20 January 2011


This weekend I will be participating in a time-honored Bethel JV tradition--the Kuskokwim 300 Dogsled Race. The seven of us will be split between two of the check points along the 300-mile route: three in Kalskag and four in Tuluksak. I am part of the Tuluksak crew and am feeling very excited to take my first trip in a small plane (I am guessing it will be a six-seater) and to spend the weekend in the village trying to learn the ropes (perhaps even very literally) of dogsled racing. Our official tasks include marking the time when the mushers arrive and depart the check point, making sure they have all the required gear, verifying that their GPS devises are functioning properly (so that fans can track their progress online), regulating the required breaks, and caring for any sled dogs that the musher or vet determines need to be left behind.

We'll be staying in the school library, although I hear from race organizers and veteran volunteers that not a lot of sleeping is going to happen. I got most of my gear together last night with the key items including: "bunny boots" (the military issue footgear for artic temperatures), handwarmers, a headlamp (a very useful birthday present from a thoughtful sister), and , perhaps most importantly, my travel-size Bodum french press that I found in the Catholic Church's rummage room.

We will have access to the internet, so I will try to provide some updates as time allows. If you are feeling curious, you can check out http://www.k300.org/core/.

19 January 2011

What It Is, Not What It Is Not

I went to Seattle. I took the GRE (the "official" purpose of the trip earns top billing). I saw friends. I saw my parents. I ate lots of spinach. I did not wear wool socks. I drank incredible amounts of coffee. I felt totally at home back in my old neighborhood, but also acutely aware of how in five months time, even Bethel's most extreme and unique features (climate, culture, lifestyle) had also become familiar. While I walked to Trader Joe's on dry sidewalks, I was thinking about my walks to work across the icy, frozen tundra. But when my days in Seattle came to a close, other than straining through a second round of goodbyes, I was genuinely ready to fly back to Bethel--back to my housemates, back to my little "nook" of a bedroom, back to school, back to ice-roads, back to canned vegetables, back to thermal layers, back to Folders coffee in the social hall on Sunday morning--back to it all.

After a few days back in Bethel, I was on the phone with a very insightful (and handsome) temporary-Californian, and he said it sounds like being away in Seattle for a bit allowed me to finally recognize and appreciate this place for "what it is, not what it is not." This does not mean that I will suddenly start to revel in every moment here. This place can still be harsh. It lacks the conveniences and luxuries that I enjoyed in Seattle. But this place feels full of opportunity, full of potential experiences, and full of wind and spirit.

With this in mind, as much as my walk to work this morning in -35 degree windchill (45 mph gusts) was, by most standards, totally miserable--I also felt affirmed and maybe even warmed by the sensation of belonging here. Probably, no, definitely not forever, but at least for now.

13 December 2010



It's set in mud. This picture is from a few weeks ago when I was trolling around leaving little incidental love notes in my tracks.

10 December 2010


One day while I was substituting in English class, a student complained to me of writer's block. I suggested he try to make an alphabetical list of images in hopes that even one might germinate into the free verse poem he was assigned. Later I jotted my own twenty-six.


Applesauce with cherry Jello mixed in (elementary school lunch tray, dessert slot)
Broken household appliances rusting in front yards
Car grills with extension cords dangling
Dogs wondering, crossing the highway without looking both ways
Every Sunday at the kitchen table, playing cribbage with the Jesuit priest in town
Frost on the inside of the windshield
Goose down-comforter (inherited)
Half-price milk with a $4.50 price tag (while it lasts)
Ice cleats gripping into ice roads
Jet: morning, noon, or night. Out and back
Kneecaps, bowlegged, sliding left to right with each stride
Luminaries for Christmas. Ice globes with a candle inside.
Mothers carrying fur-wrapped bundles--presumably babies.
Neck warmers knit from musk ox coat
Oil tanks that say "Shorty's Shop" next to each house
Parkas of royal blue, burgundy and gray
"Quyana" cabs convening in the church parking lot awaiting dispatch
Red tea with extra cinnamon
Sorel -60 boots with red and black laces
Tire tracks across the tundra
UV lamp on the secretary's desk
Voltage running at variant frequency--fast alarm clocks
Walrus meat thawing in the boarding school dormitory
x- (always forced)
Yogurt class at the college on a Tuesday night
Zero degrees located on the upper quadrant of the outdoor thermometer

27 November 2010


In dresser drawers in the basement of my parents' house in Virginia, there are a number of notebooks with writing only on the first four or five pages. For as long as I can remember, this is how I write. Unless I was on deadline for the newspaper or for academics, my writing happens when it needs to. This applies to journals, poetry, essays, and now, blogging. I share this by way of an apology for the long break in my posting. Sincerely I hope that as I settle into a winter routine that blogging emerges as a natural part of my weekly rhythms.

Perhaps I can provide some sense of the time elapsed, at least an anecdotal sense. Since I have last written:

-Back in October, I went to Anchorage for the Fall Retreat for Alaska JVs. At a charming lake-side conference center in Wasilla, AK (Palin spotting: zero) I rode in paddle boats, stomped crunchy leaves while wearing Keds, read Ishmael, caught up a bit with a friend from college, ate cereal with milk and fruit every morning for breakfast, and in the midst of a sudden walk I found a bird's nest. Perfectly intact. Meticulously assembled from all sorts of flora and fauna, flotsam and jetsam, and even some human hair. This stunning symbol of a sense of home illustrated my reflections of that particular weekend and of my JV year thus far--you will find what you need and you will know the way if you can trust that the scattered pieces will form something more whole than you had before.

