Sunshine!

On the subject of sunshine, everyone should know that it’s daylight here twenty and more hours a day now, and twilight the rest of the time. I love hearing the birds singing all night. I went out to pee at two this morning and I could hear the river churning like a slushie machine down at first bend. Spring is here!

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Taking the sno-go in for storage, rocking some scandalously bare knees

In other sunshine-related news, I was nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award – “an award given to bloggers by their peers for being creative, positive, and inspiring, while spreading sunshine to the blogging community.”

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Thank you Julia for nominating me! I’m honored that you thought of me and also super delighted by your questions.

If you don’t already read Beneath the Borealis, you should. Julia writes an account of her life in a very different part of rural Alaska. She is perceptive, enthusiastic and vulnerable in her writing, and I love each and every one of her posts. She has just added a tiny fluff to her family, so one can assume there will be many enchanting snow-puppy stories coming soon.

Here are the questions posed to me by Julia:

Why did you begin your blog?

I began Chasing Piggens years ago, when I was living in Arkansas.

Partly, I started the blog because the life I shared at that time with my partner Sean was wildly different from the lives of everyone we knew. It was a way of sharing what we were up to, and why.

Partly, too, I was reading a lot of blogs at the time, learning about how folks had tackled projects or approached changes similar to mine. I thought I might have some useful advice for someone wanting to raise chickens in varmint hell or butcher their own pigs with the help of a decrepit swingset. Then I started reading Alaska blogs…

What is the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning?

“Oh shit, I’m late!”

Geoff woke me up at five thirty this morning, convinced we were late for work because the sun was so high in the sky.

The best part? Friday was the last day of school! We get to sleep in – or out, preferably – and on any schedule we please – for the next three months!

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We shot off rockets with the kids on Friday afternoon to celebrate.

How do you soothe yourself when you’re having a bad day?

I reread a Tamora Pierce book. Tortall is my favorite place to go when the real world is too tough to face.

Hogwarts is a close second, especially on audio as read by the fabulous Jim Dale.

What is your ultimate favorite meal or food item?

STUFFING! I love stuffing! I will go to extreme lengths (trust me – I live in the bush and it’s not easy to come by fresh parsley) to put honest-to-goodness homemade-from-scratch stuffing on the table at Thanksgiving.

If you could only recommend one place to go in the world to everyone you met, where would it be?

I would recommend the arctic. And I would advise everyone to stay for a while.

The arctic is beautiful and vibrant in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I lived in the lower-48. There are places here, river valleys and hilltop lookouts, that are so beautiful and primeval that they crack your heart wide open and compel you to drop everything and revel. You can’t help feeling small and afraid while at the same time feeling that you are at the height of your powers somehow: Impossibly human with a real understanding of what that means. If you hang around long enough, the landscape itself will transform you.

What is your favorite pair of shoes?

I love my Bean boots. They’re great all-purpose rugged footwear, and I kinda like that they mark me as a New Englander in a world of Alaskans in XtraTufs.

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Shoulder-season footwear with teacher-style ornamentation

Do you feel like an adult?

Yes, but I really hope that will go away when I stop being responsible for children all the time.

Lately, as I’ve been researching and scheming for Project LandYurtPlanDirt, I’ve felt ridiculously grown up. I have done heaps of paperwork, and I had to order checks for the first time in my life (who uses checks?! [adults, apparently]). I’m looking forward to the part where I’ve spent all my money and I get to go bash down trees and cut firewood and move into my sweet-ass yurt on a tall deck in among the trees beside the reindeer pasture. I’ll pull in my rope ladder (figurative or not? you decide!), put up a sign that says “no boys allowed” and forget all about paperwork for a good long while.

What makes you feel alive?

River trips, winning at anything, kissing, playing dog football or skijoring with Daazhraii, carefully planning and then spectacularly executing any scheme, singing in the car, fixing things by myself, being trusted.

What is your favorite cocktail or beverage?

I don’t have a favorite! Beverages are conditional. I do have a thing for pink, though. On a slow morning, grapefruit juice. Any time at all, a dash of real-deal cranberry juice in my water. In winter, I like a pink cocktail out on the town.

Do you like where you live?

Yes. It’s also very complicated. Arctic Village is both spectacular and harsh in almost every imaginable way.

