On death, breakups and Big Positive Thoughts

Death is not clean or punctual or forgiving. It has its own clock, makes its way through the beds of wet kleenex feathers full of snot and mascara when you have your eyes closed. Death sometimes comes when you have left for a sandwich, when you have gone to feed your elderly mother, or sometimes when you’re sitting right there, waiting for it. This breakup was bookended by the death of two sweet grandfathers, first my partner’s and then mine.

In February, a few weeks after redeploying from Antarctica to New Zealand, I found myself standing ankle-deep in the Pacific Ocean, feeling that odd vertigo that is specific to when the sea is pulling itself out from under you, eroding the very earth you’re standing on, one grain of sand at a time, creating heel shaped divots under your weight.

It all felt quite significant, like I was in a movie or something and the next thing you knew I’d be walking out and disappearing and the ocean would eat me and the credits would roll. I sang to myself, to add a soundtrack and expand the melodramatic fantasy. D had broken up with me about four days before that. I felt like shit. But I knew that realistically, instead of dying, I would rather go back to the hotel and have beer and pizza and talk more with him about what the future held for us, for him, for me. We had ten days in New Zealand to talk and process the highs and lows and confusing, hairpin-turn-roller-coaster delirium that ensued when our framework and the life we had together began to dissolve. It was kind of fun, in a contradictory way, getting to be painfully honest and brutally interrogative, to cry together and sometimes to even feel like things would be okay in whatever way they came to manifest. I’ll spare you the details, for privacy reasons. But we were seriously in it. We talked about everything.

What I will tell you is that I spent months after getting home (well, okay, I still feel like this sometimes) as a split self: part of me feeling really calm and collected, like the gift in all of this could be a new beginning, a rebirth, an infinite possibility of freedom. The other, smaller part was rebellion and ricochet, like certain isolated atoms of my being were on the verge of nuclear meltdown, destructive and explosive and very, very dangerous.

Everything inside of me felt visceral and raw, while simultaneously too-okay and oddly emotionless. I drank a lot of whiskey. I ran around the lakes, wrote pages and pages and pages of angry, confused words. I tried to do yoga, but it didn’t have the same physical release as running. I read a lot of classified ads, trying to assemble the puzzle pieces into something that resembled a life, and extended little prayer tendrils for good things in all directions, and tried to think Big Positive Thoughts.

After my grandfather died, I wish I could say that it gave me a new perspective on what things are important in life and what things are better to let go, but it didn’t. I just felt sad and panicky. Both of our grandpas’ memorials fell on the same weekend. I watched my grandmother cry wordlessly, a sad gift that in her dementia, she knew he was gone. I saw a lot of friends that have known us for all of the last twelve years as a couple. I felt immensely selfish, thinking about the breakup when bigger things were happening. Life and death things. It was terrible.

I’m not much of a prayer person. But Anne Lamott wrote, “here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'” And I can totally handle that. So I tried to ask for a lot of help, and I got it in a lot of different forms. So to those of you who sent love and positive energy; who sent me lots of supportive messages and gave me chocolate and wine and a place to sleep; who listened to my drunken narcissistic stream-of-consciousness rants and then made me laugh or cried with me; who told me your own stories of breakups that were far more traumatizing than mine: thank you, thank you, thank you. I really mean it. The little boat I’m in is lost at sea, paint peeling and leaks sprouting, but it’s still buoyant. So thank you.

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I left as the 24 hour rotating shadows were starting to become a little longer at South Pole, the wind getting sharper, the population getting smaller and more saturated with people getting ready to stay for their winter, bonding with each other and letting go, in a way because they have to, of summer contractors.

From the plane, hearing the drone of the props, watching the map underneath us change from flat white nothing to the volcanic soil of the mountains and coast, glacier tongues literally melting into sheer, vast open water, to sea ice. The view, visually overwhelming, seems to elicit poetic thoughts from even the most unlikely of mouths.

Being on McMurdo’s runway, letting comparatively temperate air and sun touch our ears, cheeks, necks, starved for that sensation. We watched firefighters shoo a penguin off the runway.

