Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Day


A new day with new choices. Old friends celebrating old achievements. And a present that just keeps flowing along. How quickly the time has gone to 2019.

Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Eve


 

I end 2018 surrounded by people I love, buoyed by a year of professional success, and reveling in the small pleasures of familiarity. The year 2019 will require growth, reflection, honesty, and and map-making. But those things can wait a little bit.

A happy New Year's Eve to you all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Loving Letting-Go


As far as breakups go, it was a little bizarre. No recriminations or yelling. No accusations flung back and forth. No agonizing about what might have been, or what was. Everything we could've done, we did, and while we did it we did it well. But Gavril and I weren't meant to be. At least not forever.

In a thirty-minute telephone conversation filled with tears, mutual compliments, and sincere well-wishes, we confronted the gnawing truth both of us had known for a while and made the decision to end a five-month relationship in which we'd served as each other's first real boyfriends. Maybe it could've worked had we been closer, but romance from 4,000 miles away, however affectionate the treasured in-person visits, presented challenges too daunting to overcome.

And the truth is that I don't think we were right for each other anyway. Even so, we found something good in one another, and it's something I cherish.

"You gave me so much joy when we were together," he said. "That day we got lost in the woods and it started raining...it was a little scary at the time, but that became a beautiful memory for me. You and me wandering through the forest, singing to pass the time."

Gavril gave me the gift of perspective. The gift of knowing. All my future relationships--and, God willing, they will come--will be measured against the standard of a young man who exemplified kindness, decency, respect, patience, and understanding. I know what it is to be treated well. I tried to make sure he did, too.

We hung up after an emotional half-hour, wishing each other good luck and promising, as amicable former lovers always do, to remain friends. Singlehood resumed, I waited for the sadness to envelop me and instead felt something I hadn't expected:

Relief.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Life in Point Goldlace


"Did you remember to bring your snow pants?" asked Mr. Grey. 

"Do I need them?" I responded. "I have some long pajamas that could go over my jeans."

"You definitely want to bring the pants if you have them," interjected the teenager in the room with us. "Out on that water, it'll get cold fast. You need the layers."

I waved a goodbye at the student and the principal, then seized my boss's keys from off his desk for good measure.

"I'm taking the truck. Back in a few!"

I ran into Bellatrix, a twenty-year-old educational aide who has struck up a delightfully awkward friendship with me, in the hallway.

"Hey," I said. "Do you want to go on an adventure?"

"Where to?"

"My house!"

"Sure."


That, in a nutshell, is what my life here in Point Goldlace has been like to this point. A good-natured boss, helpful students, friendly co-workers, and the occasional dramatic gesture resulting in my collision with a door--as happened when Bellatrix and I attempted the simple task of exiting the building--have been the hallmarks of my experience in this town, and as I examine those I find myself mindful that Providence so often knows what we need before we do.

As recently as a month ago I was despondent at being trapped here, then furious when my attempts at breaking the cage were met with an unyielding wall of defeat. Why wasn't God doing what I wanted? Why wasn't He listening?

And the thing is that here is superior, in virtually every way, to the little village of Gori I so mourned leaving, likely superior as well to the posting to which I tried to escape at the close of August. I was handed a tremendous gift in this place and did everything I could to destroy it, ribbons and all. Fate stayed my hand. Fate kept me still until I could see.


There's a community here, in a way there was not in either White Venice or Gori. It's not just that we have a coffee shop, although that has been a godsend. It's not just that our village is lovely and well maintained, laid out like an actual town rather than a random collection of buildings, patrolled by a real police officer in an actual car, serviced by competent public servants. It's that people care about those things. People are engaged. People take pride in their town and pride in their children, and that means getting them to school on time, prepared, and appropriately disposed to learning. On the few occasions I've had to speak to a parent about a student's behavior, the behavior has changed. That, compared to anywhere else I've been in this state, compared to most places I've even just heard about, is a watershed. I am so, so lucky to be here. And in many ways, this town is so, so normal.


Our weeks fall into a reliable rhythm, interrupted by the regular incursions of life that seem always to abound in bush Alaska. Moose season resulted in maybe half the high school class checking out. Several pupils fly every weekend to Aurora City. The recent death of an elder was commemorated by one of the great funerary celebrations for which this culture is known, and that event effectively took half a school day. A field trip engulfed two more. There's always something, some way that the schedule doesn't quite proceed as planned. But in general, things follow a predictable path.

I work from 8 to 2:30 in actual sessions, then use the time from 2:30 to 4 to perform housekeeping duties, usually grading. After that I swing by the coffee shop, gab a bit with the barista and associated church family, and head home to prepare the lessons for the coming day. Every Friday the school hosts a movie night, with the proceeds from admissions and concessions going to the volleyball team, and so I usually get to cap my week off by enjoying a film and some snacks with my co-workers, the great majority of whom are friendly and warm. This week, the particular colleague was Miss Victory, who sat through Blank Panther for what she said was the fourth time.

