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.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Sometimes I can’t account
For all that has passed behind me
For all the hope
For all the bright belief in the goodness of people
In the goodness of myself
For all the time
A winding river of loss
On whose one shore is pain
And angst and yearning
And hopeful prayers
And youth’s boiling tears
On whose other shore is silence
And the hard-won droplets of him who knows better than to weep
Or to send any more earnest entreaties
Sometimes I can’t account
For the length of my gaze
For the improbable reach of my stare
The days and doings it intimates
None of them yet come
But all of them done anyway
And each one mattering just as little
As every single one before it
All of them ending the same
Sometimes I can’t account
For what I feel
For what I don’t
For the barren bed of that river
For how little moves me
For how little matters
For how little I care
About how little I care
Sometimes I can’t account
For being the way I am
For wanting to want
But knowing I could never love anyone enough
To give them my weekends
Dogs are messy
And are so ungrateful
And can be so easily ruined
And then become tiresome
For fewer things are more annoying
Than a ruined child
Except having to feign love for one
Chains I don’t want
Obligations of empathy
To care about such endless noise
All the time
And tolerating the drone
For the few moments when I don’t want to be by myself
Sometimes I can’t account
For when the old me slipped below the waters
For if a new me will ever come up from the current
For where this river leads
Except the endless leagues before me
As clear as this page
Ten thousand inconsequential days
Until the Eternal Night
Sometimes I can’t account
For the passage of this long day
For where I find myself in it
For if it will ever have purpose again
Friday, August 4, 2017
I did not intend on blogging today, but an unplanned nine-hour layover in Pleasant State seemed as good an occasion as any to whip out the laptop and pen an update, so here it goes. In a way, this is a good thing; my hectic journey back to Arctic State was sure to preclude writing for a while, and there are, as always, things to be said.
This summer was a good one. I don't mean that it was particularly enjoyable, or that I engaged in many worthwhile pursuits, as it wasn't and I didn't. Cash strapped and undertaking certain labors during the extended holiday, I was pretty much bound to my apartment. A trip to Confederate City with my father failed to materialize. So, too, did planned ventures to Humid State and Northern State, and the two months of Russian lessons to which I'd been looking forward fizzled when I realized I couldn't feasibly afford them. But this summer, like last, brought to a head certain things I'd needed to confront, and it also concluded with the resolution of two significant ongoing health problems (or at least put me on the road to that resolution).
Some of you may remember, from the recap I wrote at the end of 2015, that beginning around the start of graduate school I experienced the onset of a traumatic mystery ailment. This unnamed problem slowly drained me of energy, left me sluggish and mentally slow and physically weak, and caused hair loss and digestive issues to boot.
I had no way of knowing, when in June 2014 I first realized I'd become slightly more forgetful, that I was embarking upon a years-long struggle whose progress would parallel the insane stress of earning a master's degree. That struggle, by the way, had nothing to do with fighting the problem itself--but everything to do with fighting the ignorance, arrogance, and occasional negligent stupidity of doctor after doctor who was convinced I just needed "more sleep." One tried to put me on anti-depressants, assuring me I could be depressed even if I didn't realize it. Another, when I pointed out I was losing hair, remarked sagely that I had "a lot of hair for a man."
It was a year and a half in before any of these eminent geniuses thought to run a basic autoimmunity test, in keeping with symptoms I would later learn were textbook indications of autoimmune disorders. The physician who finally thought to look in the most obvious place was not an impressively self-important specialist, but a humble family doctor. And she found it.
In January 2016 I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease, a hereditary condition in which one's immune system attacks and gradually destroys one's own thyroid. Because the thyroid regulates everything from metabolism to brain function, the gland's gradual decline leads to impairment in these areas, resulting eventually in the weight gain, hair loss, brain fog, and chronic fatigue from which I'd been suffering since shortly after I turned 26.
As it turns out, this illness has been making periodic cameos in my father's family for generations, and while my carrier father did not develop the condition, my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunt, and cousin all did. You will notice that all these people are women; Hashimoto's is about ten times more common in females than in males. Your boy BB got lucky.
Not, however, in his choice of endocrinologists, as diagnosis did not end my odyssey. Early-stage Hashimoto's is tricky to treat, because the medicine used for that purpose is liable to cause heart attacks if administered too heavily, and there are varying views as to when exactly it's safe to begin therapy.
