Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Those of you who are longtime readers will know that the concept of home has always been amorphous for me; I spent my childhood and adolescence moving from town to town, eventually up and down the Eastern seaboard, attending high school in three states and living, during one twelve-year period, in ten different homes. I'm not yet thirty, but have resided in six states (seven, if extended visits are counted). What does home even mean to me?
Never in my life has that question been as pertinent as it is in this moment. My pursuit of home is, in a way, why I haven't written here since the beginning of May. After school let out a month and a half ago, I rushed back to the East Coast and spent the time feverishly drinking in friends and family, conveniences and simple pleasures. I've chosen this summer to dwell in Southern State, the place where I finished my last year and a half of high school, where I went to college, and where, it turns out (by a bizarre coincidence) my ancestors resided for something on the order of 300 years. Is Southern State my homeland? Insofar as I have a homeland at all, the answer is...pretty much. Formative experiences and deep ancestral roots tie me here, but after all these years the truth remains that I'm not really from anywhere, whatever I tell people for convenience's sake.
Some part of me, I think, has always been searching for a place that felt right, for that thing the great majority take for granted but that has been elusive for me. I have, at least, a hometown: there were too many angst-filled adolescent nights in Mountain Town for it to be anything but that, and more than anywhere in the world, there I feel familiarity like an old glove slipping on. In terms of a home state, though, a native culture? That's bit of a different ballgame.
Perhaps that's part of why I feel so conflicted regarding my immediate future in a certain faraway icebox dotted with a few small cities and the occasional grizzly bear. I have found there a career path that is rewarding and very lucrative. What about a life, though? Staying in Arctic State is, from a financial perspective, the single best decision I could make, but I worry as to my ability to construct something resembling a fulfilling personal milieu with friends, stimulation, a partner, a space of my own. And the thing is, as I ready in less than a month's time to fly back north, I don't know and accept that I don't know the answer.
The thought of not returning to the South's sun-soaked green valleys and florid summer skies next May tears at my heart, as does the thought of foregoing visits with treasured friends whose companionship has brought me great joy over the years. By the same token, the prospect of leading an existence permanently divided, with work and relationships on either side of a 4,000-mile-long wall, brings me no peace, either. To spend nine months in a personal wasteland, and then attempt to cram a year of fulfillment into the remaining three, is no way to live. That's a half-life, less than a half-life.
So if I'm to stay in Arctic State, with all the opportunities it offers, I must make a home there. I must have camaraderie there. I must have love there. And what does that mean? For one thing, living next summer in Iceport or some nearby locale would be virtually unavoidable; it's hard to meet friends somewhere if you peace out the moment you're out of work and spend all your off time on the other side of the continent.
It may be, after a full school year in, I just decide to come home. Back to Southern State, back to what's familiar and normal and natural. But if I choose to live in Arctic State, I have to live there. I'll let you know how that goes. Even that outcome carries different potentialities: staying in the bush, where the money is great and the weather horrifying, then living in one of the cities each summer; or eventually moving onto the road network to teach in an urban ("urban" being a relative term) community that has all the amenities of home with the added excitement of potential frostbite in April.
But I don't have to make that choice right now, so I'm not going to. I will have plenty of time for self-reflection, for assessment, for prayer. As in all things, I'm convinced God will steer me right. In the meantime, I've enjoyed the long-missed company of friends and family. Thomas and Jewess, his girlfriend of nearly five years, came to my Southern State residence on one of my first weekends here in early June, accompanied by Beautiful Cousin and her military beau. I rented a three-bedroom apartment to myself for the summer, which has made hosting visitors a point of particular ease.
"Oh," said Poetess, surveying the guest rooms I'd gleefully furnished and the serene country view off my third-floor balcony. "This is lovely."
"Beautiful," Viking Guy confirmed.
We stayed up until 4:30 in the morning, drinking on the balcony as we shared childhood stories and wildly inappropriate jokes. It was great fun and something I really needed.
Other guests include my 14-year-old sister, Pie, who stayed several weekends ago; and Cool Cousin, the globe-trotting doctor who will arrive here on Friday. Nor have I been shy about venturing beyond the confines of my spacious quarters--you'd be surprised how much you miss driving, and I've been perfectly happy to hop in the car and cruise an hour or two north for a social reunion, to say nothing of the numerous jaunts around this city I've taken with a new local acquaintance.