"And each time I've paid for it," she laughed.


Afterwards, she, Bellatrix, and I walked down to the River Goldlace with our cellphones serving as flashlights. I waited until we were directly on the bank, away from the lights of the town, to open my device's settings.

"Okay, now," I told the other two.

The mobile phones went off, and all of a sudden the glittering starfire of thousands of celestial tapers was raining its splendor down on us, reflecting off the surface of the river and competing for brightness with the barely discernible lights of the aurora.

"Oh, wow," whispered Miss Victory, a recent transplant from the South. "I'm really here. I'm really in Alaska."


I love my Friday-night socializing, but Saturdays are special for me. Those are the days I lock myself in my house, pile up the books, turn on the music, light the candles, brew the coffee, and dive into the projects that give me such pleasure. On Saturdays I read. I write. I think. I contemplate my future and my present. I occasionally trawl OKCupid, skimming through endless reams of attractive men and imagining which of them might one day be my husband. And then on Sunday comes church, at the big red Episcopal chapel located a convenient few hundred yards from my house. Not a bad deal.

This is a place, and a routine, I find pleasing, and what notes of discontent exist are manageable. For now. We've moved into the cold months here, and I adore the transforming landscape and the ever-shorter days that have made Point Goldlace and the surrounding country into a kind of fantasyland. Momentarily, at least. Autumn was magical, but it was brief, and lest you think the photos in this post are current you ought to know that winter comes early in the Arctic.

We had a field trip last week, to a camping site most of the kids have been visiting since childhood, and we opted to go the traditional route and make the journey there by river. When our boats left out, on the early afternoon of September 25, they did so under a light snowfall that lasted into the night.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Redeeming Qualities


I spent much of my first week here fuming, fighting competing urges of desperation and muted anger. It felt like I was an animal lured into a trap, railing at the edges of my cage with fury and no means of escape. I'd been lied to. I'd been misled. I'd been tricked. And now they had me.

"Wait until school starts," advised Miss Sunday. She is a long-suffering but upbeat district employee who became an early friend. "I understand why you're frustrated. I see what the problems are. But once the kids are here it will get easier."

I had my doubts as to that. Many words have been used to describe the experience of teaching children in rural Alaska, but "easy" is seldom one of them. Domestic violence, rampant alcoholism, sexual abuse, and systemic dysfunction make for classrooms that can be outright hellish. Last year I taught a group of 7th-graders whose behavior was so horrific that we added a period to the school day, disrupting the schedule of the entire student population, for the express purpose of splitting the single cohort. Even then the rooms were still largely unproductive, and that wasn't considered abnormal for the bush. I counted myself lucky that by the end of the year no one had thrown a desk at me. It's been known to happen.


You can imagine my flummoxed reaction when the adolescents who actually greeted me on Tuesday morning were...pleasant. Nice. Polite. My 8th-graders are deferential little fellows who laugh at my bad jokes and enjoy coloring. My 11th- and 12th-graders are so curious and intellectually advanced that I'm having to retool their curriculum, making it more reflective of the abilities of this group of teens who seem like something right out of the Lower 48. The most challenging group, a class of 9th- and 10th-graders, find social studies boring. And occasionally some of them talk too much. That's it.

"My worst class here is a cake-walk compared to my worst class last year," I marveled to Miss Silver, a long-time teacher who, like me, has served in several villages.

"Oh, yeah," she nodded knowingly. "People who have never taught in other villages before don't understand that. They think this is rough. This is great."

Not without its interruptions, though; on the very first Friday of the school year some of my high-schoolers opined, to my face, that they were going to ditch my class, but gave assurances that they had the best of reasons.

"Someone found a dead bear. Can we see?"

Off we went.


I was two days in with these decidedly non-rough kids when I swung by the office of the superintendent, Mr. Spear, with a retraction.

"If you haven't found anyone to fill that position yet," I said. "Just let it go."

"Well," he observed. "We weren't really looking."

True to form.

"The kids are good," I responded. "They're really good."

He leaned back in his chair and flashed me a sentimental smile.

"Is this the part where I get to say 'I told you so'?"

I flashed him a saccharine smile in return. "My problem was never with the kids."


To call the management of this district a clusterfuck would do a disservice to better-run operations with that moniker, like the Department of Motor Vehicles and the VA. But for all the issues emanating from the top, technology access paramount among them, there is much to recommend Point Goldlace. My house is beautiful and modern (and a genuine Alaska log cabin at that). My kids are personable and good. My principal is accommodating, if a bit too eager to endear himself (and that trait always, always, makes me wary). My health insurance is amazing and my pay is, well, fantastic. And, more to the point, this community is actually a community.

