrived at the cannery via bush plane, airplane, truck, and carrier, all the way from the Lower 48. I like to imagine the number of hands and piles our mail passed through on its journey, bundles of bills and notes and cards, magazines and care packages, all traveling in the pockets, bags, gloves, cubbies, cargo holds of strangers, a transmission of the precious through trust.
Sometimes a letter would take weeks. Friends would often send newspapers, knowing the scarcity of fresh reading material on the boat. It wasn’t about the news—the content was long stale by the time it arrived. Even the daily goings-on and bits of gossip and updates they shared had become past tense by the time our eyes held them. The important thing was just in the sharing, the reminding one another, “I’m still here. This other life is still here.” Their handwriting reminded me that real people loved and missed us; it gave tangible evidence of a world that wasn’t damp or salt-crusted, that didn’t smell of fish, or rumble incessantly, or rock and vibrate and hum.
Being on the boat is a very isolating experience—isol from “island,” another small space surrounded by water. It is a microsociety of five people with a chief and inhabitants, each with our own social niches to fill. It is unlike anywhere else; so many of the qualities we embody elsewhere are invisible, unused.
It can sometimes be hard to remember exactly who we are when we are not a deckhand, who else we have been besides the one who stacks the corks, or the one who pitches fish the slowest. Some remind themselves with music, by playing guitar or flute or radio. Some ramble on in mini-lectures about philosophy or forestry or NASCAR. Still others sketch, or knit, or tell stories about the fruit trees growing in their yards back home. I drew pictures and wrote letters of my own.
This split personality was hard when I was younger.
It was often jarring, hearing news from home and realizing that life went on without me. Plus, the different indicators of success or identity from one world to the next were so divergent, so irrelevant to one another: nobody on the boat cared about what song lyrics I’d memorized or what hand clap games I knew. Nobody on the playground down south could tell the difference between a humpie and a king.
As a teen, I’d sit on the soft web pile in my damp raingear, several days distant from any kind of shower and having forgotten to look in a mirror for days, reading a note from a friend back home. I would feel a sharp lance of self-consciousness, a reminder that there were people elsewhere curling their bangs, applying cologne, being concerned about colors that matched. The gulf between us would widen.
What difference do colors make when they’re under yellow raingear?
My hair was tucked under a handkerchief, stuffed beneath a gurry-stained cap. Even if I did clean myself up, who would be there to notice besides the rest of the crew? There is a deep ease to living filthy, to being freed from the expectation of looking good and being clean. Yet I would catch myself going inside to carefully braid my hair again, hacking at it with a brush to remove the glittering fish scales that clung or the salt that held the ends in thick points, like a fistful of paint brushes.
As I grew older and learned to fill in the various roles my life offered, I found bits of self to overlap and stayed connected to friends back home by building these small bridges inside myself. I wrote them letters in return that let me use any voice I wanted, and I discovered that the letter voice was the same no matter where I was.
I talked about the surface of the water, the way the sky looked, and strange things that had come up in the net. It made a space for my boat self to project elsewhere and be reflected back by my friends, all people who would appreciate such things. They noticed the sky where they were too. They liked to poke weird ocean things with a stick.
I clung to the idea that we would be “normal” together again—watch movies, stretch our legs over long walks, drink coffee in a coffee shop—all things that were out of reach for me on the boat. I learned that we persist across great distances and impossible shifts in focus, that we are flexible and adaptive, and there is space within us for many, many lives.
Miss is a word root from Latin, meaning “to send.” Missile, missive, mission. Things are sent with purpose. If letters are about the slow elasticity of human connection, packages are about the sweetness of attention to detail. Care packages were like gold.
The arrival of a care package was like a visitation from royalty: space was cleared, time set was aside so as to give it undivided attention.
I would hoard it, shake it, and press my ear to its sides. I would run my hands over its surfaces, enjoying the way my name looked in another’s scrawl. I would make myself wait until the last possible instant, when I could no longer stand the anticipation, and then tear it open, pulling out each bit of wrapping or candy or slip of paper as if it were treasure.
