Tuesday, July 3, 2018
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.
Monday, June 4, 2018
As I've mentioned before, Alaska is a place that is strangely accessible. An oft-repeated maxim holds that the state, which consists of just 740,000 people spread across an area twice the size of Texas, is "a big small town." It's not unusual for barriers of power and authority to be permeable here in a way that would be unthinkable in the East, and one ought to get used over time to an openness and lack of pretension that gets downright disarming. But still.
Yesterday afternoon I had about five hours to kill as I waited for the 9:30 p.m. flight that would take me from Alaska to the East Coast, so I decided to wander around downtown Iceport and see if anything interesting was going on.
I was enjoying the particularly heavenly weather--Iceport has had highs in the 60s during the last week, with pure sunlight that shines until midnight--when an elderly man sitting in the open bed of a pickup truck called out to me.
"Hey," he said. "You look like you have a strong back."
I pondered the beaten-up old couch he was leaning on, briefly pondered walking away while dancing to non-existent music in my headphones, and finally walked over to where he was perched in blue jeans and a green plaid shirt.
"We'll see," I smiled.
Together, the two of us and one of his friends were able to get the moth-eaten thing onto the street, and then he and I picked the sofa up from either end and maneuvered it through the open door of a street-front store.
"Wait, wait," I called, repositioning myself so we could fit the mustard-yellow monstrosity into the building. "Turn it."
"Oh, right," he said. "This way."
We basically dropped the thing just opposite the store-front's bay window, at which point I noticed a strange number of people milling about this deserted place of business and greeting my new buddy with a level of enthusiasm one would not expect for, say, the mover. People were congratulating him on a job well done, thanking him for "keeping [his] promises," even praising his bravery.
From my point of view, it wasn't even a nice couch.
"Thanks for your help," he said, smiling over my shoulder at another person who was demonstrating inappropriate gratitude for unfashionable parlor accents.
"Sure," I replied. "What are you guys doing, anyway?"
"We're having a cookout!" he answered, grass-green eyes glinting brightly. "You should stay a while. Have some watermelon."
"I would," I said. "But I have to get to the airport. It was nice meeting you, though. I'm BB."
He clasped my hand tightly. "I'm Old Green Eyes."
And then it clicked. That name. That face. The well-dressed people and the weird amount of deference they were affording the Guy Who Brought the Couch. I'd been so stupid I could have kicked myself.
I stayed a few minutes longer, making some rounds and telling an inquisitive Old Green Eyes about my time as a teacher out in the bush. Before long, though, it was time for me to head out. I shook a few hands, said a few thanks, made a few jokes, and then left the Governor of Alaska to entertain his friends.
Friday, May 4, 2018
Sunlight streamed through the living room window, gleaming off the hardwood floors and whitewashed walls. I reflected, not for the first time, that the navy-blue curtains had been an excellent choice for the house's color scheme, and they shone a rich shade in the brilliant light of a springtime Alaska afternoon. The sun is up here now until about 11:30 at night, so at midday we're treated to some truly spectacular brightness when there isn't cloud cover.
"Sometimes I feel like being out here has made me a little bit weird," I confided to Wise Woman, who was seated across from me in the leather armchair and sipping a mug of steaming coffee.
"Yeah," she smiled winsomely. "You get too used to being alone. Sometimes I'll find myself being impatient with people. Someone will be talking to me after work and I'm standing there thinking, 'Can you please shut the hell up so I can go home and do nothing?' And then I stop and tell myself: 'People first, Wise Woman. People first.'"
The approach of my thirtieth birthday was an emotional catalyst in many ways. It capped a year, marked officially on March 2, filled with changes and growth and a surprising amount of self-discovery. In this last fourteen months I've felt, really for the first time, that I'm actually able to explore who I am and what my beliefs and priorities are. A lot of those questions got shunted down the line for later attention when I was hunkered in survival mode during most of my twenties, but finding myself alone on the tundra with plenty of time and no immediate crises opened the door to some unexpected conclusions.
As that April 10 ticked closer and closer, as 29 ebbed and 30 advanced and I looked back on the time passed and the manner in which I'd passed it, one inescapable thought recurred again and again and again.
