Learning Winter: November in Arctic Bay

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We sat around a table in a little mountain cabin, warming up. The exposed skin around my eyes had been frozen, brittle when we arrived, painful to squeeze my eyes shut against the sting of ice-coated lashes. Here there was fire, laughter, bright blue walls that at a certain time of day must blend precisely with the vast landscape of Victor Bay outside the window. The entire cabin, down to the last detail – windows, flooring, matching curtain rods – had been found and salvaged from the dump. You would never have known, in this cozy, peaceful space, seals by the doorway and skidoos parked outside, everything sparkling intensely when you moved, as if alive, doused in a deep layer of glittering frost. Water was heated and passed around; I downed cup after cup of hot coffee, hot chocolate. I felt the heat sink down, down into my body, bringing it back to life. My discarded clothes grew into a mountain on the floor. I think people probably laughed at how much I was wearing; I couldn’t understand, but I wanted to. I listened to the women speak, watched their eyes light up, the soft tones of Inuktitut and huge smiles and calm gestures out the window.  I watched them attentively, guessing, piecing together the tiny bit I could understand.

Joe turned to me.

“She is saying that last night she saw a falling star. A giant one, bright orange, streaking slowly through the sky, with a huge tail after it, like a comet. It was right out there.”

The women smiled at his translation, turned to me for a moment. Then they looked out the window. I thought about what it must be to stand there under that vault of stars, in the silence of this place, and bear witness. I thought about how much I still do not understand.

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It has been three weeks now, and more and more it is difficult to find time to sit at the computer. It is strange; a different kind of busyness. Gone are the days of rampant achieving, doing, completing – frantically ticking boxes off my pages of daily to-do lists. Instead, the events in the in-between, the living, the getting the thing to happen, find you and sweep you away, fill the hours. Although sometimes, in the world where I came from, we might say I am not doing a lot – days here are full, rich, and memorable, a lot of time spent just being with people. Small things seem momentous. There is not even time to write it all down. At night sometimes I whisper the events into an audio recorder so I won’t forget. Even then I am surprised at how long it takes me to explain it all. You could never explain it all.

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It is getting colder, inevitably, and rapidly darker. I am, hopefully, getting used to it. It no longer seems strange to get dressed to leave the house bundled to the point of waddling; yesterday I pulled out my best, warmest down jacket and thought, quite matter-of-factly, hmm, this would be great for springtime! (Again, an immense thanks to Clare for the parka I am still borrowing). It is getting colder, but I am learning how to dress, how to deal, and how to accept it. Anyone can stay warm enough if they are moving; what gets me is hours on the snowmobile at high speeds, or a whole day on a dogsled, sitting still. But unlike heat, my nemesis, there is always something you can do. You can bring hot fluids with you in a thermos. You can hop off the dogsled and run alongside it until you are out of breath and panting, fling yourself back on. You can buy skidoo goggles at the grocery store. There are ways.

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Many things have happened. I have continued to accompany Joe to Nanisivik by skidoo; one time we stopped briefly at some people’s cabins, which was amazing. I hope to go back. We looked for polar bears, but never found any – just tracks. We went to the site of a summer camping place with the remains of old sod houses at the base of the mountains. I was a bridesmaid in Sheba and Joe’s wedding, an immense honor and remarkable experience. We all played bingo every Friday night. I played one night of floor hockey with the girl’s team here, and was so bruised afterward I could hardly move for days, but I will probably go again. Recently, I went dogsledding with a man who has a dog team here, out there all day in the silence, telling stories and drinking tea and waiting for him while he attempted to hunt a seal. The seal didn’t come, but he tried, and I got to witness. I learned so much that day. I learn so much all the time, just existing.

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Time to go outside, to make the most of the dwindling daylight! It will break twenty below zero this week – got to get out there before that number is doubled.

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