Welcome Spring

DSC02101It has been snowing for twenty-four hours now, though the accumulation is only a few inches. In any case, Nicole officially has the better part of spring with her crocuses and butterflies. I went walking yesterday afternoon in the biting wind and snow, and the village was all but deserted. B and A slid up on a fourwheeler to offer me a ride. A’s loooong ponytail swung across her back as they slipped to a stop, and the wind picked it up and blew it into her face. B squinted and grinned at me, tipping his head to keep the sideways snow from blowing into his eyes.

“Need a ride?”
“No, I’m just going for a walk”
“You sure? This is the opportunity of a lifetime!” He gestured grandly.
“More like the opportunity of a deathtime!” (teachers have to make really lame jokes. It’s in the contract)
He chuckled, then, catching himself, quickly straightened his face to indignation.
“okay, if that’s how you feel”
B tried to make a big show and just skidded halfway across the road. A screamed and her ponytail swung wildly as they disappeared into the curtain of falling snow.
Every day this week, I’ve taken myself on a long walk. Until yesterday, it was warm and sunny, and I rambled willy-nilly all over the edge of the village, trying not to pop up in anyone’s back yard or to cross the invisible line around the village where Outdoorsy Girl Safely Exploring The Woods Alone turns into Stupid Outsider Getting Eaten. I wouldn’t bring that up again, but someone new warns me every time I turn around. I’ll take it as a sign that I’m growing to be well-liked.

DSC02077In these past few weeks, people have grown much friendlier. A few days ago, a student’s grandma stopped me on a walk to invite me on a trip to Big Lake during carnival, and to warn me not to go too far alone because of the wolves. This morning, A and her brother, B, invited me in for waffles and to watch part of Mr. Bean. Someone always says hello to me, now, and people will stop me to talk about their kids or the school or carnival. I’m glad that folks have, indeed, warmed up with the weather.

DSC02082This was taken from the bank of the river on our warmest day yet, looking down onto the frozen water. I like how it looks almost like a wave breaking on a beach somewhere. I had to try several times to get close to the way I wanted it, but I like how it came out. I’m learning.

I brought in a willow branch on Monday afternoon, and by bedtime its buds had popped out in all their soft, fuzzy glory. Spring is swift and opportunistic in Alaska, I guess. You could almost watch these buds burst like popcorn.

There are these wonderful, fat birds that I’ve started seeing around. I don’t know about birds, but they look like overstuffed super-sized birdfeeder birds. Obviously, this picture is of no use to anybody as far as identification goes, but I like the image very much.

DSC02094The fat ones make a nice change from the ubiquitous ravens, which were flying together in the snowfall this morning, making a peculiar bubbling noise. I like ravens well enough. They have these great big fluffy ruffs around their necks, like little black flying lions that eat garbage.

DSC02102My class is making pysanky eggs next week. It’ll be a little lame after Easter, but I think the kids will still dig it. They loved blowing eggs this week, and Shannon was awesome and let them bring their jars of egg down to the kitchen where she fired up the griddle and scrambled each kid’s individual portion for a snack. I have dozens of perfect, empty, white eggshells drying on the windowsill now, just waiting for the post to catch up with our activities.

My amazing parents sent Easter baskets for each of my students, filled to bursting. We’re going to have a lot of fun with the marbles next week when carnival and testing leave us with weird time to fill. The kids ate themselves sick before lunch, occasionally asking “Ms O! Is this a marble or is it candy?” Nobody died.

DSC02096Things have been weird at school. We have state testing confusion and personal issues among the staff out the wazoo. With carnival next week and Easter this weekend, we had a real pressure cooker going. It would have been fine, but the interpersonal problems with the staff have been getting to me. There’s subterfuge and manipulation and venom everywhere, and I don’t feel like I can really trust anyone.

My nerves finally got completely fried yesterday. After a few kids made heavy power plays, I broke. I tried to get it together during lunch, but, when the kids got back, I still had tears plopping off my face. I tried for a few minutes to cool it, and, to their credit, the kids did exactly what I asked of them.  When I realized it was hopeless, I went to ask Jake to find someone to cover for me. Instead, he dismissed the class early and sent me home to cry it out, which I did. My students were brilliant. They brought me cupcakes and feel better cards, and told me to call Sean so that I wouldn’t have to feel so bad. They were everything I needed to feed the kindness and patience and trust that had worn thin and snapped. It’s not the job and it’s certainly not the kids that wear on me: it’s the climate of suspicion among my coworkers that grinds me down.

There will be changes next year, and for that I’m grateful. I have my fingers crossed for someone who will climb mountains with me on the weekends and likes to play board games. If you are reading this, I make good pizza and great cookies, and I’m willing to learn to cross-country ski properly. DSC02099Carnival starts on Monday, and I’m starting to get excited. On my morning walk, a gentleman I know passed me on his four wheeler with two dogs hitched to a plastic sled running behind. In the sled was his four-or-five-year-old granddaughter, laughing her head off. My kids keep telling me how excited they are for the dog races and the princess coronation. C will be racing four dogs and also running for princess. She started making her own earrings during math class this week, when I deemed her sufficiently ahead in her work.

