The first time I visited New York City, people asked me (after I revealed I was from Alaska) if I’d ever lived in an igloo. The truth disappointed them. I’d never even seen a real house made of ice.
An igloo would’ve been much more exciting than our unremarkable middle-class house on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Aside from location—2,000 miles away from the continental US—my hometown of Soldotna is, in many ways, a typical small town. Everyone knows your business; you wish you didn’t know theirs.
As a teenager, I felt trapped. My greatest escape was through a screen—television, movies and music videos—and the daily routines of my small existence came up short when compared to, say, Magnum P.I.’s glamorous life. Although the irony that he lived on a tiny island, smaller even than the Kenai Peninsula, is not lost on me.
The Teen Me hated being so isolated, and I loathed winter—not the snow (or lack thereof, some years) but the dark loneliness. Rebellious ideas occupied my mind during the frozen season, burning hotter as the weather turned colder.
I didn’t agree with my pastor, who saw me as a man’s eventual “help mate.” I didn’t agree with my parents, who suggested I earn a teaching certificate as a “back up.” I didn’t agree with the boy who called me a “tease” and counseled me to be careful if I went to college because I was likely to be raped. As if rape were a condition women bring upon themselves.
Deep down, I harbored the secrets of an almost-woman who’d grown up in a world she resisted. A culture that expected her to be things she didn’t want to be. I acted as my own double agent, dreaming subversive dreams while playing the small town girl.
I first moved out of Alaska to attend the University of Idaho in 1990. Being away was more difficult than I’d imagined. People dressed differently. Ate weird food. Even their voices sounded off to me.
Walking the pathways of the university’s alien campus—a gaggle of brick buildings plopped amidst the golden wheat fields and rolling hills of the Palouse—I carried an ache. I longed for the Kenai Peninsula’s familiar landscape like one might a phantom limb, or so I might have said at the time. Finally home for winter break, I shut myself in my childhood room where the air smelled like me. I never wanted to leave again.
I stayed home a semester and attended the Kenai Peninsula College, working in a floral shop and going to church on Sundays. Maybe I could change myself. Live my life in Soldotna. Fit in better.
I couldn’t. The following semester I went back to Idaho.
It took nearly ten years for me to learn how to leave Alaska. Every summer while in college I returned home to work in retail or as a waitress or for nine terrible hours in a cannery. After graduation, I spent nearly a year at the ARC of Anchorage as an Americorps volunteer, but my social worker career failed before it began because I couldn’t detach from the pain of others.
I ultimately left Alaska for Washington and became a public servant, crafting documents like policy briefs, new releases, and speeches. State government communications required me to imagine myself into another person and write from perspectives that never were quite my own. After more than a decade, I began to wonder if I still had my own perspective.
In December 2009, I quit my job to write creatively. I left everything I knew and took a chance on myself—an act not altogether unfamiliar. There’s more to that story, of course. I’ve been extremely lucky and supported by those in my life. But a conviction, a certain necessary faith, was required for me to be willing to plunge myself into the unknown abyss.
Some people are born into places that suit them, where they live their lives happy and contented. I envy those people. I seem unable to live in my birth home, yet to this day, there is no sight that takes my breath away more than staring out from the Kenai bluff at the Chigmit Mountains rising beyond the Cook Inlet. What I feel for Alaska is complicated. A mix of raw and passionate, painful and hopeful.
Love, in other words.
I still hold a piece of home gently in my heart, where I can return again and again. But it was the act of leaving Alaska that made me who I am, and a perspective gained by distance that inspired my debut, The Ocean in My Ears. The novel is a kind of tribute to the place that birthed me and the people I first loved. I never thought I’d write a book, but there are so many things I never thought I would do.
Meagan Macvie was born and raised in Soldotna, Alaska. Her debut novel, The Ocean in My Ears, is set in her hometown. The novel was published in 2017 by Portland State University’s Ooligan Press and was a finalist for the 2016 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. In their starred review, Kirkus calls The Ocean in My Ears an “unforgettable journey to adulthood.” Meagan is a former government communications director and college composition instructor who now writes full-time and teaches writing workshops through her local schools and libraries. She earned her MFA in fiction from Pacific Lutheran University and a BA in English Literature from the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Barrelhouse, and Fugue, as well as the regional library anthology, Timberland Writes Together. In 2017, her short story, “Dinosaur Guys,” was awarded second place in the Willamette Writers Kay Snow Writing Contest. Meagan now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter, as well as a dog, two goats, and seven chickens. Find her online at meaganmacvie.com and on Twitter and Instagram as @meaganmacvie.