-I have watched students leave school. Some were dismissed for violations of the code of conduct, some went back to their home villages to attend to family concerns, and some left looking for something else. I don't quite know what to make of any these departures. Each situation draws out different emotions--most commonly sadness, disappointment, and sometimes a mix of the two which I define as anger. In simplest terms, I am trying to learn how to care deeply for the students and provide all the "instructional support"--my official job title-- I can while they are enrolled at the school without worry for the before or after. This is easier said than done because students tend to share intimate aspects of their personal lives with me (the passenger seat of the car may as well be a shrink's couch) and these stories are difficult to forget. I can't deny my penchant for the dangerous game of emotional meshing--the less lovely sensation produced while attempting something like empathizing or "living in solidarity".

One student, a young woman I had driven to work every morning since August, was dismissed recently for violating the school's code of conduct. While I think she will most likely benefit from going home and gaining some perspective about the opportunities the school affords her, I still hated to see her go. Feeling a bit helpless and defeated, I drove her to the airport, helped her unload her things from the trunk, put my arms out for a hug which she decided not to participate in, so I just said, "Goodbye. Take care of yourself." I drove away, feeling sad and frustrated until I noticed her coffee-mug sitting in the cup holder. Since the start of school at least twice a week she seemed to forget her shinny blue mug--filled with more hazelnut-flavored CoffeeMate than actual coffee--in the school's vehicle. I couldn't help but laugh aloud as I turned the car around and walked into the one-room airport terminal. She was at the check-in counter taping up the cardboard boxes she had frantically packed. I tapped her on the shoulder, handed her the mug like I had done so many times before and in one of those two moves must have accidentally pressed her "RELEASE EMOTION!" button because the tears started steaming. She looked at me straight in the eyes, something she hadn't done all since I found out she was dismissed and said timidly, "I'm so sorry. Thank you for everything," which apparently is how to activate my "RELEASE EMOTION" function. Then she initiated a hug which I reciprocated and told her I was honored to get to know her and that I hope she will re-apply to the school when she is ready. I managed to save the full-blown crying until I was back in the car. Now, when I wear the beaded bracelet she made me back in September, I catch myself staring at it, marveling at the time and skill required to create it. I can only hope she learns to be proud of her talents and her gifts and apply them to the best use, rather than being so overcome by her insecurities and acting them out in harmful ways.

Maybe it's unfair to prescribe this hope to her, unless I also confess this is my daily hope for myself, too. In fact, that kind of mindset is a constant project and one that I imagine most, if not every, human being is always engaged in whether that be confident and assuredly, terrified and begrudgingly, or some mix of the two. In celebration or denial, we are all enrolled in this School of the Self. On this occasion of Thanksgiving weekend, maybe it's most appropriate for me to express some gratitude to all of those who constitute my "instructional support." Thank you to those who dabble in this role, as full- or part-time volunteers.

-I have lived the coldest Fall of my life. The wide sky above snowed some more. The tundra froze over for the majority of mid-October through mid-November, then a sudden front of above-freezing air thawed the icy terrain, turned it into slush, then mud, until it froze again, got blanketed in snowed, froze over, and got snowed on again (in a dazzling demonstration of a "White Thanksgiving"). It seems the atmosphere has self-regulated back to more appropriate winter temperatures. The thermometer on the back porch says it's currently 8 degrees F. I am still wearing a mid-weight winter coat and the fur-lined Tretorn boats. I am saving the Arctic parka and the Sorrel -60 boots for the subzero months to come.

-I have sipped hundreds of cups of tea and coffee thanks to care packages from family in Virginia and a very handsome barista in Southern California. My housemates also consume copious amounts of hot water, and as such we have developed quite the knack for breaking electric kettles. Three down...?? to go. At the moment, we are making do with a metal pitcher that we heat on the gas stove. It works well enough, although it has the side-effect of making me long for Seattle and days spent in front of an espresso machine pulling shots and steaming milk OR being on the customer side of that transaction and enjoying the delicious products of those efforts.

-I have been crafting away on a few projects, namely, miniature pop-up books for my niece and nephews back East featuring Alaskan animals, a cross-stitch entitled "Call of the Wilderness" featuring, you guessed it, wolves and a full-moon, and some stationary for holiday greetings. The combination of cold weather and a lack of Internet and cable TV at the house seem to be conducive to crafting.

-I have been doing a lot of housesitting. For instance, right now I am housesitting for a coworker, enjoying all the comforts of her home, including but not limited to comfy couches, a great tea selection (and means to easily heat water), a stocked pantry, Internet, the Planet Earth DVDs, and well-behaved dogs. Sometimes with all this time spent in the homes of practical strangers I feel like I am living out an Alaskan version of the movie 3-Iron, just without the trespassing or the forbidden romance.

I think that's all the catch-up I can muster at the moment, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, it's time to go take the dogs for a walk and then kick off the boots and have another cup of tea.

30 September 2010

An Illustration

One of Bethel's many abandoned cars. This one is just behind the school. I passed it on my way to document the progress at the construction sites. The students and the instructor are working hard despite the falling snow. I am amazed by their skill and dedication and am excited to see the finished product--a multi-unit apartment for future students who are young mothers/fathers.

I will also include a signature--my feet, in yet another pair of boots, stomping through a snowdrift, on a nearly October afternoon.