Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Send-Off

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."

I nodded.

"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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Waking Up

I think this is where I come back to you. 

Over the course of the last year or so, and especially over the last few months, I went quiet. I didn't do that because I was withdrawing from the world; I did it because I was occupied in the world. In the world and in myself, seeing truths and admitting faults that had long needed to be unmasked and accounted for. I needed time to discover where I'd been, and why. I needed time to discover where I was going. 

And I honestly still don't know. I don't say that in a directionless or conflicted way; I mean that the last couple of years, and the last year in particular, have taught me life is an uncertain thing full of constant change. I am fortunate enough that some of the changes thrown my way, beginning about last summer, conferred a degree of self-awareness I'd sorely lacked before.

But in terms of the specific track of the thing, of my life? Who in the world knows?

As recently as last August, I believed I was going to work at Native State Public Relations, forging a new path in communications as opposed to education. As recently as October, I knew that wasn't true. As recently as December, a master's degree was conferred on me and my path turned back to teaching. As recently as January, I was reveling in the job interview that had gone so well, the one I thought I'd probably nailed. As recently as three weeks ago, I was weeping with happiness because of the glowing phone call from an assistant principal that I was the right choice for the position. As recently as two weeks ago, I was headed back to Southern State, to the Goldlands from which I came, to take the position I was so happy God had put before me. As recently as one week ago, I was broken by a single e-mail. What does taking a position "in a different direction" even mean? As recently as five days ago, I saw gloom.

Who would have predicted I'd be pulled not south, but as far north as north goes? Not to an Old Dominion, but to a Last Frontier?

That's a big part of why I haven't written: cognizance that ever-shifting possibilities needed time to settle. When the most concrete of the teaching opportunities I've yet gotten came my way, it was almost a fluke. It also, like many things of greater import than might initially be apparent, started as a joke. A friend in graduate school was from Aurora City and I cracked that we should apply for work there because "they [didn't] have any people" and needed the help.

This turned out to be true, and in light of the competitive salaries and the fascinating nature of the region, I decided to start an initial fact-finding mission, my sole intention being to determine if a job in that part of the world would even be something I'd want. I was on my third informational interview with my second school district when the director of personnel pulled a fast one.

"Not to put you on the spot or anything," he said by way of putting me on the spot. "But we have a vacancy we actually need to fill right now."


"Think about it," he laughed. "It's a lot. Just a mull it over."

I can always interview for the job, I thought. No harm in that, and I don't have to take it.

I spoke with HR via Skype, then with the school principal by telephone. He told me he'd offer me a contract if I wanted it, and I told him, thinking my ticket to Southern State was a sure thing, that I'd take the weekend to think on it. That was Friday. Southern State went "in a different direction" on Tuesday, and by Tuesday night my weekend to think about it had led me to some unexpected thoughts.

Three days ago, an official offer came from a school district 4,000 miles away. I accepted.

The actual contract, which I will actually sign, will likely arrive by e-mail tomorrow. So there's uncertainty in all things, but less uncertainty here than in other things. After all: how many teachers will they find willing to move to Arctic State in February?

That this will constitute change of a very dramatic nature is undeniable. That it will present challenges both logistical and personal is, of course, inevitable, too. Already I am rushing around to switch my banking, to pack my things, to assemble lists of winter supplies. Already I'm e-mailing a roommate with whom I'll soon share a house on the edge of the sea. Already I'm calling family and friends, people I love dearly, to arrange last hurrahs before a long flight north.

But this is the right thing to do. Even knowing I may fail, it is the right thing to do. Opportunity comes when it comes, and at some point living in fear has to give way to living with reasonable risks, if living is to occur at all. 

So I'm going somewhere new, in many senses. I hope that, as in years before, we can follow each other across different frontiers.