Back in Gori, which I loved, I fell into the pattern of the Triangle Teacher: I went from work to the store to home, and back and around again. It was an isolating circuit that led many of us, myself included, to compare teaching in the village to being stationed on a military base. We were in the town but not of it.

Here it's been easier to do things. Every Friday the school hosts a movie night, the first of which I attended this week, and additional opportunities for socializing abound in the town's several churches. At one of them, on the tail end of our first school week, I encountered what can only be described as a divine presence.


"I am literally getting emotional over this latte," I said by way of apology to the twenty-three-year-old barista. "But you don't understand. I love going out for coffee. It's one of my favorite things. And I never get to do that out here."

She laughed. "No, I get it. We only even have the setup because someone donated it, and we figured we might as well make some money to support the youth group."

Church Girl smiled and handed me my cold drink. "There you go."

"Did I just see you walking across town with an iced coffee?" Miss Sunday texted mere minutes later. "Where did you find such loveliness?"

And that is how, on an early fall evening in the taiga wilderness more than 100 miles north of Aurora City, I found myself hanging out at a cafe after work, exchanging silly banter with my co-worker and the twentysomething workers running the place. Church Girl chirped pleasantly about my students, several of whom are frequent visitors. Church Guy, a boyish twenty-seven-year-old, threw in wacky stories from his family's early years in this community, and before long we were all laughing over our drinks.

A little slice of normal. A small bit of belonging.

As always, I have no idea what my future holds. No idea how long I'll be in this place, this state, this profession. No idea what's coming down the pipe. What I do have are conflicted ideas about plenty of things, things that deserve their own reflections. But for now, by choice, I'm here. God knew to ignore my prayers for a quick exit because He knew what was best for me. That's a truth I'll try to more consistently remember.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Detour, Part 2


It was only six months ago that I unexpectedly learned I would be departing from Gori, the Alaska village where I spent last school year and where I was fortunate to build some close friendships. That surprise, of having to leave a place in which I had chosen to stay, was bad enough, but an altogether nastier one awaited me when I arrived at a little town on the northern bend of the River Goldlace a bit less than two weeks ago.

I came here excited, if with trepidation. This region of Alaska is famed for its evergreen forests, its neon winter skies, its abundant wildlife and sparkling rivers and luminous midnight sunsets. Its Native group is ancient and storied, and its proximity to Aurora City provides a resource for leisure and necessities that feels more measured than Iceport. Point Goldlace is beautiful. But Point Goldlace is not what I thought it would be. Point Goldlace is not what I was told.


The catalogue of administrative incompetence and misinformation that led me to this juncture doesn't need to be recounted. In fact, I am exhausted of recounting it. But there were signs at every step of the way, little things that in isolation seemed outliers but that taken together, and in retrospect, are now obvious indicators of fundamental dysfunction. And the awful truth is, I knew. Somewhere deep down, I knew, and it kills me. I knew that this place was not right, but I persisted anyway because I doubted my own instincts. And then I got here, and found a system in such disarray that regular housekeeping elements of education just hadn't happened. Here it is, the Sunday before the start of a new school year, and teachers still haven't been furnished with class schedules. When the district staff revealed, cavalierly, an Internet capacity so poor that even accessing e-mail accounts was sometimes a challenge, I knew I'd had enough.

A few days later, I was standing in a vacant music room with a tight-lipped man. The superintendent was grim after what had been a difficult conversation, on both our ends.

"Are you asking me to release you from your contract?"

"Yes."


Of all the things I never thought I'd do, all of the positions in which I never thought I'd be, withdrawing from a teaching contract a week before the start of the fall semester was high on the list. It was a hard realization to come to. It was a hard thing to ask. And it was a hard answer to hear.

"Well, I can't let you go until I have someone to replace you," he said. "And I have to be honest, I do not foresee that happening soon." He shook his head. "I've been doing this for forty-eight years and I've never had this happen. Not at this juncture."

Another lie. He couldn't know I knew, but gossip spreads fast in the village and I'm quick to make friends: another new teacher abandoned his post here a week ago, just days after arriving. The district had made promises it had not kept, in his case pertaining to housing, and he felt he'd been misled. Imagine that.


So now I'm in what by any reckoning is a difficult situation, tied for the immediate term to a place and a team after declaring my intent to break off, forced to grapple with a role in which I lack essential resources and supports. I hope, dearly, that I am able to leave Point Goldlace as quickly as possible, but until then I'm holding down the fort with no idea how soon relief will come. If I'm not able to head out at the commencement of this semester then I will attempt terminate my employment at Christmas, but who knows what jobs will be available in the middle of the year? Who knows if this employer will release me in any case?

