Same River, Different Sky

I took my class for a walk (or, rather, they took me) before journaling today. It was snowing heavily for a while this afternoon, and I grinned and leaned into the sky, letting the kids run ahead. The girls threw loose snowballs that exploded in small halo-bursts around their heads, their giggles and shrieks muffled by their gloved hands, thrown up to block the blast, and the snowfall. One of the boys drank from the washeteria hose as we walked by, the only person I’ve ever seen drink from any hose in February. The snow scrubbed the smell of snow-go exhaust from the air, laying it down with it’s snick, tick lullaby. Walking, I loved the way the new inch of snow compressed to silence and pad my footfalls. I loved the way my tracks were softened almost immediately by more snow falling from the sky. It gilded everything: the girls’ long hair, the shoulders of our sweatshirts, the knees of our jeans. Sticky. I felt it falling on my face and prickling as it melted. I stuck out my tongue and caught a few flakes. Snowfall tastes like pop-rocks: not so much a flavor as the expectation of one and the shock of an instant’s sensation instead.

Back at school, we peeled off our damp outerwear and cracked the outside door, warm from the exercise. The open door let in cool air and the thick silence of new snow. I reminded the kids to write their experience the same way their brain does: in five dimensions. They aren’t very good at it yet, but that leaves us with plenty of room to grow, a natural objective. We’ll try again the next time the weather is fine.

On walks through the village, I’ve taken lots of pictures that I haven’t been able to share because our internet is lousy for uploads. I smooshed these down a lot to get them through, and I know they’re grainy, but I think they’re still lovely.

DSC01922DSC01969 DSC01878In other news, today marks the one-year anniversary of this here chasing piggens project. A year ago, I was burning my Christmas tree in the homestead driveway and enjoying the first daffodils.

Cookie Zombies

knock knock

I opened the door, which is always a bad idea at 10:15 on a Friday.
“Hide!” C whispered as she and the two others slipped under my arm and into my bathroom, dripping snow and rustling in their snowpants. “If they come looking for us, we’re not here. And your bathroom doesn’t work”, instructed A through the door.

knock knock

“Are P and them here?” the boy had ridden up on a snow-go, and his dark clothes were frosted.
“I’m on my way to bed,” I said, sipping my tea.
“Okay. I thought I heard them.”
“I dunno. Have a good night, E” I turned and closed the door. “You can come out now.”

Problem: Cookie girls in need of a hiding place can be difficult to pry off of the comfy couch, especially when they are hungry and fully aware of their teacher lady’s weakness for popcorn.

Solution: Give them thin strips of dark tape to stick over their mouths like stitches, and teach them how to walk like zombies. This has the added benefit of silencing them (except for the zombie groans) so that the other sleepy teachers in the building can get some rest.

“Go chase after the people. You guys look terrifying. Out! I’ll give you more tape when you’re all suited up.”
“What if we scare somebody drunk and they try to beat us up?”
“Don’t chase after drunk people. Just go after the kids who were chasing you, or go home and try to scare B”

knock knock

Hide!” P shrieked, followed by bumps and shrieks and the bathroom door slamming
I opened the door to a different student. “What’s up?”
“Have you seen A and them?”
“Not recently.”
“Well, if you see them, tell them we’re having a campfire down the bank”
“Will do. Have a good night”
“You too Ms. O”

“She said there’s a campfire down bank. Get going” I scooted them toward the door.
“it’s probably a trap. They probably have lots of snowballs”
“you can scare the pants off them and they’ll drop all the snowballs. Go up to them and then pull your neckwarmers down and make dead eyes. Scoot!”
“Okay. Bye Ms. O.”
“Bye. Let me know how it goes.”

I quickly turned out living room lights, not ready for a full-scale midnight zombie invasion.

When the sun sets in the arctic, the hungry monsters drag themselves relentlessly through the snow, clamoring for COOKIES!

When the sun sets in the arctic, the hungry monsters drag themselves relentlessly through the snow, clamoring for COOKIES!

Making a life in the enchanted forest: Country Living Challenges, bush edition

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I went for a walk and found the sky fickle with its watercolors. Green first this way, then a wash that way, then washed out to start completely fresh. The aurora feels eerie and sentient, like the synchronous fireflies in the Cataloochee Valley. Maybe I am just easily bewitched by things that glow in the dark.DSC01955The row of glowing windows is the community hall, down the old airport runway from the school. This is the very center of my village, just a pool of light that doesn’t even touch the sky.

