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.

September Snow

Today is Thursday, September 30, 2010. I am in Bethel, Alaska, and there is snow on the ground. There might still be snow and/or pellets of ice falling from the sky. As for the roads, the snow blows in wavy horizontal streaks (not unlike sand at the beach or in the desert). In conjunction with car headlights, the snaking snow blankets the road in a swaying, smokey gray. Between being enormously entranced by this low-tech special effect and congratulating myself on wearing the perfect amount of gear to regulate my body temperature, I actually enjoyed this morning's walk to work.

I arrived at school, stomped my boots on the front steps (which, like most steps in Bethel, are made of metal grating) to loosen the gray ice clinging to the soles and toe. I climbed upstairs to my office and ripped off the black parka (acquired from a former JV who just left town) and my fleece. At this point I also unrolled my cuffed jeans and learned the critical lesson that like the boot kick, this operation should also be preformed outside. After cleaning up the puddles around my desk, I sat down and checked my email and opened up my usual second tab, Washington Post online (old habits die hard). I was rather surprised to see the top of the page was an article about Alaskan Natives and corporations. [I am having trouble attaching the link, but if you go to the Post's site today, it should be on the front page.]

I knew nothing about village corporations before I arrived in Bethel, but I have acquired some understanding as part of my take-it-as-it-comes on-the-job training. In the future I will attempt to discuss how the ideas in these articles relate specifically to life in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, but for now, I just wanted to acknowledge this "between worlds" moment. I am going to eat a few more bites of my PBJ breakfast (someone donated a jar of ADAMS peanut butter to the JV house!) and then go de-snow the car to drive students to work. This time around I will not track smutty snow carnage all over my office upon my return.

And next post, I will use fewer parentheses (I promise).

27 September 2010

The Theatre

[Per Kzl's request]

I am tempted to follow the advice of my favorite Seattle journalist and go explore, but the building has been condemned for a decade or so.

21 September 2010


These are the days where "California Gurls" plays on one of three radio stations while I read a letter-to-the-editor by an Alaskan father holding his daughter's suicide note--a letter I happened upon by scrolling too far while reading an invitation to join the quilting club.

These are the days I eat meat of an animal I've only met in a children's book. That moose was given a muffin, this one gave us his heart. To cook and eat. These are also the days that I eat a hardtack cracker called Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. It's made in a factory in Richmond, Virginia, but 90% of it is consumed in Alaska.

These are the days that a black crate full of "RealityWorks!" babies suck electricity out of the socket in my office. I dole them out to teenagers whose classmates have babies at home that are significantly less robotic.

20 September 2010

The Town of Dust and Fog

This was my walk to work last Wednesday. The dabbling ducks were toppled over trying to catch breakfast. My fellow pedestrians slipped out of the fog like actors emerging from behind the red velvet curtain. I caught myself repeating "nebbia, nebbia, nebbia..." having stored the proper Italian description for the day's weather in my long-term language reserve.

On less foggy, damp days, there is the dust to contend with. This town only has one paved highway and the rest of the roads are mostly gravel and dirt. Seeing as the JV budget does not allow for taxi rides (which is how most locals without their own cars get around), we inhale our fair share of the dust and dirt that car tires spit up into the shoulder. Given my poor health the first weeks I was here, I've taken to daily neti-pot practice. In the past, I had only used the neti-pot when I was ill, but given my overdose on road grit and grime, I think my nasal passages appreciate the irrigation. I know some people find the whole neti process to be unappealing, but imagine if you had never brushed your teeth before, and were suddenly handed an electric toothbrush, baking soda toothpaste, and later some floss. The neti-pot before and after is of similar magnitude. But I don't mean to proselytize so much as celebrate any method that ensures my sense of smell that I so desperately missed during my weeks of sinus chaos.

