Sunday, March 26, 2017

With Perspective

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 lonely.

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

Landed in the North

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.

Acclimating to a lot, by the way. It's hard to explain how different it is here, if only because the differences are so many, both in kind and in quality. There are no grocery stores or pharmacies, which means residents make ample use of online retailers and the bush-delivery services in Riverville. Calling up a supermarket 100 miles away and asking them to deliver your loaf of bread by Cessna is completely normal here. They even have an 800 number for it.

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.