Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Cacophony. Pandemonium. Bedlam. Clamor. Confusion. Discord. Ruckus. Turmoil.

City. Metropolitan. Ward. Enclosure.

Anchorage. Minneapolis. Chicago. Grand Rapids.

Street Noise
There is a commonality that unnerves me. In my 10 days since leaving Unalakleet, the noise has been overwhelming. I knew it was quiet where I lived, but then again, I didn’t.

Right now, as I sit near the window and enjoy my coffee, there is a constant stream of traffic outside. It never stops, day or night. We run the air conditioner at night not only to keep cool, but to drown out the street noise. Emergency vehicles, sirens blaring, lights flashing, rush past many times each day. City busses. Gears shifting. Brakes squealing. The noise never stops. Even the air conditioner provides added noise in it’s lame attempt to silence it.

Paladino Sculpture Gallery
We visited Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park the other day. You would think that 125 acres would provide some degree of quiet. Not so. From the eerie music playing in surround-sound as we walked through the Mimmo Paladino sculpture gallery to the constant hum of the humidifiers in the enormous solariums, noise was everywhere. Man-made noise. Outside, concrete waterfalls were “designed…  to create a delightful auditory experience.” Those folks really don’t have a clue.

I keep a steady, low-grade headache while being surrounded by people who may never know true silence. They may never know the complete quiet of an early spring morning on the Unalakleet River, when the ice is too soft to drive on but too heavy for boats, before the songbirds come to life, when the wind is even still, and the silence is so thin that you can hear a jet-plane engine 30,000 feet up making a fuzzy white streak across the brilliant blue sky.

Stillness. Calm. Serenity. Peace.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


I went to church today.

That’s an extremely unusual thing for me to say. My attitude is pretty much, “Been there, done that,” when it comes to organized religion. However, this church is an important part of life for my daughter, Sarah, and my future son-in-law, Joseph. Impact is a Wesleyan Church in Lowell, Michigan. It’s a contemporary set-up with a coffee shop in the entry and rock band on stage, a hip preacher in jeans and flip-flops with a one sentence message that is sure to hit home, and a friendly, casual atmosphere – serving free tacos after next week’s service.

Every song had a message, told a story, and stirred up feelings for me, but not what the average Christian might think. I’m not a “believer,” as the saying goes. What do I believe?

I believe in the human spirit.
I believe in the human need for family.
I believe there is more to this life than we can see with our eyes.
I believe in helping one another.
I believe in cherishing our earth.
I believe that there are old souls and young souls.
I believe that anything is possible.

I don’t believe that “life” ends when we die.
I don’t believe that we are all the same.
I don’t believe that every human has a need for religion.
I don’t believe that Christianity is any more “true” than Buddhism.
I don’t believe that all humans “need” God.

Today’s service told the story of a man who spent 25 years in prison, was released and turned his life around thanks to God. Another story was of a man who walked away from a life of dealing drugs and now has a wonderful wife and family. Finally, there was the story of a woman who had an abortion and it took her years to come to terms with the guilt caused by it. All stories of human resilience. The strength of the human spirit. They were stories of people helping people.

I believe that some people need something to believe in outside of themselves, bigger than themselves. It’s just part of the human condition. There was a time in my life that I needed that, too. It doesn’t make a person better or worse for needing religion or not needing it. We’re just different. Do I sincerely believe that the man released from prison was saved by God or Jesus or whatever? Of course not. I believe that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and got his shit together! If going to church and believing that some higher power is in control helps him, good for him. I think that’s great. I truly do. That’s his perception, so that makes it his reality.

Personally, I have no need for that outside belief. My own spirit, as weak as it is sometimes, has gotten me through so far. That’s not to say that I haven’t needed the love and support of a close family (both blood-related and not). That also doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that there is more to this life that what we can see. I’m definitely believer in an afterlife, though I’m not exactly sure what that’s about. I believe that my Dad has been with me often since his passing. He’s out there, somewhere, often close by.

I also believe that there are old souls and young souls. I believe that old souls have seen more than one life, many more, and that they are less likely to live a religion-based life. They have little need for that. They are their own anchors. Young souls, on the other hand, have more need for direction, for structured outside rules, for a higher being to guide them. They have a real need for those beliefs and so become religious zealots. Of course, there are many stages in between.

As for me, I’m an old soul. I’ve lived more than one lifetime. I have a difficult time being cornered by religious beliefs. That being said, I’ve taken catechism classes and become Catholic, been “saved” and served as a missionary for the Southern Baptist Church, sung in the Baptist Student Union ensemble in college, taught Girls in Action classes to Methodist preteens, and on and on. All of that was in this lifetime and yet I have not been a church member for over 10 years. I believe that I grew out of it. I regret none of it, though I feel a bit as though I was doing it more to fit in and make others happy, than following my own truth, listening to my own voice. Much pain and heartache has driven home the truth to me, that my own human spirit is what gets me through, along with a lot of help from others. 