The stress of work peels away on that plane like a sheath of irrelevance—things that were immensely important just a few days before mean nothing at all now; it’s a blissful release, an absolution but also a kind of sad amnesia, because friends are invested in the same issues for the length of the winter season and it feels like giving up, abandoning them in a way.

Off the aircraft and though customs, the sweet New Zealand night air smelled like grass and flowers and rotten leaves, fresh or perhaps imminent rain (rain!), the sky dark and the moon ringed in a cloudy little rainbow. The group made the motions of the unceremonious chaos, dropping gear off at the CDC and boarding a shuttle, realizing that for the first time in a long time, you’re surrounded entirely by people you’ve never met.

The next day, waiting for and sitting through Daniel’s surgery, wondering at the pigeons outside the windows and the wind agitating the mature trees, wondering what happens if there’s an earthquake and they’re mid-surgery; wondering who was in the middle of surgery during the last earthquake and what happened to them, and then trying not to wonder that. And then it was over and he came rolling back up the hall in his bed and hospital gown. He’s totally fine now, no evidence of anything ever having been wrong.

We spent a week in Wanaka, south of Christchurch, soaking in a hot tub with friends and eating avocados, drinking bloody marys, decompressing from the season.

And here we are at home. It’s good to be back. Keep watching for more photos… there are plenty I want to share with you now that I’m back in the lands of plentiful internet.

Thoughts on Leaving: Soccer, Broken Bones, and a Very Personal MedEvac

As you may know, Sundays are our only day off here in Antarctica, and we have to make the most of them. There are all kinds of community-led activities, writing and photography classes, volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, impromptu craft parties and wine tastings in the greenhouse.

This Sunday, I went to yoga and spent a while in the sauna before heading for dinner, and Daniel went to the first soccer tournament of the year—soccer players practice a few hours every week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and it’s a big part of Daniel’s exercise regime, something I remember him telling me on the phone in 2009 when he first came down to the ice. During the game, Daniel had a collision with another player, both men running full speed and focusing on the ball instead of each other. He fell and got up, and finished out the tournament.

But when he was still in pain later that evening, we decided to call Medical, even though Sunday is their day off too. Something seemed wrong; it looked like there was at least swelling on the left side of Daniel’s face, if not a maybe-different shape than normal. The PA was on call, and after looking for a bit and making sure Daniel wasn’t suffering a concussion or any head injuries, she called in the doctor as well. After poking and prodding and examining and xrays, the prognosis was a broken zygomatic arch, Daniel’s left cheekbone, and he was immediately scheduled for the next flight out. An unresolved fracture is an automatic NPQ (the opposite of PQ, when we are physically qualified to come to the ice at the beginning of each season).

That night, we sat together in bed after packing Daniel’s stuff, dealing with his physical pain, regretting this seemingly small accident, and grappling with our mutual feelings about the season having to end like this, but having flashbacks to food poisoning and malaria scares in third world countries and being grateful that here, at least we speak the language and understand the medical system. We decided together that it made the most sense for me to stay and carry out my contract, since I’d be leaving in a week and a half anyhow.

And then before I could think straight or even realize this was real, he was on the plane and I was crying on the runway. His two sweet coworkers stood on either side of me as we watched taxi and takeoff, the contrail behind the plane like a physical thing, looking as though the runway itself buckled up to assist the plane’s loft.

He is in New Zealand now, getting ready for appointments and maybe a small surgery, and hopefully will be ready for a real vacation in about a week when I get back. I miss him a lot, and it feels weird and hollow and different to be here without him in this big, cold bed, but I know that this is the best way to have a medEvac; finish your soccer game, pack your own bags, walk yourself unescorted onto the plane, and be ready for a kiwi roadtrip in a week. And I know it could have been so much worse, so I’m grateful for that.

