The fog has pushed on for the time being and everything outside is soft and quiet. I want to take a moment to wish everyone a very merry Christmas. May your hours overflow with laughter and love. And may the truest miracle of the season move beyond the rooftop into the welcoming mangers of our hearts.
It seems strangely appropriate on this eve of the winter solstice that our tiny village is blanketed with a heavy layer of freezing fog. The sun set for the last time back before Thanksgiving, but we're still blessed with a short period of ambient light on the southern horizon when the sky is perfectly clear. Unfortunately, the weather hasn't been cooperating and the only light on the southern horizon I've seen in weeks is the signal out at the airport.
Before I moved to Atqasuk, I used to wonder about that line in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that includes, "then one foggy Christmas Eve." Having grown up in the South, that didn't make much sense to me. I had no idea that it could be foggy and below freezing at the same time. Well, now I know. It's not only possible, but also common and something of a pain in the neck.
Bush pilots are amazingly adept at flying under the most challenging Arctic weather conditions imaginable without much of a problem, but fog isn't one of them. This time of year, with so many people trying to get out for Christmas, it can really put a damper on holiday spirit to hear that all flights have been cancelled due to fog. Where is that Rudolph when we need him?
So it's foggy here and quiet. With cloud cover hiding any celestial light and ice fog muting or totally snuffing out the artificial sources, the longest night of the year has the potential of being one of the darkest as well.
But that won't prevent kids (or adults) from playing outside. In fact, with winds down below the 10 mph mark, there will likely be a great deal of activity around the village. As these grainy photos from a few days ago depict, there is fun to be had even without the sun.
The photo above was taken on Friday (from my classroom) around lunchtime. I was hoping to get a good shot of the moon, but there was an icy haze diffusing most of the details. Still, this is a fair reflection of the amount of light we have at noon right now...when the weather is good.
The photo below, on the other hand, was taken around lunchtime today. Wind has been gusting for a couple of days, kicking up snow and forming drifts all over town.
Here's a shot from around 4 p.m. today with gusts in the 50 mph range. School dismissed an hour early. A few parents picked their children up with snow machines or other personal vehicles. But, because we don't have a school bus driver at present, the bulk of our students did not have a ride and walking was not an option. So making sure everyone arrived home safely entailed driving small groups of students home in the maintenance truck. Thankfully, all was accomplished without anyone getting lost, stuck in a drift, or running off the road.
That's always a good thing.
So now I'm headed home for the day and I'm kind of looking forward to getting out there. I actually like the wind. I like the way it feels to stand against something almost stronger than I am. And I enjoy the sounds of a storm raging outside while I'm cozily snuggled indoors. Tomorrow, as several people mentioned, will probably be calm and clear.
Forget darkness. Forget subzero temperatures. After an extra long Thanksgiving weekend stuck inside the house, this little guy was determined to play out. The wind was cooperating, so his mom switched on the spotlight in front of their house and out he raced, Tonka in tow.
I watched him drop the enormous truck and begin pushing from behind through the fresh, flawless snow...all the while sputtering those highly developed motor noises that small boys (okay, all boys) instinctively know how to make.
I watched with admiration as he played...and played...and played.
He didn't mind that he was alone. He didn't mind that his face was cold. He didn't mind that perpetual runny nose. Heck, that's what sleeves are for. He was playing...playing. And nothing else seemed to matter.
I think I could learn a thing or two from this kid! And I'm not just talking about sound effects. How often, in the avoidance of childishness, do I end up quelling childlikeness?
I have to wonder.
In the midst of the sometimes harried, organized chaos of my life, I spend a lot of time focusing on the details of being responsible.
And that's not bad.
But, the unfettered, ingenuous grace of this four-year-old reminds me...there are qualities my heart once possessed that need reclaiming.
I've been taking a Conversational Inupiaq course this fall...via teleconference. Yeah. Learning a new language is challenging enough. Learning a new language over the telephone is downright amusing. Although I don't see myself emerging from the course a fluent speaker by any estimation, it has definitely been a good experience and I've picked up a great deal that I hope to build on in the future.
Our last class focused on words and phrases associated with Quyyavik, or Thanksgiving. Our instructor asked us to share what we were most thankful for. One by one, participants shared their blessings. Quyyatigiga iglukput...I'm thankful for my home. Quyyatigiga savagviga...I'm thankful for my job. Quyyatigiga avilaitqatiga...I'm thankful for my closest friend. I can't write "I'm thankful for my family" in Inupiaq because it requires a letter that is impossible to type with this program (a combination of n and g), but you get the idea. We all shared our thoughts and the sources of our gratitude.
