Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska


October 16th, 2021 by
CC by 2.0

A peculiar thing happened in the produce aisle at Fred Meyer on Monday. In some respects, the incident hardly seems worth mentioning. But it has stayed with me nonetheless, a moment I may remember for some time.

First, some background: Remember those first apocalyptic-feeling days of the pandemic when people emptied the shelves at grocery stores? Who knew what was going to happen in the weeks ahead? When I went to Three Bears with my list and a homemade mask, the place was packed with people pushing overflowing carts. It was strangely silent. Few people spoke and even fewer made eye contact. I remember the pit in my stomach to find the only thing left in the vegetable section of the freezer was a single bag of peas. I put it in my cart.

Looking back, it marked the beginning of a shift. The competition to get the last package of toilet paper that day made us all strangers and competitors rather than neighbors and friends. I left the parking lot with my bag of peas feeling strangely alone.

In the coming days, my mask became a shield to social contact. For one thing, those of us with glasses couldn’t see through the fog of our breath. Then, after social anxiety about toilet paper abated, the raging (and absurd) mask debate made ideological adversaries between those who wore them and those who did not. For me it just became easier to inhabit the space of my small personal bubble. Get groceries and get out. For awhile we ordered online for curbside pickup.

Fast forward to Monday this week. I went to Fred Meyers, masked as always, looking for fresh rosemary. The package on a shelf was blocked by another shopper, who was pondering her choices. I waited a bit but she was clearly going to be there a while. Finally I said, “Excuse me, would you mind if I reached around you to grab something?”

She looked startled at first. Then we made eye contact. Her eyes smiled behind her own mask, and she stepped back.

“I’m sorry. Yes, of course!”

“No problem at all,” I smiled back. “Thank you.”

“Have a good day.”

“You too!”

And we actually meant it.

I momentarily had trouble seeing, not because my glasses were fogged this time, but because tears sprang up in my eyes. Our exchange of pleasantries felt like rain on parched ground. How long had it been since I talked to a stranger with kind eyes and a spontaneous smile? Eighteen months, give or take.

I read recently that just as a baby needs human touch to thrive, adults need social interaction. I was a kid when I watched a documentary about experiments in the 1950s where rhesus monkey infants were given surrogate mothers of either bare wire or wire covered in terrycloth. In a series of ever-sadder deprivations, scientists studied the fear, aggression, and neurosis that developed in these babies who lacked the nurture and touch of their mothers.

Leaving Fred Meyers that day, I realized that our self-imposed seclusion has come at a price. We’ve been living in a world of wire monkeys. No wonder everyone is angry.  I have a wonderful husband whose company I adore, so I never considered our isolation a deprivation. It has surely saddened me not to see our kids or grandkids as much as we used to. Even so, I never thought I would miss an exchange of pleasantries with strangers.

The woman standing in front of the rosemary proved me wrong. We need connection like we need food and water. We have a long way to go to bridge the chasms that have opened up around politics, the pandemic, and past societal transgressions. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe the healing of these painful rifts could start small, in a grocery aisle, with words like “excuse me,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry.”


5 responses to “Rosemary”

  1. Linda Vich says:

    Kaylene, I love the way you can turn a phrase! This blog entry is very timely and I love how you tied rosemary with the pandemic and wire monkeys and common courtesy all in the same piece!

    I look forward to reading much more of your writing!

  2. Barbara Johnson says:

    Thanks, Kaylene! Wonderful, truthful, hopeful piece.

  3. Gisela Cartmill says:

    You have such a way with prose! It expresses feelings that for others are so hard to put into words. A great piece, that made my own eyes brim. Thank you for sharing this.

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Denali, the Chugach Mountains, and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.