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Content warning: Depression, anxiety

 

This weekend, I made an appointment for a haircut. You’re probably thinking, What’s the big deal? Allow me to explain.

From a young age, I have been wary around strangers. The adjective “shy” readily applied to me for a long time. As I moved through school, my growing dysphoria affected my interactions with others. In my teens, I avoided large social gatherings like the plague. I’d go to the end-of-season banquets for marching band and musical, but dances, parties, and such? No way. I hate loud noises, didn’t like any of the music that was popular, couldn’t dance, and didn’t want to deal with the stress of what to wear and how to act and how people might be reading my gender at any given point. I started to break out of this shell in college, thanks to friends who understood and supported me and knew when to call me on my bullshit.

However, to this day, I don’t like talking to new people unless absolutely necessary. I have to psych myself up for these encounters, remind myself of the fact that anyone who looks at me now sees me for who I am. This is easy at some times, difficult at others. It’s especially difficult when I’m dealing with depression.

My life lately has brought a lot of change. A new job in a new city in a new part of the state necessitating an actual cross-country road trip means I’ve encountered more new people in the past couple of months than probably in the last couple of years. At least, it’s felt that way. I’ve got a classroom full of completely new faces, new-to-me curricula to learn, a new way of grading, new expectations to follow. My new co-workers and I are still figuring one another out and learning how to work together. And unlike the village, we don’t live with or next door to one another, which limits how much I see them. Like I said, a lot of change.

When I accepted this job, I expected to deal with the blues. I remember when I moved to Nunap: New places and faces means learning who and where is safe, and that’s stressful. And while I don’t get homesick to the degree I did as a youngster, I still will find myself longing for the familiar. So yes, I expected a little dip in my otherwise normally optimistic personality. I didn’t expect to spend over a month in the worst depressive funk I’ve suffered since college.

Bear with me: Twenty-five years ago, I acquired a third grandmother. Granny R lives down the street from my parents. When I was four or five, Mom started giving Granny the occasional ride to work (Granny has never driven since I’ve known her and would usually take the bus). Occasional rides soon turned into more frequent rides turned into visits turned into dinners at our house. By the time I was six, Granny was as much a part of the family as my Dad’s parents. Over the years, she came to concerts, plays, and musicals. She ooh’d and aah’d over report cards and other achievements. It became standard procedure to stop in and visit with her when walking the dog. When I came out, she hugged me tight. She has always been one of my biggest supporters.

Granny’s health hasn’t been so great the last few years. Nothing unexpected, especially considering her age. I think I started noticing things more once I moved to Alaska; since I saw her less frequently, the changes were more noticeable. This past summer, I suddenly realized how frail she looked. Visits would be a little shorter, and I often had to let myself in to her house when visiting. Pauses broke up her speech as she caught her breath. But she still eagerly asked for any details I could give about my upcoming move and new job, and would tease with the same twinkle in her eye as always.

About three weeks after I arrived in Seward, I got a call from Mom: Granny had fallen and broken her collarbone. This seems to have been the proverbial straw, as from then on most of the updates I’ve gotten are not what one would consider “good”. I spent the next few weeks feeling torn between being here, doing my job, and being there, wanting to spend more time with Granny. I used to call her on the phone weekly, but soon after her fall I stopped. More often than not, the phone would be picked up by the caretaker, and I’d be told Granny was not available. Such conversations didn’t do my mental state any good.

Combined with the stress of all the new, I spiraled down. I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but getting up in the morning was a chore. I knew I had things I had to do, but I couldn’t find the energy to do more than read. Numerous mornings, I’d debate calling off from work, because I just didn’t see how I could find the energy to deal with the kids. I had a TON of things that needed doing at school, but couldn’t stand to be in the building longer than absolutely necessary. Where I could usually see and recall the good moments of a day, all I could hold on to were the bad. And when I get depressed, I isolate myself, not wanting to bother other people. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my new coworkers, because I don’t know them that well and didn’t have the energy to get to know them. I didn’t reach out to anyone in Nunap or in the Lower 48, because I didn’t want to bother them or add to their worry. I knew I was making bad choices, that I would feel better if I just talked to someone, but I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to change the behavior. Realizing I was not in a good state, I reached out to a local therapist to see if I could get added to her patient list. She has no openings until January. I made the appointment, but then promptly reached out to Dr. A, the therapist I worked with last spring, to see if she could work me in to her schedule on a temporary basis. Thankfully, she said yes.