And I’m grateful for the community response to this, the support I’ve gotten, the off-ice medical and insurance help that Daniel is and will be getting, and the hugs and offers for help packing and airplane bag lunches from friends. I’m even more ready to go, now that work is getting frantic with things to finish before station close and people, including me, are dirty and cranky and just over being here. The funny thing is though, I know we want to come back.

So here’s to fast healing and minimal pain, to friends who stand beside you when things go wrong, to the end of this season, and perhaps to the beginning of the next one.

In McMurdo! But First, a Christchurch Earthquake Damage Report

Deployment this year started with Daniel trying to find a haircut in a Denver suburb on a Sunday night, and the prospects weren’t great. The only place that was open was a men’s salon whose gimmick was hairstylists in lingerie (who were really, really interested in what you have to say. And sports). Daniel likened it to getting a burger at a strip club when all you were was hungry: a bit awkward. We flew to Christchurch without issues, other than Daniel’s flight from Denver to LAX being significantly delayed because the flight crew had to wait for the plane’s manual to be faxed to them (really). The pilot was so angry that he treated all the passengers to unlimited drinks on the short flight, courtesy of the airline, and instructed them to drink like it was Mardi Gras.

Two days later, thanks to the international date line, we arrived in Christchurch and unloaded our bags in the hotel room. Instead of succumbing to the jet lag, we walked in to the city center to check out the outside of the fenced earthquake zone. Since the February earthquake, some of the rubble had been cleared and crews in safety vests roamed the perimeter, but for the most part the city is frozen in time shortly after the quake. From what the kiwis we spoke with told us, it sounds like efforts are moving slowly and hitting red tape and bureaucratic roadblocks.

People who have been deploying with the Antarctic program for many years were affected more than the rest of us; we were staying in hotels 45 minutes out of the city center, and none of the bars, shops or landmarks that were part of their second-home city existed anymore. The streets leading up to the dead ends of fence were deserted. Creepy and quiet, without cars or people or machines or music or any kind of life other than bird noises that seemed disjointed and out of place.

It was really, really sad.

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In a few places, parts of buildings had been salvaged. I asked a shuttle driver about it, and he said that a lot of the church steeples and bell towers had been removed and set aside after the first earthquake, presumably to be put on again. And then the rest of the building came down in the February quake and all that was left was the steeple.

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I think the picture below is the front face of what used to be the cathedral, but it was really hard to tell and pretty far off.

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Window panes hang like loose teeth.

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In some places things were just slightly askew.

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And in other places, massively destroyed.

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We have been in McMurdo now for over a week. Daniel’s flight, supposed to be the first passenger flight in after the winter, keeps getting delayed. Every morning, the pax wake up, strip their beds, pack their bags and get ready to go, and every morning the flight gets cancelled. People are getting frustrated and missing things about Pole that are different here. More on that later.

I ‘m hoping to get a post up about life in MacTown pretty soon. The scenery here is fantastic, and there is an underwater observation tube where you can listen to the ocean and watch for sea life. So stay tuned!

When it Rains, it Pours

We are in Auckland at an airport hotel tonight, getting ready to sleep off a kebab pizza (delicious food + delicious food = an even more delicious food), and then fly out tomorrow to Cape Town, South Africa.

Daniel wrote last about making and breaking plans and the constant flexibility required during travel; tonight we get to test our ability to be flexible and relaxed despite mounting arguments for freaking out. While researching the very real possibility that we will need onward travel tickets to board a flight to South Africa, we realized that a) our travel itinerary pdf was completely blank and b) Daniel’s debit card number has been stolen and someone has been trying to use it to buy advertisements for used RVs and yachts. Would you like to buy a yacht? Someone pretending to be Daniel can sell you one for the low, low price of $110,000.

We were able to check in to our flight and have a plan for exiting South Africa (after lots of panicking); the main issue that remains now is Daniel’s card. We’ve contacted the bank, and hopefully can come to a reasonable solution that may involve canceling the card entirely with no ability to collect a new one.

So, we hope to be able to post soon from South Africa (with a plan from the bank). We’ll let you know how it goes!