I am anxious about what it will mean to return to Arctic State, and anxious about my future there. There's no point denying that. But in the last year, I've done and accomplished things I would once have thought unimaginable. I obtained a master's degree, worked a brief stint at a PR firm I was smart enough to leave, took a huge chance with a job on the teetering edge of civilization and lived to tell the tale. I achieved financial independence, struck out on my own, assessed myself honestly and learned to be my own advocate. I've taken on a lot and handled it relatively well.
Yes, I'm anxious. But there's no doubt in my mind that, eventually, I'll figure this out.
Monday, May 1, 2017
I was weirdly sanguine about moving to Arctic State, even after the big transition that took me from the suburbs to the tundra in the space of a couple of days.
This isn't such a big deal, I thought, parka clad and a whole week into my time in White Venice. The weather isn't terrible if you dress for it. And it's isolated, but there's Internet and everything you need. There are people to talk to. I don't get why this drives people crazy.
About three weeks later, I understood why it drove them crazy. The same faces and the same routine, day after day and week after week. The tortured planning required to obtain basic necessities. The sheer distance from family, from friends, from anyone. The time and the space to get lost in your own head. And I'd fallen into a funk.
So when my father proposed, as he is wont to do, gallivanting across the North American continent on a lark, I was quick to embrace what I otherwise would have (rightly) regarded as an irresponsible expenditure.
"Your birthday is soon, anyway," he reasoned. "Robin and I can come up to Iceport and see you. We'll pay for your flight and hotel. Do you want to do this?"
Yes. Yes, I did.
And so on Friday, April 14, four days after I turned 29, I savored the sweetest sight I'd ever seen, muttered a few prayers, and hopped aboard the rickety Cessna tasked with spiriting me across the tundra. And I was Iceport bound.
The weekend was what I needed on so many levels. First of all, it got me out of the snow-flecked bubble in which I'd gradually been going insane, something my father picked up on in our conversations leading up to the meeting.
"I don't think you're excited to see me," he quipped. "I think you're excited to see a 7/11."
And there was definitely some truth in that. The hotel room he'd paid for was gorgeous, a silk-and-satin affair perched twenty stories over downtown Iceport, with a sunlit window through which I could scan the entire city while reclining on a fluffy queen bed. I went and got my hair done. I wandered into coffee shops. I spent a gratuitous amount of money on sushi. And I, a social butterfly, soaked up every single moment of the human interaction. And of the running water.
But it was also nice to see my father. Earlier readers of this site will know that he and I have had a complicated and painful relationship, some of the most difficult chapters of which were recorded on this page. For a long time, and with good reason, I chose not to speak to him. Moving 4,000 miles from home has a way of focusing your priorities, however, and one dark weekend on the tundra I had to ask myself: Is being right worth not having a father? Is it worth carrying this weariness? Is it worth getting a call one day, a decade or two from now, that the man who raised me had died?
In light of his remorse, and of his changed behavior, I decided that the answer to that question was no. That doesn't mean things he did in the past are all right, or that a repeat of them would be acceptable. It means I've chosen to forgive someone who asked for forgiveness, and to accept a flawed man without illusions as to his nature. Which nature, incidentally, he chose to reveal again during my birthday getaway.
"Listen, we got married Wednesday, just so you're not blindsided."
That news came after he and his new wife had already landed and were driving to the hotel where I'd just checked in. And it came by text message.
Dad and Robin met in January, decided soon after they were soulmates, and then embarked on a wildly accelerated relationship because "you know when you know." I've heard of such spontaneous marriages working out before, and I hope against hope this one does, too. Because now the thing is done.
"I didn't tell you because I knew you'd say I should pull back and take it slow," he informed me serenely over a dinner of seafood and Cabernet Sauvignon. He looked over at Robin, whom, I reflected with some degree of hilarity, was now technically my stepmother. "BB is like that."
I took one giant gulp of red wine.
"Well, Dad, that is what I would have told you," I said. "But now that it's happened, I'm rooting for you 100%. Because now you guys are tied in all sorts of legal ways."
Robin smiled warmly.
"Well, that means a lot to us," she said. "Your dad makes me really happy."