I am going to die.
In a concrete, non-abstract way, I am going to depart this Earth following a finite amount of time, and then my days will be done. Then there will be no more sunrises.
I can't go so far as to say that thirty years has flown by, but ten sure did. And now I realize, in a way I never did before, that my day is not endless. I can see the continuum of my life the way one sees a weekend, or a long summer holiday you only just began, except now it's almost the Fourth of July and it hits you with a start that you're nearly a month into the thing. Life is like that. Like a week or a month or a vacation. At some point the time is up.
"I'm thirty years old," I said. "And I've been thinking, 'Hmm, Grand Pa Our Family lived into his seventies. My mother's parents both lived into their eighties. Grand Ma Normal Family is still around and she's 75.' I can probably count on hitting eighty. But even if I'm lucky and with medical advances and everything I make it to ninety, I'm still a third of the way through this thing. I've actually used up a good chunk of this time."
"Well," my 22-year-old brother Thomas's gruff voice responded from 4,000 miles away. "That's incredibly depressing."
"No, no it's not," I countered. "Don't you see? I realize the time is limited. So I want to use the time wisely. When I get to that ninety, I want to look back on a life well lived."
What precisely that means has occupied a lot of my time lately. How would one define a well-lived life? For one thing, in the context of a time-limited period whose contents I'll one day have to evaluate, the notion of expending any more effort on the traumas of the past--or, at least, any more than is necessary to move forward in a well-adjusted way--makes absolutely no sense. Those things were terrible enough when they happened, and dwelling on them only stretches out the moments of suffering. And who wants to look back on a life of looking back?
The early part of my existence was very sad, and I spent much of it being unhappy and afraid. But now it's over. Now I want to have fun. Now, as much as I can, I seek joy in life. The things that happened to me are things that happened to me, and need be no more. There's so much in the world to love.
To that end, I've made a few decisions. The first is that, barring something truly unforeseen, I will plan to spend at least one year teaching overseas and will evaluate my options from there. This plane we live on is so broad, and we have so little time to sample its offerings. I could never forgive myself if I didn't go. Which brings me to the second, vaguely radical choice I've settled upon: wherever the going takes me, I will pursue it without fear.
In accordance with this whole imminent-death thing, I sort of dispensed with polite fictions in conversations I was having with myself, and the clarity that followed illuminated how much I'd been allowing fear to dominate my choices. I very nearly didn't come to Alaska, something that would have been a white-mouthed, shrieking tragedy, and I would have played it safe with a position in Southern State had God not decided to throw me a curve ball (I've never been so happy to not get a job).
Which brings me to God. My conception of God has been completely enveloped in the transformative experience I had as a boy of twelve or thirteen, when I reached out unbidden to that deity and begged him: "Save me." And He did. That sense of liberation, of gratitude, was so profound that somewhere in my mind I had linked any questioning whatsoever of my Judeo-Christian beliefs with a personal betrayal of the God who pulled me up from the pit and brought me here. But the doubts were there anyway, and they were gradually eating away at my faith in a way far more corrosive than outright critical analysis would have done.
And so I asked Him for a reprieve. Some space for honesty, not that I might turn away from Him, but that I might come back.
"I'm looking for my faith," I told Him. "Please help me find it."
Now I'm looking, with no prior assumptions and no self-judgement. I'm following truth wherever it takes me, and I believe that with an open heart and an active summer reading list I'll just kind of get there when I'm supposed to, and how I'm supposed to. I'm not too far into it yet, but I can tell you one thing: that Buddha guy knew what he was talking about.
My quest for some kind of clearer understanding is emblematic of my approach to a lot of things lately. I'm aware of the agency I have in my life and believe that agency is critical, but beyond doing what I need to best position myself for positive outcomes, I can see much value to letting events unfold as they will. If you're doing what you should, that meandering path seems to get you, one way or another, to good things. Setbacks don't change that. Self-doubt doesn't change that. Temporary flares of anxiety, which I can promise you I still have, don't change that. And in the quest for a partner, for a professional trajectory, for the right place, I'm building the best foundation I can and then seeing where things take me.