The day of my first appointment marked a new low for me: I overslept. By two hours. I barely made it to work on time. (On the bright side, I didn’t have time to give in to the by-then-normal morning depression.) I spent the day glancing at the clock, mentally counting down the time until I’d be talking to Dr. A. Finally, four o’ clock rolled around, and we got started. For the next two hours, I spoke while she listened, she spoke while I listened. She talked me through some possible steps to make it through the week until our next appointment. And while I was nowhere near my old self, by the end of the session for the first time in weeks I felt I could see a little bit of light through the gloom.

The very next day, I learned that Granny has decided she’s ready to die. She’d apparently begun refusing her medications over the weekend, and ate and drank only sporadically. After numerous phone calls home over the ensuing four days, including one with Granny herself, I began to make peace with the news. This is clearly what she wants, and I support her just as she’s always supported me.

The day I learned about Granny, I started talking to my coworkers. Not about everything, but I did say that my grandmother wasn’t doing well. I also talked to my students, explaining why I might seem a little disconnected from what was going on in the room or why my temper might flare unexpectedly. Got to love kids: Over the course of the day, most of them told me that they were sorry and offered hugs.

For the past two weeks, I’ve woken up every morning wondering if there will be a text or voicemail saying Granny is gone. (So far, she’s still with us.) I’ve checked in more frequently with the family. Thanks to Dr. A, I’ve been able to set small, achievable goals that have helped pull me back out of the pit. In the last few days, I’ve finally begun to feel like I have energy again, energy that I can use to interact with new people. And so I could finally walk through the door and make a haircut appointment.

 

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Located in southwestern Alaska, the village of Nunap is home to around 500 people, predominantly members of the Yup’ik tribe. The village can’t be accessed by road; plane, boat, snowmobile, and “river taxi” (driving in a car or truck on the frozen river) are the only ways in or out. For three years, I lived there and taught at the one and only school.

From Anchorage, you can drive onto the Seward Highway. Follow the road for the next 120-odd miles, and you arrive in Seward, the town. The year-round population of the town sits around 2500, although during tourist season that number goes up quite a bit. The airport serves more as a hub for sight-seeing flights in small planes or helicopters. Earlier this summer, I accepted a job from the local school district to work at the local elementary school. Two weeks ago, I finally started work.

Last year, the Nunap school housed just under 230 students, ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. The hallways of the school make a squared-off U shape. One of the long halls is the “elementary side”, while the other is the “high school side” (everything from 6th grade on up). The short hallway has the main office, the teachers’ work room, and the office of the school tech guy. The gym/cafeteria/auditorium fills the center of the U, and the kindergarten classroom is actually in the old school building, a short walk away. On the elementary side, more often than not there is only one class per grade. Teachers on the high school side sometimes have to share rooms, and every available space is used for storage.

The elementary school in Seward is one of three school buildings. Currently, I believe it houses slightly less than 300 students from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade. My classroom is the only 4th-grade-only space, but Mrs. Rose down the hall has a mixed group of 3rd and 4th grade. The building is basically a straight line: The north wing houses pre-k through 2nd grade, while the south wing has 3rd through 5th. The central area has the main office, music room, gym/auditorium, library, nurse’s office, teachers’ lounge and work room, and the special education “suite”. In addition to classrooms, the south wing also has a “science lab” (a classroom dedicated solely to science instruction for all of us teachers to share), and a classroom for the gifted program.