And he has, as usual, managed to bag a woman who's way, way above his pay grade. I love the man, but I seriously don't get it. His previous wife, my adoptive mother, was a career woman who singlehandedly sustained a family of four children while he was wandering from one short-term job to another, and struggling with addiction half the time to boot (though she compensated for that by being, well, a little bit psychotic). His girlfriend before Robin was a businesswoman with a pricey education and a pricier CV. And now he's married an airline executive with a master's degree, two accomplished adult children (one of whom she put through college at considerable personal sacrifice), a job so demanding that my eyes practically watered just hearing her typical workday, and a disposition that, by most accounts, makes her genuinely sweet and considerate. This is a driven and prolific individual.
"Yeah," Thomas cracked. "I don't know what the hell she's doing with Dad."
Time will tell. For his sake, for hers, and for that of everyone involved, I hope they're able to make it work. Sometimes a person really is good for another, and she seems like she might be good for him.
Meanwhile, the rapidly closing school year has left me with a big decision to make about where I'll be starting in the fall. Today, after careful consideration, I accepted a contract from a school district adjacent to the one I'm in now. It was a bit of a dilemma, but the little village of Gory felt like a good fit, and it's a decision I'm satisfied with.
Other decisions need making, too, as we have a little under two weeks of school left--astonishing--and I need to know where I'm living when I return to the Lower 48 on or around May 19. To that end, I've dispatched Thomas to investigate an apartment that so perfectly fits my needs I suspect it may in fact be a crack den in disguise. That possibility discounted, I'll be living alone in a spacious two-bedroom place with laundry, kitchen, furniture, and scenic view for a cool $1,000 a month.
Not a bad deal.
Sometimes I look around and don't know how the hell I got here. But it's impossible not to feel I'm at the beginning of something really good.
Friday, April 7, 2017
Every year I say it, but every year it's true; I can't believe how quickly the time has gone since I began writing here on April 7, 2008. I was nineteen years old then, and a college sophomore. My brother Thomas was only twelve, my sister Pie only four. Eighteen-year-old Powell was still a senior in high school, and my parents were still married, still living in the same Mountain Town house to which they'd moved two years earlier. George W. Bush was president. Everyone was getting excited about this hot new underground artist named Lady Gaga. The economy was slowing down, but the bottom had not yet dropped out. And I was a child.
Now Thomas is twenty-one and contemplating a return to college himself, thirteen-year-old Pie begins high school in the fall, twenty-seven-year-old Powell is still struggling under the burdens that have weighed him down for many years now, and my divorced parents have both found new relationships, while I am 4,000 miles away from all of them.
So many changes.
In looking back, one of the most bizarre things to me about this entire blogging enterprise is how serendipitous it was. A routine Google search on an unrelated topic brought me to Writing as Jo(e), a remarkable storyteller whose warmth and compassion were exactly what I needed during a deeply hurtful period of my life. She encouraged me to commit my thoughts to digital paper. And I did.
For the last nine years, this blog has been witness to the most consequential chapters of my life, to the joys and growing pains of a young person transitioning from boy to man in the context of substantial obstacles--but also of amazing victories. I began this blog carrying so many demons, and nine years on I can look back at a long list of personal and professional accomplishments that have been enriched by the self-reflection and community this place offered. Who ever would have thought I'd get a master's degree, or move to the Far North, or teach history in a village of 400 people and get paid a damn good salary to do it? Who would've thought I'd be an openly gay man who accepts himself and arranges dates in Iceport? And a group of wonderful bloggers have been with me every step of the way. I've always been so thankful for that Google search.
Nearly a decade on, I have no doubt there are many more twists coming in the plot. But for now, a year in review:
April 2016: I turn 28 years old.
May 2016: I complete a difficult student-teaching assignment and begin a well-deserved month off of school.
June 2016: A two-week sojourn at a Northern State monastery teaches painful but needed lessons.
July 2016: I begin a summer course, the last class of my graduate career.
August 2016: I finish my master's degree in education, move in with my grandmother, and start work at Native State Public Relations.
September 2016: I weigh whether to enter teaching or continue in the public relations field.
October 2016: I decide that I will apply for teaching positions for the spring 2017 semester.
November 2016: I begin applying for jobs, and also commence research on teaching in Arctic State. The 2016 presidential election results give added impetus to my job search.
December 2016: My time at Native State Public Relations ends.
January 2017: Most of this month is occupied with job searches--and with some much-needed rest after four hectic months.
February 2017: Following an unexpected opening, I interview for and secure a teaching position in Arctic State.
March 2017: I fly north.
