Monday, January 9, 2017


It starts off as a sort of sadness that I can’t quite identify. It becomes more of an emptiness. Heaviness! That’s what it is. It’s not really sadness or emptiness at all. It’s heaviness. Heavy and slow, my inner reality becomes lead. The world outside my body continues to swirl, but inside, it feels like I’m walking through jello. Thick, heavy, awkward. Tears are just a blink away. I’m tired. Very tired. I wake up and my teeth are sore from gritting them so hard. Even my teeth feel heavy.

I never know when it’s going to hit full on. It’s always waiting there in the background, like a shadow in the darkness. I can’t see it, but I can feel it. It’s always there. I’m not sure when it started. Maybe it’s always been there. I can’t remember ever being free of it, the weight, like an overloaded backpack that I never take off.

I feel it deep inside my ears, shifting thickly with every move. Hot lava. Sound turns up the heat. The TV is suddenly too loud. My tongue feels larger than normal and talking is difficult. I become very quiet. It even invades my dream-life, curling up with me in bed and whispering in my ear. I dream I’m falling, always falling, or that I can’t make my legs move to walk normally. I’m slow and people watch me, whispering. There is no one to help, nothing they can do. I’m alone in my struggle.

I wake up and the tears come as soon as I open my eyes. I can’t explain it, but it’s too much for me to face the day, so I call in sick. I spend the day in bed, in and out of disturbing dreams, crying when my eyes open and then quickly closing them again.

My dogs are a blessing. They sense that it’s here again and they are calm and quiet, occasionally nuzzling me to remind me that they need me. They are the one thing that I need, the one thing that keeps me grounded. I have to come back to life to feed them and let them outside and love them. They need me and keep me from drowning in the heaviness. They remind me that I will be okay.

I will survive this bout. I will win this battle. Winning means that I will put on my happy face this evening and act normal, wash clothes, make dinner, laugh. I will set the alarm and go to school and teach like normal tomorrow, like I didn’t just spend a day in bed, crying, like I’m not made of concrete. I will force the shadow back into the darkness where others can’t see it, but I know it’s there and will visit again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lots to Learn!

Today, I learned how to safely get water from the frozen river.

Beautiful skies
I watched the sun rise this morning. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that because I’m not a morning person, and the sun usually rises after I’m teaching class during the winter months. 10:30am came slow, lazily dragging the sun just above the mountains where it will hover until early this afternoon when it begins its descent. As usual, the colors outside the large, plate glass windows procured from the old school over 25 years ago, called me outside with my camera.

Today, Gregg showed me where to go get water. We were low, only a gallon or two left, and we’ll need some in our whiskey tonight and some to take a sink bath in since I head back to school tomorrow.

Digging a water hole
Around noon, we started downriver. It was a mild 12 degrees out with just a slight breeze. I was anxious. I carried the two 5-gallon buckets bungee-corded to the back rack on my 4-wheeler, following Gregg on his snowmachine, hauling a sled with a log to be split later for firewood at the shop, and an empty propane tank from the cabin to be filled and kept ready for when we run out (we only use propane for our cookstove/oven). We started out fast, testing the dogs to see if they would give up chasing after us and go home. We stopped a mile or so from the cabin so that he could show me a snare set-up that he has – the one in which he caught the fox yesterday. Another lesson for me, should either of the dogs ever get caught in a snare, I now know how they work and how to get the dogs loose. He doesn’t set any close to the house, but one never knows how far the pups may wander, and Gregg’s not the only one with snares set out here.

Easy does it!
Just as we returned to the machines to resume our trek downriver for water, here came the dogs, full sprint. They hadn’t given up following us, and they were very proud. Oh, well. I guess they’re going to get a lesson on the water hole today, too!

The open water looks a lot like where I fell in last spring. As a matter of fact, I can see the exact spot less than 50 yards further down. There are no tracks to it, to the spot where the ice gave way under my feet nine months ago. Go figure! Where we are today, there are even truck tracks up to within 6 feet of the open water. Gregg drives the ice spike down into the open hole to show me that the water is only a couple of feet deep there, so if I fall through, I won’t do more than get wet feet. I don’t care. It still scares the bejeebies out of me! Nuka immediately walks over to the edge and takes a drink. Stupid dog. Nali is not so eager. Gregg widens the hole and shows me how to safely dip out the water, ice chunks and all, and slide the full 40-pound bucket across the ice rather than picking it up and adding that extra weight to my own and possibly breaking through the ice. The ice is two inches deep where he kneels, and he assures me that it’s thick enough to hold two people. Still, I wait until he is done and off of the thin ice before I grab the second bucket and head out. I had him take pictures so that I had proof, for myself as much as for others, that I can actually do this without having a panic attack!
Parked on the river in front of the cabin.

