Life and Its Surprises

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This past month has been filled with all manner of surprises. My last blog seems like a lifetime ago, but only one month has passed. In that time, winter has arrived, like we knew it would, and the landscape has transformed into the snowy scene you see above.

Some of the surprises of the past month have included an unexpected trip to Bethel, followed by a LONG weather delay on the return trip home. Followed by a surprise Thanksgiving dinner invite to celebrate with co-workers who stayed behind in the village. Finally, the biggest surprise of all is how comfortable we feel here during the holidays.

While we miss our friends and family in the lower 48, and yearn for those connections we have left behind, the connection we feel to Kipnuk defies explanation. It is like a place we have been yearning to come to, without having any idea that it even existed. Here, we have found a peace and contentment that had eluded us in out lifestyle in the Seattle area.

This morning, while we enjoyed our breakfast and spoke about what we needed/wanted to do for the day, we mulled over a couple of radical ideas: a long walk and some laundry followed by putting up more Christmas lights. Sounds good. Greg and I then reminisced about what the Sunday morning conversation was on this very weekend last year. It would have been, “We need to go to Costco, then……followed by a long list of social commitments to attend to and chores that needed to be done, in order to prepare for the work week ahead. Oh, and by the way, Greg have been packing for a trip to Connecticut or Portland, or….where-ever he was off to that week.” It was a busy, frenetic, exciting, satisfying, hectic, and rewarding life, filled with community service opportunities and life-changing experiences.

And, if you had asked us a year ago if we were happy, we would have said, “Yes! And, we would like a little more down time, but it’s all good the way it is.” Well, clearly, we were ready for a change that we didn’t even know was coming. And now that it’s here, we are not just happy, we are content. It is the contentment of people living life the way they want to and finally having the time to choose what to do next. It is the contentment of a different kind of connection with the people in our community. Finally, it is the contentment of a single income family. Surprise!

With Greg firmly settled into pre-retirement, there are opportunities for us to use our time in a different manner. He handles the household and the shopping (online and at the local stores) and he handles a lot of the details that we reserved Sunday afternoons for. Since he can handle them at his own pace during the week, Sunday afternoons have been transformed into time to stroll the tundra, relax, and reflect. It is also the time when I attend to correspondences (email and snail mail) which is a luxury I haven’t had in years. It is a time of connection to each other, time to talk about big ideas and small things, both of which matter immensly.

In this time and place, we are happy and content. It is an unconventional (uncomfortable) moment when we realize that some of the things we held most dear no longer fit into the lifestyle we have chosen and the equal realization that what we miss from home are the people. So, it is with happy and contented hearts that we know we will see our friends again, and we will all be different because of our experiences in between. It will be another surprise!

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Next Time: An Unconventional Holiday

Gratitude and Graciousness

In my last blog I mentioned how folks here have been holding their breath, waiting for the fall flooding to arrive – see Fall is Coming (the WIND is here) . The big flood came on Friday evening as a result of a new moon, strong winds, and driving rain, combined with a +11.25′ high tide. This made for many feet of water all over the place, up to chest high in places, sliding along on top of the previously frozen and only slightly thawed land. The school gym was opened for families who needed shelter during the height of the flood and we were able to graciously provide assistance for those in need.

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(Above: Water outside our home – October 28)

The next morning we discovered up-ended boats where they are not usually found, loose dogs, missing boardwalks, overturned sewage dumpsters, and drifts of trash all through the village. The Tundra has returned to her regal fall beauty except for the addition of jelly-fish scattered through the grasses and in the ponds. These crystal-like plankton jewels dot the Tundra like gems in a crown – a testament to how far inland and how high the ocean rose. Today, the sea gulls are unceremoniously feasting on them.

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(Above: After the flood – October 29)

As I write this there are many things for which I am grateful. I am grateful there were no severe injuries to any of the villagers – despite a couple of close calls. I am grateful for our dwelling which has withstood storms and floods before. And mostly, I am grateful to be witnessing the ferocity with which the seasons change and the stories they bring with them.

This fall’s flood is not the first one, nor is it the second. This fall’s flood is another in a long line of floods told about for the past 4,000 years. Living on a land which has experienced this recurring cycle for so many years is comforting, even though the weather and its upheavals is not. It is reassuring that people can say, “First comes the wind and rain. Then comes the freezing. Then the little thaw and then the flood. After the flood then comes winter.” After how many times this has happened, it is part of the story of the land, the story of the people. And really, that’s the part that many do not recognize; that the story of the land IS the story of the people. They are not separate and as a guest in this story, I am grateful to be able to play the part of witness to something which is much older and bigger than my lifetime.