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Chasing rockets through Arctic Village in rubber-boots

What do you need to do for yourself to feel good?

SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! Basic Self-Care vs. Work, Chores and Adventures!

In my life, the latter tends to totally dominate. My work makes me feel like I’m contributing something useful to the world, chores make me feel like I’m holding up my end of my relationship, and adventures make me feel like a badass. Eating well, sleeping enough, and getting any kind of exercise tend to fall by the wayside because those things benefit only me and don’t really impress anyone.

I’ve been a lot better about it this school year – I realize that I need to take care of myself if I want to get the most out of my body and mind – emotional resilience, physical wellness, and mental agility all depend on self-care and are all essential to succeeding as a teacher – but it can be really hard to prioritize myself. If I could push hard twenty-four hours a day, there would still be more to do: Lessons to plan, wood to chop, classes to teach, dishes to wash, papers to grade, game nights to run (I am now the Dungeon Master for some of our middle school boys who just got into D&D), events to plan, reports to draft, staff parties to host and on and on.

This year, Jewels and I worked out after school together.  At this point, we can both recite Jillian Michaels’ “Yoga Inferno” dvd nearly perfectly (our favorite line: “there are days you’d rather be dead than turn on this dvd!”). It is exhausting, but working out erases my headaches and makes me feel like a million bucks. That changed the school year in a huge way for me. Thank you Jewels, for always being game to roll out the yoga mats. You saved my bacon this year.

Nominations:

I would like to nominate some of my favorite, still-active, Alaskan Teacher-Bloggers for this award, and I’ve tailored my questions accordingly. With no internet at home, I’m terrible about keeping up with who’s new out there, so if you know of any good bush-teacher blogs I should follow, please comment.

  1. Aletha over at Tumbleweed Soul is very active and always has something cheerful or funny to say.
  2. Leslie at Occupational Therapy Below Zero works in Arctic Village with me, as well as in other parts of Alaska with other schools, and takes beautiful photos.
  3. Andrew and Kristina at Bellamy Travels are new to Alaska this past year. They work in Hughes and I just found their blog a few weeks ago when they posted an awesome synopsis of their year.

Here are the rules, if you wish to play:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
  3. Nominate up to 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
  4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog

Questions:

  1. Why Alaska?
  2. How does your experience compare to your expectations?
  3. Imagine a bucket. What’s it used for?
  4. If you could design your ideal care package, what would be in it?
  5. What is one thing you buy just about every single time you go to the grocery store?
  6. Do you have a favorite joke? What is it?
  7. What is something you can make, food or otherwise, that you are proud of?
  8. What is one thing you are looking forward to right now?
  9. When you need to laugh, what is your go-to book, podcast, tv show or whatever?
  10. What is your favorite extravagance?
  11. What is something that you miss already about winter?
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Books, Boxing, and Boot Liners

My kids finished their first novels of the year recently. For some kids, these were their first chapter books. One boy in particular announced to me that he’d never read a chapter book before and that it felt good. Since finishing that one, he’s read two others. Instead of poking the other kids when he finishes his work early, he quietly picks up his book and goes to a private corner of the room to read. I keep pinching myself to see if it’s real.

The first group read The Mighty Miss Malone. They were inspired by the account of the 1936 Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling fight and created puppets and a boxing-themed puppet show based on their reading and their research. They were a huge hit with the younger kids, who couldn’t stop talking about it for days after the big kids came to their classes and put on a show.

Yesterday, a group that read Homecoming finished their project, a picture book based on the story. They did a beautiful job: The illustrations were superb, and the main plot points of the story were all there in terms that little people could understand. I went with them to the K-2 class for their reading. Terri projected the book and had my kids read it aloud for the little guys. When they were done, she encouraged the little kids to thank the big kids with hugs, and “ask them nicely to write another book. You’d like an alphabet book, wouldn’t you?” My big tough boy hid behind a table when the little people came charging around to give hugs. One little girl looked directly at him and said “Wiw you wite us a book about faiwies?” and his face nearly melted. She was soooooooooo cute.