Loaded with two full buckets of fresh, river water, I drove back to the cabin, dogs chasing me, while Gregg went on into the village to take care of his fox from yesterday and some other odds and ends around the shop. I think he’s proud of me. I hope he is. I hope he knows how much I’ve always wanted to do this. I joked with him this morning over coffee by lamplight that I was looking forward to getting the exercise of hauling water. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a little crazy, but we’re a good match that way!

40-some, narrow, snowy steps up from the river to the cabin, hauling two 40-pound buckets of water made me feel pretty accomplished today.

Home again. Home again. Jiggety Jig!
The sun is never overhead these days. Instead, it shines directly in the south facing windows and warms the cabin uncomfortably. There is no thermostat here, just 1-6 on the oil stove. I don’t complain of the warmth on a cold December day. Instead, I take a nap with all three dogs. Little Penny rests up on the back of the couch, like a cat lounging in the sunlight. Velvety-brown Nuka spoons with me on the couch and Nali, always watchful, lays on the floor at my feet. By 4 o’clock, the sun is setting and I rise to write on my laptop, since it is too dark to read without the oil lamp, but too light to bother with it.
Winter view from the outhouse!

Water fills the pot on the oil stove, slowly warming to a comfortable bathing temperature. It only takes a couple of gallons of water to efficiently wash my hair and bathe my body, standing on an old towel, naked, in the middle of the kitchen in front of a picture window overlooking the river, which is in the process of turning into the local superhighway for the winter. Without lights on in the cabin, just the fading sun shadows outside, it’s the perfect time to bathe, as the reflection on the window from the outside keeps any passersby from being able to see in.

I revel in the simplicity of the day, fresh and clean from a bath. A bath in river water, the same water that fills my drinking glass. I smile, inside and out.

Settling in to Cabin Life

As the setting sun restfully dips beyond the rolling Whaleback Mountains, it turns the sky a rainbow of pinks and oranges, darkest along the black shadowy hills, like an ombre silk waving goodnight. Behind me, a blood red moon is rising. The juxtaposition is nothing short of breathtaking.

It’s 4:30pm on a Sunday evening in mid-December, the end of my first of a seven-day stretch that I’m
spending at the cabin with Gregg. An experiment of sorts to see if I’m really up for full-time, year-round cabin-living. It will involve a daily commute to teach school, eight miles downriver, via 4-wheeler or snowmachine, depending on the weather. My lifelong dream is coming to fruition.

It’s funny how real life can be better than lifelong dreams. I always saw myself living in a remote cabin with a couple of dogs, fending for myself, infrequent trips to a neighboring town via 4-wheeler or snowmachine, inaccessible by car or truck. I thought I’d be doing it alone, after I retired or sold a book or two and could live life on my own terms. I always thought I’d be older, crazier somehow.

Stove grate that we use to cook on the oil heat stove
Here I am, still technically in my 40’s for a few more months, with a self-made, mountain man by my side, and three dogs, in a remote cabin. The mode of transportation exceeds my dreams, since we are on a river and can also go to the village by boat in the summer. I didn’t have to wait until I retired, either. I’m in the middle of my career, planning to pursue a PhD, teaching full-time, and able to live life on my own terms while earning a good living. Who knew? Who knew life could be this good?! Having a strong, wise helpmate is the icing on the cake. He’s my own personal tutor on off-grid living. I have a lot to learn.

Today was my first lesson in Dutch Oven cooking on the single-burner oil stove that we use to heat the cabin. It has a heavy iron plate on top, just big enough to set burner grate on. Even though we also have a propane stove with an oven that doesn’t work, it makes sense to use the oil stove as it is on all day, anyway, and save the expensive propane. Boneless Pork Ribs are simmering away in the cast iron pot, waiting for rice and corn to be added for a complete one-pot meal. While we eat, I’ll use a smaller cast iron pot to make a Peach Slump for dessert – a kind of peach pudding-cake made with canned peaches and pancake mix.

Our first dinner in the Dutch Oven - Mexican
Style pork ribs with rice and corn -
a one pot meal!
Gregg just walked in from gathering firewood for his small-engine repair shop in the village – its main source of heat is a wood stove, especially since the back-up oil stove has been leaking lately. He has good news – caught a pretty, red fox in a snare, and so begins the trapping season. Firing up the generator in the fading daylight, we now have lights to cook and eat by, read a book, play a round or two of Boggle, and then watch a movie (tonight it was Down Periscope) before shutting it down for the night.