When a student of mine makes straight A's, you'll never hear me say, "Praise God!"
You WILL hear me say, "Good job!"

I am happy for all those who find their way, find their truth, find their happiness, whether it be through organized religion in a big city or by being an atheist on a mountaintop. Live your truth. Be you.

This is my perception. This is my reality. I have a peace about it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

God Provides

A couple of weeks ago, I took my students to the beach, 60 feet from the front door of the school. We all took a pencil along with lined paper and a clipboard. We found comfortable places to perch, and wrote, just wrote, for 20 minutes. This was the result from my own clipboard...

William, walking on driftwood logs
1st Period

It’s chilly outside, 45 degrees with a breeze coming off of the sea ice floating in the distance. Life slows down. I focus on the here and now.

John wanders up the beach 50 yards and finds the perfect stump, blown in with the waves, to sit on and reflect and write on his plastic, orange clipboard borrowed from the Science teacher. Having ridden his bike from the school to the beach, or at least I assume it’s his bike, he now disappears into the sand and driftwood, reappearing 15 minutes later throwing rocks into the sea, a neverending sport.

William paces back and forth, kicking the sand, pausing occasionally to jot something down on his clipboard. He’s restless, making fun of the fact that we are only 10 steps from school, saying that this feels like a city trip because we can still hear the rumble of a tractor in the distance and the bub-bub of a 4-wheeler passing on the road behind us. I laugh to myself.

Tairin, laying at the water's edge
Meanwhile, the plaintive call of a loon in the distance mingles with the stern caw from a large, black crow supervising us from the top of a 12-foot pile of driftwood peeled smooth by the sea. They join us in our outdoor writing assignment.  

POP POP – 12-gauge shotgun in the distance. Geese, ducks, swans, and cranes are the prey of the day.

Tairin moves to the edge of the water and lies in the sand as the calm sea gives him inspiration. No waves today, only ripples from the wind.

Kyley sits, shivering on a log in the shadow of the rock sea wall as the seagulls sit in pairs on the blue water, 20 feet apart, reminding me of the pair that Tairin and Kyley are, drifting along, together but apart.

Kyley, ready to go inside
As a single-prop plane engine fades over the mountains, William plays baseball with driftwood and walks the logs like a balance beam, restless. Soon, Tairin stands, and he and William begin skipping rocks across the surface of this arctic water, songbirds start chirping, and I slowly sip the warm coffee from my insulated mug.

Quietly, Christa sits just down the white-washed log from me, filling her pink paper with words and sipping something warm from her own travel mug.

The splash of the boys’ rocks brings the seagulls closer, circling in the air now, hoping the sound is from fish near the surface; their lonesome call eerily matches the vastness of the ocean before us.

Time to head in.

2nd Period

The noisy upper-classmen assault the beach with their loud talking, laughing, spitting, coughing, and throwing large pieces of wood into the water trying to tag a dead fish floating just outside of their reach.

Finally! All are settled, silently writing their thoughts, fears, random niceties. Even in their unwillingness to be serious, they give themselves away, revealing blaring insecurities and secret wishes.

I choose a log close to the water’s edge this time; all students are behind me, so that I can focus on my natural surroundings like the perfect ripple patterns spreading out from the shore, blending seamlessly with the stippled water beyond stirred by the breeze. The current is flowing north, bringing the sea ice up from St. Michael, on the southern shore of the Norton Sound. A pair of seagulls, perhaps the same pair that I saw an hour ago, drift silently north with the movement of the sea.

The sand flies buzz in a quick and lurching maze across the top of the wet sand, landing on my left hand holding the clipboard as my right scribbles blue notes across a green page. This is in sharp contrast to the soft, lapping sound of the ice cold water against the pebble-ridden sand… or are they sand-ridden pebbles?

Pile of hay
Near the water’s edge is a pile of hay the size of a compact car, no doubt from cleaning out doghouses in preparation for summer, waiting for the tide, which is as reliable as Kirstian’s love for cheese (a senior heading off to UAF to study Wildlife Biology – the only person to give me a Valentine this year).

The sunny, pale blue sky turns azure overhead and then fades to soft grey, feathery clouds on the horizon. It overlooks the icebergs in the distance, slowly passing by. I heard that the ice may blow to shore this weekend when the weather changes.