Class sizes in Nunap could vary quite a bit from year to year. My first year, I had 19 3rd graders. The second year, 22 kids crowded into my room. Last year, I started off with 11 students, but by the end of the year only 9 kids called me their teacher. The first two years, I had an aide in my room for at least part of the day. Otherwise, I was with my kids the whole day: I taught not only the academic subjects but also P.E. and music, handled art at least half the time, supervised recess, passed out bandages and ice packs, and often made phone calls when students fell ill. My friend and colleague Andy was the elementary Special Education and resource room teacher, so she’d take those that had IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and provide me with strategies and tools to reach those students who needed a leg up (a label that, quite frankly, applied to the majority of my kiddos).

As of this coming Monday, I’ll have 28 students on my roster. (Fortunately, my classroom here is double the size of the one I had in Nunap.) I’m still responsible for the academic subjects and art, but I now have colleagues who are certified in PE and music and library who work with my students. There’s an actual school nurse, so I only need to worry about handing out bandages. Recess duty rotates among the staff, and we have enough people that I’ll only have to do it for six or seven weeks out of the entire school year. And there’s an entire team of Special Education teachers and interventionists who will work with my students that need additional help.

The support staff at Nunap school were all village natives. The teaching staff were almost entirely non-native and non-local, coming from all over the Lower 48. Age-wise, most of the teachers were twenty-somethings taking their first “real” teaching job out of college. They may or may not have significant others. Those who weren’t were often older, with grown children back in whatever state they originally called home. Outside of school, some teachers hunted and fished with the locals, or went to feasts or other get-togethers at locals’ houses. Most of the teachers would get together in some group or other, whether for movie or game nights, dinners, or Sunday pancakes at Lucas and Andy’s place. 

As near as I can tell, I’m now the baby of the elementary staff. Many of my colleagues are married or have significant others. Most of them also have children, some of whom are students at the school. At this point, I haven’t really socialized with my coworkers outside of school.

In the villages of Nunap’s school district, the district provided and maintained teacher housing. I spent the last two years living in an apartment in the kindergarten building; in fact, my living space had at one point been two classrooms. No roads within the village meant daily trips to the post office after school ended to check the PO box. The post office staff consists of two women: Chrissy, who works weekdays, and Ayap, who covers Saturdays.

I realized the other day that it’s been over five years since my daily commute involved a car. Prior to moving to the tundra, I lived right on a main bus route that dropped me practically at the door of my job, and I often walked home in the afternoons. In the village, I looked forward to the daily walk to school, even when I had to bundle up against extreme temperatures. I could walk to school now, but it would take considerably longer: My apartment is situated almost on the waterfront, almost two-and-a-half miles from the school. I’ll try it at some point, but when I have a lot of things to carry I’m grateful to only have a five minute drive to worry about.

Even though Seward has many roads, the post office still doesn’t deliver mail to houses. So I once again have a post office box. It’s still on the way home at the end of the day, except now I have to worry about parking the car while I run inside. I’ve seen at least five different people behind the counter in the month since I moved in, but have yet to learn any of their names.

At the Nunap PO, if you received a package too large for your box, you got a yellow slip, which many of the staff jokingly referred to as a “golden ticket”. The slips were covered in clear packing tape so they lasted longer. Take the slip to the front counter and pass it to Chrissy, and she’d return shortly with your boxes. Frequently, you’d reach the counter at the same time she brought your stuff out of the back, because she heard your voice as you came in.

The “golden tickets” are apparently a USPS procedure. Unlike in the village, the ones at the Seward PO remain un-taped and bear numerous hand-written and later crossed-out box numbers. I have yet to arrive when there wasn’t a line; frequently, one clerk will collect slips from however many people in line currently have them and disappear into the back while another clerk handles transactions for other customers.

In addition to the post office, I might also swing by the store after school to check what was currently in stock. While I would occasionally get lucky, more often than not I ordered the majority of my groceries online and had them shipped in.

There an actual grocery store in Seward, complete with multiple aisles, different departments, and a pharmacy. It’s also on the route between home and school, so I’m trying to work any shopping into my commute. After three years of making do with either frozen produce or what I could get shipped in, I feel spoiled by the variety of choices I see every time I step through the doors.

