Monday, March 12, 2018
Several times during this last year I've looked around and wondered, How did this become my life? March 2, which marked the one-year anniversary of my arrival in Alaska, provided another such occasion. On that particular week I was chaperoning a school trip--my first as a teacher--whose aim was to introduce high-schoolers to state government. As such, on the second day of March I found myself in Queen-of-the-Gods, Arctic State's absurd capital city nestled on a mountain cliff that hugs tight to Canada but has no road access to the rest of its own state.
The quaint size of the state, from a population perspective, means leaders and people share a closeness that can be disorienting to Easterners, accustomed as we are to the concentrated nexuses of wealth and hierarchy in which we grew up. In both Southern State and Native State, between which I split my childhood, state chief executives live in palatial residences that are gated and heavily patrolled. In Queen-of-the-Gods, the governor's mansion is just a house in a neighborhood. It's an awesome house, granted. But it's still just someone's home, where you can sidle right up to the front door and ring the bell.
Another Queen-of-the-Gods house, this one private and castle themed, has been officially dubbed "the fanciest building in Arctic State." It's just down the street from the governor's mansion and widely billed as the more impressive structure.
"Well, Arctic State is basically a big small town," mused Athena, a Queen-of-the-Gods native and one of our grown-up companions on the trip. "People who try to get above themselves don't do well."
Which explains why, in a state with fewer people than Charlotte, North Carolina--741,000, if you were wondering--a certain former vice-presidential nominee with aspirations of cable-TV stardom is poorly regarded.
"We were ready to welcome her with open arms," Athena confided. "Even in Queen-of-the-Gods, which is really blue. We're always excited when a new governor comes in. But the feeling wasn't mutual."
I love Alaska.
And, as with most things I love, I fear it will be taken away from me. The process of getting laid off has been especially stressful because it has played on my worst and most pervasive fears that I will never be able to sustain happiness or independence. I feel perpetually on the verge of collapse, perpetually at risk of having the things I've worked so hard for ripped away from me. And the underlying assumption there, one I'm aware of but struggle to alter, is that I would somehow deserve the tearing-down. I understand, of course, that I am an empathetic and caring individual, someone who possesses a master's degree and substantial content-area knowledge, in addition to an even-keeled disposition that would serve any educator well. By any objective measure, I am highly qualified to be a teacher. But they're going to find me out, because somehow I'm really not worthy of any of this.
Psychology is a hell of a thing.
I've worked very hard in the last couple of years to tell myself that the abuse I suffered as a child and young adult was not my fault, that I am in fact a good person who merits happiness and respect. But those internalized lessons are very hard to unlearn, however much you logically know they're wrong, and part of the growing self-awareness I've had since graduate school has been understanding the degree to which hurtful voices still command a lot of space in my head.
There have been a few real nuggets of wisdom that have come my way since 2014 or so. That I am a funny and outgoing person whom others, for the most part, like to be around. That, despite those qualities, certain people will just not like me, and that it is okay if they don't. That my parents were flawed and frightened people who did not mean to inflict the damage they did. That anger is justifiable but forgiveness is good. That I am a person who cannot drink in a healthy way.
And, most recently, that I didn't get away from borderline personality disorder nearly as unscathed as I had imagined.
There's only one thing for it, which is to recognize the problem and work at it systematically until it improves. I'll do that. And it's very easy for me to be equanimous about this right now, sitting in my house after a more-or-less restful weekend, sipping on coffee and pondering the abbreviated week ahead (spring break means a trip to Iceport, sure as sunrise).
But there are moments when it is not easy. When I was passed over for a job I'd had my sights on, when despair at my own ineptness fought with panic at the blacklisting I was sure I'd experienced, it wasn't easy. When I couldn't believe my principal's praise, it wasn't easy. When I harbored suspicions that the elimination of our history position was not a budgetary measure but an elaborate ruse to be rid of me, it wasn't easy. When my neighbor failed to answer a text and then also didn't respond to my knock at her door, it wasn't easy. When I knew that she wasn't just busy but hated me and was hiding inside, hoping I couldn't hear her, it wasn't easy. The waves of intense emotion are not easy. And they have been with me for a long time.
The more I read on the subject, the more I understand that much of what I experience is typical of a person working their way through borderline personality disorder. That's something I have been loath to admit in the past, because doing so would be to admit similarity with Anne, my deeply unwell birth-mother. But it is what it is.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that my worldview is inherently negative. But I do, often, misattribute ill intent to people around me. I wouldn't say I hate people. But I do temporarily hate almost everyone, and wonder if they hate me. My cousin, who has never done me a single unkindness. My boss, who has likewise been straightforward and fair. Mentors and priests and co-workers and perfect strangers. I've perceived spite in so many innocuous words and social niceties, and I've sometimes "retaliated" for these imagined wrongs with a level of vitriol that has left people baffled and hurt.
