Monday, September 25, 2017

In Gori

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

The River

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

Stretching backward
Stretching forward
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 acceptance
And resignation
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 inevitability

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
Children cry
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
And pretending
To care about such endless noise

From everyone
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
Killing time
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