DSC02098I can’t wait to see her in her outfit with all that dark hair falling down her back. She’s usually very practically dressed with her long braid tucked into the back of her sweatshirt. It’ll be a privilege to see her in the dress and slippers that she’s been working so hard on with her auntie and grandma, and to hear her give her speech in Gwich’in. I’m going to ask her to make a pair of earrings for me. If she can be persuaded to make them, I’ll treasure them forever.

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Chickadee-dee-dee

We hiked out to Big Lake last night and did not get eaten by an ice bear. Now that I have once ventured into the bush, fully out of earshot of snow-gos and yelping dogs, I do not think wild horses could keep me out. I prowled alone all over the outskirts of the village tonight, following tracks through the trees, hoping to spot a lynx. I felt wildly daring when I stepped off the snow-go-beaten trail and stalked through the deep, dry powder, following an intriguing set of prints down a trail no person had been on since last snowfall. I didn’t find the animal that left the tracks (they were old, but I liked their winding line and followed anyway). The only wild thing I met on my walk was a chickadee, singing his spring song from a spruce tree. I stopped at his tree to watch him cock his jaunty, capped head as he hopped, and to rub powdery pitch between my fingers until it became soft and sharp-smelling.

On our hike last night, Sean and I saw no sign of the rumored bear, but we saw a squirrel scamper across the trail and stop in the snow, flicking his tail. He looked at us for a long time, and let us get surprisingly close. The squirrels here are small and ferociously alert, nothing like the languid, fat squirrels of suburbia. I expected him to break for the woods at any second as we drew near, but he didn’t. Instead, he vanished. Poof! We walked to the spot where he’d staged this trick and, sure enough, found the trap-door. The squirrel had whack-a-moled into a tunnel in the snow. Sean and I peered in, incredulous, and the squirrel popped up at the base of a shrub some ten feet away. I shrieked with surprise as it broke for the treeline.

It felt good to have someone to walk with me. It has felt good all week to have someone with me, and now I think the engine of this morning’s plane must have deafened me, because the quiet is so complete and sudden. I miss Sean and his bounce and bright warmth, but I’m not letting go of the fact that I chose this independence for a thousand right reasons. Sadness is silly when there are tracks to trace through the snow and sunsets to race to the riverbank. There’s a mountain I want to climb this spring, and looking at it makes my heart leap up, quick and giddy as a hand catching a blown kiss.

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Saturday Ambling

I haven’t spoken to another human being in the flesh today. Right now, I’m digging the peace and solitude.

Around noon, I went for my first solo walk around the village. Wednesday, the staff went to get mail and I got the grand tour in the school truck, but I haven’t been able to go see what there is to see on my own two feet on account of the darkness during my off hours. The sun was low, as always, and spilling blue and pink puddles on last night’s thin coat of white snow. I followed my old footsteps toward the school, then walked down the old airport runway toward the Chandalar. Folks on fourwheelers and snowmachines zipped by, and dogs yipped and yowled from across the village. Ravens floated like improbable lead gliders in the still air, so black in a world of pale pink and blue, their voices crackling as they chatted among themselves about some loose garbage near the community hall.

Sound carries differently in the cold. Everything pops and snaps, louder, sharper and closer than it should be.

I picked my way along the thick tracks left by the fourwheelers and snowgos, wondering if there are rules I should know about where I can and cannot or should and should not walk. There are a lot of trails, but there’s no system of roads and driveways that I can identify and understand. I didn’t want to invade anyone’s space, so I smiled at everyone who rolled by, looking bemusedly at me, and stuck to the wider paths away from the houses.

The cemetery is at the end of the old runway, and I explored a little, hoping there’d be no disrespect perceived in my paying a visit to the dead. The markers are mostly wooden, carved with the names and dates of the deceased, and many of the graves are surrounded by waist-high wooden fences. Most had some sort of weatherbeaten garland of plastic flowers. I’ve always felt comfortable in cemeteries. I like the quiet, and I like wondering about the people and their stories, hinted at by the headstones. At home in Maine, graveyards are often in some of the prettiest places, overlooking the ocean or tucked away in cool clearings in the mossy pine woods.

I spent a moment standing in silent company with all those carved names, looking down the bank at the flats where the sun was peeking over the horizon. I didn’t stay long. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Instead, I strolled down the bluff, a little nervous to be leaving the village proper, but enchanted by the empty flats and the frozen river, and willing to take up my courage and have an adventure. I’m sure I’ll soon feel silly for being unsure. I never stopped hearing the village dogs and the snowmachines, and I wouldn’t have been out of sight except for the bluff. Everything is new now, though, and I don’t know what’s safe and what isn’t. How far is too far to venture alone?

The village used to be located at the base of the bluff, but there was a huge flood and the community moved up onto the plateau. I rounded a corner on a snowmobile trail and came across an old church, open at all its doors and windows, empty except for an empty bottle of Jack Daniels. I ventured a little beyond it, but felt too timid to go out onto the ice alone, even with the reassuring vehicle tracks to mark a safe path.

