Bye for now, Summer

I’m in Arctic Village, this time for good. I flew in after inservice and Boots took the plane low to show his granddaughter, in the copilot’s seat, the herds of caribou up on the mountains. The plane dipped and bumped low over the trees and the other passengers turned green and pukey, but I was thrilled. The tundra was red and gold and the caribou were silver and galloping under a clear blue sky. What more could you want from a flight?

Everyone in the village was cutting meat all week or scrounging for gas to get up the mountain to hunt. It was science and traditional knowledge week at school, and the kids were cutting meat in the gym and working on a dogsled. Geoff opened the fridge in the school kitchen one afternoon and a whole bloody leg wrapped in garbage bags fell out. It was crazy.

Here are some pictures from my back porch, overlooking the Chandalar:

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If I step out back at five in the morning, I can see every pond in the valley (there are a lot of them) breathing silver mist into the air before the black mountains and the red horizon.

The willows have all turned yellow and rumor has it there’s been frost in the wee hours. We’re turning the corner and I’m so glad – winter is my favorite season since I’ve found ways to get out in it. I’m running most evenings now, getting ready to start strong with skiing this winter. I want to set a rabbit snare along a short ski loop so that I can check it often, and I’ve persuaded someone to teach me how to do it.

Geoff has agreed to go with me to Venetie by snowmachine. I hope it happens. There’s a lot of work involved, but it would really be something to show up some weekend out of the blue and visit for a while.

This week has been hard. Starting something new here and imagining those kids in Venetie starting a new school year without me has been a constant ache behind my heart. I miss their personalities and their ease with me. I’ll get there with the kids here, but it will take time, and, meanwhile, I’ll miss my class of characters like crazy.

Inservice was a stupid as usual (cold to lukewarm showers, sales pitches from textbook companies instead of professional learning, no collaboration time except bits and pieces at the end of the day), but some good things happened: Terri’s Aunt Bernice came and did a poetry workshop, which was fun; Student News is going strong in its second year, with more folks than ever participating; the union meeting felt productive and energetic, which made a nice change; and the math teachers met and agreed on a resolution to offer a two-year Algebra 1 option, which will reflect the kids’ learning more accurately on their transcripts. Barring sabotage by administrators with control issues, this will mark a good change for kids.

Geoff and I ran his boat up from Circle and camped on the Yukon for the week. We spent some time exploring the route to the Chandalar and some of the rivers that feed the big one just south of Fort Yukon. I’d write more, but there are things to do. It’s the last long weekend before Thanksgiving, and the mountains are calling. Here’s the photodump with illumination by caption:

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Packing in Fairbanks, prior to the great canoe heartbreak of 2016

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Camp on a high bank just north of Circle

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That log has ears

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This was my first bear sighting in Alaska, and the gorgeous animal was swimming across the Yukon. Pretty amazing.

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Island Camp. We were visited by a moose (he left only footprints while we were out) and a beaver, who slapped his tail and turned his nose up at us as he flew downriver. There was old bear scat in the dry slough, but we didn’t see any recent sign.

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Before inservice began, we explored miles up the Christian River.

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I got Chainsaw 102 in this dreamscape of an old burn on the Christian River.

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Firewood!

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The confluence of Cutoff Slough (part of the Yukon) and Marten Creek. Look closely: Marten Creek is the color of black coffee. The Yukon is the color of chai. The Christian River is the color of black tea. The Chandalar is blue.

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Yukon sunset, just north of Circle.

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I did it again

I bought another boat. What is it about the early days of summer that just does this to me?

This one is an eighteen foot square-stern canoe, and it’ll be built this summer by a small company (a dude named Michael)  here in Alaska called Yukon Freightworks Canoe Company.  I wanted something to take on serious adventures up interior rivers, and this felt right. With a small engine, Geoff and I will use it to make the trip from Circle up to Arctic in August, down the Yukon and then up the Chandalar, even in the shallow places where heavier, deeper drawing boats bottom out, and it’ll maybe be good for caribou in the fall, which would be a pretty cool adventure.

DSC04813I went up to Arctic last week to visit and relax after school got out. On Saturday, when I got off the plane, the river was cluttered and hissing with ice. By Tuesday, it was clear, high water full of muskrats and ducks. I hiked along the river on Wednesday afternoon and took a few pictures. A willow in bloom hummed with bees and made my heart fizz. When I came across a four-wheeler and spotted some folks out hunting ducks a little ways along the bank, I turned and slogged through the marsh to get back to Geoff’s place, stopping for raven feathers and tiny purple flowers in bloom. When I got to the house, I napped in my hammock, strung between two stringy spruce trees, until the sun dragged over the mountains. The next morning, it snowed. DSC04814

I can’t quite believe that this staggeringly beautiful, remote place is my new home. I have a P.O Box there (PO Box 22045, Arctic Village, AK 99722) and now that I’ve turned in all my school keys from Venetie, the keys to that box and the key to the Sassy White Bravo are my only keys in this universe. I like the things I can unlock, very much.

DSC04809This week, I’m taking classes in Anchorage to maintain my teaching license. To get here, I took the train from Fairbanks to Wasilla with Geoff, a trip I highly recommend to anyone who is thinking of visiting Alaska. The views are magnificent, the food is good, and the staff are informed and friendly. I have always liked taking the train because the landscape moves by at such a graceful pace. It’s not headlong and hurried like in a 12-passenger van full of kids. We saw some cool old home sites, several moose, trumpeter swans on their nests, and a single lost caribou, way out of his territory and all alone. Over lunch, we dreamed up a backpacking trip that would make use of the flag stop service that some routes still offer.

Yesterday was the best though. Geoff brought me up to Hatcher pass and we hiked several miles in along the Gold Mint trail through this beautiful river valley. I’m an idiot for not bringing my camera. There were a lot of people for the first few miles (forgive me, I’ve been in the bush, there were probably twenty), but as we slowly climbed up the valley alongside the clear-running river, the trail got swampier and snowier, the footprints grew less and less dense, and the cottonwood trees, aspens and alders thinned away to willows. We passed beaver pond after beaver pond, right beside the river, and spotted what I think must have been a wolverine in the rocks across the water. Lupines were blooming on the south side of the valley, and I was so glad to see them that I got a little misty-eyed.

After a while, we came to a place where the river was shallower and braided and the sun was shining on a sandbar in the middle. We took our shoes off, rolled up our pants and waded across the knee-deep, frigid moat, swearing and shrieking at the cold. My feet went completely numb and then burned with the cold, but the sand was warm on the other side, despite the patches of snow still clinging to it. Geoff and I both fell asleep, barefoot in the mountain sun, for a blissful half hour in the afternoon.

My Auntie Sheila (sender of bomb-ass care packages – THANK YOU – the kids [and I] loved the trail mix) tells me that my father said, after visiting me this spring, that if he had come to Alaska at my age, he’d have never come back.  There’s something in that, Pops.

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?

Camped out at inservice

DSC03547By sheer luck, I got invited to camp out on an island in the Yukon this week instead of staying in the dorms at voc-ed. Geoff, who teaches in Arctic Village, had set up his camp on Sunday, and when Terri found out, she fished for an invite. I distinctly remember, while packing my stuff in Belfast, thinking “how much camping will I be doing during inservice? Pah!” and boxing up my gear to mail to Venetie. Whoops. Fortunately, I had my sleeping bag and pad, and Terri brought along an extra tent. It was perfect last night: no bugs, no bears, no people. The sun dipped below the horizon for a while, but it never got truly dark. I slept with the tent unzipped and pegged open to let in the mist off the river and the sound of the water lapping the hull of Geoff’s boat in the night. Perfect.