As far as I knew, I was the only L, G, B, or T person in Nunap, although I had suspicions about a couple of the high school students. I did come out as trans to several of my fellow teachers, but didn’t tell any of the locals until after I left this past summer. In such a small community, everyone seemed to know everything about everyone else, and I feared for my job and my safety if someone found out and decided I wasn’t fit to work with their children.

I have yet to find out if there’s an LGBT community in Seward, although I’m only a couple of hours away from the ones in Anchorage or Kenai. Since I “pass”, none of my new coworkers know I’m trans. I don’t plan on telling anyone yet, and certainly not until I have a better handle on people’s attitudes and beliefs. In the meantime, I have to watch what I say and how I say it, particularly stories about my past. Thankfully, I have a support network in the form of friends and family, accessible through phone, texts, Facebook, and even (gasp!) driving up to Anchorage.

Some things have changed, some things have stayed the same. Time to dive into another school year!

Five years ago today I woke up elated and afraid. Elated because I was getting top surgery! Afraid because I was getting top surgery.

I suspect the joy is a little easier to understand. From the moment I hit puberty the first time, I loathed the way my upper body looked. Initially I denied the changes that occurred right under my nose; once I finally acknowledged them, I refused to step out of the house in anything other than a tight sports bra. When my costume for the musical during my sophomore year didn’t allow for that, I wore a tight tankini instead. I tried wearing traditional bras a couple of times, but I hated how they felt and how they made me look. When I hit college and began Transitioning, I switched to Ace bandages for a while (not one of my brighter ideas) before finally purchasing several binders. Essentially a double-layer spandex undershirt, these garments flattened my torso even more than the sports bras had, letting me “pass” as a man when I wore clothes. I also bought a special binder made of swimsuit material for the summers, so I didn’t have to fight with a girl’s one-piece suit anymore. As long as I wore clothes, I was somewhat comfortable in my body. But that wasn’t enough. I remembered times as a kid when I ran around with no shirt on. I remember closing my eyes in the shower when my body began changing, and training myself to not look below shoulder level in mirrors if I didn’t have at least a bra on. The binders may have been a help, but they also added two very tight layers under my normal clothes, which meant I overheated even more easily than I always had. And I wanted back the feeling of freedom I had as a kid, when I felt more comfortable in my own skin.

From the moment I realized that I had to Transition to keep going, I wanted top surgery. For an assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) individual like me, that means I would basically get a mastectomy.  It’s not something every trans person wishes for, or can afford. But I knew that for me to be truly happy I needed it. The biggest question became when, as most insurance companies at the time didn’t cover ANY costs related to the procedure. So I kept working, kept saving, and did research. I learned about the different types of top surgery: Depending on how large your chest was pre-operation, the surgeon might opt to do “keyhole” surgery or a bilateral mastectomy with nipple grafts. The former procedure leaves less visible scars, because the incisions are made in the nipples. It also works best for folks who are no larger than an A or small B cup. I realized pretty quickly that I’d likely end up having the second procedure.

Spring of 2012 brought with it that long-term substitute teaching job, and with it, a large paycheck. As soon as I realized just how much money I’d have by the end of the semester, I kicked my surgery research in to high gear, because there was a very good chance I could have the procedure done that summer. After looking at costs and reviews, I scheduled my procedure with Dr. Medalie in Cleveland. And the countdown to 25 June began.

Even with how excited I was when I woke up that day five years ago, I was also a little afraid. As much as I disliked it, my body was still a known quantity, and had been for years. I’d never had surgery like this before; what would that be like? I’d seen a video on Dr. Medalie’s web site of the procedure, so I knew exactly what was about to happen. How much was it going to hurt? And what if, after all of this, I wasn’t happy with the results? What then?

Dr. Medalie performs this surgery as an outpatient procedure, so I didn’t spend any time in a hospital. I arrived at the surgery center a couple of hours before the procedure, and was back in the hotel room by early evening. The next few days proved to be the biggest trial of my whole Transition: The dressings on my chest and drains in my sides made moving around too much painful, and I couldn’t really move my shoulders. The drains also meant I had to sleep on my back (NOT my preferred sleeping position). I forced myself to relax as much as possible and spent the week catching up on sci-fi TV shows.