All week long, I listened to people around me naturally talking about the things in their lives that they cherish. Prayers were given, feasts were eaten. Dishes were washed, dried, and put away. Yet, there was something in the back of my mind that I just couldn't express, something for which I'm grateful that wouldn't lend itself to words, much less an Inupiaq translation.
Then I looked back through some photos that I downloaded a while ago and it hit me. This is what I'm most grateful for.
About a week ago I made some soup using one of those packages that boasts 16 different beans. Somewhere in the process of washing the beans, one of the tiniest ended up stuck to the side of the strainer in the sink. I'm not sure what it says about my housekeeping practices, but that bean must have remained there for several days being doused by the occasional flow of water from the faucet. I never even noticed it until the strainer happened to shift a little, exposing the seedling that you see in the photo.
At first, I laughed right out loud. Then amazement set in. Those of you who know me are painfully aware, I'm sure, that I make mountains out of molehills on a regular basis. I know it sounds crazy, but I don't care. Seeing this little plant was an encouragement and it illustrates something that I'm grateful for, but haven't been able to describe.
Too often, I complain when my life feels hard or dry. I complain when I feel insignificant, lacking purpose. I complain when an unexpected splash sends my good intentions down the drain. I grow weary; I grow sad and I complain.
Homes, jobs, friends, even family...almost anything can be lost or out of reach.
But the tiny bean clinging to my sink strainer reminded me of something important that I often forget. I am overwhelmingly thankful for life's tenacious potential. The tenacity that prompts me to reach up and dig deep even when...especially when...light and soil seem far away.
So, to the One who has endowed even the most insignificant beans with that tenacious potential, with all my heart...
Fly across the road...wheels spinning on packed snow, slide sideways to a full (and very cool-looking) stop at the porch, score some serious candy.
That was the not-so-well-thought-out plan.
Unfortunately, Halloween had one more trick up its sleeve. In his enthusiasm, this trick-or-treater drove confidently off the road into snow that was a little too deep, a little too slick, a little too...much for his four-wheeler.
While there may be nothing embarrassing about trick-or-treating when you're fifteen, getting stuck is something else altogether (hence the nervous looking around).
Eventually, a helping hand arrives to save the day... and maybe a little face.
There appear to be no other witnesses... except for that irritating shutterbug on the porch!
But getting un-stuck is substantially more difficult than it looks.
Pulling backward doesn't help. The only way out is forward.
I can relate.
I know how it feels to be stuck, unsure of what to do about it, and embarrassed that others see me spinning...my...wheels.
As I press forward, I’m thankful...for friends with good timing.
And I'm hopeful that no one around me… carries a camera.
Moments for posting thoughts have been hard to come by lately. So, until there is a break in the busyness, I'll just share a glimpse or two of other people having fun.
There are two loading ramps in the back of the school. One is used for deliveries and maintenance daily, but the other one is generally unused... except during sledding, or sliding, season.
Sliding is a sport that requires skill and dedication. It is not to be entered into lightly! (That's mostly a joke.)
The first step is to prepare the course. These two are making sure there is a pile of snow at the base of the ramp. It's critical that the pile be of sufficient size for propelling a sled and its occupants into the air.
The next step is to pour water down the ramp...thus creating a surface just right for high-speed acceleration. Determining whether or not the desired effect has been achieved isn't too difficult. There are always plenty of guinea pigs around.
Finally, the ramp is open for business.
If I had a nickel for every trip down...I'd be rich, rich, rich.
But, I have to say, the pleasure of watching these guys have a good time...
A few weeks ago, my restless dog and I struck out for a leisurely walk around the lake. We were both grateful to get out; it had been much too long. Every step slurped and sometimes my foot walked right out of my boot. Thankfully, it wasn't too difficult to slide back in before stepping into the icy soup mostly concealed by fading grasses.
The sky was a seamless dome of gray capping a chilly breeze scented by water, grass, moss, mud, and that indefinable sweetness that always lingers on the tundra. Labrador tea? Likely, though I didn't see any along the way. Maybe I'll call the mystery scent Nuna's perfume. I like that and it suits her.
Nuna is the land. I don't know why I haven't mentioned her before. I was reminded of that on this particular day because, as I stepped, (between the slurpings) I heard something familiar that I had forgotten. It was the sound of moss tearing beneath my feet.
