Monthly Archives: March 2010

the only way to learn

In college, while I was still a music major, I took a class on quantum physics and relativity.  The material was abstruse, the lectures utterly incomprehensible, and I had no idea what was going on.  I had no idea what I was supposed to be learning or how I was supposed to learn it.  In the second week of the course the professor said: you will each be assigned a chapter, and next class you will teach that chapter to everyone.  I was terrified.  I was being thrown into the ocean when I didn’t know how to swim and simply told: you must swim.  So I did, and afterward I felt that it was the only way I could have learned.

I learned how to climb mountains the same way.  The first time I stood at the bottom of a ridge so steep and jagged with boulders that I knew climbing over it was impossible, I was told: we are going to climb straight up.  My reaction: there’s no way.  There was no way I could pull myself over those boulders, the size of small cars, while carrying a 40-pound pack on my back.  The top of the ridge seemed miles away, and then what would I have to descend on the other side?  But I climbed to the top.  And then looked down to face a slope so steep and covered in snow that it would be impossible to descend.  I would surely be pulled sideways by my pack until I fell and struck the islands of sharp rock at the bottom.  But a lightning storm was coming, and I had to descend.  So I did.  And I knew that if I’d had time to think about it, if I’d been told step-by-step how to do it, I wouldn’t have learned.

I’m facing some difficult projects at work and some annoying situations in life right now.  I feel way over my head, but I think the problem is that I’m not in over my head enough.  If there’s any chance of learning, if there’s any chance of getting things done, it can’t just be hard.  It needs to be impossible.  Otherwise I won’t be scared enough of the water to swim, I’ll just be scared enough to be overcome.



When I moved to Alaska, I became enchanted by this place.  For the entire first year I lived here, I was completely in love with the mountains and ocean and the quirky community.  A few months ago that honeymoon period began to dissolve and things started to really bother me: things like the inescapable prevalence of drugs and public drunkenness, the utter lack of privacy in such a small town, and how a carton of orange juice is so expensive that it’s not even worth buying.  By December, I was already sick of winter, I had had my first (and hopefully last) dinner with a drug dealer, and I was rapidly planning an exit strategy.

In December I spent 2 weeks traveling in Europe.  To me, one of the best things about traveling is getting a glimpse into what life is like in other places.  I’ve always wanted to live in Europe.  Going to the opera in Vienna and Berlin, walking through Christmas markets and palaces was amazing, but I looked around at the locals and realized that I had no idea what life was like for them.  Having been in a city for two days, how could I know what it’s like to live there for years surrounded by these sights and sounds?  In fact, I thought of this town where I live, and realized that I hardly even know what’s it’s like to live here.

A friend of mine said once about her stint in the Peace Corps: “the first year, you can’t get anything done because you’re just learning how to live.  The second year is when you can begin to work.”  Living in rural Alaska is not as difficult as learning how to live in rural Africa, but there is so much to know about this community, the people who live here, the social dynamics, the local issues, and the natural setting.  I’ve been here for a year and a half and I’m still learning new things.  And there are so many things I don’t know: I don’t know what it feels like to walk down Main Street of a town where I’ve lived for years.  I don’t know what it’s like to watch nature change day by day and season after season, year after year.  I don’t know what it’s like to love a place after all the novelty is gone.  I want to know these things, and I want to know them here.  I want to root myself here.

Rootedness has always been one of the things that I value most.  I don’t want to simply drift along the surface of things, propelled by whims and passing fancies.  I want my uprootings, when they occur, to be purposeful, not incidental displacements caused by a passing wind.

A couple of weeks ago I was returning from a short trip, and it was the first time that I’ve come home and wished that I could immediately be on the next plane going anywhere else.  But I looked at the snow-covered spruce trees in the dark night, and they were familiar to me.  They were immediately recognizable as the forest of home.  That didn’t make me feel any better about coming back to a shitty winter and other shitty situations, but I did realize exactly why I want to make a commitment to this place: because I want to have my unhappy times in the same place where I have my happy times.

Sometimes I feel perfectly at home here, but sometimes I have a niggling feeling of wanting to look for something better.  Sometimes I downright hate it.  I don’t know if I really belong in Alaska.  I lament the opportunities I’m missing to explore the world and try a breadth of things.  But I choose to dig deep and root myself here, to stop caring so much about my social fitness for a place and stop thinking that somewhere out there is the “perfect” place for me.  Every day that I spend here, even the bad days and maybe especially the bad days, I become more rooted here.  Every day I know this place a little better—and myself, in relation to it—like adding pages to a flip book that magnifies my life here in ever-increasing detail.  I probably won’t be here forever, but for a few years at least, I commit myself to this community.  I commit myself to think of this as home.  Even in the shittiest winter.