DSC01821I turned back to walk home, this time cutting a new path closer to the buildings, more sure of my place here and of the conventions for passersby. I saw the daily plane come in to land, a noisier and stiffer hunk of improbably airborne matter than the ravens, and thought about going to meet it, but decided to save that adventure for another day. I was ready for a hot lunch, a book, and a cup of tea, my fingers were stiff from taking pictures in the cold and my eyes, the only part of me exposed, felt sticky.

When I got home, I wiped my eyes, realizing as I felt the chill dampness on my fingertips that my lashes had been frozen together. That accounted for the sticky feeling. When I went out again this afternoon, after another turn around the village and a short exploratory walk in a new direction, I took a picture. The moisture from my breath freezes on my lashes and the fluffy wool of my hat. I look pretty glamorous, don’t I? Frosted eyelashes are all the rage these days.

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Things that have been making me happy

1. These stories and photos from the Yukon flats. I am interviewing with a somewhat (ha!) nearby school for a position that would start in January. More on that later, if it comes to pass.

2. This package from the incomparable Becky of Westwick Dreaming who will soon be receiving something in return. Probably something strange.

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Note the marvelous lady swineherd card

3. On a related note, reading in French has made me happy. I’m finishing up with Harry Potter the first and getting ready to tackle the second.

4. Pancetta. Especially on pizza. Thank you Sean. You’re an everloving wonder.

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5. Friday ‘s sushi party at Pearl Street. Marianna doesn’t see a lot of sushi parties.

Scallop sashimi

Scallop sashimi

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6. Swift and efficient butchery of chickens that left us time to spare for laughing at this not-rubber chickenDSC010797. Trapped in the Closet chapters 1-12, which makes an appearance in my life about every five years, go figure. Maybe it can sense when I need to split my sides guffawing. Thank you for this inspiring and delightful film, R. Kelly.

8. Daydreaming about our “Holiday Residency” at the farm with Jesse and Chelsea. I’m planning to focus on video projects and eating.

9. My wonderful, comfortable kitchen in the sunshineDSC0109010. No school this week. Time to enjoy the sun and the quiet and maybe even to start on one of the thousand projects I have waiting in the wings.

this morning on the screen porch
a bird trapped in still cool shadows
impossibly whipping her insubstantial body
failing against the breathing wall.

her lover fluttered outside crying
and there were two silhouettes slamming wretched
and pointless

do I wish now for a bird’s eye view?
I wonder, could they see the screen?

I raised my arms and skirted behind her
she flew the long way round and out the door

Flight 2

I didn’t think that I would ever know the end of your story, but I do, and I want to share it.

In the evening dusk, hours after your flight, I looked for you on the steps and in the trees around the driveway. I went to bed, and when I got up in the morning, you were nowhere in sight. I gave you up, and smiled at the thought of you. I imagined you in a green light, glittering like your bright eyes.

The truth is that, huddled flat-footed on the linoleum, you looked up at me with those bright eyes when I found you, even though your wing sagged and your feathers were bent. Perhaps the cat thought he was bringing you back to me, and that’s why he didn’t make your soft, featherweight body into a toy as he’s done with so many birds. I imagine he tried to be gentle, but your beak was broken and you had a deep gash in your breast.

I picked you up from the floor and you relaxed in my palms like you had done so many times before, and your eyes were bright circles. I cleaned and bandaged the wound, and looked for superglue to splint the beak. When you tried to eat with the cockeyed bill, it was comical. You chased seeds across the floor, slapping your feet with each clumsy, sturdy step. I thought surely you’d get better, like you’d done before. I thought of how your will to live astonished me: all that heart in such a little breast. All that desire from a creature that couldn’t have any idea what there was out there to desire.

When I came home tonight, you were collapsed and panting under the light, liquid oozing from your bill. You opened your eyes to look at me when I picked you up, and, as I watched, you blinked matte black eyes and dribbled a clear bubble and my palm was wet. You heaved and gurgled in the tiny world of my hands, a lost cause, and my cheeks were wet.

I asked Sean to put you down, and he did. I trust his hands to kill with compassion. I asked him to leave your body in a tree and he did. Little one, you’re a bigger meal for the woods than you would have been if I’d never picked you up. In the little world of my hands, I said goodbye to your eyes, glad that they had seen what was out there to desire, and goodbye to your wings, glad that they had known what it is to fly. It’s not enough, but it’s something.

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Ultimately, I am responsible for the life and death of the dove. I fed him when he would have died, and when he might have lived, my cat dragged him in. Keeping cats is a small hypocrisy that this event crystallizes: I know that domestic cats are responsible for diminishing songbird populations, yet I keep two indoor-outdoor cats and refuse to declaw or bell them. Coyotes prey on housecats in this area, and I want my pets to have all of their stealth and weaponry intact when they are outside. I let them go outside because I’m too lazy to clean a litterbox and I don’t want to confine a creature that doesn’t like to be confined. They are happy cats.

Stray and feral cats are a problem in our area, and we often find ourselves caring for unwanted kittens that have been dumped out here in the country. My cats are both neutered, but that’s unusual in this region. From now on, I commit to see to it that every kitten that passes through my care, however briefly, is neutered before it leaves me. It’s not enough, but it’s something.