And while there is a kind person at the core of me, many of the idiosyncrasies and predilections that make it to the surface are constructions. At about 20 years old I literally picked certain personality traits, sometimes modelling acquaintances or celebrities, and decided they were mine. I wanted to make myself likeable. So I did. At this point I've been faking so long that the act comes as second nature, but it's still faking and the truth is that I don't know what the hell is under there. Sometimes I really, really do not care about other people's problems, but because "BB" is nurturing and empathetic I have to pretend for an appropriate amount of time. And just as often as not, I'm thinking about the YouTube video I want to watch when this person shuts the hell up and I can go home. The artifice is exhausting, then.
Which is not to say, by the way, that I don't care about other people. I do. And helping them makes me feel genuinely good. I was subject to a lot of neglect over the years, so being the one to open a kind door and bring someone else in still gives me this cosmic thrill of rightness. But sometimes I'm not sure what my true feelings are and so I fall back on that prefabricated character who knows how to act. Sometimes I hit this weird threshold where other people just become too exhausting to endure. I go off by myself for a while, and relish being alone, and then am okay.
This is really liberating to talk about, by the way. A lot of these qualities, like the way I can swing from a throttling tailspin of despair to a state of bored emptiness in the space of a few hours, have felt like markers of my unique brokenness. But I am not uniquely broken. I have a personality disorder from which millions of people suffer, and my symptoms are completely normal and predictable within that context. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) catalogues these utterly ordinary facets of the illness and recommends methods of treatment. I am not unnatural or alone. And, like many before me, I can get better.
My life has been unusual. It is like to continue that way, because of my vocational choices and because the obstacles I've had to navigate. Because, too, of my uncommon talent in certain areas. I am an astute analyst of geopolitics, a quick student of languages, and, let's be honest, an exceptional writer. I am also a survivor of abuse who has had to manage disability, mental illness, and the hurdles of being a gay man. Will it all work out in the end? You know, I'm not sure. It may be that I never find a partner, never have children. It may be that I don't even want those things. Or that I think I don't, then find I do.
But I am determined to meet whatever comes with as much grace and ability as I can. That means honesty and self-care. It means reaching out to friends and family who can't read my mind. And it means, sometimes, taking a deep breath.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
"I want you to know that you're leaving here with a positive evaluation and my endorsement," our principal said. "You are really solid. I've seen you with these kids. I will absolutely be a reference."
I bit back a laugh.
"You know, I'd just decided to stay," I told him. "I was on the fence all fall, and I just committed to it in my head. Kind of funny."
It's an odd conundrum when everyone involved in a professional relationship--the employee, the employer, the co-workers, the supervisors--is happy with a working arrangement and then it has to end anyway. When our site administrator first pulled me into his office to tell me that everyone but me would receive a contract for the coming 2018 - 2019 school year, I naturally wondered what I'd done wrong.
"Nothing," he said. "Nothing. If you had, we'd be having a very different conversation."
Budget cuts are happening everywhere, though, even in freewheeling bush Alaska, and after paring things down to the point of cutting choir and several other subjects, the district decided that the next thing they had to eliminate--in a horrible game of musical chairs that no one involved, district included, wants to be playing--was the social studies teacher. My area being a core subject, and required for secondary education, the remaining staff will have to divvy up amongst themselves the five separate subjects I'm currently teaching.
"Man," I posited. "I must have been really bad if I put you guys off on ever having a history teacher again."
The principal, Military Man, smiled.
"That would be something."
I'll depart Gori with good references, bankable bush experience (which is invaluable in this turnover-heavy part of the state), and a job market that can't afford to ignore me.
"There were schools last year that started in the fall with vacancies still unfilled," Military Man said. "Some of those vacancies from last year are open now. You'll have no problem finding a job."
Which is a huge advantage that I don't want to minimize. Most people who get the equivalent of a pink slip don't have the virtual guarantee of ready employment within a few months, nor priority with their previous employer for any new jobs that open up. But the fact remains that, had the decision been up to me, I would have stayed. Had the decision been up to my superiors, I would have stayed. Had the decision been up to anyone but the balance sheet of an accounting department, I would have stayed.
