You know what I’ll miss, I’ll miss the light. The way it glows iridescent, shimmering all the colors at once in the purest white. In the lower-48 the light burns sulfuric, all yellow and egg yolk and fire. Here, even in deepest winter, the light is enough to break your heart— bursting fuchsia pink and blazing gold in a perpetual sunrise and sunset across the sky, living and dying in three hours time. Every day, chest aching, I took a picture.
And then at night, if we were lucky, the aurora borealis. One night, us girls loaded into the truck and drove out into the darkness, trying to catch that nocturnal glow. And climbing out in the snow, far from the glare of town, green streaks rose electric and unearthly in painted arches, shivering around us. For the first time, high on this polar planetary point, I could see the bowed dome of the sky.
You know what I’ll remember, I’ll remember pulling salmon from a net, mucus smearing and slicking my hands, untangling their silver bodies from the threads, muscle and will fighting beneath my fingers, saying “Thank you. Thank you,” as I dropped their bodies into a bucket, saying “Thank you. Thank you,” as I shoved a knife in their gut and ran it up the belly, saying “Thank you. Thank you,” as I cut every fiber from the bones, saying “Thank you. Thank you,” as I cooked the pink flesh and ate every bite. A vegetarian for six years, for the first time, I felt I had respected another’s life.
You know what I’ll hold, I’ll hold the ocean, crashing slate-colored against the shore. I’d never lived by water until I moved to the Bering Sea. And that sound, the way is reaches up and pulls you to its chest with the gentlest of mighty hands, rocking, “Shhh. Shhh.” And in the winter, walking out as far as the frozen thickness will bear me, and standing in the most absolute of silence, spinning circles on the ice, feet leaving wild grooves in the snow. But above all, it’s that standing on the shore, looking out, the water saying, “This is where you end.” At least for me. I am no mariner. And feeling the greatest relief on that visual limit of mortality.
You know what I’ll carry, I’ll carry community. I didn’t understand the word before Nome. Community was always an adjective as in “Community Center” or “Community Broadcasting,” never a thing itself, never a becoming, not noun or verb. Until Nome, that is. Two days ago I walked one and a half blocks and got stopped by four people along the way, stepping out of their four houses, all addressing me by name, one saying they had a picture of me from the Forth of July Celebration, another asking when I was leaving, and two more just inquiring about my day.
But here community is more than people knowing my face or calling my name. It’s attending meetings and walks and celebrations and seeing the town come together, again and again and inexhaustibly again, investing their time and support in this place they call home and taking ownership of each other. It’s changing my introductory question from, “What do you do?” to “What do you do within the community?” Because in Nome, a person is more than the sum of what they occupationally produce. With a smaller population and less competition for positions but just as much demand for services, people wear more hats. But it’s not the costume change that multiplies faculties; it’s viewing that person in manifold dimensions, and in that fullness, granting her or him the dignity of recognition as a whole person. And from that shift, it’s me changing how I see myself, my occupation no longer determining my human value but existing as one part of a million-capacity being.
You know what I’ll give, or at least try my damndest, I’ll give what I was freely given. Over the past year, I often said the best part of this adventure was my fellow volunteers—my co-workers, my housemates, my friends, my Nome family. I believe we become the people we surround ourselves with. And over the past almost 12 months, I’ve watched us volunteers slowly morph into one another, retaining our entities but merging our edges like five individual circles pushed into a Venn diagram— picking up a vocal inflection, an emotional habit, a gesture, a shifted perspective. From these four people I have learned grace, thankless service, hospitality, and generosity of time and spirit. And by them meeting me where I am, they have taught me the elegance of extending that respect to others.
Then there’s all the small moments I’ll cherish— of being alive, connected, and so, so free. Standing on my bike pedals, sea breeze carrying me for miles along the peach and turquoise sunset coast. Holding hands around a home cooked meal. Looking out a window, chin resting on the sill, watching river and beavers float past, alongside a dearest of friend. Running breathless up the cemetery hill, fireweed blazing underfoot, Nome and the harbor spreading beneath on my right, hazy foothills rising on my left. Reading in the back chair of the library. Sitting around a bonfire on the beach. Grasping the faintest margin of what it means for someone to be continuing a 10,000-year-old culture on the same land where it began. Working harder and longer past what I thought my limit could endure at a job that for a year allowed me to be audience and storyteller to the most spellbinding and consequential of tales. And every day, walking thousands of aimless miles around and around and around and through Nome.
At the end of Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the main character Max, though on the wildest of adventure among the wildest of creatures, finds he needs to return “where someone loved him best of all.” It’s time for me to do the same.
To Western Alaska, to KNOM, and to Nome, thank you, farewell, and see you later.