I talked on the phone with a friend in another village last night. He says he’ll take me camping this winter, which is awesome. Just going for walks here opens up the world and makes my heart smile. He’s talking with me about snowmachines and extra boot liners and wall tents, and I can’t wait to find out what the world might look like from that kind of adventure-place. I’ve also been emailing all week with a teacher from another district who’s taking me hiking when I go to town in November. He had all my students when they were in elementary, and seems to have an endless supply of super cute pictures of my kids when they were small. I often feel pretty isolated out here, but this week I haven’t. I’ve felt downright social.

Sometimes I think
everyone around me talks too much
I think
I don’t talk unless I have something to say

Sometimes I wonder
if I have nothing to say, or if
listening
just wears the words out of me

Either way.

Lately, I think
friends are the people you are quiet with
I think
I can hear our skis swishing in the snow

Lately I find
i have some friends here
listening
who hear the silent mountains too.

They say “Let’s go outside and play”
And we do.

First Week

Yesterday was the first fine day all week. We went outside to write in our journals. DSC03654 The kids ran ahead, tripping down the path they use in winter for sledding and in summer for flying on bikes.DSC03655Because they are silly, they wouldn’t sit on the ground. All eleven of them crammed together at the one picnic table. DSC03662A little less work got done than I might have hoped, due to the natural consequences of having eleven kids at one table, but everyone wrote at least a page of sensory details. On the walk back, B borrowed my camera.  DSC03665It has been an awesome first week of school. I had to fight to get B in my class, but he’s thriving so far. He likes the book we’re reading and the activities we’ve done in science. I have a handful of kids, like B, that I didn’t know well last year, and they’re still wild cards, but so far nobody has been bored enough to make trouble just for fun. It bodes well.

We’re going to do algebra for real this year. I’ve taken the kids who are ready, regardless of their grade, and Jake has the kids who need another year of preparation. Ready means, in this case, mostly okay on basic math. I’m starting with a good long pre-algebra unit, then jumping into the good stuff. We’re going to take it slow, but I think we can get there.

I have half the class reading The Mighty Miss Malone and the other half reading Homecoming. Both books deal with damaged families and poverty and kids who carry more than their share of the burden. So far, both books are hits, and it warms the cockles of my heart to sit with my kids and talk about literature. We’re getting there.

The anemometers have been mostly successful. They got a little lost converting RPMs to miles per hour, but we’ll keep hitting it until it comes easy. We’ll get there, given time. And distance. ha. ha. DSC03651

Cookies

I just sent four of my kids out the door, still sticky with chocolate fingers from the cookies they devoured.

This morning, my scintillating sixth grader marched up to me. “What time should I come to your house for cookies tonight?”
“This is the first I’ve heard about making cookies for you”
“So what time should I show up? 8?”
“I’m not making any promises, but if I let you in and I make cookies, you have to read to me while I make them.”
“OK. See you at 8”

She brought her sister and three friends, and they took turns reading Ella Enchanted to me while I whipped up a batch of Fannie Farmer’s chocolate chip wondercookies with oatmeal. They’re pretty cute.

In which I vacuum seal some chocolate cake

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It may look unappetizing to the uninitiated, but that is what is known in my neck of the woods as The Chocolate Cake. After you’ve tasted The Chocolate Cake, you can never eat other chocolate cakes without regret. It’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for “Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake” if you’re interested. Sean made it for the first time on my 20th birthday, and I shamelessly hid it from all of my friends and devoured it in secret. It’s that kind of cake.

It’s smooshed up in that baggie because we decided to go backpacking to celebrate Sean’s birthday last week, and the vacuum sealer was (er… is) still on the counter from all of the bacon-processing. We took the cake, took Friday off, and took to the woods with our friend Morgan (we were later joined by friend Andrew) to have an adventure on the Sylamore Creek section of the Ozark Highlands Trail.

By the time we reached the trailhead on Friday, it was 2:30. We’d had to de-mildew our gear and take care of the critters and run a few errands before we could leave, and the drive took nearly three hours. We planned on camping out and meeting Andrew a mile or two from the next trailhead (he’d hike in from that direction a little later in the afternoon). That afforded us a six or seven mile hike for the afternoon. Satisfied with the plan, decked in blaze orange, and full of chicken-salad sandwiches, we set off.