When I told Jake that I’d gone for a night walk, he looked dubious.
“If you’re walking at night, don’t go too far” he warned
“I was just out front here,” I gestured to the airport.
“Well, don’t go beyond the last house, anyway, even on the old airport” he said. “These ice bears won’t hesitate. They’ll just come at you and there’s nothing you can do. We’ve got one near the village right now. Big, nasty sucker.”
“I won’t be going far, no worries. I’m too chicken to really get out much, even in daylight”
Jake laughed and slapped my shoulder.
I guess ice bears are bears that don’t hibernate. Horrifying.

I’ve been walking in the village as often as I can, and, yesterday afternoon, I found myself out of school with daylight still burning low in the sky. I strolled down to the community hall and around by the washeteria. I saw C unfastening a harness from her blue plastic sled. She introduced me to her dog, (“he’s a hunting dog, but he fits the harness, so I have him pull me around sometimes. He’s pretty fast.”) and her auntie stepped out of the log house and said hello to me. We chatted for a minute, then I walked on, waving goodbye to C and grinning. Later, an older fellow called me over to chat about the weather. He was standing on his porch, watching a little girl play in the snow. I walked on, and they soon passed me on a 4-wheeler, waving, “just looking after you, to make sure you stay out of trouble” he teased as the rumbled by. On the surface unremarkable, these bits of chit-chat marked a turning point in my life here. Until yesterday, I hadn’t spoken to a non-teaching adult in the village (outside of business at the store or the post office), even about a child. I want to be a part of life here. I want to be invited to dinner or on adventures, and to have people to talk to who aren’t my students. I want someone to show me around and to tell me stories and to explain how things work. I don’t want to feel like the last, lonely dodo in the zoo, just sitting on my rock, serving my purpose while everyone waits for my expiration date.

This morning, one of the school board members approached me in the gym. “Do you like it here?” He looked directly into my face. He has dark brown, crinkly eyes that laugh easily from the shadow of his ball cap.
“Yes.” I said.
“Good.” He said. “I’m on the school board. I wanted to hear it straight from you.”
“I like it here. I love my kids, and teaching here, but It’s hard,” I said, meaning the dodo thing, wanting to say more.
“To us, it’s just our way of life,” he said, doing the laughing eyes thing, “you’ll get used to it.”
I suppose he thought I meant the climate and the geography and the ice bear threat and the price of butter. Those things are just awesome or appropriate, depending on your outlook.

I love this place. I love those things. I love my kids. If someone would just ask me to dinner or in out of the cold for a cup of hot tea so that I could love them too, I’d be almost sure I want to stay in Venetie next year. I know, without a doubt, that I will be teaching in the bush, but I don’t know if I can commit to spend next year here if the social tensions within the school and between the school and the village don’t ease up, at least enough for me to slip some thin roots through the gap. I don’t want to rust away from emptiness.DSC01875

Butter, Sugar, and Eggs

At quarter to six last night, I realized I had only enough butter left in the freezer for one batch of sugar cookies. I’ll be in Fairbanks in two weeks, but, last night, I was looking down the barrel of a long two weeks without butter. I tucked myself into my gear and crunched my way over to the store, hoping they were open, hoping i wouldn’t leave the girls stranded in the cold, hoping they’d have butter at the store, hoping they’d be able to break a fifty.

The store is four short aisles of dry goods, a couple of coolers and freezers, and a half-shelf with some bruised and spotted and wildly expensive fruit. There’s always stuff for sale hanging from the low ceiling on coat hangers. This week, the gloves and hats were interspersed with hand made red and pink paper hearts. The whole store could fit easily in the house Sean and I shared in Arkansas. It feels like a miniature gas station and general store, the kind you find on the roads out of town back home in Maine, only moreso. I snagged a couple of pounds of butter and set them on the counter. “That’s fifteen dollars” the girl said. I handed her a fifty, and she had to clean out the register to make change for me. I felt like a jerk.

