Making a life in the enchanted forest: Country Living Challenges, bush edition

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I went for a walk and found the sky fickle with its watercolors. Green first this way, then a wash that way, then washed out to start completely fresh. The aurora feels eerie and sentient, like the synchronous fireflies in the Cataloochee Valley. Maybe I am just easily bewitched by things that glow in the dark.DSC01955The row of glowing windows is the community hall, down the old airport runway from the school. This is the very center of my village, just a pool of light that doesn’t even touch the sky.

When I told Jake that I’d gone for a night walk, he looked dubious.
“If you’re walking at night, don’t go too far” he warned
“I was just out front here,” I gestured to the airport.
“Well, don’t go beyond the last house, anyway, even on the old airport” he said. “These ice bears won’t hesitate. They’ll just come at you and there’s nothing you can do. We’ve got one near the village right now. Big, nasty sucker.”
“I won’t be going far, no worries. I’m too chicken to really get out much, even in daylight”
Jake laughed and slapped my shoulder.
I guess ice bears are bears that don’t hibernate. Horrifying.

I’ve been walking in the village as often as I can, and, yesterday afternoon, I found myself out of school with daylight still burning low in the sky. I strolled down to the community hall and around by the washeteria. I saw C unfastening a harness from her blue plastic sled. She introduced me to her dog, (“he’s a hunting dog, but he fits the harness, so I have him pull me around sometimes. He’s pretty fast.”) and her auntie stepped out of the log house and said hello to me. We chatted for a minute, then I walked on, waving goodbye to C and grinning. Later, an older fellow called me over to chat about the weather. He was standing on his porch, watching a little girl play in the snow. I walked on, and they soon passed me on a 4-wheeler, waving, “just looking after you, to make sure you stay out of trouble” he teased as the rumbled by. On the surface unremarkable, these bits of chit-chat marked a turning point in my life here. Until yesterday, I hadn’t spoken to a non-teaching adult in the village (outside of business at the store or the post office), even about a child. I want to be a part of life here. I want to be invited to dinner or on adventures, and to have people to talk to who aren’t my students. I want someone to show me around and to tell me stories and to explain how things work. I don’t want to feel like the last, lonely dodo in the zoo, just sitting on my rock, serving my purpose while everyone waits for my expiration date.

This morning, one of the school board members approached me in the gym. “Do you like it here?” He looked directly into my face. He has dark brown, crinkly eyes that laugh easily from the shadow of his ball cap.
“Yes.” I said.
“Good.” He said. “I’m on the school board. I wanted to hear it straight from you.”
“I like it here. I love my kids, and teaching here, but It’s hard,” I said, meaning the dodo thing, wanting to say more.
“To us, it’s just our way of life,” he said, doing the laughing eyes thing, “you’ll get used to it.”
I suppose he thought I meant the climate and the geography and the ice bear threat and the price of butter. Those things are just awesome or appropriate, depending on your outlook.

I love this place. I love those things. I love my kids. If someone would just ask me to dinner or in out of the cold for a cup of hot tea so that I could love them too, I’d be almost sure I want to stay in Venetie next year. I know, without a doubt, that I will be teaching in the bush, but I don’t know if I can commit to spend next year here if the social tensions within the school and between the school and the village don’t ease up, at least enough for me to slip some thin roots through the gap. I don’t want to rust away from emptiness.DSC01875

7 thoughts on “Making a life in the enchanted forest: Country Living Challenges, bush edition

  1. This is such a touching, almost heartbreaking post, Keely. Being isolated both geographically and socially is as hard as it gets, but the truth is it takes time in the Interior. Do you have neighbors? If so, what about inviting them over for a cup of tea or coffee or beer? Sometimes taking the first step is vital…or perhaps you’ve already done that. If so, try again. If not, you might want to give that a try. Hope it goes well for you. ❤

    • No neighbors 😦
      Our teacher housing is lovely and comfortable, but it’s beside the school. Nobody but the other teachers lives close enough to share a dooryard or to ask for a cup of sugar.
      I’m more than ready to invite people over for tea, but first I need an opening. I’ve been here for seven weeks, and this is the first time someone has even spoken to me to say hello outside of strict business. I can be patient, and I will keep trying. I’m by no means ready to give up, but rather marking this as a turning point.