It's been a good thing here. Though I didn't want to remain indefinitely, I wanted to remain for a little, and I wasn't ready to go at this particular juncture, with niches carved and relationships established and the trust of some very wary kids earned. I wanted to be a positive in their lives. I wanted to be the kind of dependable presence that is so vital to adolescent well-being, and that is sometimes lacking in this challenged place. I wanted to be someone who came back. And now, however the situation arose, I'm going to be one more person who leaves. That kills me. The prospect of that conversation, which I'll have to have at some point, kills me.
"That's the whole teacher thing," said Goat Farmer, a middle-aged navy veteran and one of my co-workers. "That's why people come back even after an excruciating year. Because some kid came up and sat next to you at the pep rally and you realized they trusted you. And then you're like, 'Man. I kind of wish you hadn't done that. Now I'm invested in this.'"
I'm trying to be both positive and realistic. Yes, this hurts in the short term, but I'm just not important enough to be a make-or-break in these kids' lives, even if the prospect of occupying Number 1,000 on a long list of their disappointments is not one I relish. This could, furthermore, be an opportunity to find a community about which I'm really excited and where I can do really well. Which will be kind of necessary, because if I leave here disappointed--and I will--then I have to be enthused about the next destination. Nothing lukewarm will do.
To that end, I've decided that the fall will see me either on the road network, in one of Alaska's highway-connected cities; or in a part of the bush where the financial reward is substantial. I've already applied for one job hundreds of miles north of here, in a little town that straddles the Arctic Circle and pays about $5,000 a year more than what I make now. The daylight hours there are perilously short in the winter, but 11 a.m. sunrises didn't bother me here. Some people can deal with that and some can't. I think maybe some part of me was always supposed to come to Alaska.
It's strange. I spent my whole childhood moving, hopping up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and I looked forward to grown-up years when I could be settled in one place. Here I am, though, a grown-up, and through no fault of my own leading a decidedly migratory existence. I've been in Alaska less than a full year, and come August I will, seventeen months since moving to the state, have lived in three separate towns. Once again I'm packing up and shipping out. Once again I don't know where I'll be in six months.
And you know what's weird? I kind of like that. Am banking on it, even. I've known for a while I didn't want to stay in the bush more than a few years--there's just too much life to be lived yet--and known furthermore that I planned on teaching a year in Russia several years into my career. So I've been presuming a fair amount of jumping around without examining too closely why that is. I spent a long time agonizing over where "home" was, but maybe now I'm beginning to see the peculiar way I grew up as an advantage in certain respects. That restlessness. It's one of the things that has surprised me as I've gotten to know myself this last year.
That is not to say, by the way, that I can't stay put. I would have stayed put here, at least for another year, and been very happy about that. Even as I mourn being forced to look once more to the horizon, though, some part of me, however small, feels excitement rising in his chest. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
If life in bush Alaska has taught me one thing, it's that sometimes you just have to go with things. I'll let you know how that going carries off.
Monday, January 22, 2018
One of the things on which I've always prided myself is an unusual degree of self-awareness. Maybe it's because as a child I was surrounded by destructive people who made the same awful decisions again and again and again. Maybe it's because I was the oldest of four siblings and got to see how different personalities walked differently down paths I'd approached earlier. Maybe it's because I struggled with a disability that forced me, for survival's sake, to get inside my own head and figure out what was going on there. Maybe it's because I spent years in therapy examining how my traumatic past informed my present behavior, whatever it was at the time. Maybe I just got lucky and happened to be a bit more observant than the next guy over.
A lot of factors fed in, no doubt, but the end result is the same: more often than not, I've been able to call myself on my own nonsense. I've been able to make an honest assessment of myself and act accordingly.
The status report these days looks better than it's looked in a long time. Independent, financially stable, moderately sane, driven more often than not by logical considerations. After a long time and much anguish, I have come to a peaceful understanding with all three of my parents, at last feel a forgiveness and genuine affection for them that in my early twenties I never imagined would be possible.
All good things, of course. But I've never been one to sit on my laurels, at least if recent experience is any guide. It's a funny thing, that; up until the age of 28, I lived under someone else's roof and rules. It's hard in that situation to know what your own predilections are because you're never able to give them full rein, and the last ten months--my Alaska-versary is coming up on March 2!--have been full of little revelations that have at times disappointed and at times pleased me.
I am, for one thing, something of a slob. Terrible, and I'm the first to admit it. You know when my house gets cleaned? How it gets cleaned? Frantically, and in the few hours before I'm about to host a group of co-workers for (store-bought) cake and (Keurig) coffee.
"I need a maid," Wise Woman groused earlier today as we stood talking in her kitchen.