If there was a moment when I determined I was finally better after those unpleasant days chronicled in the last post, it was in the kitchen one afternoon after work. Our house made the executive decision to use a solid segment of our meager food budget towards a CSA box of vegetables. It was a great decision, especially since we do not buy meat, it makes sense to dedicate a healthy portion of the budget to veggies. We had taken some salmon out of the deep freezer to have for dinner, and in the bottom of the box I discovered a couple bunches of parsley, one flat-leaf, one curly. I got out the cutting board and the biggest, sharpest knife in the hodgepodge utensil drawer and went to work. I pointed the tip of the knife towards the board and started rocking the blade back and forth. While sometimes cooking lulls me into a meditative state, in that moment I was highly aware of each sensation--the verdant green color of the leaves, the rhythmic knock of the uneven cutting board against the counter-top, the curve of the knife in the cup of my palm, and most intensely, the crisp, fresh scent of the now finely chopped herbs. This was a moment of inexplicable and exorbitant elation. So far, it was my best lesson in the JVC value of "simplicity" in a Trader Joe-less world. Without access to every ingredient that the recipe calls for (or my heart desires) I find myself more appreciative of each ingredient. I refuse to see any food in our pantry or freezer go to waste not only because of its economic value in this ten-dollars-for-a-gallon-of-milk town but because in scarcity I have found an abundance of gratitude.

So while car engines are wallpapered with dust and boardwalks seem to drop off on misty mornings, I am still running smoothly and feeling sure-footed. Even if I am stomping in muddy tracks, my eyes are still attuned for verdurous views.

04 September 2010

No Respite for the Upper Respiratory

I have no idea what this place smells like. My olfactory sense has been wholly debilitated by nasal congestion from the moment I arrived in Bethel. What may have started as the sniffles at JVC Northwest Orientation never cleared itself from my system. I have single-nosedly worked through a few boxes of tissues, single-throatedly swallowed two packages of lozenges, and single-mouthedly consumed hundreds of glasses of tea. And to no avail. The sneezing, coughing, and sniffy-tawking persisted. At various points in the last few weeks I have blamed: the water, my suddenly fresh fruit and vegetable-less diet, working at a school filled with germ-drenched students, the dust from the mud roads, allergens from the tundra flora, my houseful of (healthy) roommates, and any other reason I could surmise.

The congestion that had begun to seem like a permanent feature in my Alaskan existence transformed into a more ferocious beast. By the middle of this past week, I was wholly convinced that an unknown army had invaded my skull and was now busy inflicting repeated blunt force trauma to the backs of my cheeks, behind my eyes, and even against the gums of my top teeth. On the walk home, with each step I could feel the troops being rallied with a swift knock of my ear drum. By the time I trudged home, I had, without a doubt, crossed through no man's land and surrendered to the mighty interior forces. It was a unpleasant but unavoidable reminder that my stubborn denial of obvious symptoms will eventually become undeniable.

I burst through the door of our arctic entry, ripped off my muddy boots and damp windbreaker, and tried to make it upstairs to my little nook of a bedroom without running into any roommates. I knew they would be concerned about my grimace and I didn't want to explain myself. A few of them greeted me warmly and asked me about my day. I did not pause but on the way up the stairs told them I needed to rest for awhile and promised I would be in better spirits next time they saw me. I popped a couple of ibuprofen, prostrated myself on the twin mattress until I realized that upside down the pressure in my face only intensified to an unbearable degree. So I flipped over on my back and sobbed for five minutes or so, and then fell into deep sleep. It was probably around six or six-fifteen. I woke up the next morning, just a few minutes before seven. I had tremendous dreams. These are worthy of attention at some point, here or elsewhere.

As readers of the Firenze blog may recall, when I first arrived in Italy, I was struck with a similar bout and recovered by taking a similar sleep. Sadly, this time I had let things go a few weeks too far, and it was obvious some medical intervention besides sleeping in twelve-hour increments would be required. So today I waved my stubborn-colored flag of surrender and went to the the health clinic in town. It is located approximately five-hundred feet from the school where I work and in such close proximity I was struck with guilt for having taken the day off although I knew well enough that I would have been nearly useless in my dizzy, feverish state. Upon very quick inspection, the doctor determined I have a double ear infection and a sinus infection and put me on (non-penicillin!) antibiotics. My longstanding distaste for taking pills remains, but as I write this now, I feel some of the pressure easing up, and I am enormously grateful. Wondrous smells may await me. I will be able to breathe out of my nose again. I will be able to taste. I will use far fewer tissues. I will be able to speak to students in my own voice, not the nasally one I've been borrowing for weeks.