For the first time since you've known me, I am doing that thing I've been talking about since we met: standing on my own two feet. Paying my own bills. Earning a steady paycheck, and in a field that gives me fulfillment. I still have problems, sure. But who doesn't? And being in a stable financial place means that the handling of those problems can proceed way more smoothly than happened when I was twenty and my whole future hung in the balance.
I've done a lot of heavy lifting these last nine years. Now, professionally at least, I can do some settling in. Knowing that feels so incredibly good.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
Where is it? I mused. Where, where, where?
This was a month ago, and I was meandering around Iceport International Airport shortly after my arrival in Arctic State. The object of my pursuit was the Starbucks I knew to be hiding somewhere in the facility and which, as my departure time to Riverville crept ever closer, I knew I needed to find pronto. This would be my last iced caramel macchiato until the middle of May.
I spun around in an exasperated circle, luggage in tow, when a familiar voice sounded from the row of chairs behind me.
"You're not lost. You're right where you need to be."
I turned my head to a pretty blonde wearing a cashmere sweater.
"Well, fuck me," I said. "Fuck me running."
The woman cocked an eyebrow from behind the oversized newspaper she'd splayed in front of her like a secret agent in a mid-century spy movie.
"You didn't used to curse so much," she observed.
"And you didn't used to read the Times."
That brought a smile and the lowering of the parchment wall.
"You know, there was this time," she explained. "In about 2009, when I convinced myself I didn't need to keep such close tabs on Evil anymore. Not my most insightful moment."
"And you find him there?" I gestured with skepticism at the Old English font.
She jiggled a front-page story on the dismantling of the Paris climate-change agreement and smiled her weary smile. "Every day."
I plopped happily into the seat beside her, my caffeine craving momentarily forgotten.
"It's been a while," I noted.
Good squeezed my knee with her free hand.
She looked tired as always. The kind smile that came so easily to her face seemed to struggle against the weight of all she knew, all the same mistakes she saw repeated over and over again. Some of those, I realized with a start, were mine. I'd been short sighted, self-absorbed, reckless. But also a child. I didn't blame myself for those years, and knew she didn't, either.
"I missed you," I said.
"And I missed you," she replied. "It was hard to just watch. But you were in so much pain then that your heart didn't have much room for me. You couldn't see the good in the world." She had this marvelous way of expressing emotions with just her hazel eyes, which gleamed for a moment and then resumed their usual warmth. "So you couldn't see me."
"I guess that's why I saw so much of Fate back then," I mused.
She nodded thoughtfully.
"You saw doom," she offered. "Which is one aspect of him, and explains why your last meeting was so...eventful."
True. On that occasion, I'd punched a primordial being twice in the face and compared him to a piece of fecal matter.
"I hope you'll tell him I'm sorry about that," I said. "I wasn't...you know. I wasn't myself."
"I think he knows that," she replied. "He's not one to hold grudges. You see enough and you get some perspective on that."
"How is he, by the way?"
She smiled, but didn't lie.
"Okay," she said. "In his city. There's always plenty of fate for him to attend to there."
"I hope I don't see him again for a long time," I noted. "Nothing personal. Just..."
Her eyes crinkled with the pleasure of a teacher whose student has just realized something important.
"It doesn't do to see too much of him," she told me. "Some people are tied tightly to him, others barely bound to him at all. But no one should dwell on him more than they have to. His work isn't conducive to living a day-to-day life."
"And where do I fall on that spectrum?" I asked. "Bound tight or not at all?"
She appraised me evenly. "Somewhere in between."
I sighed. "I'll take it."
"And you're not seeing him a lot," she observed. "Good sign."
"But I am seeing you," I countered. "So what does that mean? Happy ending? All sunshine and rainbows from here?"
She threw back her head and actually laughed, a sound like wind chimes blowing in a summer breeze. It occurred to me, with a shock of surprise, that I'd never heard her do that before.
"You know it doesn't work that way," she said, but her tone was all mirth.
"I do," I agreed. "Worth a shot, though."
She laughed again and I wondered absurdly if immortal forces of elemental power had friends. She seemed like she'd be great fun at a cookout.
"So why are you here, then?"
"Because you realize it doesn't work that way," she responded, folding her newspaper and dropping it to the floor. "Because you're here. Because you've chosen to engage in the world and accept what it brings to you, even if that's difficult. Because you've realized that finding something worthwhile requires sacrifice and risk. Because you've decided to get a little messy. All Good comes from that."
She had a way of laying it out there. And she was always right.
