Hmmm.....well.....five years of "my next 30 years" are over. My time in Shishmaref, Alaska has come to an end. I will leave for the last time tomorrow morning (May 24). It marks the end of my time here in this remote Inupiat Eskimo village just south of the Arctic Circle and 100 miles across the Chukchi Sea from Russia. It marks the end of my 35+ years of teaching. Shucks....now what? What will I do with my remaining 25 years (or more...hopefully, not less)! I won't dwell on that right now.
My time in Shishmaref has been an incredible experience. I have learned and experienced so much thanks to the sharing of knowledge from the locals. I think back to when this "quest" was first born....in 1993 after visiting China with People to People. I recall my conversations with Shirley Bishop who had been subbing in my first grade classroom at the time of that trip. She had taught in an Alaskan bush village and her stories piqued my interest. The rest is history. I remember Meg Kitson asking me more than once, "When are you ever going to go to Alaska? I thought you wanted to teach up there." I would nod my head and reply, "Yes, yes I do...and it will happen...when the time is right." The time was right in August of 2011 after my retirement from East Jordan Public Schools. Shishmaref was my destination.
I remember arriving on a rainy day and being picked up at the airport by the assistant principal, John Bruce. If I started writing down all my "I remember..." statements, this blog would go on forever. I do remember walking by the Native Store one afternoon though one November day my first year and thinking, "Gosh, there will be a time when I will no longer be here in Shishmaref....when I will be leaving for the last time." I had tears well up in my eyes that day and realized how quickly I had become attached to this village, to these people, and to the kids. Little did I know at the time that that "last time" wouldn't be for five more years. During that time, I have had the good fortune of bringing up two of my three sisters (Connie and Shirley) and my own two kids (Dan and Jess) and Nate. I can tell you that the tears that welled up in my eyes that day have turned into a floodgate the last few days. Holy cow! I have been crying at the drop of a hat and not just a little bit either! I have been overwhelmed with the hugs and words being shared with me. I will miss it here. I will miss my home away from home. This leaving business is for the birds....this is NOT easy. I am dreading tomorrow when I board that airplane....shucks....the tears are starting again just thinking about it.
So...what have I learned? I have learned that you can't take life for granted. Well, I really already knew that but in the five years I've been here, I have lost some dear friends and family back home. There have been some painful losses here in the village as well. Today is the funeral of yet another Elder....reminding us that time marches on and we aren't on earth forever. Take time to talk with your family and friends. Show them the respect they deserve. Treat others with kindness.....you know....all those things we were told as we were growing up and all the things we tell our kids. If you want to have a friend, you've got to be a friend. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Life is short....enjoy it to the max.
I walked through the cemetery here last night, stopping by two graves in particular. I believe everything happens for a reason and I'm still searching for the exact reason (although I may never know it in this life) why I ended up in Shishmaref. I have some ideas on that but out of respect for those still here, I will keep it to myself and share it with those who need to know it. Just walking though the cemetery is a solemn experience here. I stopped at the freshly dug grave for the Elder being remembered today. Up here, it takes several volunteers hours/days to dig the grave because it's all done by hand and through the permafrost. The care in preparing one's final resting spot is a reverent undertaking shared by many in the village. I was also told that when the body is in the village prior to the funeral, there's to be no hunting out of respect. I'm in awe, at times, of the ways of the villagers. Much could be learned from these folks....if only we'd listen and watch.
I will greatly miss the simple lifestyle up here. Oh, sure....I'm looking forward to eating out at restaurants again and getting in my car for a drive through the headwaters of the Jordan River and attending the Joshua Davis concert back home in July and so forth and so on! But, I have appreciated my daily walk to and from school (farthest teacher housing unit in the village) especially when I've stepped on frozen puddles to hear the crunchy sound it makes or walked on top of hard-packed snow to hear the hollow thumps of my footsteps. I've loved walking through the fog and even the blowing snow (sometimes....only sometimes...and NEVER the blowing sand) and experiencing what 40 below with a minus 60 wind chill feels like and thinking I was "Donna of the Tundra....Wonder Woman!"
The lifestyle is simple up here...you stay up late because it's light late into night....or even throughout the whole night. You attend birthday parties where it seems the whole village is invited to come and partake of more desserts than you'd find in a bakery. For entertainment, you cheer at a basketball game alongside all the villagers who come to support the teams because it's the best (and only) game in town! Or, if you are a teacher, you know that you will have to take your turn in working at the games. You walk most places or ride on a snow-go or a "honda" ("honda" is lower case because it is the generic term up here for any brand of four-wheeler....being that a Honda was the first four-wheeler to make it to the island many years ago). My daughter enjoyed taking pictures of multiple family members riding on one four-wheeler at a time. I think she saw 5 or 6 folks on one. You snicker when you see that a stop sign has been installed in the village and wonder, "Why?" You really laugh when you hear that the "streets" are going to be paved this summer and you REALLY wonder, "WHY?" You think nothing of hauling out your honey bucket to the honey bin outside your house. Stinky? Yes, but that's the norm and no one really cares....it's just the way it is. You thank your lucky stars you're leaving when you dump your final bag into the honey bin and discover the side is cracked and the bin is not going to last much longer. You take turns at the washeteria filling up your water containers to haul back to your house and you remember to dump out the catch bucket under your kitchen sink after washing dishes. You accept the fact that no mail came in for maybe several days because the planes weren't flying due to weather. You accept the fact that you may not have fresh fruits and vegetable for weeks/months at a time. You have candles and matches ready in various places around the house because it's a definite that the power WILL go out in the dead of winter when it's already dark at 4:00 p.m.
