Weekends are Sacred

Last Wednesday night, Geoff and I left school to meet a late flight. We were stoked – it was a good surprise, an unexpected extra flight from Fairbanks that was carrying the rest of our gear from break. We arrived at the airport and hopped out of the truck into the -20 degree evening air expecting five or six boxes and a backpack. Geoff wasn’t even wearing a coat – it was supposed to be that quick. What we got was a backpack, five or six personal boxes, and about eight-hundred pounds of freight for the school. A lot of it was perishable.

We’d had no idea this stuff was coming. No one from the district called, and the airline hadn’t notified us. The maintenance guy, who usually picks up freight for the school, had gone home for the day (after making sure that nothing was coming in on the plane – the regularly scheduled, dependable morning flight). We couldn’t leave that stuff up there – the tomatoes and lettuce were already half-frozen.

We did what we had to do, lifting box after box into the back of the truck until it was overflowing: we lost boxes a couple times on the ride back to school, but frozen chicken patties don’t suffer too much from that kind of treatment. When we got to school, we unloaded and put everything in its place – the frozen stuff in the freezer, the fresh stuff in the refrigerators, and so on.

This wasn’t according to plan, and it sucked.

Evenings are precious. They are for skiing and working on snowmachines and cooking and playing games and preparing for a weekend in the woods and watching movies. They are also for planning and grading and doing dishes and other necessary chores that allow us to ski and eat and camp and relax.

We powered through the stacking and unstacking, packing and unpacking and went home to eat leftovers. Thursday and Friday passed as all days must eventually pass. When the last kid left the building on Friday, we each heaved a sigh of relief.

That night, in the middle of cooking dinner, I heard a plane. “Plane?” I said, surprised to hear one coming in at 6:30. “Must be a MedEvac,”

“No one has called for the truck,” Geoff replied, sharing my thought. Sometimes we get called when an injured person needs a ride to the airport because the school has the only working truck in the community and the injured person needs to lie down or can’t be transported by four-wheeler. Now that there’s snow on the ground, though, the community should be using a sled.

The call came fifteen minutes later. A whole planeload of freight for the school, mostly canned goods, which will explode if left outside.

Did we…

  1.  Pretend we never got the call and swear never to answer the phone again, leaving the cans to burst on the runway?
  2. Give up our Friday night and go haul freight until our fingers froze off and our backs buckled?
  3. Quit our jobs and move to Iceland?

Geoff put his foot down. Evenings are precious, but weekends are sacred. We have a right to use our weekends as we see fit, to go camping or just choose to not answer the phone. They can’t rely on our being on call every minute of every day.

For the next hour, Geoff negotiated with the agent up at the airport, the maintenance guy, and the Superintendent. It still sucked, but somehow it got taken care of without our ever leaving the house.

There is so much on a teacher’s shoulders already, and I’m witnessing firsthand the toll that added principal duties can take. We’re struggling to find a steady Gwich’in teacher, and we’re down from four classroom aides to two. Our copier is broken, we’re almost out of paper, and we don’t have enough computers. We can’t get sick because we don’t have any substitutes, our kids’ attendance is at about 75%, our special education students haven’t received services for years… Add to that some late-night emergency deliveryman work and you’ve got a camel swaying under its burden.

There’s no easy solution, but there is this:


The sky was gorgeous this weekend, and I actually managed to go out skiing yesterday. I went as far as a creek thick with overflow, then turned back toward the fiery pink mountains and the warm home lights and warm chimneysmoke of town.

Geoff has finally got his snowmachine fixed, and we’re ready to start breaking trail toward Venetie. We’ll pack up the tent and the rifle and load the sled, then spend the weekend working our way south, keeping eyes out for caribou and good campsites. I am so ready.

Prom Dresses


They came in the mail today, a great big whopping boxful. The girls and I had spent a few hours cleaning the gym: they were tired and dirty. Their hair was covered in glitter from the cardboard stars we’d made, and their elbows were streaked with mopwater. “Give me my knife,” I told G. “I think this is…” and they gathered round as I slit the tape and popped open the flaps.