"When I was younger I made so many decisions based on fear," I admitted. "For years. And then at some point I realized I was twenty-eight, and if I didn't change it then one day I'd have just that fear. And nothing else. Because it all keeps moving forward, whether you're on track or not."
She lifted her chin like she'd just figured something out, too.
"You're feeling a little bit of Time," she said. "Pressing on your shoulder. Most people are immune to her in youth. But you've passed from that, haven't you?"
"Gettin' old," I pronounced, my hand running down the teacher-appropriate sweater I'd donned for the trip.
She guffawed. "'Old' is a relative term."
"Which I guess you'd know if you hang out with Time. Another friend?"
"Well," she pursed her lips. "More like a colleague. You probably don't want to meet her."
My eyebrows shot up quizzically.
"She's...disconcerting. Even for us. I tend to interact with her only when I have to. Like the last time you and I saw each other."
That occasion, more than five years ago, was on my very last day as an undergraduate. It also, as it happened, involved a brief episode of time travel.
"I always wondered how you managed that," I said. "The bit where I popped back into 2006 for an afternoon."
She picked up a tray of cinnamon buns that had appeared literally out of nowhere and offered me one.
"Yeah. I called in a favor."
"A favor? No disrespect, but what could you have done to make a 14-billion-year-old chick owe you one?"
She pointedly sucked some cream from her index finger.
"First of all, she's older than that. And second of all, I made her chicken-noodle soup."
"I'm sorry, what?"
She looked just a little affronted.
"Well, my chicken-noodle soup is amazing. Which makes sense, since I did invent chicken-noodle soup. Just saying. But beyond that, it keeps really well, and she's always going on about how 'nothing lasts, nothing lasts.' So reliable heat-ups are a big hit with her."
I stared and didn't care that I was being rude.
"I am not. I once made her a macaroni-and-cheese casserole that got her through the Middle Ages."
"But macaroni and cheese wasn't invented until--"
"Don't dive too deep on this one."
For a while we just surveyed the bustling airport, and, from the observation window, the sunlit snowy city beyond.
"I'm really here." I said finally.
"You're really here. On the journey."
"You know, the toilet I'm going to have lights your poop on fire instead of flushing it."
"Well. That's part of the journey."
Before long, it was time for me to head to the gate through which I'd depart for Riverville and White Venice.
"You're doing the right things," she said as we stood and hugged one another. "Keep doing them. Even when it's hard. Even when it's scary. Especially then."
"I'll do my best."
I'd walked a good distance away when she called after me.
I turned around.
With a grin, she lifted a venti iced coffee she hadn't had a few moments earlier.
"The Starbucks is just around the corner."
Sunday, March 26, 2017
It's easy to forget, in the bustle of the village and the occasional chaos of the classroom, just how isolated we are here in White Venice. Sure, there are only 400 people. But 400 people, clustered together, seen through the lens of work and social visits, can feel bigger than it is. Add in the endless stream of duties, coupled with a good WiFi connection, and the vastness of our removal doesn't feel as immediate. But there's one place I can never forget it.
The laundry building behind the school is separate from everything else, a peaceful bubble of whirring washing machines and humming dryers to which I gladly retreat once a week with a book and a few bulging bags of clothes. From the balcony that abuts it, facing away from the village, the tundra extends in enormous nothingness to beyond the horizon. No houses. No snowmachines, No yapping dogs. No pretense. Just hundreds of miles of frozen white plain. Standing on that walkway is a like careening on the end of the world, abyss ahead and civilization behind. That's when you feel the weight of living here. That's when you get a sense of what it is.
I learned a long time ago not to sugarcoat reality, because sooner or later a reckoning with the truth must occur, and delaying that reckoning has a way of making truth bigger and scarier than it was to start out. So here it is: three weeks in, I'm lonely. Everyone I know is 4,000 miles away, I'm seeing the same faces and doing the same things day in and day out, and the yearning for friends and conveniences to which I was accustomed pulses like a tiny ulcer. I knew that would likely happen, and I made the decision to come here fully aware of it. But still.
I'm the kind of lonely that makes you remember things as better than they were, that makes other loneliness stand out in sharper resolve. In missing what I did have, I find myself longing for what I've never had; how, I've wondered, am I to meet a man? That was something I could never do back home anyway, but now the absence of this hypothetical person is even more acute.
"You know, God led you up there," said Livia, my priest, when we spoke by phone earlier this afternoon. "I've always believed that, from the first time you told me about it."