Sometimes their contents were well-meaning but useless—a lover once sent me three packets of bubble bath, thinking I could use them to relax. I laughed, wondering if there was a bathtub for fifty miles. They smelled nice, so I poured them into a bowl of hot water and soaked my feet, an extravagance of both time and scent, as my feet immediately returned to the soggy, rancid boots where they lived.
Other times packages were perfect examples of the simplest gestures being the deepest form of care: fancy cocoa mix, magazines, a handmade bandana, a delicious tropical lip balm. Finding the perfect small item that can encapsulate luxury, ease, and escapism—and be sent through a postal system that will no doubt leave it battered, ragged, and soaked—is a true art form. My friends revealed new facets of their creativity to me through the things they decided to send.
One woman sent handmade cartoons she’d painstakingly colored with pencils and wrapped around boxes of tampons and incense that smelled like her hair.
A friend on another boat sent sheaves of charcoal sketches of beachcombed bones he made during wheelwatch, along with a grenade of fancy whiskey he’d no doubt been saving for himself and a single cigar. He asked me to share them with my mom because he wanted to imagine us smoking together.
Another deckhand from a different cannery used pastels to recreate a scene from a book we both loved—on the inside of a brown grocery bag, the only clean paper he could find.
I received a box of petals from a friend in Oregon. No note, no other wrapping—just a small cardboard box, taped round and round that, when split open with a fishing knife, poured forth a small swell of wilted purple blossoms. I had opened it on deck, and the breeze caught them and scattered them across the net and into the wake behind us.
Sometimes there were love letters. I would memorize these, hearing their voice in my head as I ran my eyes over the shapes of their handwriting, over and over again. Knowing that their fingertips had been in such close proximity to the very page I now held rendered the paper a transportive magic, a talisman that brought them somehow closer to my skin. I would breathe these pages in, hoping for more than just the scent of ink, some trace of their animal chemistry that would raise the hair on my neck.
If I found it, I would wear it out with repetition, bury my receptors with the same signal, over and over, trying to keep the pheromonal ghost of them close. And then I would sit down to write in return, investing the paper with every bit of myself I could, hoping the intention behind my words was as loud as it felt in my chest.
This patient form of communication helps underscore the fantasy and projection of courtship. Instead of immediate swipes and texts, there were long stretches of imagination, of longing to fill in the gaps. Much was built and dreamed of in those periods of waiting between one letter and the next; the briefest of words gained paragraphs of meaning through hope and anticipation.
When they said they “miss me,” did they mean they miss me? Or did they just miss me? When they said they loved what I wrote, did they mean love? The investment of attention added weight and consequence.
It also made letters containing breakups that much more surreal—the lag time in reality, the mismatch of narratives, the realization that one had been dreaming alone for some time. When things ended by post, the news often arrived too late. I learned about the end of one relationship when a friend casually complained about a person she was sleeping with. I read it three times, waiting for the raw shock to wear off, since the person she mentioned was my own boyfriend—I’d thought. His letter came two weeks after, having been held up somewhere along the way.
There was a tacit period of silence after we all retrieved mail from the office at the cannery. We left each other alone to catch up on news, to light up and crack apart, depending on the messages. These mirrors of ourselves that arrived in paper form were precious, and we didn’t need to share all our faces with each other. We gave each other time to crawl back into our fishing personae if we’d strayed too far into our other selves.
Mail was often followed by collect calls. Lines formed along the planks leading up to the cannery telephones during closures. The walls of the booths were tattooed with tiny letters, missives with no destination but out—scribbles, rude jokes, numbers to be remembered. Heartbreak was scrawled with a penknife into the beaten wood.
I’ll love you forever.
Why GINA WHY
i want to come home. 🐟
What’s your biggest takeaway from Lara’s story? What feelings came up for you? We’d love to know in the comments below!
If you liked this, you’d love How To Send a Care Package To a Commercial Fisherman.