The darkness after the generator is turned off around 10pm is comforting. Silence falls heavy around us as the motor goes silent and all we can hear are the regular, heavy breaths of sleeping dogs and the occasional push of the wind through the trees. There is a rogue black fly in the cabin, and he has retreated to the upstairs where we hear the occasional buzz as he flies into the window. It’s cold against the window, so he doesn’t stay there long and the buzzing sound retreats to some far corner of our cozy abode as we drift to dreams between flannel sheets with the bright white moon shining in the window over our heads, spreading a cool glow over the even squares of the brightly colored quilt made with kuspuk fabric scraps by Gregg’s hunting partner.

I dream of my dogs and my girls; of my grandbabies and my students… and laughter, echoes of laughter everywhere.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Student Appreciation Cards

Friday, October 21, 2016

Today, I passed out something to my students, and for the first time ever, not one was left lying around in my disheveled classroom at the end of the day. Usually, when I hand out something, no matter how many times I tell them to put it in their binder, that they’re going to need it later, or to be sure to take it home to study, inevitably, there are a half dozen left around the room, a paper airplane the floor, tossed carelessly on a computer table, or just left on the counter at the end of the day.

Today was different. Why? I had handwritten each of them a card of appreciation “just because.” Each one of the 44 cards was written specifically to the individual student. I had written them over the past week, privately, secretly, purposefully. One by one, I stared at each student’s name in my grade book, paused, and thought about all of the positive attributes they brought to my class and the world.

Let me tell you, some were definitely harder to write than others! However, I filled each card with heartfelt words; not one was cut short.

“Your silly jokes always make me smile.”
“You are absolutely one of the most intelligent students I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you for being such a hard worker.”
“When you walk into my room every Monday morning and ask me how my weekend was, it makes my day.”
“Your card tricks always amaze me.”
“I appreciate your quiet strength.”
“You have the best laugh.”
“I love looking at your hunting pictures.”
“Thank you for sharing your Eskimo food with me.”
and on and on…

What a learning experience for me! The idea first occurred to me when I saw an elementary teacher on Facebook who had done a similar thing for her students. So, this summer when I was in the lower 48, in and out of gift shops and craft stores, I started collecting packs of blank cards on dollar racks.

Then, when I received a couple of requests from seniors to write letters of recommendation for them for scholarship and college applications last month, I realized that all of my students needed to hear the good things that I would have to say about them.

The students’ responses were priceless. I handed out the cards in the last five minutes of each class. They joked around, especially the boys, when I first handed them out.

“What? No money! Five bucks, even?” laughter ensued.

Then, a quiet moved over the room like a warm blanket as they were all drawn into their cards. The words made them smile as their eyes passed over them. One by one, they looked up at me from the cards, wide-eyed and grinning.

“Thank you, Ms. Kysar,” rang their happy voices, over and over.

They know I love and appreciate each one of them. I pay attention to them, individually. They are not just a name in my grade book. They are my kids. Each one of these students is entrusted to me for 55 minutes each day, 180 days each year for four very important years of their lives. That’s huge, and I don’t take it lightly.

I may be hard on them, harder on some than others. They may drive me absolutely crazy, at times, and I may look forward to escaping from them for a weekend once in a while, but they are my kids, and that’s saying a lot.

Suicide is something that has personally touched every person I know in Unalakleet, adults and children alike. A freshman in a neighboring village took his own life last year. I have students sitting in my class who have fathers, brothers, and uncles who have committed suicide. I even have students who have attempted suicide and survived. If I can do one small thing, say one kind word to make someone feel valued in a way they didn’t feel before, perhaps it will make a difference.

I’m a teacher. I’ve always seen myself as a teacher of students first, a teacher of English second. That is not to say that I don’t spend countless hours researching and creating lessons plans filled with engaging ideas and academic rigor. I spend weekends grading papers, evenings coaching Battle of the Books, lunches planning Student Council events. I bake cupcakes for students who finish their papers early, send care packages to college students, write letters of recommendation by candlelight while watching the ice deepen on the river. I stress over classroom observations that attack my teaching methods and question my every move, while giving me low grades because of student behavior. I fight the bureaucratic red tape, sit on curriculum review committees, attend inservices geared at elementary teachers, and am constantly looking for ways to incorporate the local culture into my lessons while keeping to the Alaska State Standards.

All of this aside, at the end of the day, these 44 souls have been entrusted to me for a time, and I intend to make the most of it!