29 August 2010

Between Worlds

This is the initial entry of the blog that will attempt to say something about my year in Bethel, Alaska.

The blog's title is inspired by the Velvet Underground song "Stephanie Says." Nearly ten years ago, in a Virginian basement I first heard Lou Reed singing about this girl who wonders what seashell sea is calling, from across the world. I wondered what they meant by the people all called her Alaska and was especially struck by the chilly repetition of it's so cold in Alaska at the end of the song. The strings and the bells lingered for years.

Then, one day in April, shortly after I had committed to doing a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, the song popped up on my iPod shuffle. I listened to it on repeat until my imagination was exhausted trying to conceive of this somewhat unimaginable place.

I will try to remember how impossibly far away and unreal this place seemed then when I attempt to describe it to you, dear reader. Most likely, this means my entries will be sporadic and episodic, but if just one post, paragraph, sentence, phrase, or word written here contains the most microscopic germ of truth, then this venture will not be for naught.

For those of you who prefer more visual descriptions, I will also upload photos to the Picasa page linked to this blog. If you do visit my first album, you will see the evidence of why this noble enterprise of being in touch with friends, family, and fellow JVs (current, former, or future) is especially challenging in this particular placement: three lonely satellite dishes are the only mediators between Bethel and everywhere else. This town's internet connection is notoriously slow, but if your eyes spend any time on this page, you are my seashell sea and I want to receive your call and respond as best I can.

At the moment, it's not so cold in Alaska, although certainly it is a cooler summer than I am accustomed to, but I know that it will be icy soon enough. For the moment, while occasionally my heart dashes away to the other people and places I love (Springfield, Firenze, Seattle), I am experiencing the moments of affinity that reassure me this is a good place for me to be right now. I feel a wash of warmth in these moments, however briefly. When I take a perfectly ordinary yet illogically remarkable step along the boardwalk, when a student who hasn't said a word all day picks up a banjo and plays a tune that draws out involuntary tears, when I find an unlikely commonality with one of my housemates, when I correctly pronounce a word from my modest Yu'pik vocabulary, or when I sleep gratefully and wake up well-rested, that's when I know I am meant to be tucked into this place for awhile.

So call me what you may, but feel free to call me Alaska. And feel free to ask me what's in my mind while I am in between worlds walking on this permafrost underground.