Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

Venetie Volleyball

On Thursday, six kids from Venetie flew to Arctic Village to play volleyball. We’ve been planning this for a while with their principal, and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was just the germ of an idea.

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Venetie and Arctic have a complex relationship. They are partners in land ownership and governance, but there is some animosity between them. Arctic gets a lot of visitors and attention from outside, and I think there’s a perception in Venetie that Arctic is kind of stuck up. Venetie is a rougher village. There seems to be more crime and drinking and ugliness there (though I am not convinced that this is as it seems). Arctic kids grow up with an aversion to things Venetie. When I wore my Wolfpack hoodie this fall, they would call me a “mutt” and make rude comments about people from Venetie. The kids from the two villages snipe at each other over social media, even though they have hardly met in person.

I love those Venetie kids wholeheartedly. I latched on to them over the year and a half I was their teacher, and they mean the moon to me. When kids here say unkind things about them (people from Venetie suck: so and so is mean) I take it pretty hard. This visit was an opportunity to chip away at that prejudice a little.

Thursday, we mixed the groups and played Shipwreck, a team building game where you have to get everyone on your team across the gym before the other team. The challenge: the floor is lava. We gave them tools, (rope, hula hoops, a single roller skate, a scooter) and we set up a few islands. It was great watching them solve problems and come up with creative ways to use the items.

Later, we had them work in teams to make and clean up after a shared dinner, and after dinner we opened the gym for casual volleyball for a few hours. Geoff and I had ordered a glow-in the dark ball, and I had all the kids sign it with highlighters. We set up black-lights on the stanchions and passed out glow sticks for wristbands, then turned out the gym lights. It was pretty spectacular. G’s teeth glowed in the blacklight.

Friday was tournament day, and there was a lot to do, but we took the afternoon off from preparations to get out and enjoy the suddenly warm (-15?) weather. I set some kids up with skis during PE and Geoff set some others up with snowboards. At 1:30 we headed out to the lake. The truck dropped us off beyond the airport, and we skied or walked the rest of the way.

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I skied, and it was blissful. It’s been too cold to ski most of this winter, not because I’m a pansy but because there’s a temperature at which skis just stick instead of gliding. I pulled ahead of the kids and took a picture of them all trekking in the snowmachine trail across the lake to the spot Geoff had chosen for a fire.

dsc05375Geoff drove his snowmachine back and forth, picking up kids in the sled and hauling them out to the fire. I bummed a ride down the lake and back once, before all the kids lined up to try it, whether on snowboards or skis. L was awesome on a snowboard. dsc05384They heckled Eddie, the principal from Venetie, until he got on a snowboard and gave it a try. C, a 7th grader from Arctic, rode backwards on the machine behind Geoff, giggling. The kids kept a great fire going the whole time, and heated water for tea. Everyone had a blast, and no one complained about the long walk out or the chilly ride back to school in the back of the truck.

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We were all exhausted by the time we got back to school, but the day’s activities weren’t done. I led a team in pizza-making, and sweet P from Venetie made cake for everyone to share.

After dinner, the moment was finally upon us. We scrambled to figure out the scoreboard, find a whistle, and organize the kids into reasonable teams (we had to have two teams from Arctic). At 7:30, the games began.

Folks from the village showed up and cheered for both teams, which made me glad. I admit to secretly cheering for the Venetie kids: I could see their nerves, their courage, and their determination clearly on their well-loved faces, whereas the Arctic kids were perfectly relaxed and at home. All the kids played great games, with Venetie losing to both Arctic teams by only a point or two.

After the two schools played, a village team was organized, and they played a few games against mixed student teams. I like that the kids ended the volleyball tournament by playing together. It reinforced what the trip was supposed to be all about (in my mind).

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The kids stayed and watched a movie in my classroom until midnight. I was dragging by that time, completely done-in by the long days. When the Arctic kids finally went home and the Venetie kids finally headed to bed (“bye,” said G as the Arctic kids put on their snowpants in the hall, “it was really nice to meet you”), I was more than ready to get home and into my warm, blessedly horizontal bed.

In the morning, I went over to the school to have breakfast with the Venetie kiddos before the plane came. They were still sleeping when I got there, so I got to read the note they’d written on my board and leak some tears before they woke up.

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A few Arctic kids showed up for breakfast, but they didn’t stay long, so I got to spend a little alone-time with my girls, and that meant a lot to me. The relationship I have with them is nothing like my relationship with the kids here. They feel more like family than like students, and I told them how proud I am of their courage, grace and humor. They gave me all the gossip – who has a new baby in the village, which Venetie girl has a crush on which Arctic boy and so on. A has matured so much since last year, and she is standing up straighter, proud of her bright mind and smile. G has grown into her height – she’s become a confident, stunning young woman. P is so much less volatile now, and she lets her kindness show through more. As usual, C is perfectly herself. I’ve really missed them.