The end of the school year fast approaches, and before long I will return to the Lower 48, where the house above awaits me. Teaching work is effectively over--students here check out, and hard, right around the first of April--and after two more weeks of leisurely school sessions we will officially dismiss for break. I'm hanging around in Gori for a week after that to get my house packed and my things shipped to Point Goldlace, where I've accepted a job for the fall. After a week to say goodbye to my neighbor, to this town and to this beautiful house, I'll stop over in Iceport for a few days and then jet back to the East Coast on June 4.
This summer I was fortunate enough to rent a house in Western City, far closer than last summer to the region where I went to college and grad school, so family and friends will abound. I miss my brother Thomas, who will turn 23 in little over a week; and my sister Pie, who will be 15 in June. She's now a teenager whom I feel I don't know, and I'm eager to get reacquainted. My birth-mother, Anne, has been too long unseen, and I've invited her down for a stay. Thirtieth-birthday shenanigans are already in the works with several old and new friends. A visit to a long-time blogging buddy will occur in June, and a beach-side drop-in on a co-worker is set for July.
It's been such a long winter here in Alaska. I can't wait to feel the sun on my face.
Monday, April 9, 2018
What an extraordinary period that’s ending this evening. So much growth, so much understanding, so much improbable achievement has taken place over the course of the last decade, and in surveying that I find I can’t quite bring myself to mourn the years passed. Their beauty was in what they gave me, and those gifts were borne of struggle. It was a necessary struggle, and a fruitful one, but I am glad that many parts of it are now over.
I’m happy to stand where I do. I’m happy to welcome a new chapter, even as I bid fond farewell to an old one. I’m happy to move forward. I’m happy to embrace thirty, and I pray God will bless and guide me in this new age with the same constancy He did in the old one.
Saturday, April 7, 2018
It's been a decade since the sunny spring afternoon in April 2008 when I wrote my very first post on Blogger. I was nineteen years old, bursting with creativity and angst and longing, hobbled by a difficult past, buoyed by hope, and newly possessed of the perfect medium through which to give voice to all the roiling emotions of late adolescence. Ten years have followed that day. Ten years that, as I approach my thirtieth birthday in several days' time, I now realize constitute one-third of my life. You've seen, I would argue, the best third. The third where I grew up, and moved from a boy to a man.
The journey for me, and for this blog, has been strange. I've zigzagged between righteous fury, audacious hope, cloying self-pity, drunken harangues, and, eventually, quiet reflection. Eventually, I hope, some kind of understanding.
You saw me when I was twenty and filled with that strange mix of rage and joy common to so many abuse survivors who make the first tentative moves towards normal life. You saw me in the long slide of blackness and nihilism that ended in a suicide attempt when I was twenty-five. You saw me taking disjointed steps in the fragile recovery that followed the suicide attempt and then, for a while in 2016, you didn't see me at all. For a while I needed to step away from the attention, step away from the rehashing and, in fairness, step away from my own narcissism, to evaluate my own choices. Being victimized, even legitimately, can predispose us to victimhood. In can make us cast a mold in which we trap ourselves and become our own abusers, all while justifying our misbehavior on the grounds of what was done to us.
When I was ready for you to see me again, at the opening of 2017, you saw me bearing hard-won achievements. And then you saw me head north, and learn important lessons on the tundra.
It has been an amazing privilege to be a member of this community for ten years. When we're young, so many of us just need someone to listen. And you did. I told my story, then kept telling as it changed. I've always been so thankful for that first chapter, but, ten years on, I find I no longer recognize its author. And that's a good thing.
I'm happy I can no longer empathize with that deeply troubled nineteen-year-old boy. I'm happy I've grown and learned and shifted. I'm happy I'm older. And, what's more, old enough to realize that I'm still young.
So for those of you who don't know, my name is BB, and I am a 29-year-old history teacher living in rural Alaska. Back on the East Coast, where I grew up and where all my family remain, are my father David and his new wife Robin; my adoptive mother Marie and her new boyfriend, Tall Man; my birth-mother, Anne; and my siblings: 28-year-old Powell; 22-year-old Thomas, who's finding his way and playing metal shows in the meantime; 14-year-old Pie, a high school freshman; and many assorted others, including colorful friends you've met or will meet yet.