One week after the surgery, the drains came out, the dressings came off, and I got to see the new me. My first look didn’t do much to dispel my previous fear: The grafts and incisions were still in the early stages of healing, my skin was prickly with re-growing hair (my chest was shaved prior to surgery), and patches of yellow and orange showed where I’d been swabbed with iodine during the procedure. But over the next few weeks, as I exercised and stretched and got back to the business of living my life, I realized that the fear had proved unfounded.

Five years later, I have no concerns about how my chest looks. Regular exercise has allowed me to build a decent amount of muscle; between that and my body hair the scars of my surgery are a little hard to see unless you know what to look for. I no longer wear multiple layers of clothes to hide my shape, only for comfort. The first time I went swimming in just trunks ranks as one of the happiest days of my life. In many ways, five years ago today marked the start of ME.

When the school year ended, I didn’t know where I’d be at the end of the summer. I had hopes, based on several interviews, but no one had yet hired me. So I came back to the hometown with a huge question mark hanging in the air, the implied “What’s next?”

In the ensuing weeks, I’ve visited friends and family, gone to the movies and the library, relaxed as much as I can. All the time, that annoying question mark stayed put, just at the edge of my thoughts, ready and waiting to bring with it a whole host of other questions and worries: What if no one wants me? I know I’ve said I’ll work as a sub again, but can I really survive that? What’s taking so long???  

Actually, I already knew the answer to that last one: The state of Alaska had yet to finalize it’s budget for next year, so schools didn’t know their funding situation. This led in turn to a hiring freeze. Several times since I’ve gotten back to the Lower 48, I’ve had an e-mail or a phone call from some of the principals who interviewed me, telling me that they still couldn’t move forward with the hiring process. I also got automatically generated messages from the school HR sites, saying I hadn’t been accepted for other jobs I’d applied for.

Last Wednesday, I finally got a call from one of the principals. After thanking me for being so patient, she told me that someone else had been hired. I thanked her for letting me know, and for keeping me in the loop this whole time. I felt disappointed as I hung up the phone; that interview had gone really well, and I felt like I would be a good fit for that school.

Less than an hour later, I got a phone call from a different principal. Would I like a job? HECK YEAH! I may or may not have been jumping around the room in glee while telling him I accepted the position.

Instead of a village of 500 people, I’ll now be living in a town of about 3,000. My comings and goings will no longer be restricted by access to plane, boat, or snowmobile; the town is on the road system! I can take my car! I have a decent shot at a social life beyond my co-workers. I can get plugged in to the LGBT community at large and the trans community in particular in a way that I couldn’t really manage from the middle of nowhere. There will be mountains and trees and ocean, as opposed to flat, unending tundra. I don’t know too much about the job yet, only that it will be a “multi-grade intermediate classroom”. That translates to some combination of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders; the exact mix will be determined once the school administration has a better handle on numbers. In the meantime, I get to spend the next couple of months filling out a mountain of paperwork, researching apartments, and getting ready to move again. New adventures, here I come!

In one week, I leave Nunap. Not just for the summer, but for good.

Oh, I plan to return at some point to visit. But as of midday on the 22nd, I will no longer reside here. My resignation got turned in months ago, and I began actively searching for a new job a couple of months before that.