Even after the disease had progressed enough to push me into partial thyroid failure--which, mind you, has just been an exorbitant amount of fun--two separate doctors told me they would wait for the gland to completely die before they did anything at all. Medical guidelines be damned.
At the close of July, however, I wound up in front of a physician whose head was not lodged firmly in her own asshole. It was a refreshing change.
"Tell me about your family history," she wanted to know. "Who else has this?"
The prompts were focused and relevant.
"Are there other autoimmune conditions in the family?"
"How has your digestion been?"
"What is your energy level like?"
"How are you doing with weight?"
I've seen half a dozen endocrinologists. She was the first one who asked these questions instead of reciting my lab numbers off a page. And then she made a decision based on her patient as opposed to a print-out.
"None of these numbers, by themselves, are worrisome," she informed me. "You have the Hashimoto's, but it's still in the early stages. We don't even need to test for that again, because once it's there it's always there. And your thyroid numbers are abnormal, but only slightly. You're still in the subclinical range. What concerns me is the combination of the Hashimoto's, the family history, the symptoms, the thyroid numbers, and your age. You're not that far outside the norm, in general. And these results would be normal if you were sixty."
Her intelligent blue eyes narrowed.
"But you're not sixty," she said. "You're a young person showing numbers that are pretty much normal, but not what we usually expect to see in a young person. So you're not in a bad position right now. But I think you're headed that way. And we want to get ahead of that if we can."
A great number of things suddenly made sense to me.
"My grandmother was thirty when she had to start medication," I offered. "I'm twenty-nine."
And a typical age of onset, just for reference, is after fifty.
"It can work that way," she replied. "In certain families there are patterns."
"Since I am young," I put forward. "And we're intervening early, is there any chance my system could kind of, you know, right itself?"
She grimaced slightly, but told me the truth.
"I don't want to say it never happens," she responded. "There are cases like that. But generally that's not how this works. Usually the trend is for things to get worse."
I respected her for that.
I also respected her for treating me as a human being, and for being proactive where others were complacent. I respected her for assessing my whole situation, in context, and for acting appropriately.
"Let's see if we can get a handle on this."
And just like that, this struggle was no longer mine alone.
A little more than a week ago, I started thyroid hormone replacement therapy, ingesting in pill form the synthetic chemical I will almost certainly have to take for the rest of my life as my body gradually loses the ability to produce this substance on its own.
This doesn't magically make everything better, of course. It can take months before the medication is effective at easing symptoms, and the progressive nature of Hashimoto's disease means that, especially in the early stages, my doses will likely be adjusted multiple times. Attention to diet and exercise is a major component, too, and I will hereafter need to be much more mindful of what I eat and how I exercise. But there's no hope of fighting this thing without medical intervention. Now I have medical intervention.
And in six months, or maybe a year, when my medication is optimized and I've made the dietary changes that have to be a part of recovery, I can be healthy again. I can spend a day out without having to go home and lay down. I can get seven or eight hours of sleep, not nine or ten, and make it through the day without folding in on myself at 2 p.m. I can hit the gym and actually see the results of my hard work. I can be, well, me again.
Last week I wound up, by total happenstance, on the campus of Major University, where I completed my bachelor's degree six years ago. The visit hadn't been planned and I realized, in short order, that I was not ready for it. The main road through the grounds took me parallel to a familiar running track and directly past student apartments where I'd formed countless happy memories, a number of which came rushing back at me unwelcome and unbidden. I could feel the sun on my arms, the wind in my hair, the smile on my face. In my present day, I could feel the tears stinging my eyes.
The last time I was there, I lived there. The last time I saw that trail I was twenty-three, trim and energetic, a lean-muscled stallion pumping across campus and trailing a shimmering golden mane behind me. I thought nothing then of running five or six miles at a stretch, then heading over to the dining hall with my teammates, all of us still clad in ridiculous neon-orange booty shorts. Because why the hell not? Because I looked good and I knew it. Because I wasn't tired. And for years now, I've been tired.
I don't ever expect to be that person again, that boy of twenty-three. That can't be.
But I do want to feel what I felt then: vital and confident and youthful and tight. As a man of twenty-nine should be able to feel. I've just taken a huge step in that direction.
A second huge step also came this summer. But that, my friends, is why this post will have a Part 2.