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(Above: The freezing – October 22)

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(Above: A little thawing – October 23)

There is the uncomfortable knowing that the drama has changed, and is continuing to change, in the past few years due to warming. The flood on Friday was, “The worst anyone has ever seen.” The cycle is changing and no one is really sure how that will affect the story or its outcome. Will it return to how it has been for the past 4000 years or will it be a mystery to discover? Perhaps the liturgy of the weather cycle and when winter comes will change, perhaps the knowing about what comes next will not be as sure, or as insightful. Perhaps, with the warming of the Tundra, people will not be able to live here the way they have always lived. I wonder if there is a construct for the new part of this story. I also wonder if we will have another flood this evening….

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(Above: The Graves at sunset – October 24)

Currently the wind is blowing HARD! The rain is coming DOWN! And the tide is coming IN. This is the same story that just happened two nights ago, so we will see what happens next.

In the meantime, I am grateful for the generator which ensures we have heat and lights. I am grateful that our weekly baking is done so we will have bread to eat. I am grateful that my rain gear is ready and I am rested in case we’re called upon to assist in providing shelter at the school for those who are flooded out of their homes. I’m grateful to have renewed my first aid card before leaving Renton (Thank you, CD), and mostly I am grateful to bear witness to the changes in the land as it is happening.

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(Above: Kipnik at Sunset October 13)

Next Time: Life and Its Surprises

An Adventure in Fish!

Guest Blogger – Gregory Sweet.

It’s like stepping into the great unknown. For the last 37 years of my life I have been working 40 or more hours per week and receiving a paycheck in return. While initially most of the checks were small, over time they have become more adequate and have facilitated my ability to have the (perceived) freedom to do what I want when I want. As long as I remember to show up to work on Monday morning ready to be productive.

Now I take a step backwards in this progression. I basically go to ground zero where the concept of a paycheck no longer exists. It has become more obvious how much of my self-worth has been determined by how others perceive the value of my work. I work, therefore, I am. During daily work interactions, constantly receiving feedback on the work done, helped me understand my place in the world. Feedback arrived through comments, facial expressions, body language, voice tone, inflection, and conversation.

Cut out that daily work experience, with the nearly constant feedback loops, and I no longer have that external reinforcement of value. Perhaps then it becomes easier to listen to the more critical voice we all possess. It is sometimes like the Red Dwarf episode: Confidence and Paranoia. For those of you wondering, look here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confidence_and_Paranoia and let me be clear, it has NOT rained fish here in Kipnuk, nor has the mayor of Warsaw spontaneously combusted.

While the workplace is where much daily performance feedback originates, it is not the only place. Daily interactions with family and community also provide positive and negative reinforcement. Being here in Kipnuk, where my primary job is to cook, clean, hunt, and fish, I still have opportunities to receive feedback on my performance. I am lucky to have a spouse who is eager to share her thoughts and provide this positive reinforcement! And she loves to eat the fish I have caught! But now, much of my own self-worth and self-value must come from within. It’s becoming more self contained and introspective about my place in family, community, and the world. Many people pay a LOT of money to unplug and to come to an understanding about their own intrinsic self-worth. I just had to move to Kipnuk and step into the great unknown.

So, when a person is young and unemployed they say they are unemployed. I’m embracing the idea of being pre-retired. And because  we planned on not having additional income when we set out on this adventure, the lack of conventional work opportunities is not financially impactful. It has just confirmed for me that I will have to look for other opportunities to contribute in the village I live in, and continue my introspection, in order to maintain a positive sense of being and accomplishment.

In other words, when life is feeling a bit slow and I have little to do, I might as well go fishing.

Next time: Fall is coming!

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An omelette made with some of the fish and salmon roe I caught!

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Introspection from earlier this summer.

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Lots of space for thought AND to go fishing!

Hello! Pleased to Meet You!

Today is a very rainy and windy day here in Kipnuk, AK. The visibility is so low that I’m not able to see the cemetery on the horizon which has become both a favorite destination and a barometer of what the weather is like. When the weather is clear and sunny, it gleams white in the middle of the tundra. When the weather is gray and dreary, it seems to sink low on the horizon while still remaining visible, and when it can’t be seen, it is really storming. For my Seattle folks, today looks like October 10th! Perfect day to sit down and update you on the past week’s happenings.

First and foremost…..SCHOOL STARTED! How exciting to be surrounded by enthusiastic learners! The staff is incredible and the students are equally amazing. In general, people are very gracious with my learning curve as a new administrator. Patience and graciousness makes learning a new position easier. And, of course there are bumps along the way – nothing that is unexpected or surprising (so far). The pace of the day is brisk and there is always a lot to do. Learning to do the fine dance/juggling/plate twirling that comes with the position of Assistant Site Administrator is exhilarating! Learning the systems that make a whole Site work well, and in a seamless manner, is a task I will be working on this entire year.

