On gratitude, love, and a village

Nov 23, 2012 | 0 comments

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful to be alone. And I don’t mean it ironically, but most sincerely from the bottom of my heart. I am alone because I am fortunate. I am alone because I am loved enough for my family and friends to let me go off and reach my own stars. I am alone because I love my family and friends enough to be able to leave and come back, knowing I still have a home and a community.

I am thankful to be alone because it allows me to reflect on these things and realize that not only am I comfortable enough with myself to enjoy a Thanksgiving in solitude, but that I also have so much to be thankful for.

Yesterday was my long-anticipated trip to the native village of Shishmaref, located on a 3 sq. mi. island on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula. It has a population of a little over 560 people, over 93% Alaska Native, and 52% youth. There is no running water except in the school and a couple public buildings; most water is derived from chunks of ice melting in big trash cans in peoples’ homes and offices. I went to one of 2 little stores in the village, and found it stocked with a few nonperishables (including lots of sodas, processed foods, etc) and only a couple fresh produce items since food availability and shipments are inconsistent.

Upon arrival, we hurried around to various people and places trying to organize the day’s scheduled meetings. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. Eventually we ended up at the Shishmaref School and ran around between a high school classroom, the cafeteria where a Thanksgiving meal was being prepared for the village elders, and the principal’s office to announce the meeting I was trying to organize with the youth. We let all the high school students know what I was doing and to meet me at 2pm in the Friendship Center in town to talk about their experiences at Serpentine Hot Springs. They seemed a little shy, but interested.

After all the kids and elders ate, we were given food from the school cafeteria — a lunch tray of turkey, potatoes, bread, and peaches — and then went to go set up for the meetings.

The Friendship Center

I was given use of the Friendship Center, a big building in slight disrepair being used mostly as storage and for meeting space. Two o’clock came and went, and I was still sitting in there alone. I wandered around, took pictures out the windows (didn’t want to be too creepy) and doodled in my notebook. I decided by 3:30 I would start packing up.

View out the window


More buildings

For some reason antlers were stacked on a lot of roofs
At about 3pm, I heard someone coming up the stairs outside. Glancing up, a pair of huge, almond-shaped eyes were staring at me through bottom corner of the window. I waved and the eyes creased into a smile, ducked out of view, and the door opened. A little girl about 6-years-old stood there. We exchanged greetings. 
“See my new snow pants??” She asked. They were neon pink. 
“I like those,” I complimented enthusiastically.
“And my new boots? See? They have pockets.” She showed me a little pocket on the outside of her snow boots. 
“What are you gonna keep in there?” I asked, to which she responded, “can we play games?”
“Um, how about we color?” I suggested, pushing crayons and a coloring page over to her. 
Over the course of the afternoon over nature coloring book pages, I learned her name was Angel, she was possibly in first grade (she wasn’t sure), and she loved to spell everything. She asked lots of questions and we drew narwhals together (I convinced her they were underwater unicorns). 
Well, eventually my superintendent came in and we sent little Angel off, packed up, and went to go stay at a local’s house until our plane arrived. There, we sat around at a kitchen table sipping coffee while our host baked pastries and everyone talked. I learned that a band of men had been sent out to go caribou hunting for the village Thanksgiving feast the next day, but none had returned yet. They talked about problems in the village, who was doing what, who was having babies, who was moving where. 
Eventually, the pilot called the house to ask us how much we each weighed, and said he’d be there by 6:30. Sure enough, he arrived at 6:28 in a big Beechcraft 1900, and we boarded with 2 other passengers bound for Nome. It was a cold flight (even bundled up in all my layers, hat, and gloves) and already pitch-black outside, but we made it back in record time. 
My own Thanksgiving feast
So today, it is with Shishmaref in mind, with family and friends, strangers and loved ones in my thoughts that I celebrate Thanksgiving, alone in body but not in spirit. I spent the day baking pumpkin bread, ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans, chatting with people through various forms of technology, watching the sun rise and set over a few short hours, and reflecting on life, love, and gratitude. 
If you’re reading this, all I want to say is thank you, and I love you very, very much! Happy Thanksgiving!


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