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Onward, Upward & Somewhere Outward

Just a crew of friends hanging out at adult prom.

“Life is pretty much the same in Nome as it is anywhere else. Little more pressing.”

There is no right way to begin an ending.

But I don’t care much for endings anyway. I usually fall asleep before the end of movies we watch at the volunteer house, snuggled up on the green couch. I’ve been pushing off this blog post for days, unable to find words to convey everything I feel.

“Be where your feet are!” my best friend from home would tell me. I would respond, “My feet are in quicksand the color of melancholy nostalgia.” (I’m looking at you, Caitlin Whyte.) But my feet are also still here for a few weeks—in the mud and greening tundra and glassy beaches of a place that has held me through thick and thin for the past 13 months, with friends who have welcomed us. Now, with new friends who have joined us and will carry forward everything we’ve built this year, and build upon everything we’ve inherited. (Lesson 4: You are a part of something big. You stand on the shoulders of giants.)

When I first arrived in Nome, I remember asking one of the “old” volunteers what story from Western Alaska they would first share upon their return. I can’t imagine answering that question now. A year contains so much; it’s not an experience, it’s a life. All the exceptional, unthinkable moments (like hauling a crab pot out of the Bering Sea, or sewing a qaspeq while talking to an Elder who holds more Alaska in her heart than any photograph could capture or any words could convey)—and all the truly mundane, unglamorous moments (like burning your toast, or struggling to find time to call your parents).

So what does it mean to leave? I’ve been thinking about the big questions Francesca so perfectly evoked. Am I just another statistic? Will I return to Nome one day? Have I contributed even half of what this place has given me? (Lesson 5: Keep asking questions. Continue to give and graciously accept all that you receive.) Leaving isn’t exactly an ending because I believe we always carry places with us and leave a part of ourselves behind. (For one, I’ve accidentally left a flip-flop in Salmon Lake.) And life has a way of bringing us back together again. Most of all, this year in Nome has taught me to be exactly where you are—when it’s gritty and it pushes you outside your comfort zone and taps into something that matters. Be there. Because that’s the stuff that counts.

I am not ready to say goodbye, and maybe I don’t have to. Wherever I go, my heart has found a place here. I think that’s what solidarity really feels like: the unexplainable, unavoidable, time-erasing, spirit-magnifying, magnetic pull of the heart.

Solidarity is one of my favorite concepts. It’s sort of a big word for a lot of little things. It means to be with before you are for. And sometimes it’s being instead of doing. Often, it’s learning instead of teaching. When you want to give, when you desperately want to contribute something, and instead, you allow yourself to listen and to receive. To feel gratitude. To feel pain. It is the work of those who know that we are never really alone in this life. And in this enterprise, Dean Brackley said, there is a great deal of hope. So here is a little piece of guidance from Brackley and me—someone who now has a little more courage, thanks to Western Alaska.

“Have the courage to lose control.

Have the courage to feel useless.

Have the courage to listen.

Have the courage to receive.

Have the courage to let your heart be broken.

Have the courage to feel.

Have the courage to fall in love.

Have the courage to get ruined for life.

Have the courage to make a friend.”

There is no word in my language to convey the magnitude of gratitude I feel for this place and the people I’ve been surrounded by.

Thank you for being honest with me every day—when I screwed up and when I got it right. Thank you for trusting me and teasing me and welcoming me when you knew I might not stay forever.

Thank you for teaching me how to fish! Thank you for showing me that place where the sunset burns the river and flattens the mountains and ours are the only human souls for miles and miles.

Thank you for sewing with me. Thank you for staying up late and talking about love and purpose—building friendships that stretch across the northern coastline. Thank you for always visiting.

Thank you for sharing your food, for fixing our guitar, for laughing with us and adventuring with us and sharing joy.

Thank you for teaching me Inupiaq (and having patience with my “g”s and “q”s!)—thank you for showing me your home.

Thank you for your support, love and confidence—for letting me leave and be here. For knowing that home is far and wide.

Thank you for being my friend. For never letting me forget what matters, and for challenging me to do something good.

Thank you for sitting with me in the newsroom or around the kitchen table or in the truck next to me—laughing, crying, trying to figure it out, being so vulnerable and real. Every day you inspire me to be better. I couldn’t have made it without you. (Lesson 6: Surround yourself with the people who make you better—who bring out your best self. : )

Thank you for all that you give. Thank you for working tirelessly, loving generously, and believing in what we do.

Thank you for listening, and for letting me listen, too.

Until next time,

Jenn

My first midnight sun in Alaska. June 2014.

My first midnight sun in Alaska. June 2014.

Fishing with Tara and Sam last summer.

Fishing with Tara and Sam last summer.

Sunset after a day of crabbing in Norton Sound. July 2014.

Sunset after a day of crabbing in Norton Sound. July 2014.

Caitlin and Tara hiking across the tundra by Copper Canyon. August 2014.

Caitlin and Tara hiking across the tundra by Copper Canyon. August 2014.

The gang waits to see who will win the duck race.

The gang waits to see who will win the duck race.

Kristin and Andrea at the berry festival last summer.

Kristin and Andrea at the berry festival last summer.

Our friend Maligiaq kayaks off the coast of Wales!

Our friend Maligiaq kayaks off the coast of Wales!

A sunny (but chilly!) day at Pilgrim Hot Springs.

A sunny (but chilly!) day at Pilgrim Hot Springs.

Two newsies on a mountain.

Two newsies on a mountain.

Courtney and Kristin wrestle Tara and Spenser's pups, Charlie and Benji, on the sea ice during the winter solstice.

Courtney and Kristin wrestle Tara and Spenser’s pups, Charlie and Benji, on the sea ice during the winter solstice.

Kristin and I try to win  BINGO in Savoonga.

Kristin and I try to win BINGO in Savoonga.

MUSH!

MUSH!

Hunter and Caitlin prepare to shred.

Hunter and Caitlin prepare to shred.

Francesca and I model our hot-off-the-sewing-machine qaspeqs in Wales!

Francesca and I model our hot-off-the-sewing-machine qaspeqs in Wales!

Summer is here! Time to raft around Safety Sound.

Summer is here! Time to raft around Safety Sound.

Blanket toss during the summer solstice.

Blanket toss during the summer solstice.

Laura, Francesca, and Courtney show their wild (west) sides during the solstice bank heist.

Laura, Francesca, and Courtney show their wild (west) sides during the solstice bank heist.

A sunny plunge into the Bering Sea.

A sunny plunge into the Bering Sea.

And a goofy group of friends I love more than anything.

And a goofy group of friends I love more than anything.

3 Comments

  1. jake on July 10, 2015 at 8:36 am

    awesome



  2. Margaret on July 13, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Life at KNOM is an adventure. Thank you for your work. It was so nice to meet you last month, even though it was brief. Wishing you all the best!



  3. allan abrams on July 27, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Jenn and her friends know what life is about. You guys are the best.