And I have, too. So much, in prayer, in Bible reading, in life, seemed to all be pointing in the same direction, and then this opportunity opened up in so unplanned a way. It was hard not to see the hand of Providence in that, hard even for a priest of the Episcopal tradition, whose members tend to regard the color beige as a little too loud and to judge the veracity of holy visions based on whether those visions interrupt brunch.
"You just have to have faith," she told me. "You just have to be patient. That doesn't mean you sit around and do nothing, or wait for Prince Charming to waltz into your life. But it means you do what you can do, and believe that God will let that moment happen when it's supposed to. Patience can be hard. But I have no doubt that is going to happen for you."
"Unless that's not His plan," I laughed, an abrupt sound. "Unless His plan is for this to stay a party of one,"
"No," she said, her voice firm. "The Bible says God gives us our heart's desire. I don't believe you'd have these feelings unless you were supposed to. Unless you were supposed to meet someone. You just have to believe. You will be okay."
And in any case there's no alternative. I do believe I was meant to come here, do believe that it is far and away the best professional option I have. So in the difficult moments, I endure, always with an eye to where the moments of joy can be gleaned from that endurance; always with a mind to what the long-term plan is, even as I live in the present. God brought me here, and I have to trust He'll lead me where He intends me to be.
So that's where I am. Planning and praying, trusting and withstanding, making room in my head for little pleasures and optimism about the future amid the tedium of daily lesson plans and strolls about this very tiny town. At this juncture, it seems likely I will begin the 2017 - 2018 school year in another district, one here in Arctic State but not in White Venice. And of the six weekends remaining in this semester I will spend two away, one in Riverville and one in Iceport. Decisions to be made. Excursions to be savored. Plans to be laid.
Now also seems like a good time to mention that the names I use on this blog are not the actual designations of people and places in the real world. Back in 2008, when I started this site, I borrowed the tradition from another blogger of using pseudonyms to protect mine and others' anonymity. Nine years after the fact, the practice has stuck, so I leave it to you to divine the real places behind the made-up monikers. Arctic State and Iceport will probably be easy enough to decipher, but if you manage to ferret out where White Venice is then you deserve some kind of award.
I very much appreciate the number of you who read and commented on the last post. I'd been away from regular blogging for quite a while, and the warm welcome back was heartening indeed. I'm looking forward to following your journeys as you follow mine.
It seems we're going such interesting places.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Up until the moment I got on the plane, it didn't feel real. I'd spent weeks packing, weeks saying goodbyes and transferring accounts and preparing for the journey, weeks telling people I was moving and then watching their mouths drop when they learned where. But somehow it was still an abstraction even that morning.
And then I was airborne. And then I was here. Three weeks on, the fact of here is still vaguely surprising, but what's more surprising is how quickly "here" has become the same as any other place; just a place. Only this afternoon I caught myself remarking on "what a nice day" it was because the sun was out and the temperature had gotten all the way up to 13 degrees. Wherever you are you fall into a crowd and into a routine. And then very quickly abnormal becomes normal.
That was not, of course, the way I saw things when in the early-morning hours of March 2 I arrived in Iceport, a surreal city perched on a frozen harbor and surrounded for hundreds of miles by wilderness. The nighttime flight out of Coffee City, on the West Coast, was four hours over unbroken darkness. In that black ocean, Iceport glowed like a constellation set in deep space.
My two days in this metropolis, which is far and away Arctic State's largest, were spent gathering critical winter-gear items and enjoying my last taste of urban amenities before I departed for a place with no such things. No Starbucks. No Dunkin Donuts. No fast food or streaming Netflix. No roads.
This transition, though dramatic, was done in gradations: from Iceport to Riverville, a regional center of about 6,000 people; then from Riverville to White Venice, the little village of 400 souls where for the past two weeks I have been working and acclimating.
All of the food is frozen. All of the supplies are ordered in bulk. Creative solutions to culinary problems abound, and one's capacity to be delighted by small things greatly expands; within about a week, I had come to appreciate the palette-pleasing nuance of powdered milk and freeze-dried strawberries.