One nice thing about heading back home....when I need to "drown my sorrows" in junk food....as I did here just yesterday.....it won't cost me $17.74. That covered one Coke, one 9 oz. bag of Ruffles potato chips, and one 15 oz. jar of ranch dip. I'm glad there's still some left because I'll hit it up again tonight after Warren and Bessi have picked up the final haul from my house....including my television....my connection to the outside world!! I told them they had to wait until after "The Voice" was over! I'll have only my two suitcases and backpack left tonight....and my word find and Sudoku books. My beloved jigsaw puzzles were divvied out weeks ago. I can't wait to get back home to get going on one again. I did a total of 57 puzzles up here this year alone....and most of them were 1000 pieces. The advice to those coming up to work in a remote village is to send what makes you happy. And I did!
I know if I start thanking people who have made my life interesting up here, I will forget some key people. You have all claimed a spot in my heart and in my memories. I can't dwell on that right now....I'm starting to cry again. I can't even think it and I cry. Shoot....a couple of Sundays ago, during the singing of one of the hymns, the word "tears" was in it....and I started crying! This past Sunday was exceptionally difficult because the choir dedicated a song to me....which I greatly appreciated....except that I had no Kleenex with me. Good thing those hoodies have long sleeves!
But....I do have to mention Bessi and Warren. Gosh....I think that's all I can do....mention them....because I'm crying again! You can quit laughing anytime now, Warren....! I have no idea how I'm even going to make it on that plane tomorrow. I won't be able to see through the tears. Good grief! Thank you, Bessi and Warren for so very much....sharing your knowledge, culture, humor, support and friendship. I will miss you dearly. Warren, I'm seriously thinking I might have to put your "special saying and gesture" on my tombstone....!
I have so many thoughts swirling around in my saddened brain. I have truly enjoyed my time up here. I won't lie though....it hasn't all been "peachy-keen." Is there anyplace on earth that is perfect? I doubt it. Shishmaref is struggling. It has experienced the influences of the outside world in so many ways...Internet, television, music...drugs and alcohol (even in this dry village). It's also struggling with global warming and how to save the village. Just last week, another meeting was held to discuss the options of trying to stay and what that would take or relocate to the mainland at a place viable for habitation. I will watch in the coming months/years for the outcome of both the saving of the village and the future endeavors of the students. I want you to survive....and thrive.....with whatever means necessary.
So why am I leaving if it fills me with such sorrow? That's an easy one to answer. Last August, shortly after I got back here to start my fifth year, I received word that my brother-in-law, Mark, was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma. That was news none of us wanted to hear...ever. But it's happening. Mark has undergone radiation and immunotherapy treatments. He's doing well. It's not a cancer that can be cured but it can be held at bay....and it better be because Mark has to keep his lawn and flower gardens (with Shirley's help) going for my enjoyment! Be glad, Shishmaref, that Mark did not make it up here to visit. He'd have been pruning and mowing and all sorts of things up here.....even though I told him often, "No, you would not! You don't quite understand what "lawn care" means in Shishmaref. Plus, there are no trees or bushes to trim." Anyway, Mark is doing well and is planning another mission trip to Liberia in February. I'm tossing around the idea of joining him but I have to tell you....when temperatures begin to reach 60 degrees, I'm done! I'm not sure I could survive Liberia....let alone the high 70s I hear it is in Wisconsin right now. Thank goodness for central air at their house. See you soon, Shirley and Mark! It won't be long now and I'll expect a trip to Cherry Berry!
The other deciding factor was this....I was dubbed "Ahna Donna" up here which means "Grandma Donna." Well, I'm truly going to be an "ahna" in August. My daughter, Jessica, has a "bun in the oven" and he or she (they won't share that info yet) will be arriving in August. It's time to go home and be with my family again. It's an exciting time for all and I want to be a part of it.
Time flies by so fast, folks. Gosh, this blog itself proves that. I had no idea when I first started it that I would have stayed here in Shishmaref for five years....five years. This year was a great year in that the third graders I had were the ECE students I started with when I first arrived up here. I have had a riot showing these kids the pictures I took of them back in 2011-12 in ECE and now in third grade this past year. All I can say is this....hold onto your kids....hug them....love them....and raise them well. Another five years will fly by quicker than you can imagine.
So, there you have it, folks! The culmination of my time in Shishmaref. I think that after I've returned home and had some time in my rocking chair listening to the wind in the trees outside my bedroom window, I may try to add to this blog....maybe showing you more of my over 13,000 pictures I've taken up here and telling you more about this incredible experience. Oh, wait....not all of those 13,000 pictures were taken here in Shishmaref. Did I tell you that I went to Kauai in March to see Dan? We took a helicopter tour of the island and went to a luau and walked the beaches collecting shells and ate fresh fruit right off the trees in the yard....and....and...
Hmmm....what will take place now in my life....??? Stay tuned!