DSC00975The trail is mostly well-marked with white blazes, though it clearly sees little use. We did the crunchy-leaf shuffle for miles, the rustling so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation. The leaves on the ground sometimes obscured the path, and we once lost the trail completely and had to just aim ourselves north until we hit a jeep road that we recognized from our map. Getting lost in the woods spiced our afternoon with adventure, but it also cost us some time, and when it started getting dark we still had miles to go. The moon was huge that night, and it broke the horizon orange like an egg-yolk, but not until much later. For the last hour or so, we walked in full dark, navigating from bright blaze to blaze along the trail and then following the wide swath of a jeep road. At one point Morgan stopped, turned off her light, then turned it on again. “It’s spiders!” she said, “there’s hundreds of them! Their eyes are glowing.” She handed me her headlamp but I couldn’t see it, no matter how I tilted the light.

We reached a wide-open feed plot at around 6:45, but it felt like midnight. The stars were bright on the sky like I’ve heard the eyes of spiders are bright on the forest floor. We built a fire in the middle of the jeep road and set up camp. We roasted home-made venison sausages and baked sweet-potatoes in the coals. Andrew joined us later that night, ready to hang out by the fire, but by then we were all half-asleep, curled up in our nests around the coals.

DSC00954I got up just before dawn, chilly beside the ashes of the fire, and lit my stove to make myself some tea. When I sleep out, seeing the sunrise is a priority for me. I feel like a sunflower, smiling at the sky, getting my bearings for the day. I loaded up a bottle with hot tea, stuffed it into my sweater, and grabbed my camera. I found a nice corner of the woods and let the world light up with me in it.

DSC00958When I got back to camp, dragging some dry wood, everyone else was still asleep. I re-lit the fire and built it up a little, then crawled back into my sleeping bag with my hot-tea-bottle to warm my toes. I pulled out Harry and read a little by the breaking light of the sun and the flickering light of the fire.

DSC00953Too soon, everyone else was up, hustling to get coffee ready and start breakfast. We had bacon and eggs (ain’t nobody does deluxury backpacking like us folks) cooked in paper-bags over the fire. You rub the bacon on the bag to grease it, then make a bacon-nest in the bottom. You crack an egg into the nest, fold the top of the bag over, then spear it on a stick and hold it over the coals. To tell you the truth, a foil-pack works better, but the paper-bag scheme has a cool-factor that foil packs don’t offer, plus you can burn your cooking implement when you’re done, instead of packing it out. At one point, my bag caught fire and burned down to the bacon, but we slid the charred remains of the bag into another bag and I cooked on with great success (and at great length, this took something like an hour)

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As you can see, my egg is seasoned with paper bag ash

We spent Saturday on the trail and came across our first hunters only a short walk from our camp. Saturday was opening day for deer season in Arkansas, and we’d been concerned about hunters coming upon us early in the morning, especially sleeping as we were in the middle of a feed plot. I heard four-wheelers and some shots in the early morning, but there was another feed plot down the road a stretch, and our sleep had gone undisturbed. The hunters we met looked bemused to see us tromping through the woods, all decked out in orange and with heavy packs and no guns, but they were friendly and chit-chatted with us a while.

We filtered water twice in some cold pools in the bottoms. They weren’t flowing (trickling at best) but we pushed our concerns back and drank up. We’re still fine.

We looked a little smurfy in our bulletproof hats, but our ears were damn warm.

We looked a little smurfy in our bulletproof hats, but our ears were damn warm.

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Sean quite liked these funky formations.

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We were forced to abandon our filtration mission at this pool with the cool rock wall when Andrew went for a swim. Brrr!

DSC00970We camped the next night on a north face, and I pointed my hammock east. I didn’t have to break my cocoon to watch the sun come up: I just basked under the pink sky and read about Harry’s adventures at Poudlard (that’s french for Hogwarts, it seems). After a time, we all got up and reluctantly stuffed our aching feet into our frosty shoes and boots and set off down the trail to the next road crossing where we dropped our packs, hitched up our pants and stuck out our thumbs. A young man, unsurprisingly in a pickup loaded up with hunting gear, stopped for us, and (surprisingly) he didn’t make us ride in back but allowed our stinky selves into the cab. We chatted about spray-foam insulation and pheasants as the red hills swooped by, and he left us at Andrew’s car, ready for a pizza.

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