They gasped as one in a single huge tide of breath, and then there was a flurry of shouts and rustling fabrics and a whoosh as a rainbow of colors lit with sequins leaped out of the box and whirled around the cafeteria. “look at this one! Do you think this would fit me?” P held a tiny, sequined dress against her tiny body and nearly cracked the top of her head off grinning. I looked down at the nearly empty box and my own smile grew until the corners of my mouth just about met at the back of my neck. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a shout of joy like that. There must be a special sound that only a roomful of radiantly happy teenage girls can make. I let them look over the dresses for a few minutes, then finally said “that’s it. We’re going to the locker room!”

We left the cafeteria awash in glitter and paper and bits of cardboard and open bottles of glue, and the girls gamboled down the hall exactly like giddy schoolgirls getting ready to try on beautiful prom dresses for maybe the first time ever. I followed, trying not to let tears slip out of my squinty grinny eyes. The bathroom stall doors slammed and dresses hung like prayer flags in all colors over the half-walls. P looked like a pixie in her seafoam and sequins, pulled on over her jeans. Her shoulderblades showed like wings in the back, and she glowed like a tiny moon as she charged all over the building, blushing and glorying in the compliments.

B wouldn’t come out of the stall without her sweatshirt. She was absolutely scandalized by the neckline of the pale gold dress she had on. Eventually, she peeked around the corner, pink-cheeked and flailing in her rush to get to the mirrors and then back to the bathroom stall. I believe the dress was perfect for her: it made her look fresh and regal, like a greek queen in a picture book. “Can I wear that dress?” she asked me a little later, whispering shy, and I put set it in her hands like a cloud.

Another girl held her shirt up to her chest and wouldn’t take it away to look in the mirror until everyone else had turned away. The cut of that dress was incredibly flattering, and the jewel blue color lit her skin up. She took that dress and folded it into her backpack, blushing.

After ages spent helping the other girls zip up and giving compliments and laughing, Miss A tried on a long cream dress. A is one of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen, with her chin-dimples and elegant frame, and she always wears jeans and a big hoodie that she pulls over her face when someone smiles at her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her elbows. “She looks amazing,” said C, “it’s so beautiful, A.” G agreed. A wouldn’t step out of the bathroom stall to look in the mirror or for me to see her. I waited.
“Okay, Ms O,” A said firmly with a deep breath. It was a command. She threw open the door, and I walked up to face her. I couldn’t keep the admiration from showing in my smile, and A got totally overwhelmed and shrieked and slammed the door in my face while the other girls laughed and I pretended to faint from the vision I’d just beheld.

My heart nearly burst from all the demure giggles, crooked-toothed grins, surprised beauties, and happy blushing of this afternoon. Thank you thank you thank you a thousand times to everyone who helped make this happen, especially my Pops and our neighbors in Belfast who took the time to hit the post office on our behalf. Of course we owe a staggeringly HUGE Mahsi’ Choh to the Cinderella Project of Maine for this moment. I wish I had a video of the explosive, joyful instant when that box of dresses first opened. It was everything I could have hoped it would be. The girls will never forget this, and neither will I.

Weird Weekend On Its Way

Almost everyone I work with is out of the village this weekend. Terri left yesterday, and Jake, Shannon, and Ben all left this afternoon. It’s strange and a little unsettling, suddenly being so much more alone. I have Ruby, Terri’s little dog, to keep me company, and my students are sure to make appearances from time to time, but even my usual go-to phone call buddy, Sean, is disconnected while traveling this weekend.

my usual companions have left, and I'm cut off from the rest of the world.

my usual companions have left, and I’m cut off from the rest of the world.