3rd Period

Today, ethereal Besboro Island looks like it’s floating above the water. The ridgeline of it is reminiscent of an Easter Island statue laying on it’s back, head jutting out to sea. From Unalakleet’s beach, the Isle is the color of deep lapis with amber flecks and streaks. A long cloud hovers above, protectively. Sloping down to the sea, its forehead is high and proud. Besboro is most often referred to in student stories about how to survive a zombie apocalypse, being a safe haven to hide out and start over.
Besboro Island

A small skiff with a noisy outboard motor rumbes past, headed straight for the sea ice, seal hunting, no doubt. The sound fades into the clouds long after the boat is out of sight.  

This morning’s wind has faded and the shoreline is now glass, the current out from shore more apparent in its journey north.

Sand grasses are turning green early this year. A welcome end to a light winter for now, but foreshadowing an uncertain future for the Arctic way of life.

Four seagulls fly over, headed south, chirping and crying as gentle waves from the long gone boat make it to shore in an even pattern matching the sheets billowing in the tender breeze on a nearby clothesline strung between two poles of grey driftwood. The sun is hot on my back, signaling to me that there will be no need for a jacket after lunch and reminding me of the tanned faces of my bird hunter students.

4th period (2 hours later)

My class full of freshman, but almost not freshman anymore, is always a lively bunch. Today is no different. As the students aptly put it, “God provided us with a beaver.”

The wind has picked up, blowing from the north, and clouds are moving in. I can see rainstorms in the distance, vertical swatches of dark gray from sky to ground, looking like smeared watercolors.

Allie is late for class because her boyfriend shot a black goose at lunch. Hunting, fishing, subsistence activities never stop; they ebb and flow with the seasons and the tides.

Proud hunter
The world is in a constant state of flux, of change. Movement. The boys are calling goose and ducks with sounds deep from their chest, honed through a lifetime, many lifetimes of experience. Gentle waves, no more than six inches high, are rolling in against the already wet sand, making a calm rush to the shore, coming from the northwest, coming from Russia. The ice flow has moved further out to sea since this morning. It is barely visible, now. A dozen seagulls are flying overhead, back and forth, noisily screeching, distracting me from my writing and causing me to look up and down the beach toward the sand bar where the blue water turns brown. I stretch my hands, fingers sore from the icy wind.

The southern coast of the Norton Sound is visible from my seat on the log, 40 miles or more away. Feathery clouds from earlier are now a pillowy cotton, thrown here and there across the sky, blown by the breath of ancestral spirits as they watch over us. It provides a sense of anticipation. Peace. Safety. It’s a new beginning for me and I’m filled with thankfulness and strength as I enter this chapter, finally home. Looking around, I wish Nali were here; soon, Nuka will join us.

Duncan and Evelyn carry the beaver
My students are running, playing, chasing on the sand bar. This is how school should be. My phone rings for a second time. I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t answer it the first time. It’s a local Unalakleet number, so I answer the second time. It’s Evelyn, calling me from the sandbar because it’s several hundred yards away and I can’t even see the students clearly.

“It’s a beaver. Oh! He’s killing the beaver!” laughter and squeals surround her and I hear her smiling on the other end of the phone.

I’m confused. “What? No! Don’t kill anything!” I exclaim, now just able to make out a student picking up a log from the beach and running up the sandbar.

He swings. Once. Twice. Then, corrals it in toward shore with the far end of the log.

“He got it! He killed a beaver! Duncan killed a beaver!”

Admiring the tail
As the line disconnects, I’m speechless. A thousand thoughts are swirling through my head. Is this legal? They are natives. Am I going to get in trouble? I shouldn’t have let them go that far down the beach. I should have gone with them. I’m a horrible supervisor. I can’t believe this just happened. It was just a simple writing assignment. Holy shit, my student just killed a beaver during English class! What are the chances?! Here they come.

Evelyn and Duncan are carrying the beaver together, each holding a back leg. The beaver is hanging upside down, big, flat, leathery tail flopping over with each step they take. They resemble couple of parents holding the hands of a two-year old who has turned into a limp dishrag, as they often do, swinging, legs suspended. Smiles are everywhere. Duncan is visibly puffed up, looking bigger than when he walked down the beach, proud, seasoned, a provider at 15.

Breathless, Evelyn explains, "It offered itself to Duncan! It just swam right up and offered itself! The elders always tell us that God provides and He really did!"

“So, now what? What are you going to do with it?” I ask, hoping to hide the evidence before the principal gets wind of what just happened.

“Skin it. Take it home and eat it. Use the fur for a new hat,” he replies, incredulous that I don’t already have an understanding of what to do with a dead beaver.

I touch the reptilian tail. I’ve never been this close to a beaver before.

Word spread through the school like wildfire. Duncan was a superhero, king of the hill, a true hunter. I was definitely not in trouble. I’m the cool teacher. It enhances my reputation, as well. In this land of Eskimos, it is good to be a teacher. It is a good life.