Friday, January 25, 2008

The Heart of Alaska



When the famous cultural anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, told us that we should 'follow our bliss' those words resounded in me and mirrored the journey of a lifetime. I left my home state of Alaska in 1968. I had graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School with honors and I had bright hopes and many dreams.

I was a member of a large pioneer Alaskan family, my grandfather a talented mural artist and fine carpenter-craftsman-inventor who came from Finland to mine for gold.  With my grandmother, who also immigrated from Finland, only a year later... and had not yet met him, they met, married and raised nine children, Without exception, all the progeny that survived harsh conditions, accidents, and disease over the decades were all amazing artists, poets, and craftsmen, as well.

My father was born and raised on Douglas Island, one of 11 children who learned to fish, to hunt, and to live off the land. He journeyed 5,000 miles to win the heart and then marry his Cajun French penpal in Louisiana.

I was the first of 5 children and the only daughter. I was taught to dream big and work hard to make those dreams come true. I set off for Oregon and Oregon State University , long before computers were invented, and selecting colleges to apply to from an outdated college catalog. I desperately wanted to attend the University of Washington, where I had received a scholarship my junior year to study journalism. Unfortunately, their quotas were full, so I selected Oregon State University, believing that two close friends would also be there.  I majored in the Arts..Liberal and Fine and ended up with a teaching degree in English Literature, Creative Writing with a certificate in Teaching Education and the hopes of making a difference in the lives of others. I taught school at many levels, as a paid college teaching assistant at Oregon State University where I took over several different classes for a top English professor who took time off to write a book, as a young student teacher in the school district of Corvallis, where I was simply handed over another 3 classes and winged them on my own, and then as a substitute teacher in Salem, and a parent volunteer who ended up teaching many, many classes without pay to make up for curriculum funding deficits.

I was offered the chance to research and 'ghost write' a book for that college professor, offered a teaching position 'on the spot' after a challenging experience with difficult parents at school where even the principal wouldn't deal with them, and chances to teach and to run various other programs. I often turned them down and I never knew why. I preferred to work and to learn on my own...my own way...and always, to volunteer...decades and decades I have helped others and taught classes from college, community college, high school, elementary school, and community school programs.







I learned that one's passions and one's dreams are often different that those we think we have. That sometimes being out in the world and its pursuits are very, very different from the dreams and depths of each of our own inner worlds and the riches and the true treasures that lie within.

I have spent my lifetime both teaching and helping others. I am proud to be a life long learner but even prouder to be a life long volunteer. I have given of myself, my time, and my talents to 17 schools, 5 theatre programs and endless charities. My journey seems to be about education and about using words and language, expression and symbols....to share, to teach, to learn and to enrich... not just my own life...but hopefully, others lives, as well.

But it is here, coming back 'home' to Alaska, that I remember, truly remember, the depths of my own true heart. I found it...as I have always found it...working with children. The children of this world are the true keepers of the heart's joy, the heart's energy and the heart's future hope and promise. Without them, we have no future.

So, today...my last full day in Alaska as I board a plane tomorrow to return to Salem, I will spend it remembering, and connecting to that mystical, magical, energetic and powerfully magnetic heart. If things go well, I will return to that magical classroom for one last kuspuk party. We shall all dress up, sip tea, eat crackers and play checkers and other board games.

I will look at those games as simply examples of our lives. The playing pieces of checkers are the black and white playing pieces of our polarities. The contest of 'winning' simply another form of the endless and often mindless striving of competition and battle turned into sport.

But I will choose to see it differently. To laugh and to see the games within that each of us plays with the other. I will see behind the surface of this world and all of its illusions to the true universal world of spirit within.

And I show here, my beautiful Sarah...a precious little girl who was one of 15 other precious little children in my sister-in-law Paula Savikko's 2nd grade classroom. Making 15 kuspuks and giving of my own 25 hours of sewing time making kuspuks was not truly about sewing.

It was not about making the front page or the classroom or having them return to make a video of the class singing and dancing the Yu'pik way with Cultural Instructor, Theresa John. Classroom teacher Paula Savikko has now received a cultural grant based on our project of using 'Non Standard Measurements' as we made the kuspuks the original Yu'pik way. And that is exciting and that is wonderful, as well.

These are all dear and special achievements and ones that carry meaning and symbolism. But they carry much more than that in their experiencing and my experience with them. It was about creating and bonding the scraps and the pieces, the threads and the seams of my own life.

And so, little Sarah...who drew this heart for me to symbolize the words that she could not say, gave to me...as did all of the others....a piece of their hearts and as I leave I take those beautiful and precious little pieces with me.

And I leave behind, an equally beautiful, equally precious, piece of mine. Alaska is my heart...as I am hers. I carry pieces of that heart with me today as I walk to school in the freshly fallen snow, I carry it tomorrow when I board the plane and look out that airplane window down to this beloved land, and I carry it, always and forever, within.

How to Make a Kuspuk Links:
How to make a kuspuk
Kuspuks Make Front Page News
Juneau Empire Photos: Parka party 01/18/08
Fun But Frenzied Frugality: Sewing Kuspuks Again!
Juneau Empire Kuspuk Project video

Links to Making Kuspuks in 2009
Fun But Frenzied Frugality: Sewing Kuspuks Again!
Kuspuks and Friday Finishes

7 comments:

  1. That heart is a BIG smile ... as big as the one on Sarah's beautiful face.

    Thank you for sharing your introspective thoughts ... for reminding me to look beyond the surface of daily routine and events ... to cherish rather than take for granted the people and places in my little bit of the world.

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  2. Such a beautiful, beautiful post. It sent shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes and encouragement to my heart. People touching people for good. What else matters?
    Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Thank you again for sharing this wonderful journey you have taken. It was truly a journey of a liftime for you I think. You write about it with such fervor I am very moved by your words.

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  4. So touching Michele, it must be very hard for you to leave but a blessing to have two places in the world where you fit in so comfortably and happily. Sending you hugs. Safe travels.

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  5. "The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions - the little, soon-forgotten charities of a kiss or smile, a kind look, a heart-felt compliment, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling" - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    Safe travels as you savor your newest memories!

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  6. Happy Trails indeed, Michele! How wonderful to have received the gift of self wisdom. And equally so to carry it back with you. May your journey be well lit and safe and your landing spot a soft one *VBS*
    Very lovely post and well spoke indeed. Big hugs my friend, Finn

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  7. What a lovely way to think about what volunteering really is!

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Michele Bilyeu blogs "With Heart and Hands" as she journeys between Douglas, Alaska and Salem, Oregon.