All of this is to say nothing, of course, of the cultural differences I have encountered in this Native community where English is a second tongue, hunting remains the primary means of livelihood, and the only white people are those working for the school system. Differing perspectives on life skills have presented a challenge, as have the lingering effects of what amounts to a colonial presence; issues with poverty and alcohol abuse pack a big punch here, as they do in Native American communities across the United States. A very high number of these children come to school with worldviews shaped by addiction and violence, by the existential crisis of trying to honor an old culture for the sake of tradition while needing to embrace a new one for the sake of survival. That's hard.
All of it has been made a lot less hard, however, by the other teachers, who in an isolated environment have pulled together to create an exceptionally warm community.
I met Auburn-Haired Girl, a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher, when both of us were stuck two nights in Riverville because poor weather delayed our flight into White Venice. We took advantage of the occasion to get drunk together in a surprisingly well apportioned hotel room, then just continued spending time with one another after we made it to White Venice on March 5. I've passed several evenings in her house, petting her dogs and making halfhearted attempts at cooking as Sunrise, a 50-year-old elementary teacher, prepares one warm meal after another in the cozy kitchen she and Auburn-Haired Girl share. Yesterday, Sunrise taught me how to make stew.
Have there been hard moments? You bet. Lugging my things to the school to shower each morning has not been fun (there's no running water in my house), and cultural differences have caused some frustration. I still wrestle with my fears, and on one difficult afternoon I called home crying. Some of that is unavoidable. Overall, though?
I'm doing pretty well. I'm figuring stuff out. And I'm finding that I'm actually equipped to do that.
I worry every single day about my future. Whether I'm being effective at reaching these kids. Whether I can satisfy the needs of my school district. Whether I'll ever meet a man while I'm living in a village on the edge of the Arctic. How I overcome my insecurities if I'm lucky enough to find him. And what does a date look like when the nearest restaurant is reachable only by airplane? I still don't know.
But the view from my kitchen window is stunning.
An open white vista across a mile-long river that's frozen solid, over the frosty face of the tundra and on to the low mountains forty miles away. In the afternoons after I've finished up at work, I cradle a coffee and sit by that window, letting the pale winter sun bathe my face in heat through the pane.
Just then, it feels like everything is going to be okay.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
My thirteen-year-old sister and I trudged over the undergrowth and into the huge cornfield that lay behind our mother's house.
"Come on," Pie said, pushing down a piece of rusted fence wiring with a rubber-soled sneaker. "You just lift your leg over and then you step in."
It had been a few years since the last time she'd talked me into trespassing on the neighboring farmer's property, and then as now I was impressed with the sheer scope of the plot. It extended acres across, endless rows of fallow corn stalks marching atop hills and breaking for the occasional clump of rocks or trees. When we arrived at one of these outposts, Pie turned back towards the house and wistfully surveyed her domain.
"I'm going to miss it here," she said. She's shot up in the past year and a half or so and is now tall, taller than even her mother, but the unrefined softness of her face gives her away for the child she still is. I mimed punching her in the cheek.
"Whenever you're starting something new and leaving something else, there's always some sadness involved," I said. "But think of everything you're coming to."
Pie will be fourteen this summer, and begins 9th grade in the fall.
"You're about to start high school. You're going to have a new house where you'll make new memories. You'll meet people who will become a huge part of your life, friends who will be like sisters. One day you won't be able to imagine not having them with you. And you don't even know they exist yet."
The wind tore with cold fingers.
"It's tough to leave somewhere you've been happy. But you're moving forward. Moving forward is always good."
The last few weeks have been a curious mix of giddiness and nostalgia, with the former having a decided advantage over the latter. My father's family were all naturally thrilled to learn I was moving to a sinking ice fortress 4,000 miles away, and at once convened an impromptu party that matched Pizza Hut with Pinot Noir and involved Aunt Crazy regaling the assembled crowd with the story of how she'd once convinced my very young father to kick a neighborhood boy in the groin. Dad was about five years old at the time. Aunt Crazy was a grown woman in her 20s.
"He did it, too!" she laughed. "Oh, that was funny. And that boy deserved it."
Surprisingly helpful gifts, obtained by chance, were also a feature of this event.
"Oh, Sweet Aunt," I said as I unwrapped the ice-cleats that I still can't believe will be a part of my wardrobe (they are, for the record, intended to stop one from slipping on frozen walkways during blizzards). "This is so thoughtful."
"No," she shook her head ruefully. "No, it's not. Your Uncle Mustache got that as a gift during a Christmas party last year."
"But why would someone...?"
"We didn't really understand it, either. And then after we talked to you a few weeks ago we knew they had the perfect home."