The last year has been among the best of my life. This is how it went:
April 2017: I turn 29 years old.
May 2017: I am offered and accept a teaching position in Gori, Alaska for the 2017 - 2018 school year. I depart Alaska for Southern state.
June 2017: Summertime leisure gets a bit too leisurely, but there are at least friends along for the ride.
July 2017: I decide it's time to take a hiatus from the drinking. A good call.
August 2017: I return to Alaska and take up residence in Gori.
September 2017: The fall is a little bit difficult as I adjust to my first full school year in Alaska.
October 2017: Gori's first snowfall comes on October 18.
November 2017: When Thanksgiving arrives, there is a much to be thankful for.
December 2017: After some Christmastime excess, I forswear alcohol entirely. Wish me luck with this one, because it's ongoing.
January 2018: Everyone said the second semester in Gori would be easier. They were right.
February 2018: I learn that my position in Gori will be eliminated and that I will not be able to return following the conclusion of the school year.
March 2018: I secure a new job at Point Goldlace, north of Aurora City.
It's been a remarkable ten years. Here's to Year 11.
Monday, March 12, 2018
Several times during this last year I've looked around and wondered, How did this become my life? March 2, which marked the one-year anniversary of my arrival in Alaska, provided another such occasion. On that particular week I was chaperoning a school trip--my first as a teacher--whose aim was to introduce high-schoolers to state government. As such, on the second day of March I found myself in Queen-of-the-Gods, Arctic State's absurd capital city nestled on a mountain cliff that hugs tight to Canada but has no road access to the rest of its own state.
The quaint size of the state, from a population perspective, means leaders and people share a closeness that can be disorienting to Easterners, accustomed as we are to the concentrated nexuses of wealth and hierarchy in which we grew up. In both Southern State and Native State, between which I split my childhood, state chief executives live in palatial residences that are gated and heavily patrolled. In Queen-of-the-Gods, the governor's mansion is just a house in a neighborhood. It's an awesome house, granted. But it's still just someone's home, where you can sidle right up to the front door and ring the bell.
Another Queen-of-the-Gods house, this one private and castle themed, has been officially dubbed "the fanciest building in Arctic State." It's just down the street from the governor's mansion and widely billed as the more impressive structure.
"Well, Arctic State is basically a big small town," mused Athena, a Queen-of-the-Gods native and one of our grown-up companions on the trip. "People who try to get above themselves don't do well."
Which explains why, in a state with fewer people than Charlotte, North Carolina--741,000, if you were wondering--a certain former vice-presidential nominee with aspirations of cable-TV stardom is poorly regarded.
"We were ready to welcome her with open arms," Athena confided. "Even in Queen-of-the-Gods, which is really blue. We're always excited when a new governor comes in. But the feeling wasn't mutual."
I love Alaska.
And, as with most things I love, I fear it will be taken away from me. The process of getting laid off has been especially stressful because it has played on my worst and most pervasive fears that I will never be able to sustain happiness or independence. I feel perpetually on the verge of collapse, perpetually at risk of having the things I've worked so hard for ripped away from me. And the underlying assumption there, one I'm aware of but struggle to alter, is that I would somehow deserve the tearing-down. I understand, of course, that I am an empathetic and caring individual, someone who possesses a master's degree and substantial content-area knowledge, in addition to an even-keeled disposition that would serve any educator well. By any objective measure, I am highly qualified to be a teacher. But they're going to find me out, because somehow I'm really not worthy of any of this.
Psychology is a hell of a thing.
I've worked very hard in the last couple of years to tell myself that the abuse I suffered as a child and young adult was not my fault, that I am in fact a good person who merits happiness and respect. But those internalized lessons are very hard to unlearn, however much you logically know they're wrong, and part of the growing self-awareness I've had since graduate school has been understanding the degree to which hurtful voices still command a lot of space in my head.
There have been a few real nuggets of wisdom that have come my way since 2014 or so. That I am a funny and outgoing person whom others, for the most part, like to be around. That, despite those qualities, certain people will just not like me, and that it is okay if they don't. That my parents were flawed and frightened people who did not mean to inflict the damage they did. That anger is justifiable but forgiveness is good. That I am a person who cannot drink in a healthy way.