I made it home by six, and Shannon and Jake dropped by to leave the nine colors of icing that Shannon had made for us to decorate our Valentine’s Day cookies with. After they headed out, the phone rang: C, calling to let me know that the girls would be late. “Helloooo,” she said in a silly, squeaky voice, “this is Shelleeeeeyyyy”
“Hi Shelly, what’s up?”
“Do you have any coooookiieeeess?”
“Not yet, but I’m planning to make some later”
“Can I have some?”
“Sure, Shelly. There’ll be plenty to go around”
“It’s just me!” She said in her normal voice. A giggle dam broke on the other end of the line. “We have to eat dinner. We’ll be late. Maybe… seven?”
“Sounds like a plan. Get plenty to eat so you don’t eat up all the cookies – Shelly!” This clever comment brought down the house and their laughter bubbled up through the phone until C hung it up. Click. Silence.

The girls showed up at seven.

P is thirteen-year-old agony in full bloom: she’s experimenting with makeup,  crushing on an awful boy, bending the truth badly, and dancing to Avril Lavigne in front of the (my) bathroom mirror. It’s painful and wonderful. This is the one who wears snowpants all day. I can’t get over that. Snowpants and smudged eyeliner.

S is new to the group. Quiet and reserved except when she’s not, like a braces-smile, she doesn’t get as silly or open up as easily as the others, but she’s cracking her cool shell a little, and I like her quirky teeth and honest questions. She seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t mind their eating raw cookie dough, playing their own music, and lounging on my couch.

C is the youngest. She about peed her pants laughing on my kitchen floor when her older sister walked in with eye-makeup last night. She spent minutes screaming in gales of giggles, clutching her belly and rolling under the table. P looked stricken for an instant, then rolled her expressive eyes at the two older girls and sat down like a lady. C got up and rolled her eyes at me, then started making silly faces, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue and squinching up her nose. I made silly faces back, and she lost it again.

A is like cotyledons. She’s like toes dipping toward a still pond or a palm testing the air around a wood stove. “Ms. O, can you check this?” She’s my strongest student in math, and my most needy. She loses her cool when she has to be creative. She loves grammar, and hates writing. It’s like she’s on the cusp of something, and just needs a little push to get there. “Did you like the poem you made me write? Why did it have to be fourteen lines?!” “Listen to this!” Improvements. Her smile is almost as bright as she is. A is the thinker. “Did you notice?” “Oh, do you think he meant…?” I think she’d throw herself off a cliff for me. I’m going to push her, and she’s going to fly.

Pop music, courtesy of DJ P, bounced off the walls. The sisters created some sort of complicated partner dance and practiced it to critical acclaim in the living room. We mixed and baked and frosted cookies. The girls gave me some of the latest news from the village: One of my male students was punched in the face last night by a drunk guy while he was out Walking Around (that’s what the kids do for fun). “Poor Guy!” “Do you’ll think he’ll have a black eye?” We decorated dozens of sugar cookies (enough for the whole school) with sprinkles and candy hearts and nine colors of icing until the girls collapsed on the couch in a frosting-streaked heap. They’d have stayed there all night if I hadn’t sent them away at 9:30.

DSC01933The days are longer, now, and full of full-sun. I can no longer see stars on my walk to or from work. Used to be I couldn’t see anything else. I miss the romantic twilight of January, but I like the feeling that the world is growing every day, and gaining speed: I see some new shadow, or something newly in full sun, every time I leave the house. Last weekend, I saw the sun touch the ground for the first time, like a spill of sugar on an off-white carpet, and now it’s everywhere, an eggshell world accelerating toward the limit of daylight, ready to crack and spill yellow on everything.

Love Letter to Living Alone

I like living alone.

I have never lived alone before, unless you count my cupboard on Angelique or the tent I camped out in, in high school. I’ve always had a family or a roommate or a live-in boyfriend. Always.

I like having two plates and two cups in the cupboard and keeping them always clean, and waking up in the morning with my mug already on the stove, waiting for tea, right where I left it when I did last night’s dishes.

I like coming and going as I please and bending my plans to please only me.

Is it selfish that I like that nothing is shared? I like the freedom of carrying my own supplies and going places on my own power.

I like that when I’m in social situations, people take me seriously because there’s no one nearby to speak for me. Men don’t perceive me as background scenery, and women don’t perceive me as a part of a larger organism.

It’s shocking and liberating, being suddenly free of those perceptions. I feel like part of me just stepped out of a shadow and shook off a heavy pack that I didn’t know I was wearing, and now I’m featherlight and running. I feel fearsome. Noticed and heard.