The reality of this decision really hit home today. While I’ve been packing things slowly over the last couple of weeks, my goal for this weekend was to finish as much as possible. The apartment certainly isn’t up to my usual standards of cleanliness. Several plastic totes and large boxes are strewn about, two of which are sealed and ready for mailing labels. Bubble wrap and butcher paper are piled on the carpet in front of the TV next to the tape gun. Books no longer adorn the bookshelves; instead, only various Star Wars figures lay on their backs or stand in their packaging, waiting to be put in whatever box has room. Only the calendar graces the bulletin board, and I can see faded outlines from where the posters and other items used to hang. In the bedroom, few clothes still hang in my “closet”, and the dressers drawers hold less than half of what they once did. I had the blinds up today to let in the sun, and as I worked I could see a crowd of middle schoolers playing basketball and riding bikes on the playdeck. At one point, as I watched three of the boys repair the hoop they built themselves (the old one fell down almost a year ago and hasn’t been replaced), it occurred to me that this is one of the last times I’ll see these kids like this, and I felt a little sad. I got the same feeling yesterday when Kelly brought more boxes over (she’s moving in to this apartment next year) and had two of my former students helping her. The kids happily put the boxes where directed before looking around. “So empty!” the one said. The other, who’s been one of my most frequent visitors since I moved in, asked my permission and, after receiving an affirmative answer, took up her usual place on the recliner while chattering away.

I’ll miss the kids. I’ll miss my co-workers, especially Lucas, Andy, and Kelly. But it’s time to move on.

When I took this job three years ago, I had very little idea of what I was getting in to. Prior to moving up here, I had only the vaguest idea of the geography of Alaska, its history, what the people were like. At an earlier point in my life, I’d’ve been terrified of moving so far away from everything I knew and found familiar. But I wanted to get back in to teaching. And I was ready for an adventure. So I took the job. I figured I’d learn about a new part of the world, gain some new experiences, and probably come back to my hometown in a couple of years with some great stories.

One thing I didn’t really imagine was falling in love with the state. While part of me will always be back in my hometown, I have become so fond of Alaska that I’m only looking at new teaching jobs here in the state, albeit on the road system.The last year or so, I could feel myself stagnating, the routines of living and working in such a small place seeping in and setting like concrete. The familiarity brought some comfort with it, but lately it’s just been stifling. Even though I’ve come to appreciate the stark beauty of the tundra, I long for things like trees and hills or mountains to break up the unending flatness. And while I’m glad to have had the experience and stories that come with living in such a remote location, I desperately want to get back to where I have more control over my comings and goings, where I have places to go to and come from. Going along with that last thought, I’m also ready to live in a larger community again, both from a geography and a population standpoint.

In the end, though, I’m just ready to move on. It’s time for the next adventure.

 

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last hour and a half, trying to put my thoughts into words, to make this post coherent. I don’t know if that’s even possible.

It’s been less than a month since my world turned sideways. On 28 February, I got a text message from Mom: “CJ call my cell”. I immediately thought something had happened to one of my grandparents. Instead, I learned that my cousin J had died. He was one month older than me.

According to the family photo albums, J and I met for the first time in early 1988, at the ages of 7 months and 6 months, respectively. I don’t remember that meeting; my memory may be good, but it doesn’t reach back that far! The pictures show that we got along right from the start, crawling around Aunt S’s house and playing with each other and M, J’s older sister.

For most of our lives, J and I lived in different cities in different states. Even so, we remained close. As kids, our time together would be spent playing with action figures, racing Hot Wheels cars, leaving rubber snakes all over the place, and chasing each other and our sisters with Nerf guns. With our sisters, we’d put on “magic shows”, consisting of tricks, songs, puppets, and general silliness. Most summers, his family would come to the Lake for at least a long weekend. We four cousins would spend the days in the water, tumbling one another off the rafts, blasting one another with water guns, and having dock jumping contests. For this activity, we’d stand at the beach end of the dock and run the whole length before flying off the other end into the water. Points were awarded for how far you could jump, or for how silly your jump looked.

Life got a little more complicated in high school (whose didn’t?). We both had known for years that we were different, but now we finally had words for those differences and used them when we talked. He was bisexual. I liked girls, so society at the time labeled me a lesbian. I didn’t have many people I felt comfortable talking to about this stuff, and I don’t think he did, either. Having each other there was a huge help and relief. Other topics of conversation included the latest Broadway shows, if the X-Men movies were as good as the comics we used to read, and our experiences with our respective high schools’ marching bands and spring musicals.

We started college at the same time, but our paths diverged pretty sharply from there. Over the next five years, I came out as a guy and began my Transition while completing first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. J left college, worked in retail for a time before moving into social services, and settled into a relationship with a guy. Our conversations became less frequent, but that didn’t mean we didn’t know or care about one another.