I've not had this much uncertainty in my professional life since the moment in February 2017 when I realized I would be coming to this state. It is my dearest wish that the ambiguity be short lived.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Uncertain


The summer of 30 has felt very adolescent in some ways. Often in the year and a half since I moved to Alaska and achieved independence, I've experienced a sensation of discovering certain things about myself for the first time. I enjoy living alone, for instance, something I never would have anticipated before. I have a sense of derring-do, of adventure, of persistent personal and professional restlessness, that likewise has proven surprising. In piloting the ship of my own life, I've found an unexpected person at the helm.

If that feeling is true in Alaska, it's doubly so out of it, when I have the time and the money and the freedom to go wherever my inclinations direct me. The removal of prior limitations has been a revelation. It's also stripped away the reasons I had for foregoing so many experiences: travel, vacation, leisure, dating. There's nothing in the way now, and so I've started taking scary steps that, in another life, I would have first taken long ago.


Gavril happened basically by accident. I was online late one cold Alaska night, trolling through OKCupid matches, and there he was. And then I sent him a message, and he sent me one back, and there he was. This sweet, kind, considerate, funny person who'd somehow entered my life. Gavril thrilled me from a distance, because he seemed like he could be all the things I'd been hoping for so long. A confidant. A lover. A friend. Gavril scared me in person, because the beautiful hypotheticals his online profile embodied suddenly became real, suddenly actual qualities of an actual person standing in front of me and offering himself.

It was, by necessity, months of online talking before we finally met face to face. When that day finally came, on a cool summer evening a few hundred miles north of the City of Fate, the worries we'd both had about compatibility drifted away. We talked, easily, and for hours. Our interests and temperaments coincided to an almost bizarre degree. His personality was sweet and playful. I'd never met anyone who made me feel so at ease.


The first time he tried to kiss me I cried and pulled away, welling fear and panic seizing me in a way I didn't understand.

"It's okay," he said. "We don't have to."

And then we did, anyway, when I made myself even though I didn't want to.

We talked and we talked, for days we talked, until one morning we were on my bed and I pushed down my fear enough to just let in some pleasure. Afterward I cried again, this time out of happiness, because I'd never thought I could let anyone in that close.

"Thank you," I whispered, and then I kissed him because I wanted to.

But when it was all done and we went our separate ways, vowing to see each other again before summer's end, I was apathetic.

"What do you feel?" a friend asked me. I was sitting in her living room outside of Snowstorm City, days later, and didn't know how to make sense of any of it.

"Nothing," I said. "I feel nothing."



Which is not true, by the way. But in these curious moments I don't know what my emotions are, don't know how to let anything through. And in those moments, there is nothing.

"People talk about those fireworks," I told her. "I don't know if I don't feel that for him or if I just can't feel that at all. For anybody."

"Usually if you feel numb, it's your defense mechanisms kicking in," she said. "Normally you feel something for someone else, good or bad. But if it's nothing, that might mean there's an issue you need to do some work on figuring out."

Right now, Gavril and I know that we enjoy each other's company. Right now, we know we can talk to one another about pretty much anything. Right now, we're letting that be enough.

"It's like home base in baseball," I told him today. After I explained, he agreed.

It doesn't feel right to tie him to someone who's 4,000 miles away, to someone who still has so much to decipher about himself. The idea of Gavril foregoing companionship, fun, physical pleasure, to honor something incomplete and distant, a half-partner over a computer screen, strikes me as deeply wrong. But I still feel connected to him and want him to be a part of my life. He still feels for me and wants me to be a part of his. So he and I aren't boyfriends. I don't expect him to touch or talk to no one else. He doesn't expect that of me. But we're each other's home base. We're the point we both come back to.

Over time, we'll figure out what that means.


Of late, too, I've been confronting what I want in the long term generally. I've known for a while that rural Alaska can't be my life. I've also known for a while that I've never really seen myself remaining a high school teacher for the rest of my career. I mean, thirty years, all as one thing? No changing? No challenges, save those within a single profession? It brings me back to that question that's been ever present this last year and a half: What's the next step? What's the next step?

Only this week a prospective next step has made a big impression, occupying so much mental space that I realize it's been in my heart for a long while. But too many things are still up in the air, so that's something to share another time.

There's a glorious chaos to life sometimes. To my life, at least. I'm discovering a freedom of choices, a freedom of movement, that's frightening but intoxicating as well. I can go anywhere. I can do so much.



When I was in eighth grade I said something whose import I didn't realize until many years later.

"Sometimes I wish I could live a really long time," I told my science teacher, me all of fourteen. We'd been discussing advances in knowledge, and it made me wistful. "There's just so much to see and do. I hate to think of missing it."

Maybe that's me now. Trying to live multiple lives in one. Trying not to miss it.