"Not as much as I do," I countered. "And what's awful is that now we can actually afford help, but..."
She laughed. "There's no one to hire."
Other surprises have been of a more happy nature. It seems, for instance, that I am something of a goal-driven person (who knew?), and I have noticed a tendency on my part to set benchmarks for future achievement even when I am pretty satisfied with my present condition. The idea of not moving, not doing, not achieving, bothers me in a way I never thought it would. What sort of Southern gentleman am I, anyway?
I had this really terrifying moment over the weekend. I was putzing around my house, enjoying the moments of leisure that are all too rare here, when my nose shot out from the book in which it had been buried and I stared, full of existential dread, at the oven before me, utterly convicted of a single truth: All of this is pointless. Most of what I do each day is pointless.
Waking up at 7:15, putting the kids through their paces, making lesson plans, giving lectures, preparing dinner, enjoying a book or cribbing together the parts of a story in my spare time. Taken cumulatively, all essential to life. Taken individually, one disposable moment after another.
So much wasted time.
What does matter, then? What is worth our precious hours and minutes? And this is what I thought of: Feeling like you've reached your true potential. Feeling as if you've created something of genuine beauty. Being as happy as you can be.
Three things. Distinct, but intertwined. So what does that mean for me?
It means that, within the year, I will need to complete or make significant progress on the writing project for which I've been doing research since the summer of 2017. I approached this prospective manuscript, a young-adult fantasy about two teens thrown into a conflict involving Norse gods, with the intent to draw on my own publishing experience and write something commercially viable. I am, I feel justified in saying, rather a talented writer. My failure up to this point to have completed a publishable project has becoming a gnawing self-critical tick in the back of my mind, and I know that, lest I continue to feel I'm cheating myself, this is something I must achieve. So I will. I'll keep up on the research and mapping through June, then commence actual work at that point. The goal is to have a great deal of the book completed before summer's end.
What else does meeting potential mean? It means that, in the middle term, I will need to relocate from Gori. Right now I'd bank solid money on my returning here this August, but I am as yet in my twenties (for the next three months, at least) and as yet unwed. Hell, as yet uncourted. My string of embarrassing sexual encounters aside, I've never had an actual boyfriend, never once trusted anyone enough to let that wall come down. I want to give myself that chance during these prime years, want as well to know the happiness of easy socializing and easy conveniences. So I will be back in the fall. But come next spring, my gaze will turn to Iceport and Aurora City.
And I find myself hatching long-term plans, too. To pursue, in perhaps five years' time, a second master's degree that would allow me to become a school principal or assistant principal. I've seen the teacher pay scale, of course, and know what the very robust number at the top is. But what do I do when I get to that top? Sit there? Forever? Unchanging? How could one do such a thing? I only have this one life, these eighty or ninety years, a hundred if I'm lucky, and I can't bear the thought of wasting them. If I could live several centuries I would, because there's so much to see and do and experience in the world, and one career just isn't enough. One lifetime isn't enough. There is a bit of frenzy within me concerning this topic, and sometimes I wish I could defuse it, but it resides there nonetheless.
My long-term eyes see books published and languages mastered and Russia visited and rungs climbed on professional ladders. Of late, however, my short-term eyes have had to do some focusing as well.
Anyone who's followed this blog for more than a year or so will know that I have long struggled with what role alcohol should play in my life. Innocent partying became not-so-innocent numbing in my middle twenties, and after a mortifying incident at the start of 2016 I gave up drinking for the rest of that year. When that deadline expired at midnight on January 1, I joined a 2017 New Year's party with gusto, only to take it too far and wake up ashamed and missing some memories, though thankfully without having humiliated myself. I allowed that I would permit myself to drink "moderately," but a voice of worry lingered ever in my ear.
"What will you do this time?" it whispered. "Will you be able to control it? How far will you go tonight?"
Alcohol possession is a felony in this part of Alaska, so it's thankfully off the table here. But back home, my summer of 2017 was something of a personal dumpster fire where drinking was concerned. I'd learned bitter lessons about drinking to the point of insensibility in front of others, but doing it alone gave me all the gratification and none of the consequences. So I holed myself up in my apartment, sad music playing and wine bottles uncorking and liquor flowing, and got utterly and incomprehensibly smashed several days in a row. After the second of these benders, from which I still carry a scar on my left knee, I forswore alcohol for good. And I meant it. But then came Christmas break, and then came the justifications.