J spent the last four years managing a seizure disorder. Among other things, it led to the break up of his relationship, moving between several jobs, and ultimately, moving to my hometown and moving back in with his mom. I hated the circumstances, but I was happy to have one of my oldest friends close by when I would come back from Alaska. One of my strongest memories comes from the summer between my first and second years on the tundra, J’s first summer in the city. Prior to that year, I’d been keeping some of my things (okay, most of the stuff I didn’t take to Alaska) in Aunt S’s garage. Well, the stuff had been there for almost two years, and between that and J moving in, I decided it was high time to move all of that stuff to a storage unit. The day of the move, J graciously helped me load the boxes into the truck, rode with me to the storage facility, and helped unload everything and cart it into the new locker.

After J died, I felt like I needed to come back to my hometown. It’s not the first death that’s happened since I moved, but for the first time I could not keep my mind on my life on the tundra. I could have rushed back right away, but with no sub plans ready I knew I’d be even more stressed out if I tried. Instead, I spent a week and a half teaching and preparing sub plans and went to a job fair in Anchorage before hopping on a plane for the Lower 48. I’ve spent the past two and a half days connecting with family and friends. Yesterday I drove out to the storage unit. The entire time I was there, I could not stop thinking about how J helped me out with that initial trip. I’ve visited with my aunt several times, and each time I walk into her house I half expect to hear his voice. Because of the seizures, J couldn’t drive, so when I was in town I’d take him wherever he needed to go. A couple of times, as I’ve driven somewhere this trip, I would almost swear I’d see J out of the corner of my eye, sitting in the passenger seat.

I’m glad I came back. Being here has allowed me to breathe, just breathe, and process all that’s happened. The last two weeks in Alaska, I’ve felt like a sleepwalker. I couldn’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, yet several mornings getting out of bed was almost impossible. My mind kept going back over my last interactions with J during this past holiday season. I broke down in my apartment several times. And yes, I’ve had similar crying jags a couple of times while I’ve been here. But here, I don’t have to be Mr. CJ. I don’t have to worry about explaining everything I’m going through. I can grieve, I can breathe, and I’m a little more settled in my head now than I have been lately. And now I feel like I can actually say good-bye.

 

 

My first winter in Alaska didn’t have a lot of snow. A few inches covered the tundra from November until early April, getting replenished every once in a while, but never in large amounts. That winter stands out most for the fact that all of February passed without a single positive temperature. Ambient temperatures hovered in the -20s, and the wind chill frequently pulled that down to -40. I didn’t set foot outside without my heavy parka, insulated bib overalls, boots, gloves, hat, face mask, and goggles.

Last year’s winter had more snow and less extreme cold. I don’t think we ever saw below -25 with a windchill. On my return from the semester break, I enjoyed the discovery of at least a foot of snow covering everything, with drifts in some places that came up past my waist. One drift outside the store actually stood tall enough that you could almost walk directly onto the porch without needing the few stairs left uncovered. (Even this amount doesn’t match the stories I’ve heard from the locals. Several people have shared that, as recently as five or six years ago, so much snow would fall that buildings would effectively be buried, and you’d need to dig down into your home.)

This winter has been the most “Alaska” winter so far. As early as November, we experienced those incredibly cold temperatures again. Since the beginning of the calendar year, we’ve had what I consider record lows, including one day with an ambient temperature of -27 and a wind chill of -57. (That day, Lucas, Kelly, and I tried for ourselves the fact that boiling water thrown in the air will instantly freeze.) We’ve also had 3 outright blizzards since the beginning of the semester, two necessitating early dismissals and one cancelling school completely. Thanks to the snow, wind, ice fog, and low cloud ceilings, we’ve had more than a few days where no planes have flown, complicating travel plans and stopping the mail. The blizzards have brought quite a bit of snow, but the winds carry much of it away again. What doesn’t blow away gets sculpted into amazing forms. I look forward to what the rest of winter brings!