August 5, 2009

Nome

I’ve completed my month in Nome, Alaska, my former home and an odd interpolation between Mthatha and my return to school in a few weeks.

I’m not going to recount every last detail of what went on while I was there. I had a few memorable moments - singing karaoke for a bar-full of drunk gold miners, interviewing my two favourite Alaskan women - Lisa Murkowski and Sarah Palin - in the same week, meandering across the tundra, contra dancing at a wedding reception, and much more. But mostly the joy was in resuming an old life - spending time with lots of old friends, making new ones, sliding right back into my old role in the newsroom and ambulance department, and generally enjoying myself.

One thought I had while I was in Nome was that everything seemed so easy. Almost everyone I interacted with spoke English as a first language, there were clear tasks required by my job (fill the news folder every day), and I knew how to do those tasks (write story after story after story). Compared to Mthatha, where no one spoke English, it wasn’t always clear what had to be done, and when it was I didn’t know how to do what needed to be done, this was a major shift for me. I was left thinking several times, “This is too easy!”

I also realized how vocational news reporting is for me. It helps that it was all so “easy” but the job spoke me to in a way I hadn’t expected. That, of course, only complicates my vocational discernment plans.

Except for those few moments of comparison to worklife in Mthatha, I must confess I barely thought about Itipini and Mthatha except for the evening when I gave a slide show about my time in South Africa and the time I recycled a sermon for the Methodist Church. At first, I felt a little guilty about not thinking about Mthatha. Here were all those great people, who just a few weeks prior I had been thinking about how much I would miss. And then… out of sight, out of mind!

Well, maybe. But I don’t think so. I have this feeling it’ll all catch up with me sometime in the fall. Right now, I’m feeling very unsettled in this in-between period and I’m still obviously in denial about the fact that I’ve left Itipini. Once I start a new phase of my life, maybe I’ll have more time to think about what has gone before.

Nome is a white-minority community in a white-minority region. As I interacted again with Alaska Native culture, I couldn’t help but compare it with my interactions with Xhosa culture. Mostly, I thought about how traditional cultures of the world deal with the steamroller of Western, consumerist mass culture and I couldn’t help but think about how Alaska Natives and Xhosas are dealing with the same set of issues - what to do with a traditional way of life that is eroding in the face of a culture that sets a new ideal but also takes away the means to achieve that ideal. I thought a lot about cultural alienation, especially in terms of men and masculinity. Inupiaq men face similar challenges to the ones Xhosa men face.

I remember at my mission training two years ago that one of the presenters had a Ph.D. in something like cross-cultural studies. At the time, I rather small-mindedly thought, “What good is a degree like that?” Now I want one of my own.

I also realized the ways in which I now see the world through the lenses of mission and reconciliation. I saw Nome with new eyes and the walls that people sometimes allow to be erected around themselves that cut off relationships. (This is, I am sure, true all over the world. Nome is just the first place I ended up and so I noticed it there first.) Reconciliation is needed as much in Nome as in Itipini. It’ll just take a different form.

I often thought about the line from Ephesians 2:14 about Jesus being the one who breaks down the dividing walls between us. Whatever else Nome is, I would describe it as an a-religious place. It’s not that people are hostile to religion; they just don’t see what it adds to their life. I found myself puzzling over how a message of reconciliation could be shared in a place like Nome. I didn’t come up with many answers.

If you want more from Nome, you can check out this photo album on Facebook (even if you’re not on Facebook - and it’s been updated since I last linked to it) or read this story from a friend’s blog. You can also listen to the stories of mine that aired on the Alaska Public Radio Network - there’s one on the po
llock fishery and chinook returns, the Nome wind farm, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, wind power in Western Alaska , and formerly used defense sites.

2 comments:

Michelle said...

It does sound a bit like your departure hasn't quite set in yet...

I'm curious as to in what capacity you'll be returning to school.

abby said...

isn't it beautiful how such seemingly opposite places and experiences are so deeply interwoven? with ever evolving insights and understandings. that inherently become a part of who you are. and inspire your feet to where they will wander next. in time, with grace, may you come to understand this journey. mindful of where you have been. present where you are. open to what will be. and how it is all interconnected. may you listen to what is stirring inside of you. and ride with it. shalom.