All of them plausible justifications, by the way. That alcohol had brought positive things into my life, which it had. As a college sophomore fighting to overcome some pretty big inhibitions, I found in alcohol a useful and healthy tool for opening doors and making new friends. In moments where nervousness around men might otherwise have overwhelmed me, I found comfort and confidence. So I gave it one last try. I wanted to keep those positive things in my life, if I could.
And I can't.
I just can't. It's that simple.
I didn't do anything crazy. Didn't vomit in anyone's bushes, or drive drunk, or yell at someone and then later have to offer a fumbling apology. But I went too far. I went beyond what I said I would do. I spent several days of an invaluable mid-year respite being violently hungover as opposed to enjoying my family, and in the harsh moral clarity of one throbbing morning I realized two things: 1. I cannot control this; and 2. This is not worth it.
So I'm done. Done for life. Not "taking a break and seeing how it goes." Not "taking care of some emotional stuff" before I let myself drink again. Just done.
Because here's the thing: by and large, I've attended to the emotional stuff. I've actually accomplished a lot of what I want to accomplish in life, and many of the impediments that caused me such constant distress during my earlier twenties are gone now. Yet I still drank six glasses of wine in a single sitting on the night of December 27. Why? Because I have a drinking problem. Or, to put a point on it, can have one. I am fortunate in that simply not drinking at all is pretty easy for me. Once I get started, though, I want to keep that party rolling.
It's just in the genes. There is also, as it happens, something else in the genes that conflicts with my desire to guzzle myself into oblivion, and that something is called an ALDH2 deficiency. To make a long story short, I am missing an enzyme involved in the processing of alcohol, the result of which is that I cannot metabolize booze's central component. This makes me an exceedingly poor alcoholic. My tolerance has a sharp ceiling, regardless of how frequently I drink, and fairly small amounts elevate my heart rate, make me flush dramatically, and bring on cold shivers and sinus congestion, in addition to getting me absolutely plastered. I'm hardwired to not be able to handle drink, though Lord knows I tried. Those six glasses of wine left me hungover for two days.
This really is something best left in the past. Best left with 29.
Thirty-year-old me will never know alcohol abuse. Thirty-year-old me can feel pride in his many achievements and work forward to his many goals. To happiness and fulfillment.
What wonderful things those are to pursue.
Monday, January 1, 2018
I started 2018, literally and figuratively, in a new world. As the countdown ended and the lights blazed and the crowd cheered, champagne glasses clinking for 740,000 people four hours after the East Coast dropped its glittering ball, I sat in a bar perched atop a mountain, eyes on distant snowdrifts and mocktail in hand.
Here's to growth, to self-awareness, to endurance. To achievement.
Mountains loomed like colossal granite thrones astride the highway as I rode back to my hotel. Surveying the towering pines outlined against a purple sky, I found myself marveling--not for the first time and certainly not for the last--at the places life has taken me.
Sunday, December 31, 2017
The year 2017 was a watershed in my life. Parts of it were exhilarating, parts challenging, parts joyful, parts deeply sad. Through the course of it all, even in coming to terms with uncomfortable truths about myself, I made incredible strides and achieved things I'd once thought forever beyond my reach. For that, I will always remember these last twelve months as a gift.
I hope you all have blessings to count as well, as we gather in this bright sunset. A happy New Year's Eve.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
It's funny how something can enter your life and then after a very short while feel indispensable. All this time you were getting along just fine without it, but now you'd be hollow if it were taken away. Alaska is like that for me. Or at least, what Alaska has brought is like that for me.
Alaska gave me independence. That elusive dream I chased and despaired over, whose shadow filled my early posts with so much angst, was at last realized when I accepted a teaching position here eight months ago. For eight months I have been able to stand on my own two feet, and already that experience has indelibly changed me.
I feel, in a way, that I am becoming the person I was always supposed to be: confident, dignified, forthright, but also generous and quick to laugh. The strength comes more easily now, and doesn't leave in my mind the insidious fear of backlash. The generosity comes more easily, too, and doesn't carry with it the tinge of weakness. Because I'm not posturing for anyone else now; I'm living for myself. Living for yourself makes such a difference.
With hindsight, by the way, it's no wonder I was so miserable all the time.
How can you insist on the treatment you deserve when you live at someone else's mercy? What autonomy do you have when your world can be upended on another person's whim? And how much of yourself can you really give when you're just barely making it in the world, and that by virtue of a family member's (tenuous) charity? From my parents to my grandmother, I was forced to linger far longer than I ought to have done with people who harbored a fundamental lack of respect for me.
It's been eight months since I started paying my own way, and it already feels like several years.