"Well, I appreciate it. You're really helping me out."
"We got your cake for free, too."
Festive one-on-one get-togethers with friends, from old standbys like Peruvian Girl to new acquaintances like Iowa Girl (a former co-worker at Native State Public Relations) have also abounded during the last fortnight.
"We should exchange letters!" Black Dress Girl said, her eyes glinting over a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. "It's not like you'll have Internet. Or electricity. Or plumbing."
All patently untrue.
And then there's been the other side of it. The side that is--and should be--the junior component of this whole thing, but that is there nonetheless: the acknowledgement that, as something is beginning, so other things have definitely ended.
My stepmother Marie happens to be preparing for a move herself, something that made today's stop at Mountain University to obtain a copy of my official transcripts all the more poignant. A long stretch of freakishly warm weather here on the East Coast broke today, such that my stroll through this college town occurred under grey skies and chill breezes. It reminded me of the fall of 2014, when I first started there.
"You know, graduate school was such a weird time in my life," I remarked to Viking Guy, a 24-year-old undergraduate and one of the many kind, interesting people I met during my two years here.
He looked around at the display of yellow-brick buildings and quaint shops.
"I'll bet," he said. "To go from the Goldlands to here must have been jarring. And it's a weird town, anyway."
"It felt like stepping back in time. Especially because I'd done stuff between my bachelor's and master's degrees. I'd been living in the real world and all of a sudden I was a college student again. I enjoyed that."
For all the pain that occurred in this house (and there was plenty), I will always be thankful for what my time here gave me. I arrived destitute and broken. I left with a career path, with a piece of paper I thought I'd never earn and that I cried when I held today. That piece of paper opened so many doors. And that house was where I got it.
Thomas and I wandered from room to room, surveying bare walls and plastic boxes, remarking on parties and victories, on many late nights and new steps.
"Remember our first night here, we had the whole house to ourselves and we slept on the futon in Pie's room?" he asked.
"I do," I replied. "And the sky was so beautiful the next morning. Like a painting."
I had three birthdays there. I obtained a master's degree. Thomas became a young man, Pie a teenager. And our family ended.
"You know, Powell came here the other day," Thomas said, referencing the wayward 27-year-old brother who has struggled now for many years. "I think he was kind of upset, looking around. This is the last place we all lived together. Mom and Dad divorced. He moved out. You moved out. Now I'm moving out, not going with Mom to her new place."
He seemed morose.
"We had some fun here. But we've done this so many times that now in my mind this is just one more place I'll never come back to."
Thomas faces an uncertain path. He's 21 and not yet settled into a career, 21 and leaving a mother from whom he feels increasingly distant. And he's worried.
"There was always something about this house," I told him. "Even before we moved in."
"Yeah," he said. "Even looking at the pictures, we were all kind of drawn to it."
"I think it was a way-station," I responded. "We all rested here for a bit. We all got something we needed. And then we left with something we didn't have before. Even you."
He shot me a skeptical look and I took his shoulders in my hands.
"Because you're going to have to figure this out, so you'll figure it out. You're taking a new job because of this, and that job will lead you to other opportunities. This is going to give you your independence. This will lead you to your career. I really believe that five years from now, you're going to look back on this as such a blessing. Even though it's hard and scary now. And I get that it is."
My brother isn't one for emotional displays. But every now and again he does something that reminds me how he still straddles the line between boy and man, though manhood comes ever closer like a rising tide. The boy in him needs help right now. I'm glad my divorced father and stepmother seem willing to give it, in their way.
My own situation, however, is happy--even joyous in moments--and that is where my attention should be. That is what I decide to focus on. I learned the hard way that it doesn't do to dwell in the past. Forward, always forward, is the only way one can move, and it so happens that my forward is brimming with opportunity. I have chosen to assess that opportunity with a realistic view as to the challenges that accompany it, to be cognizant, as it were, that I am moving to a Native American village on the edge of the frozen ocean. I chose those challenges, though. Chose that opportunity. And I'm happy to take them on, good and bad, day by day.
"I'll give you one thing, BB," my brother remarked, leading me out to my car as I left that house for the last time. "I always said you'd be here 'till you were 30. And hot damn if by 29 you didn't move across the Earth."
There's more than a little truth in that.
Tomorrow will be occupied with checklists and packing, throwing away pieces of the past and planning for a fast-approaching future.
On Wednesday afternoon, I leave for Iceport.