I’m not worried about being lonely. I like keeping my own company, and I’ll have some fun this weekend working on a project or two for the prom and graduation. The thing is, there are no adults in the village right now that I know well enough to call on if something goes a little awry. I don’t have phone numbers memorized for an emergency, and I don’t think calling 911 does anything out here. I’m not expecting trouble, just realizing that I need more of a support network in this place. Usually I have someone in one of the apartments that abuts mine, and for the moment I’m all alone. There are two school staff still here, but both make me a little uncomfortable, which is a whole lot worse than lonely.

I do have the kids, though, and they’ll keep me from going all weekend without a laugh. I have the kids and I have Ruby Who Is A Dog (some kid asked me on our morning constitutional, “what is that!?”). I have my safe warm house and a well-stocked kitchen and a whole lot of Northern Exposure to watch. Best of all, I have the slough and the spring woods to spend my hours reveling in, the way popcorn revels in butter. With a little luck, the cookie girls will be coming by soon to rescue me from my solitude. I’d better run to the store for eggs before it’s too late. DSC02675

I will never get tired of sunset

DSC02232Luck bestows a lot of twilight on the arctic, but it is migrating rapidly from noon to midnight, and it’s harder and harder to get out to enjoy it. I didn’t come home from this hike until nearly 10:30 on Thursday evening, but it was well worth the lost sleep.



Everything I thought I knew about time and space seems very muddled. Sunset in no way corresponds with bedtime, nor does sunrise align with waking. When I first got here, the sun very determinedly rose and then shortly set again in the south. Now it’s all creeping north, sliding along the horizon.The whole arrangement seems very unreliable for something so cosmic. My classroom windows face north, and my avocado is flourishing there.



It’s very lively, the way the shadows never seem to fall the same way twice.

One of the most fun and strange things about teaching is how it pushes you to do things you never had any interest in before. My students don’t want to put on a play or start a literary magazine or a garden: they want a prom. Consequently, I have been very busy with, of all things, prom planning. What will our theme be? Who can come? How can we arrange for the girls to get their hair done? How can we transport them through the muddy May village without soiling their shoes? Last night was our first fundraiser, a spaghetti dinner and movie night, and the girls carried it off with style: They cooked, they cleaned up, they announced the event over the radio, they handled disasters and complaints like pros. It was so much better than I expected.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s your first fundraiser?! How can you expect to have a real prom if all you have is $120 and a group of wishful teenagers? Well, dear skeptics, we can’t expect to have a real prom. For a real prom, you usually need more than five boys in school, and it doesn’t hurt to have a local band, or a caterer, or a florist and someplace to rent a tux. Oh well. We don’t, and we have to make the most of it. Because I am their sponsor, we are going to try to get karaoke and laser tag, and to hell with your preconceived notions. I have enough cardboard stuffed behind my couch to make some very respectable prom decorations that can double as cover in the likely event of a laser tag shootout. I’m very pleased with the idea. $110 should get us enough glitter, and the rest we can scrounge. It might not look much like a prom, but it will be all kinds of fun.

If you happen to be sitting on a couple of old prom dresses or bridesmaid dresses that you can’t stand to look at anymore, it might be that my girls could put them back in action.

P.O. Box 81153, Venetie, AK

Bush Living Challenges 2: Uh… Everything? (except the important stuff)

DSC02022Mail comes every day, but because of school, I can only get to the post office on Wednesday. I, very unwisely, didn’t get a sled in Fairbanks this week and continue to carry my parcels through the snow like an old-fashioned Christmas card. It’s tricky when I have a lot of boxes! Today, Mr. Ben very kindly let me put my packages in his sled. Over the sound of the sled scraping over the hard snow (it got cold again this week) we chatted about postcards and speculated about the contents of our packages as we walked home. I love Wednesdays. The school has early dismissal and the teachers all walk or ride in the school truck to get the mail. My friends and family have been amazing about sending regular letters and care packages, so I always have something to look forward to. Masi’ (That’s Gwich’in for “thank you”) and loads of love, y’all.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