That's the other thing about the old AK: living here feels very much like living in a time warp. I don't know if it's because I'm now working a regular nine-to-five kind of deal, or because our isolation creates a hermetic seal from the outside world, or because of several things working together, but a great deal seems to transpire here in a short period. We're on the cusp of Christmas break now, something that boggles my mind, and as we near the mid-point of the school year I am, even given the stresses of the job, engaged in a kind of internal chorus line of approbation.
I live on my own.
I make good money.
I am good at my job.
I like my job.
I hoofed it 4,000 miles across the continent, by myself, and made it work.
I am capable and smart and more than my abusers ever said I could be.
I did it.
If this feels smug or self satisfied, it's not supposed to. It's more a celebration that I worked my ass off for a really long time, then finally got to see the rewards of that effort. I got so used to being ashamed, so used to feeling like a failure, that some part of me thought I'd never be able to stand on my own. And here I am. Whatever opportunities and pitfalls the future brings, I have done that most improbable of things and have seen myself for the competent and well-equipped person I am. That curtain, once opened, can never be drawn back.
Which is not to say, by the way, that triumph for me has meant triumph over anyone else. I've decided to have relationships with my mother and father, despite the serious mistreatment they showed me for many years, because I would rather walk a path of forgiveness and reconciliation with people I love than define myself in opposition to someone else. The latter is a life guided by hatred. I choose a life guided by peace. That can mean absolution and a new bond, as in the case of my parents. It can mean electing, without malice, to stay away from people who are irredeemably toxic, as in the case of my birth-mother. But I am no longer in a position of having to subordinate myself for survival. I can choose.
Having that choice is incomparable.
As to the job itself, well...that's a process. We're isolated here, without the amenities that the vast majority of Americans take for granted. Going to the "grocery store" requires a trek down an icy hill, often in the face of wind-borne snow, and simple pleasures like coffee or books arrive from Amazon Prime via planes that often don't fly. Entertainment is what you make it. Loneliness is easy to come by.
The community itself is one defined by a lot of love, but also by the legacy of invasion and cultural destruction. Sometimes the despair engendered by that loss is surprisingly close to the surface. A generation ago, these people lived essentially in communion with the land, making their way in the same fashion their ancestors had for thousands of years before them. And then the Americans came.
"We want the kids to know what they come from," one Native staff member shared during a group exercise about a month ago. "But our way of life is disappearing. Our language is being forgotten. The Western society came in so fast..."
Her husband placed his arm around her shoulder as she began to quietly weep. Not quite Western. Not quite Native. The Americans ended one mode of living without really providing a viable alternative, and the results of that are felt here in high unemployment, alcoholism, and a kind of aimlessness. The same question, unspoken, seems to lurk just behind everyone's lips: What are we supposed to do? Where do we go from here?
Drinking is illegal but widespread. Rape and domestic violence linger like beastly shadows on the edges of our lives. So far this school year, there have been two murders. Both were met with grief, fury, confusion. Anguish.
I get the children of those households. Some of them are angry, some sad, some happy but not happy to be here, some willing and able to work, some able but not willing. The great, great majority are good kids, but there can be a lot of emotional baggage to wade through. So it's a more challenging teaching environment than what you would typically find, and requires a balanced perspective. If you take things personally, you're toast.
In all, though? I'd say I'm doing pretty well. Not that none of it ever bothers me. Sometimes it does. Seeing as I came out of a very difficult childhood myself, though, I have some insights most adults don't have, and I know that the sentiment sometimes directed at me isn't really about me. In addition to that, one of the things I've learned about myself during these eight months of autonomy is that I'm a pretty easygoing guy, something that has served me very well in a community where flexibility is lifeblood.
I treat the students with respect, even when I have to correct them, and the consequence is that I have a pretty good rapport with the majority of my kids. Most things don't bother me--You want snacks in class? Sure. Go nuts--and they have caught on to what does (disrespect, of me or their peers, is a no-no). In turn, I've gotten to know some of their individual quirks and hang-ups. Generally, I feel like we're moving towards a workable place.
Then again, this was a really good week. Check in with me again after a tough day so I can tell you how I'm questioning my every single decision as an educator and contemplating becoming a vacuum salesman.
Now we're at about the halfway mark of the year (again, mind blowing). Tomorrow inaugurates a two-day school week of festive movies, followed by a four-and-a-half-day weekend, followed by just two full weeks of actual academic work before things really wind down for Christmas. There are actually three weeks between the two breaks, but trust me: nothing is happening during the five days before we release for the holidays. Native Alaskan communities move at a slower pace and put high value on both leisure and family time. That makes for some very relaxed days around official vacations and is one of the definite upsides of the job.