Arctic is traveling to Venetie for a rematch in the spring. The girls are determined to give us a warm welcome and show us a good time. I can’t wait to visit and see what they come up with.

 

Hey Girl

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I spent all week camped out on this island with two other teachers. They nicknamed us “the Island of Misfit Toys” but we knew who got the better end of that deal.

Sean sent me this email the other day, and it struck me just silly with happiness. He says he doesn’t mind my sharing.

Hey girl,

Liberation looks good on you
but your liberation also looks good on me.
because as MLK said,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
kickass or what?
Sean and I radically changed our relationship a year or so ago, and I’ve been struggling to find the right words to talk about it. I made an attempt at it around the campfire last week and it went okay, but I’m still not totally able to articulate things. There isn’t a label that satisfies me. “Open Relationship” is pretty close, but I’m not totally comfortable with it for the following reasons:
  1. People tend to assume that an open relationship is about “getting” (isn’t it weird how people use that word, which assigns connotations of privilege to something that most folks disapprove of?) to have sex with more than one partner. Folks get pretty hung up on the idea, and it isn’t really an important part of what I want to say. It’s distracting.
  2. It uses that word “relationship” with the significance that I’m trying to separate from it. Relationships are everywhere, and I think it’s arbitrary how some get the capital R and others don’t. The most significant relationships in my life are not always with romantic interests

What I want to say is about liberation. I should have known I could count on Sean to help me find the words. He’s dead on.

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Sleeping out under the pale night sky was awesome, and running upriver some sixty miles with hardly a sign of humanity was staggering (we passed another boat only once, cruising down from Circle with a snowgo strapped on). It’s hard to explain how it feels to find yourself in the middle of country as vast as the sky. Humbling and freeing, too.

I was under a lot more pressure than I realized, back when we were in a conventional relationship. Pressure to always be happy together, pressure to follow the standard relationship plot (love, marriage, babies, die together), pressure to be satisfied with the physical and emotional intimacy within the relationship, pressure to prop up the parts of the relationship that weren’t working to protect the parts that were. (I caused an important relationship to implode, once, by trying, in a very clumsy way, to confront these problems, and I’m still dealing with the fallout from that.) Every time I acknowledged my feelings of dissatisfaction, I felt guilty for letting Sean down. Things compounded.

It boils down to this: The relationship was constraining me, not supporting me (NOTE: don’t conflate the relationship and Sean. Sean has always supported me in every way). It limited my emotional expression and made me feel guilty when I stepped outside of those limits.

What a whopper of a realization that was. And it wasn’t Sean’s fault, or mine. We’d done everything right: we loved each other, we supported each other, and we trusted each other. We’d followed the recipe for success, so it was a sucker-punch when we failed.

The Yukon is full of gravel bars that are often completely hidden under just a few inches of water. Geoff explained that he avoids these by hugging the cutbanks where the water runs fast and deep, and by looking for swirls on the surface that indicate depth and power below. This is basically the opposite of what I learned as a kid on the ocean, where it's important to avoid squirrely looking water because it usually hides a submerged hazard.

The Yukon is full of gravel bars that are often completely hidden under just a few inches of water. Geoff explained that he avoids these by hugging the cutbanks where the water runs fast and deep, and by looking for swirls on the surface that indicate depth and power below.  This is basically the opposite of what I learned as a kid on the ocean, where it’s important to avoid squirrely looking water because it usually hides a submerged hazard.

Things got pretty bad last fall, at work, and I finally gave up and tried a little slash-and-burn, figuring I could start completely fresh: I quit my job and told Sean I was quitting him, and I cried a lot and promised myself I’d stick with it because temporary agony was better than a lifetime of tepid, nagging discomfort. It didn’t work well. There was too much to lose.

So, instead of cutting loose, Sean and I ended our old relationship and rebuilt a new, different one, where the key was liberation and mutual empowerment. The relationship would be flexible, all doors would remain open, and we wouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations, difficult feelings, or unconventional confessions.

To make this happen, we did away with commitment in the usual sense: We don’t count on a future together. We are not exclusive. We are reliably there for each other. That’s enough.

Security is a huge part of typical romantic relationships, and I now think that’s some bullshit. People lean on their partners to make them feel confident and wanted when they can’t love themselves, and that sucks. Typical romantic relationships impose limits on the partners so that both can feel safe.

I spent last week sleeping in a tent with the door open to the night sky and the river breeze and all the wild things in the wilderness. The yukon flats are not safe, but I wouldn't trade the cool air and the sunset for walls and a ceiling.

I spent last week sleeping in a tent with the door open to the night sky and the river breeze and all the wild things in the wilderness. The yukon flats are not safe, but I wouldn’t trade the cool air and the sunset for walls and a ceiling.