The Christchurch Earthquake

I landed in Christchurch late on Valentine’s Day, Daniel patiently waiting for me outside my hostel when I got there. The priorities of the next few days, in order, were getting a dark beer on tap, a shower longer than two minutes, finding a new place to stay the next day, getting a decent cup of coffee and going to the beach. We took the bus out to Sumner beach, a sweet little cliffside town with a U-turn cave inside a rock (creatively named, I believe, Cave Rock) where the ocean waves would pull little tidal rivers back and forth between the two mouths.

Daniel and our friend Eric spent a few hours flying a kite up and down the barely windy waterfront, the teenage boys at the beach trying to pretend they weren’t interested in the rainbow kite for the too-cool-for-school girls with them. We spent the next few days with embarrassing inverted-bandit-mask sunburns, having apparently forgotten what the sun does to exposed skin.

We left for Wanaka a few days later, staying with friends in a beautiful house constructed of hay, clay and yellow paint, with a fat juicy vegetable garden, trampoline and wood-burning pizza oven on the patio. I hadn’t realized until I got there that I really missed having the ability to cook at Pole—so while our friends were out tumbling headfirst down whitewater currents and mountain biking, I made bagels and bread and curry soup with a little orange pumpkin from the yard.

We were home making lunch on Tuesday when one of the other women staying at the house called out, “did you feel that?” We hadn’t, and debated for a bit whether it was an earthquake or not. We checked the news a bit later and realized that there had indeed been an earthquake, the epicenter being in Christchurch, that the city was completely in shambles, and that many people had died, with the numbers of fatalities climbing rapidly.

That evening was a nervous one spent checking the informal shared spreadsheet of the 500 or so ice people in the Christchurch area that someone from McMurdo had created, detailing who had seen whom at the CDC, who had posted online that they were okay, who was already home, and those people who were unaccounted for. The really hard thing was that there were plenty of people who you shouldn’t have been able to get in touch with, who had been planning on tramping in the mountains for two weeks and who might not even know that there had been an earthquake.

The earthquake was far more devastating than the previous one in September of last year, even though it was a lower magnitude; the epicenter was more shallow and closer to the city. Temporary morgues were set up in the streets, the city unable to deal with the numbers of dead. Hundreds of people have died, many are still missing, even now, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses are lost.

And now, everywhere we go we’re hearing more earthquake stories, where people were and what they saw. Daniel’s coworker Pablo, whose wife and children had just met him in Christchurch after a long season at Pole, lost everything he had in the hotel, half collapsed and listing so severely that no one was allowed to enter; including his passport, newly stamped from all seven continents. We overheard a woman with her teenage daughter explaining to some tourists in Kaikoura, “We’re on extended holiday while we find somewhere to work and go to school… and live.”

We met a German couple on the West Coast who had been at the New Brighton beach surfing; the woman was in her underwear when the earthquake hit, her partner in his wetsuit, and amid the terrible noise and shaking the surf rental owner came running up to them yelling, “Gas! Gas!,” because the line had broken, but they didn’t know what that word meant in English. They tried to describe to us the total chaos and panic that the Chirstchurch suburb was exploding into: of changing out of his wetsuit in the middle of the street because there was nowhere else to go and wondering if he needed to return it, running out of gas for the car and not being able to get any, camping in public parks with other refugees. Not having any clean water or food, and seeing abandoned groceries behind walls of broken glass; “well,” he explained, “the thought crosses your mind at that point.”

One night they stayed in a park with a man who was playing guitar and sharing bread and beer given to him by a shop owner leaving town, talking about the comfort that the music and the friendly gesture provided them, thirsty and scared and trapped. In the end they finally left the city when a police officer siphoned the petrol from his own vehicle with his mouth—they praised him, their hero who helped them finally escape the madness.

We spent the rest of the week in Wanaka feeling really fortunate to have been away during the earthquake, leaving a little bit more time for snuggling before getting up in the morning, watching the evening news and looking vicariously through the rubble for landmarks and familiar faces.