Venetie looks similar to this, but smaller and with mountains in the distance. Someday I’ll have the presence of mind to take a picture. Almost everything in the village has to be flown in on a small plane (special circumstances might call for a barge up the river, but I think that’s just for vehicles and other things too heavy and bulky to fly). Heavy things like furniture and liquids get expensive quickly, and there’s a wait for everything. When flying out of Fairbanks, baggage goes on the plane with you and freight goes on a plane sometime when there’s room. Baggage is a dollar more per pound than freight, but freight is uncertain. Don’t send your cheese freight and expect to make pizza that same night. Boxes usually come within a few days, and the freight office will keep them cold or frozen for you while they’re waiting to ship.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

I bought everything I needed for two months that day, then stocked up again last week. The first time, I bought a ton of frozen green veggies, and I’m still working on those. My fridge is awesomely cold, so I still have (unfrozen) carrots, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and cabbage from January. Eggs too. I freeze things like butter and cheese, and I make most of my own bread products. Salad greens and fruit are really the only things I can’t keep, so I revel in those things when I get the chance (salad twice a day, every day this week! With avocados!). Apples are okay in the fridge for a month, but they go a little soft after that. This time, I got some frozen fruit to spice up my breakfast once in a while. Really, the food thing isn’t that bad. Running out of something or realizing you are missing a key ingredient that can’t be found at the village store really truly sucks, but it doesn’t happen to me too much. I’m a good provisioner, and I stocked up with a good variety of ingredients, so I work with what I’ve got. Pro – tip: Cilantro freezes with its flavor intact. It’s worth its weight in gold on taco night. I discovered this accidentally, when my cilantro wound up in a box of frozen stuff for shipping.

Here's the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It's incredible how much we've leaned into the sun!

Here’s the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It’s incredible how much we’ve leaned into the sun!

Here's a closeup of the flyers on the post office

Here’s a closeup of the flyers on the post office, a little gossip for those of you who are interested.

In case you were wondering about what's newsworthy in the village

And some more, just in case you were wondering about what’s newsworthy in the village.

The phone company?

The phone company?

The dump

The dump. We’re working on recycling, but it doesn’t make much economic sense.

The district had inservice in Fairbanks last week, which provided a nice opportunity to get groceries and eat ice cream. I got to visit book stores and the ice park and the Festival of Native Arts, where I had the pleasure of seeing one of my students dance. I strolled through a couple of art galleries with my hostess, an awesome lady who works in the district and offered to put me up for the weekend and drive me around, which was extremely helpful because I still have no idea what I’m doing, logistically, though I’m figuring it out. She made sure I made it on the plane with everything I’d need, and I’m grateful to her for that.



The art and culture and food made a good change of pace from the predictable pleasures of village life, but I’d worn myself out teaching hard in the weeks leading up to inservice, so I spent most of last week in training or in a sick fog. I didn’t even get to have dinner with Dave and Lindsay, which I was looking forward to. I slept through dinner a lot.

It felt weird, having to get in a car to go somewhere. I didn’t like opening the cupboards in my suite at the hotel and not seeing the comforting rows of flour bags and cans of coconut milk that I keep soldier-neat here in my Venetie apartment. Flying in on sunday, when the pilot banked the plane and I caught sight of the mountains, then the tiny village, vanishing small in the flats, I felt my face stretching on its own into a (snotty [so snotty] still-sick) smile. Home. My little corner of the wilderness.

DSC01973My life here is simple and my time is full but never rushed. A friend commented to me in a letter that he’s impressed by my ability to keep cabin fever at bay. It’s not hard. I like having time to fill with cups of tea and french practice and cooking and long walks and phone calls. I like the simple pleasure of once-a-week mail and my breathtaking view of the night sky.  As I told another friend, I have the luxury of bathwater time, copious and comfortable and ideal for reading. I need a houseplant or two, and I still need a sled, and in a truly ideal world I’d have an actual bathtub, but coming home made me realize how profoundly I am happy here.