On December 15 we dismiss for Christmas, and on December 17 I'm headed to Iceport. After an evening and a day in the city I'll depart on December 18 on an overnight flight to the East Coast, whence I'll arrive sometime during the afternoon of December 19. Then it's eleven days back home. Eleven days with family and friends. Eleven days of roads and restaurants and iced coffee on demand. However much I've adjusted to being here, I'm excited about that.
I'm also not especially daunted by the prospect of a 4,000-mile flight; I booked first class, because I make good money and why the hell not? Again, I don't mean to be crass. I'm just sort of overjoyed that I can like, do things now. For someone who is not particularly materialistic--at all--I spent probably ten years being absolutely obsessed with money, namely how little I had of it and how the consequences of that not-having were always on the verge of swamping me. Now I fly first class.
"I just dropped like, close to two grand that I was not expecting to spend," I told my father during one of our weekly phone calls. "And I still have enough to pay all my bills. I still have enough to put some in savings. A year ago that would have destroyed me. Now I can cover a big expense and be okay. It's such a cool feeling."
Teaching here requires sacrifices but confers big financial rewards. If you're able to hack it, you will be compensated handsomely. Then again, you also have to wear snow chains on your boots and can use your front porch as a freezer, so I suppose everything is a trade-off.
I'll continue writing about those trade-offs, and about the decisions I make as I navigate them. Thank you for being so tolerant of my lapsed posting schedule since I returned here in August. And thanks for continuing to check in as I figure everything out.
The figuring-out feels like a cool place to be.
Monday, September 25, 2017
It's been nearly two months since I landed in Gori on a sunny summer day at the beginning of August, when daylight drenched this riverside town and warm breezes caressed the ground in a most un-Arctic-State-like manner. The time since then has been a mad rush of lesson plans, orientations, meetings, activities, and the day-to-day issues that are bound to come up in an isolated Native American community where many challenges, like alcoholism and inadequate access to medical care, persist. It's not like teaching anywhere else, and it can be overwhelming.
At least in the beginning. As I push into Month Two, I find that the things causing me the most consternation aren't community specific, but general to the profession and to the region. I don't have enough free time, and in effect work six days a week, as my Sundays are taken up with preparation for the five separate subjects I teach (this being rural Arctic State, many of us carry heavy loads to compensate for our small faculty). On a personal level, this part of the state is very isolated, and the lack of variety and social stimulation can be burdensome. The same unvarying routine, week in and week out, with little room for spontaneity and no means of simply cutting loose and taking an adventure, hems one in.
Today, in fact, I took a sick day I could have foregone just so I could have some space from it all. Time that was unstructured, when my brain wasn't racing to the next responsibility or obligation. I slept until 12:30. I wasted a gratuitous amount of time scrolling through social media. I took a long shower. I called my mother. I prayed.
This town, I should mention, is far, far nicer than the one I left, and in countless ways I prefer it to White Venice. The sanitation situation, for one thing, is much better; we have running water here, including in our homes, and the chronic respiratory issues that plagued me for two months in the other village haven't so much as uttered a whisper here. My apartment, furthermore, is mine alone, a spacious two-bedroom place with hardwood floors, brand-new designer furniture, and a tall back window through which natural light pours on our rare sunny days. It's funny: two months in White Venice, living in a dust-coated box I shared with three other people, passed like a kidney stone. Two months here, with a little sanctuary to call my own, has moved by almost without my noticing.
And it is a sanctuary I have here. I've held fast to a rule separating professional and home activities, such that I refuse to ever bring work into my house. If I need to grade papers or plan lessons, I do it at the school. The effect of this is to create a pleasing psychological barrier between the two spheres, and the moment that door closes behind me I know that the space and the time is mine. It makes such a difference. When I turn on the lamps, close my blackout curtains, brew myself a cup of hot coffee, and curl up with a book, it's almost like the outside world doesn't exist. Sometimes I need that.
When I want the world to come back, though, I find I have agreeable company. Another fortunate thing about Gori is the camaraderie among the teaching staff, several of whom greeted me with great friendliness on my arrival at the beginning of August.
There's Columbia, a 30-year-old English teacher from Native State who offers equal measures of hospitality and dark humor; Miss Knows It All, an art teacher who means well but has, at 31, managed to alienate staff members of all experience levels with her miraculous talent for knowing more about our jobs, personal lives, and everything in general than we do; and Goat Farmer, a quirky Midwestern veteran whose by-the-book demeanor conceals a Jell-O-and-frosting interior. When we first met I thought we'd have little in common, but when I dropped in on him one night to discuss work matters we wound up talking, about everything but work, for something like four hours. Go figure.