  2. It can take time to make friends with the adults – look at it from their perspective: most non-natives come to to live in their villages for a few months or a year, and then leave. Just about all non-natives leave again, so imagine how hard it becomes for the locals after a while to open their hearts to them, only to always lose their new friends again. So that’s a big reason, I think, why people are maybe hesitant to make friends with you – it has nothing at all to do with you as a person, just with the fact that you’re yet another teacher from Outside who is bound to leave soon.

    I don’t know Venetie, maybe it’s a bit different there, but around here it’s perfectly normal and even expected to just knock on anybody’s door and visit for a cup of tea and chitchat 🙂 You are so interested in people and they will appreciate very much if you ask if somebody could teach you how to sew mocassins or show you those mysterious bear tracks or tell you G’wichin stories. My experience was that the native people in my village also assumed that I had no interest in their knowledge and culture, and when they found out I did, it made a huge difference. In my village, silence was also a normal part of sitting together – keeping up a constant stream of talk was something people from Outside did. For the locals, it was part of a conversation and hanging out to just sit and stare out the windows for a minute and think 🙂

    And yeah, do invite people over 🙂 Also, whenever you chit chat with somebody you like on the street, add “Why don’t you come over for tea, I would really enjoy that”.

    • I’ve thought a lot about the revolving door of teachers phenomenon. I almost didn’t come to Alaska because of it, knowing that I’d probably be just another in a string of soon-forgotten people who left, and knowing how those relationships had scarred my students in Arkansas.
      I think there are some special forces at work in Venetie: the school and the village have some pretty big disputes underway, which I don’t really have background on and don’t want to get involved in, though my position involves me anyway. There’s tension within the school, too, that’s exacerbating the situation. Understandably, no one wants to touch those issues, and my own reluctance to choose sides limits my social interactions with the teachers who have been here longer and have relationships with people in the community.
      I want desperately to ask someone to show me the bear tracks, as I’m hesitant to go looking for them by myself. I’d love it if someone would teach me a little about beadwork or tell me stories, and I’d jump at the chance to ask, but I can’t come out of nowhere with it, and I haven’t had somewhere to come out of yet, if that makes sense. It’s just striking how little opportunity I’ve had to start any conversation at all. Things are looking up, and people are starting to recognize me and wave, which is a start. Maybe things will pick up.
      All I need is a foot in the door.

      • You’ll get your foot in the door 🙂 And sure you can come out of nowhere with questions about bead work or the bear tracks; just tell whoever you next say “hi” that by the way, you’d really love to learn beading and who would be the best person to maybe show you. Then make some of your famous cookies, take a deep breath and go knocking on that door 🙂 I know it feels pushy from a southern perspective, but I find people up north do simply show up on each other’s doorstep for a chat etc.
        Or you could also cook your secret special dish and go knock at the lady’s door who you got the caribou meat from, tell her how much you liked it and that you’d never had it before. I’m sure people will find your stories about slaughtering hogs and what you do with the meat really interesting and trade hunting stories with you for it.
        You’re very brave. Just gather up that courage again and take another little leap 🙂

  3. If it makes you feel any better, my husband and I did not go to dinner at anyone’s house here until literally the week we left for Christmas break. It does take a while for them to trust that you will stay. Does your village have a feasting tradition? That was our main way of getting to know the village here. They would feast for marriages, deaths, birthdays and anniversaries.

    We have a couple friends outside of school now, but it is slow going. I find that people ask me less and less if I like it here as I have assured them that we do. Talking about your future there helps too. When I told the kids about my ideas for next Halloween they were surprised that I was planning on being here in a year.

    Keep your head up and people will thaw with the snow 🙂

  4. What I hear from your stories is very encouraging – your students are already in love with you, or some are at any rate. It took me much longer to establish links amongst my students and over a year before adults trusted me.

    Smile at everybody you pass on the street. Greet them with a “gwinzii.” And like Nicole said, ask your neighbors to teach you something – sewing, beadwork, snaring rabbits, how to recognize medicinal plants or animal tracks. Don’t ask the children, go straight to the women of the village. And hey, carnival is coming up and there’s no better place to break the ice!

    Your community knows how hard it is for a teacher to come back for year two and most won’t expect you to. I really believe that my neighbors had to see me return before they could really accept me as a part of their community. I had to show them I wanted their friendship.

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