And, most recently, that I didn't get away from borderline personality disorder nearly as unscathed as I had imagined.
There's only one thing for it, which is to recognize the problem and work at it systematically until it improves. I'll do that. And it's very easy for me to be equanimous about this right now, sitting in my house after a more-or-less restful weekend, sipping on coffee and pondering the abbreviated week ahead (spring break means a trip to Iceport, sure as sunrise).
But there are moments when it is not easy. When I was passed over for a job I'd had my sights on, when despair at my own ineptness fought with panic at the blacklisting I was sure I'd experienced, it wasn't easy. When I couldn't believe my principal's praise, it wasn't easy. When I harbored suspicions that the elimination of our history position was not a budgetary measure but an elaborate ruse to be rid of me, it wasn't easy. When my neighbor failed to answer a text and then also didn't respond to my knock at her door, it wasn't easy. When I knew that she wasn't just busy but hated me and was hiding inside, hoping I couldn't hear her, it wasn't easy. The waves of intense emotion are not easy. And they have been with me for a long time.
The more I read on the subject, the more I understand that much of what I experience is typical of a person working their way through borderline personality disorder. That's something I have been loath to admit in the past, because doing so would be to admit similarity with Anne, my deeply unwell birth-mother. But it is what it is.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that my worldview is inherently negative. But I do, often, misattribute ill intent to people around me. I wouldn't say I hate people. But I do temporarily hate almost everyone, and wonder if they hate me. My cousin, who has never done me a single unkindness. My boss, who has likewise been straightforward and fair. Mentors and priests and co-workers and perfect strangers. I've perceived spite in so many innocuous words and social niceties, and I've sometimes "retaliated" for these imagined wrongs with a level of vitriol that has left people baffled and hurt.
And while there is a kind person at the core of me, many of the idiosyncrasies and predilections that make it to the surface are constructions. At about 20 years old I literally picked certain personality traits, sometimes modelling acquaintances or celebrities, and decided they were mine. I wanted to make myself likeable. So I did. At this point I've been faking so long that the act comes as second nature, but it's still faking and the truth is that I don't know what the hell is under there. Sometimes I really, really do not care about other people's problems, but because "BB" is nurturing and empathetic I have to pretend for an appropriate amount of time. And just as often as not, I'm thinking about the YouTube video I want to watch when this person shuts the hell up and I can go home. The artifice is exhausting, then.
Which is not to say, by the way, that I don't care about other people. I do. And helping them makes me feel genuinely good. I was subject to a lot of neglect over the years, so being the one to open a kind door and bring someone else in still gives me this cosmic thrill of rightness. But sometimes I'm not sure what my true feelings are and so I fall back on that prefabricated character who knows how to act. Sometimes I hit this weird threshold where other people just become too exhausting to endure. I go off by myself for a while, and relish being alone, and then am okay.
This is really liberating to talk about, by the way. A lot of these qualities, like the way I can swing from a throttling tailspin of despair to a state of bored emptiness in the space of a few hours, have felt like markers of my unique brokenness. But I am not uniquely broken. I have a personality disorder from which millions of people suffer, and my symptoms are completely normal and predictable within that context. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) catalogues these utterly ordinary facets of the illness and recommends methods of treatment. I am not unnatural or alone. And, like many before me, I can get better.
My life has been unusual. It is like to continue that way, because of my vocational choices and because the obstacles I've had to navigate. Because, too, of my uncommon talent in certain areas. I am an astute analyst of geopolitics, a quick student of languages, and, let's be honest, an exceptional writer. I am also a survivor of abuse who has had to manage disability, mental illness, and the hurdles of being a gay man. Will it all work out in the end? You know, I'm not sure. It may be that I never find a partner, never have children. It may be that I don't even want those things. Or that I think I don't, then find I do.
But I am determined to meet whatever comes with as much grace and ability as I can. That means honesty and self-care. It means reaching out to friends and family who can't read my mind. And it means, sometimes, taking a deep breath.