And, after school is done, there are the walks! Everyday we are able to walk out onto the tundra through a series of boardwalks. When the boardwalks end, with mud-boots on, it’s time to explore this vast area. There are wild lilies, sorrel, daisies, rushes, sedge, artemesia,  cranberries, salmon berries, blueberries, blackberries, fire weed, and many other plants that I have never seen. When the wind blows across the tundra the grasses dance under the relentless airstream.

And we never walk alone. We are always accompanied by our guides. These guides are children from the village, who are smitten with Isabella and the idea that Greg and I spend so much time walking and exploring our new home. We walk and talk and they tell us about all the important happenings in the village.

One entire day was spent finding all the places to shop here in Kipnuk. On the internet, it seems there is really only one store, but there are 6 stores in the village – including a hardware store down by the river.

Now, when I say store, are you thinking Costco?  Please know it’s not at all like that. Imagine a small house with shelves of items that seem to follow a theme. For instance, at Corp we can find lots of bottles of things like soy sauce and frozen food like meat and bread. At the Blue Store we can find laundry supplies, compression straps, and long ice poles for ice fishing. At the Green Store we can find different kinds of clothes and equipment including team gear for our school. No one store has every thing all at once – retail seems to be shared. So, imagine the excitement when a co-worker comes in holding a bag and says the following simple sentence, “Corp has eggs.” We look at each other and grab our coats!

Another day was spent walking to the dump. Yes. The dump. The site where all of our waste, garbage, etc ends up. It’s a bit of a walk out of town, but the day was bright and the company especially informative. We realized that sometimes the dump is called Walmart when a man on a four-wheeler rolled by with roofing materials on his trailer cart. He stopped to tell us about the great sale items he found today! The next day we went back to try to find a bike tire we needed for a project. Not too much luck — but we had a great time looking.

That’s about all for now. Next time: An adventure in Fish!

Saying, “Good-bye for now,” or “Sometimes Good-Bye is another Chance.”

The past six weeks have flown by. With travel and moving, there has been very little time for reflection until just recently. Apologies for the LONG gap in posts.

June was filled with many social events. Saying, “Good-bye for now,” and, “We’ll miss you very much,” was the order of the day. Seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, while making time for friends and family we see more often, was a bit challenging. Added to the task of packing and moving, there were times it became overwhelming. Saying goodbye is another chance to remind people we care deeply for them and will miss them and was an essential part of our departure process.

In the end, there were still a fair number of folks we would have loved to have visited with face-to-face but weren’t able to make our schedules match up. Social media takes the sting out of missing absent friends. It’s still lovely to have one last face to face opportunity to let our community know how much we love them and will miss them. And, there were many opportunities.

Almost all “Good-bye for nows” were challenging and there were some that were surprisingly difficult. The ones that were the most difficult for me were the ones where there is a good chance that we won’t be seeing each other in person again. My elder friends gifted me with the opportunity to understand that life is to be lived and mortality catches up with us all, eventually. Other surprisingly difficult partings were folks in the robotics community that we have worked to build over the years. Being surrounded by excellent individuals who regularly practice gracious professionalism is a gift that I never take for granted. Parting ways was painful. For the most part, I hope our paths will cross again, and they may, since that’s the type of community it is.

Of course, saying, “Good-bye for now,” to our home of many years was part of the journey, and since we knew it is in great hands, it wasn’t hard – just different. This led us to the next part of our timeline which was to visit family in Ohio and then Tacoma. This period, with no permanent address and only the possessions in our suitcases, was very liberating. We explored Detroit in the early morning hours with few people awake, rode a Greyhound bus through rural Ohio, and flew thousands of miles. It’s much more challenging on many levels to live outside of the norm, outside of community, and to be uprooted and on the move. Because of the graciousness of family we were able to experience an ersatz freedom from responsibilities that many of us don’t ever get to have. Although we still helped with the dishes and kept from throwing our clothes on the floor, we essentially were relieved of many of our adult responsibilities.

While we were in this process, we took the time to prepare for our own eventual departures from this life and set up our last will and testament. I know it’s a bit gruesome to chat about, so I’ll keep this part a bit short. Having to think about what we will leave behind from this life – our residue – was timely and important. Essentially, we will be leaving in a way that reduces impact on our children and their families and allows them time to simply grieve/celebrate/party/process – whatever. This is one of the most important “Good-bye for nows,” that we thought about.

In essence, this last period of time has been about celebrating the life we have been leading, preparing for our new life, while also preparing for the eventuality of leaving this life all together. It’s been quite a bit to process and having time and space to do so has been helpful.

As I write this, we have unpacked our last box and are getting settled in our new home in Kipnuk. Isabella is a local celebrity and we spend time every evening walking her in the village. So up next: New friends and lots of “Hellos!”