So why do I inflict this harrowing although rather ordinary account upon you, dear reader? I share with you all these viscous details because all my impressions of this place so far have been collected with flawed instruments. My itchy eyes were not as wide-open, my short breaths made my walks significantly less invigorating, my numb taste buds failed to pick up on the subtle flavors in the berries and fish, and my clogged ears haven't been absorbing this new language or the roar of the float planes as well as they could have.

I spent most of the past spring in a scholastic spurt trying to manipulate the idea that body as body is already soul. In my first Alaskan month, whether it was in a dull ache in my chest after a long coughing spell, in the sting of my tissue-chapped nostrils, or in bedtime appraisal of my tense joints, I recognized that I was living out my argument. Not for a moment since that plane flew me through the gray clouds, swooped over the Crayola-colored roofs, and skidded down on a runway that will soon be a sheet of ice, has my heart been different than my head. My cough has originated not in my lungs as such, but rather in my air, in my spirit.

So now I am praying to those white pills that have dissolved into my blood and will pump through me as I dream tonight. I long to heal. To be of body that will let the soul in and out now. To let me be here and take appreciative rather than apprehensive breaths. To let me regain my senses and my sense of well-being. Please let this battle be neither won nor lost but dissolved and absorbed.

29 August 2010

Between Worlds

This is the initial entry of the blog that will attempt to say something about my year in Bethel, Alaska.

The blog's title is inspired by the Velvet Underground song "Stephanie Says." Nearly ten years ago, in a Virginian basement I first heard Lou Reed singing about this girl who wonders what seashell sea is calling, from across the world. I wondered what they meant by the people all called her Alaska and was especially struck by the chilly repetition of it's so cold in Alaska at the end of the song. The strings and the bells lingered for years.

Then, one day in April, shortly after I had committed to doing a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, the song popped up on my iPod shuffle. I listened to it on repeat until my imagination was exhausted trying to conceive of this somewhat unimaginable place.

I will try to remember how impossibly far away and unreal this place seemed then when I attempt to describe it to you, dear reader. Most likely, this means my entries will be sporadic and episodic, but if just one post, paragraph, sentence, phrase, or word written here contains the most microscopic germ of truth, then this venture will not be for naught.

For those of you who prefer more visual descriptions, I will also upload photos to the Picasa page linked to this blog. If you do visit my first album, you will see the evidence of why this noble enterprise of being in touch with friends, family, and fellow JVs (current, former, or future) is especially challenging in this particular placement: three lonely satellite dishes are the only mediators between Bethel and everywhere else. This town's internet connection is notoriously slow, but if your eyes spend any time on this page, you are my seashell sea and I want to receive your call and respond as best I can.

At the moment, it's not so cold in Alaska, although certainly it is a cooler summer than I am accustomed to, but I know that it will be icy soon enough. For the moment, while occasionally my heart dashes away to the other people and places I love (Springfield, Firenze, Seattle), I am experiencing the moments of affinity that reassure me this is a good place for me to be right now. I feel a wash of warmth in these moments, however briefly. When I take a perfectly ordinary yet illogically remarkable step along the boardwalk, when a student who hasn't said a word all day picks up a banjo and plays a tune that draws out involuntary tears, when I find an unlikely commonality with one of my housemates, when I correctly pronounce a word from my modest Yu'pik vocabulary, or when I sleep gratefully and wake up well-rested, that's when I know I am meant to be tucked into this place for awhile.

So call me what you may, but feel free to call me Alaska. And feel free to ask me what's in my mind while I am in between worlds walking on this permafrost underground.