Security should come from inside, like it’s the opposite of insecurity or something (duh). So Sean and I are working on helping each other feel secure from the inside out. The future is uncertain, but each of us is going to be awesome enough to deal independenty with whatever comes up. That’s our commitment. That’s our security.

It seems really stupid, now, but when we killed our old relationship, it felt like a big deal for me to get my own bedroom: I could stay up all night reading without bothering anyone (or not), I could have as many blankets as I wanted (or not), I could invite cuddles (or not), and I didn’t have to feel guilty about any of those things because we weren’t in that kind of a relationship anymore. I had always felt guilty before about wanting my own space (both the walls-to-decorate kind and the room-to-grow-as-a-person kind), like denying my partner access to my whole world was a sign of failure.

I think if I had been less-inclined to challenge myself and prod my discomforts (guilt, claustrophobia), things would have been different. I know people who are happy in conventional relationships, and I envy them the simplicity of that comfort. For me, though, I know now that it can’t work. The typical restrictions that a relationship imposes are too uncomfortable.

Typical romantic relationships impose limits on love, intimacy and sex.

  1. Mainstream culture treats love like it’s a limited commodity, and it’s plain to me that it isn’t. I’ve noticed that the more confident and secure I feel, the more broadly and deeply I am able to love. This used to look like a paradox: when I was happiest and most loved, I was most inclined to extend love beyond the romantic relationship. Instant guilt trip! Pow!
  2. Emotional intimacy is limited naturally by space, time and luck, but typical relationships impose other limits (and have other limits imposed on them by society, as I described here) that are, at best, pointless and, at worst, cowardly. There’s this idea that intimacy between partners diminishes if the partners are close to other people, too. Dumb.
  3. Then there’s sex. Why does mainstream culture make such a big deal about sex in the terms and conditions of acceptable relationships? Isn’t emotional intimacy more important, anyway? No, it turns out, not to most people (I learned that the hard way). I talked to Sean about this last night, and he said something like “meaningful, emotional intimacy is way more important, but you can’t see it or measure it or even always recognize it, so people use physical intimacy as a symbol.” Swoon. There’s also a long history of oppressing women here. I don’t think I even need to touch that, but I want to mention that it’s time we got over it.

Why is it that there are socially-acceptable degrees of non-intimate relationships, but when sex or love is on the table, polarization occurs? Either you are, or you aren’t “together”, “dating”, or “in a relationship”. Bullshit. I’m in a relationship of some kind with each person on the planet. Why shouldn’t each relationship be unique? Why shouldn’t the people involved get to decide the terms and conditions?

I know some people who, in reading this, will miss the point. They’ll say, “wait, are you guys broken up, or not?” I asked Sean about that, too, and he said “that’s silly. If they hear what you’re saying, they’ll understand that ‘Breaking Up’ isn’t in the jargon for you anymore. You don’t cut someone loose just because something isn’t working, you change the relationship and find something new that works better. Creating space isn’t the same as failing. If they think that, it’s because they need a paradigm shift, not because you aren’t explaining it well.” He’s right, too, my brilliant partner.

DSC03534From where I stand now, I don’t have to feel bad about wanting space and fresh air and freedom. The feeling is mine, and I love me, so the feeling can’t be wrong. I can embrace it and follow through on it, and the best part is that having space of my own somehow makes more room for Sean, too. I am not kicking him away to make space for myself in our relationship anymore: I am inviting Sean into the limitless space of my life.

I no longer have to wall myself off against new intimacy in order to protect someone else’s feelings. I can blur the usual lines between friendship and love to suit what’s in my heart. I’m more honest about my feelings now than I’ve ever been because there’s no need for guilt or censorship or dissembling. My discomfort, my crushes, my cravings for solitude; all of this I can embrace as mine and speak of freely. There’s no need to push down the stuff that wells up because, no matter how peculiar or unwelcome it may be, it’s mine and it’s part of what makes me awesome.

Now, I don’t have to think about someone else’s future when I make my own. I can move to Alaska without a plan to come back. I can say “I will never get married” and “I am going to buy a boat” and that’s it. It’s done. There’s nobody I must consult.

It’s a little scary, living outside the walls and ceiling, but it’s awesome to finally find a place where all of me fits comfortably.

Isn't this cutbank on the Yukon extraordinary? It's something like 25 feet of sand with a think layer of soil on top. We stopped to watch chunks of sand the size of my torso fall from the bank and plunge into the river.

Isn’t this cutbank on the Yukon awesome? It’s something like 25 feet of sand with a thin layer of soil on top. We stopped to watch chunks of sand the size of my torso fall from the bank and plunge into the river. Nothing in Alaska is slow or small in its magnitude.

In conclusion, I return to the beginning:

Hey girl,

Liberation looks good on you
but your liberation also looks good on me.
because as MLK said,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
kickass or what?

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.

Ha!

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.

Keely