Very much like fabric tearing, the sound often makes me feel as though I'm ripping Nuna's garment. I wish I could tread more lightly, but I don't think she minds so much. She gets new clothes every summer. She wears a brightly colored atikluk embellished with thousands of the tiniest and most resilient blossoms imaginable.
Nuna, in summer, is soft and warm. She whispers invitation.
She generously shares her abundance with...everyone.
Her laughter is the twittering of nesting birds...
...and bubbling streams.
But as summer gives way to autumn, Nuna's laughter begins to fall away. Puddles and ponds develop a frosty skin.
She feels it and prepares, as we all do, for the flurries of September. That time when chubby flakes swirl and cling like powdered sugar in the corners of Nuna's smile.
Then new sounds begin to flourish...giggles and squeals and shouts. Everywhere, children rapturously bounce on their Nuna's knees. Sliding down her slippery skirts, they yell, "Again! Let's do it again!"
Nuna smiles a weary smile and lets them play while they still can. She knows the sun is coming slower and hanging lower every day.
I'm sorry I was remiss, failing to introduce her by name, but this is Nuna.
What can I say? Things are pretty crazy right now and, as much as I have wanted to, I just haven't been able to get photos loaded or get my thoughts down in any form that makes sense. The photo I've posted here is from a couple of days ago. I hope to share more very soon.
As I write this, it's almost 10:45 p.m. and I'm still at school. We are hosting a volleyball tournament that began this afternoon and will conclude tomorrow around noon. Our principal is out of town and the first choice for "acting principal" is gone as well, so the task fell to me. I'm probably being overly cautious at this point, but I didn't want to leave until the visiting students began to wind down a little. So I'm still here. In a few minutes, I'll do one more door check and then head home.
Sporting events work a little differently up here. Participation requires a higher level of commitment from school staff than it does out there on the road system. In a school district covering roughly 88,000 square miles, teams are forced to travel great distances to compete with other schools. Everything revolves around flight schedules and weather. Overnighting at the hosting school is always involved and that means meals must be prepared, classrooms must be used for sleeping quarters, and staff members are called upon to go above and beyond the ordinary call of duty in the midst of unpredictable circumstances.
In March, we'll be hosting the regional basketball tournament and prom here in Atqasuk. We'll be feeding and housing four to five teams, their coaches, and additional high school students who don't play basketball, but will be attending the prom. We hosted this event six years ago and, I'm here to tell you, it's a HUGE undertaking. Just coordinating trips to and from the airport requires strategy and dedicated manpower.
For tonight, though, we're only dealing with one small group of kids from Kaktovik. They flew about 400 miles to be here and they've been a good group. Our kids have had a good time with them, both competing and socializing. Tonight, the student council hosted a dance that started out being more of a "stand" than a dance, but everyone loosened up toward the end and seemed to have fun.
So, now it's 11:33 p.m. I just made my rounds and everything is locked up and quiet. The classroom where our visitors are sleeping is dark. They appear to have settled in for the night. I'm heading home to my poor neglected dog, a hot bath, and my pillow.
Breakfast and the morning volleyball matches are only a few hours away.
Welcome to the Arctic! This space is dedicated to observations and experiences related to daily life in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Atqasuk. Questions and comments are invited. Thanks for visiting! Quyanaqpaq!
nuna:tundra, the land atikluk:snow shirt, parka cover
Interested in Inuit culture? Check out these films...
The Fast Runner is an excellent representation of ancient Inuit culture. The R-rating is for nudity, violence, and some language. Subtitles are utilized throughout. I do not recommend this film for children, but it's an extremely accurate portrayal of the culture. It was introduced to me by an Inupiat woman who raved about it. And I agree!
For a preview, click here.
The Snow Walker is another excellent representation of Inuit culture circa 1940's. This film is rated PG, I'm guessing for language. No subtitles that I remember. It starts a little slow, but gets much better. It will leave you with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the survival skills of this culture.
For a preview, click here.
Great For Kids!
Whale Snow by Debby Dahl Edwardson is a warm and culturally sensitive story centered on the Inupiat subsistence tradition of whaling. It is available in both English and Inupiaq translation. The illustrations, by Annie Patterson are exquisite and add to the quiet softness that the story inspires.
To order this title on Amazon.com, click here.
The Alaska Geographic series is an excellent informational resource. The edition entitled North Slope Now deals exclusively with this area and even features relatives of my students. Although it was published in 1989, it is still current enough to provide a general understanding of culture, lifestyle, and issues faced by this northern-most region.
To order this title from Alaska Geographic, click here.
More about Kaktovik Disaster of 2005 (from Dec post, "The Edge")