The co-worker with whom I've bonded the most, however, happens sleep within shouting distance; Wise Woman is my neighbor. Columbia, who was instrumental in having us assigned to the same duplex, predicted early on we'd be fast friends.
"You'll love her," she told me. "She's a delightful human being. I feel like you guys will just click."
And we have.
From very soon after we met, in fact, we found an odd kinship in one another's company that went well beyond neighborly or professional friendliness. She is 59 and I 29, but there are a number of commonalities. Both of us, it turns out, took roundabout ways to becoming teachers in rural Arctic State. Both of us came from families with legacies of abuse, and both of us handled that legacy (in her case decades ago) by misusing alcohol before, in our respective late twenties, we both realized that the way out wasn't through a bottle. We both like having way too much coffee, both indulge in over-the-top sci-fi cheese.
We even both have hypothyroidism and are on the same medication for it; I'm always constipated and she wears a wig. Together we're like the Wonder Twins.
Virtually every weekend we get together to put on a movie, and many a late night has been spent contemplating the kind of life lessons that never seem so meaningful as at three in the morning in a place far from home. But Wise Woman's presence here, blessedly right next door, has turned my attention to friendship and to community, and to what it means to have those in one's life.
I cannot stay here. Once I thought that maybe I could, just hunker down in the bush and collect the robust paycheck whose value climbs year on year on year. But there's a reason they compensate us so handsomely for being here, and that reason carries a heavy price. I will stay this year, and will almost certainly stay next. After that, however, I'm setting my sights elsewhere. Not because of the kids. Not because of the work. Because there's nothing but the kids and the work. Because I need more in my life than what I can get in a bush village.
I will turn 30 in April. Young yet, but not young forever. By 31 or at the latest 32, I want to have moved on to Iceport or Aurora City or somewhere in between. The specific place doesn't matter, not really. As long as I can swing by a Starbucks on the way home from work. As long as I can go to a nice restaurant on a Friday night, a bookstore on a Saturday afternoon, a church on a Sunday morning. As long as I can while away a lazy holiday in a local cafe, Russian textbook in hand. As long as there's a chance at companionship. Because I don't know where Mr. Right is--but he sure as hell is not waiting for me in Gori, Alaska.
As to what comes after the move? I'm not sure.
"You can't think so much," my mother told me today. I was padding around my kitchen, heating up some lunch as I caught her by cell at the end of her work day in Southern State. "It messes you up. I get moments like that, too. That's when I go and do things to make myself feel good. Go out of my way to have dinner with my girlfriends. Go buy myself something."
"Well, yeah Mom, but I'm in a unique situation."
"I understand that. I'm just saying, you need to find something to do. Grab a book. Put in a movie. Do something to take your mind off it."
"You know how I am. I've always been a worrier. Thinking about it, planning? That's how I take my mind off it. I can deal with a lot in the here and now if I know that two or three years down the line there's another step. That other thing coming. Planning is how I deal with it."
I've been financially independent for less than a year. And it's funny how that experience teaches you, in some ways for the first time, about the kind of person you are. How do you react to situations you've never faced before? That says a lot about your nature.
I have led, from childhood on, an objectively strange life. My present career trajectory shows no sign of altering that track record.
The current five-year plan, because of course I have one, takes me first out of this village, then off this continent, then at Year Five to a fork between two very different roads. That plan might not pan out precisely as I have envisioned. I mean, hell, I never envisioned that I'd be blogging from government housing perched over a fecal river--we've had septic issues--on the edge of oil and polar-bear country. But I still wound up a teacher. And, barring a serious change of heart on my end, this plan is likely to proceed on a course at least resembling the one I've plotted out, so the plotting bears some serious consideration.
I'll share those calculations with you later. For right now, it's enough to say they're there. Like I told my mother, I can tolerate a lot provided I'm certain something better is coming. I can even see this interval as a respite of sorts, because I know that after a long period of quiet I'll go back out into the world again.
"When you first come here, it can be refreshing," Wise Woman told me during one of our marathon weekend chats. "Because life in the Lower 48 is so hectic and stressful, and then you get to the village and all that fades into the background. Like you can finally rest. But after a while"--she flashed me a knowing smile--"it starts to drive you a little crazy."
There's a restlessness to me, I'm coming to realize, that can bide its time in moments, so long as there is a new horizon to reach once the moment is over. I enter a long moment now. When I've had some time to think about it, I'll let you know what I see on its edge.