I’ve felt this way before when I’ve had a long-distance love. Confident, laughing out loud, spotlit, brazen in full breath, and supported.
Like the man in the phrase “behind every great man there’s a great woman”
Like I’m suddenly standing in front.
Like I’m taking risks and looking really cool and feeling really giddy, and nobody knows I have a secret safety net.

Maybe I like having all the privileges of independence with none of the risks.
If things go wrong, my other life is waiting there in the wings. I could go back to Arkansas and pick it up where I left off and little would have changed, but I don’t want that. I’m too young to be a pseudopod on a family amoeba, and I’m too old to make excuses.

I want this. I want to carry my own independence.

Sean and I made the decision to reevaluate our situation in November because I realized that I wasn’t happy. I was crushed in the commitments and obligations of our partnership, not made greater and freer by its support. I think now that that’s in part due to the way the world perceives and acts on women in relationships.

I wanted my own identity. He wanted me to have it.

We talked about it a lot and decided that we are strong and trusting and honest enough to shuck conventional relationship rules, to live independently, and to tackle challenges as they come up. I have a great person standing, not behind, but beside me, and it’s friggin’ awesome.

Someday, I will live in a world where I can stand beside a man and not disappear. Until then, I’m standing alone in full arctic sun, working on growing strong enough to glow blister-bright in any shadow.

It’s a little scary that there’s not an end-date on this arrangement. Sean doesn’t want to live in Alaska, and I’m not planning to leave until I’m ready to go joyfully into a new adventure of my own choosing. There’s not a clock ticking down to a conventional future for us.


That’s okay. That’s kind of the point. Maybe in about a hundred years I’ll be ready to build the rest of my life with someone, but right now, I just want to live the life I want when I’m not compromising. Sean’s with me, and his support is making me greater and freer.


Cookies and Caribou

The cookie girls came by tonight. We have a weekly deal, now, which brightens up my Thursdays. This Thursday was a little different, though. When one of them had called me at school earlier, I’d expressed my regrets: I had a dinner to get to and couldn’t make cookies with them. She was sad, but we agreed tomorrow would be fine. She asked if I could bring home the schoolwork she’d missed today so that she could swing by to pick it up, and I agreed on the condition that she not stay long, since I had a lot to do.

At around six-thirty, there was a knock on the door. I was on my way out, ready to tuck my cabbage salad under my arm and run through the cold night to the school building for the potluck, but when I saw the girls’ big brown eyes peeking out through frosty tunnels of winter gear, I had to let them in. I gave the young lady her homework, and she held out her hand in its grubby glove and offered me a wadded-up paper towel.

“what’s this?”
“Fry meat! You said you wanted us to bring you some” It was indeed meat, brown and greasy in its questionable paper towel vehicle. I popped a cube into my mouth and chewed. Tender. Sweet. Unfamiliar.
“What kind of meat is it?”
“Caribou.” This was my first caribou. I spotted a long, pale hair on one of the other chunks, smiled, and popped it in my mouth.
“Really! I’ve never had caribou before. It’s good!” I said, chewing.
“I’ll tell my auntie you liked it. Let’s go.” (this last to her sister)
“Wait, let me give you something.” I went to the cupboard and pulled down a treat “You guys will have to share, and this has to be a secret because I don’t have enough to share with everybody, but this is something special my parents sent me from Maine. You can only get caribou here in Alaska, and you can only get these in Maine, so it seems like a fair trade. It’s called a whoopie pie.”
“what is it?”
“Chocolate cake with frosting sandwiched in the middle”
“Yum. Thank you.”
“you’re welcome, girls. Thank you so much for sharing with me”

I should have said mahsi’. It’s the only word I know in Gwich’in, so I should start putting it to work.

They left and I finished throwing my cabbage salad together and flew out the door, savoring my last chunk of fry meat. It really was delicious, but that wasn’t the biggest reason for the grin on my face.


Isn't it?

Isn’t it?

Guys, I have a real mailing address! If you want to send me a teakettle or a toilet brush or chocolate chips or a postcard, please address it to

Keely O’Connell
P.O. Box 81153
Venetie, Alaska

If you do send me a postcard, please write all the dirty jokes in morse code.

One of my kids told me yesterday that brown bear tracks have been spotted down the bank. “It won’t come up here though,” she told me, “It’ll stay down by the river.”