Well, we’ve caught up with each other, us volunteers. We’ve been reading aloud our autobiographies to one another, and slowly those stories have begun to merge and twist.
Now, we’re all on the same page, and the illustrations that had shown us on separate paths sketch us in the same clearing. Right on schedule I’d say, seeing as we’ve hit the four-month mark of living and working together. No longer are we unfolding origami marvels. We’ve splayed ourselves on the table, creases exposed, saying with a silent opening of palms, “It is what it is.”
Each of us comes from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, educations, family structures, all those elements that create and shape a life. And throughout these past four months, we’ve been unpacking this self luggage. Here’s a quilt of my family history. Here’s a sock of my morning routine. Here’s a g cleft of my mirthful laugh, a sharp sign for when I’m sad and overcompensating. Here’s a petal from my last relationship; it’s brittle, so let’s not handle it too often. Here’s the coin of my self worth, and here’s the vault of my values. Over weeks and mornings and dinners and walks to work and those rare car drives, we’ve unpacked these bags, gone through the show and tell. If you were to turn the suitcases upside down and shake them, other than faded boarding passes and particles of lint, only air molecules would rattle down.
So after decorating our identity around the house and office and each other and after filling with enough plaster the little figurine molds of ourselves that reside within each other’s minds, our inquiries have shifted. Question marks no longer attach to that time before encounter. Now, we latch such punctuation to the immediate future or to the just slipped present. “How was yoga?” or, “Will you pick up eggs at the store?” have replaced curiosities like, “What was your relationship like with your brother while growing up?”
Basically, after four months of living and working together and pulling each other’s underwear from the dryer and drinking coffee silently and unshowered at noon after just crawling out of bed, there’s just not much mystery left.
So when you reach this point of all standing in the same place, staring at one another, all your belongings sorted on the shelves, there’s the option to just get bored of each other. Honeymoon’s over, babe. And marriage’s thrills aren’t as flashy or as frequent.
But we can’t get bored of each other. And here’s why.
On Friday December 20, I go home for a late lunch. I eat, pour a cup of tea, and raising the mug to my mouth, I set it back on the counter. I walk to my room, close the door. And what has been building for the last two weeks releases.
Body shaking. Bed shaking. Tears pooling the pillow. Air sucking in and out, gasps shattering. High and low pitches grating and cracking past one other. Snot smearing out my nose and down the back of my throat. My face distorted into something resembling a gargoyle, one of those stone ones atop old cathedrals.
It’s a rather ugly scene.
And I’m alone. And Christmas is next week. And all I can feel is the cold Alaskan wind swirling around me, shooting outwards in a million directions, and traveling thousands of miles before ever reaching my family and friends.
I can physically recall the sensation of every person I have ever hugged. I can feel their pressure, their bones, muscles, breath, fabric, etc. All those elements that compose one body enveloping another. I have turned to this ability often over the years. In times of celebration, in times of nostalgia, in times of need. I enter that space, remembering my parents, my siblings.
And I can’t do it.
Not because I have forgotten. But because the action seems so futile. And next week is Christmas. And mnemonic reconstruction cannot replace their far-away, beloved body.
The wind keeps swirling and searching, and in it I hear my voice from last year, the one vowing to never take another job that would separate me from my family at Christmas. And audible as a dripping faucet on a silent night, I hear the clock ticking, “Loss. Loss. Loss.” Time, irreversible time, is passing, taking now and next week with it, swallowing a rare, irreplaceable opportunity to be with the ones who matter most.
And that’s why us volunteers cannot get bored of each other. Because we are all we have.
In this strange, distant, wondrous land, we…Well, I’ll speak for myself. They are the ones here who matter most. From a stack of applications and scrupulous interviews, we were thrown into a year of intimate quarters together. By accepting this job and traveling to this place and receiving each other without the demands of expectation, we became a family: learning each other, supporting each other, celebrating each other, yielding to one another. Often we’ll congregate around a counter, a table, a couch, perhaps talking, perhaps not, just to be within each other’s presence.
Every Sunday evening we have family dinner. And every Sunday, sitting down to a warm plate and lit candles, we take hands and say, “Thank you,” me to a God, the others to wherever they channel gratitude. And in that circle, at that table, surrounded by those people, I feel like the lucky one.
So to my fellow volunteers, my Nome family, thank you. Merry Christmas. Glad tidings. For I am glad to be spending this time with you. Often I feel like a prickly pinecone surrounded within a wreath of goodness, because all the things this season is supposed to bring—cheer, joy, generosity—you offer daily and freely. Whenever someone asks about my experience in Alaska, I say you all are the best part.
And though unpacked, we will continue to learn more about each other. Not just because time will continues scribbling its narrative. But because there are still bits of treasure left in our pockets, in the lining of our jackets, in the toe of that one unwore pair of shoes. And then there are the pieces that we carry closest—in the hollow of our pelvic bone, between the slot of our seventh and eighth rib, within the cradle of our left thumb and forefinger. And as we stretch and shake about and enter moments of quiet trust, these bits will fall out, dropping into each other’s palms, sometimes surprising even ourselves with fragments forgotten.
We have eight months ahead. Thank you for allowing me to share them with you.