My name’s Chelsea. I’m from Alaska.
Just around 11 years ago, this was the first phrase I learned to say in Danish. Right before, “I don’t speak Danish.” I was away from home for a year, probably the last year before social media became mainstream. I learned a language, made friends, and discovered that home could mean many different things. I was scared every day.
It was a new world and I had no other choice but to be brave.
10 years ago I came home. In a town of churches and flag-waving my senior quote was as revolutionary as I felt brave enough to be.
My country is the world and my religion is to do good. Thomas Paine
Before I caught my breath I left again. It’s hard to explain what it is that makes a town of 26,000 seem like a city. Was it the roads leading in and out? The lights of the stores and restaurants? Knowing that if you walked for days (weeks?) you could make it to Seattle? Even driving across country didn't dim the miracle of what being on the mainland can mean.
Tomorrow, if the planes and boats were gone, I would be in the wilderness and if I tried to leave the island (or if I tried to stay here, or any variation of the two) alone, I would probably die. Even knowing everything you can possibly know, it’s a dangerous place.
At the bookstore I sell a decorative map showing where ships have sunk.
It is not a comprehensive list and it is not current.
Just this year we all watched the Coast Guard video of a local boat sinking. We watched as the four people made it safely into the arms of their rescuers and we held our breath as we watched the boat disappear into the depths.
Learning that the world is big and you are a part of it is the absolute best and worst thing. As an undergrad we all tried to be brave and save it together; it was messy and imperfect, and every week or so I hid to recover from the shock of exposure to the world. I gave interviews and organized protests; when I received an award for my scholarship I gave a speech and cried as I told stories of my classmates who had to be impossibly brave just to survive something the rest of us took for granted.
Other than my family and teachers I didn’t know a person in the room so it was easy. Who would remember me at the end of it all?
In grad school I was the interpreter; I was able to explain controversial or extreme concepts in a way that some of my braver and smarter classmates did not have patience for. Sometimes it moved the conversation forward, but sometimes I stopped short because an abbreviated version seemed easier.
It was never far enough and it was never easy.
Then we scattered.
I returned to a world where people have lives, not careers, and so far haven’t really looked back. But I’m recognizing where my fear comes from, that fear that had me counseling “patience” to my activist friends who were fighting for their survival, words that now have me begging for forgiveness.
It’s the same fear that made Mom and I turn around after gathering the kelp that would later be canned into relish. We had gone out in the skiff further than planned and nobody really knew where we were. Clouds were coming in, wind was picking up, the survival bag and radio were on land in the back of the truck. The engine had been acting up before we left, but was fine by the time we left the harbor.
I’ll never know what we missed, not staying out for longer, but we made it back and that was what mattered in the end.
There’s a relatively new mine at the top of the Stikine River. It’s an essential river, a place of sustenance and sport, a place that defines the region, and the company that built the mine is the one responsible for the largest environmental disaster in Canadian history one year ago this month. Communities downriver from the disaster are buying fish for the first time in their very long history.
Somehow even talking about the mine's existence is an act of bravery in this fishing town. We’ve decided we’re going to manage our way out of the wilderness even as it brings us closer to things more deserving of our fear. We’re asking for permission to use pictures of boots, asking companies to please not flood our waters with poison, asking please don’t use my name or face but here’s my money.
It’ll probably be fine.
Somehow it’s brave to even talk about the weather, now.
“It’s been beautiful this summer! All that sun, I have all kinds of crops going this year. This new weather could be really great for us.”
“Yeah sure.” Until the fish die.
“We’ve been here for two weeks and we haven’t seen a lick of rain! What luck!”
This is a temperate rainforest and everything is thirsty,
“I’m glad you had a nice vacation.”
“I wish those clouds would just go away, I can’t get a good picture of the mountains.”
Those clouds are hopefully bringing moisture to our rivers and streams that will, if we’re lucky, almost make up for the obscenely low level of snowfall this year,
“Yes, you’re right, the view isn’t quite the same.”
“It’s been raining for weeks now! Aren’t you sick of it?”
Love is what makes a community more than just a group of people living in the same space. It’s the collective cobweb, invisible until you run into it.
That day in the skiff, Mom and I came home because we needed the net. The fragility of our situation made us uncomfortable and we wanted to turn back, so we did.
But in today's world this net is not guaranteed. There are holes that people fall through, because they are no longer of value or we decided they never really were. Sometimes they are desperately needed and wanted,
and they slip through our fingers no matter how hard we try.
Or we see them, falling so fast,
but we’re feeling so precarious ourselves we’re scared to reach out.
That’s why the fierceness of protests (like the interruption of Bernie Sanders in Seattle) is provoking such a strong reaction from so many, often people who always thought they were the type of person to reach out; to them the net is obvious.
They are terrified its existence is even called into question, as if identifying it can make it disappear before their very eyes.
But for too many others it never existed in the first place.
And when you can't go back, how can you do anything but fight your way forward?
I’m turning on lights and lighting up the wood stove again.
After my fall travels I’m planning on returning home and use my oil money to sit still for a month and write a book - speculative fiction - about a world without oil.
Dystopias are all the rage these days.
Blockbusters and bestsellers.
Our favorites are the ones that don’t tell us the secret of how we got there.
The small decisions, the every day actions, the taken-for-granted.
The way everyone assumed “It’ll probably be fine.”
Instead, in a chapter or two, or even a sentence, a world is reborn.
A plague, an earthquake, a bomb.
Some do it so well I don’t even mind. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an example. Beautiful, thrilling, heartbreaking and brave. I gave my copy away already but I shouldn’t have because all I want is to hold it and read it again.
They are always waiting, the people of the Undersea. They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.
I'm going to tell you a secret.
The net isn’t real.
I mean it is. But it also isn't.
We're the ones who created it, which means we get to decide how it behaves.
This makes it as real as we want it to be.
But people, the ones who need it, undeniably are.
And if we all held on to one another, fiercely and without a second thought,
nobody else would slip through.
For some it takes bravery to walk out of the door in the morning.
They know the net isn’t there for them.
They are afraid we haven't yet learned to reach for their hand and they're right.
We can do better.
What will it take for us to hold one another up?
When will our home be something we remember to reach for, too?
A place that does so much for us is worth defending.
Sometimes I joke that my politics are somewhere between lefty and “set it on fire,” but it isn't really a joke because most days it feels like the world is burning.
We have a long way to go.
Spellcheck wants me to change the word "dystopia" to "utopia."
All it takes is a few letters or seconds for everything to change.
Everything can be different.
What will it take for us to be brave?
We traveled so far and your friendship meant everything. It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid.