People often ask me about the culture shock that I must experience, travelling back and forth between places like remote McCarthy Alaska and Silicon Valley, the mega-bucks techie epicenter of the world. Well, I’m kind of used to it. After a while, it becomes familiar, I suppose the mind eventually realizes that there’s really no reason to freak out, just switch into that other way-of-being and roll with it. A friend of mine who has travelled a lot more than myself says that when she is travelling she will sometimes forget what city she is in. Like, for more than just a few seconds.

Even though I transition fairly well, I still sometimes have this sense like I’m an alien that’s been dropped from outer space into some random earthling scene. There’s a sense of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here? In a sense, I’ve felt that way a good bit of my life, this sense of displacement, like I’m not quite home or that home is probably somewhere else. If you are faint of heart, don’t worry, this isn’t a bare-my-soul blog post. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a bare-my-soul blog post, but it’s just too bloody early in the morning.) The feeling I’m describing has never been at the level of existential crisis level. I’ve never felt the need to have a showdown with God on some dark rainy night. No, this sensation that I’m describing is a fairly ordinary sense, I suppose, something not quite crisis level but still the kind of thing that seems to present itself, to regularly make an appearance, and to pop up as something that, in retrospect, was quite definitely a motivator.

Our family moved around a good bit, so it might have to do with that. Or it might be that I’m just a bit of an iconoclastic chap by nature and never feel quite at ease unless I’m on the perimeter. Yet again, it might just have to do with the general unsettled feeling we have in the 21st century, uprooted as we humans in the West have been from tribe and extended family and community. It’s the nature of our economics that workers shuffle around. Economic opportunity opens her arms to those willing to travel, to follow their resumes and LinkedIn network connections wherever they may lead.

On the other hand, there’s also the ease of travel. This produces the sort of folk that I interact with a lot, the sort of folk that I am, the not-so-underprivileged gypsy, those wayfarers who shuffle around like vagabonds not because they have to but because they choose to. This is the anti-resume-building crowd, the no-network un-connectors. They don’t have their voice mails set up properly or in some cases may not have a phome at all. They travel because they are disenfranchised with the system or because they are looking for adventure or something of both. One of the things that I’m quite enjoying about writing my novel is that I am teasing out some of the eclectic motivations and unintended consequences of this crowd of drifters.

There are many such folks in McCarthy, Alaska, and this brings me, finally, to the point of this post. I appreciate the lack of pretension of many McCarthyites. Every summer the community blossoms from a few dozen hardcore homesteaders who stay the year round up to several hundred, some who simply have summer cabins but most who are working. Not every soul dropped into McCarthy lacks pretension, but I’ve found that it’s a place where authenticity is an important part of the cultural values. It’s something that I especially appreciate after coming to Silicon Valley or as I look with absolute dread on the upcoming Presidential elections.

It seems to be the human condition that we seek to elevate our status in the tribe by over-esteeming ourselves in some way, by associating ourselves with the rich and famous, by linking up with the real game-changers, by being “on the bleeding edge,” by name-dropping, or by padding our resumes. There’s something within us that is deeply compelled to do this, to seek happiness and self-worth in our place in the pack. It goes without saying that it leads to a good deal of suffering in the world. Teachers like Jesus taught that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It turns out that to truly find what we think we are looking for in life, we have to give up looking. Damn the paradoxes. And that brings me to one of today’s readings, from Matthew 16, where Jesus, for all intents and purposes, finds the whole Son of God thing a bit overrated and tells his disciples that he’s just going to delete the bloody “chosen one” section from his resume.

Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ. (KJV)

You may think me too irreverent. You may not be wrong. On the other hand, here’s a story of the Dalai Lama that proves to me that the best spiritual teachers don’t take themselves seriously. (It was first published, I believe, in Tricycle Magazine and was written by Joseph Goldstein):

My friend Sid once placed a Groucho Marx mask in a hotel room where the Dalai Lama would be staying during a visit to an Ivy League university.  It was a gesture of karmic abandon because, really, who could gauge the terrestrial and spiritual consequences of such an act? So imagine this: a cascade of university bureaucrats arrayed in the Dalai Lama’s suite, waiting for their guest to appear.  They sit erect in armchairs designed for slouching. Minutes pass and then a door flings open.  Unaccountably, Groucho Marx – wearing long, maroon robes and serious lace-up shoes – emerges, chuckling loudly, laughing so hard that tears come to his bespectacled eyes. How do people react when a dignitary – especially of a spiritual kind – does something so, well, undignified?  Intrigued, I call up the university official in charge of the visits of the accomplished and the famous and the presidential.  She clearly is not a woman easily impressed.  How did she feel, I asked, at the Groucho Moment?  At first, she tells me, she didn’t know how to react.  And then she and everyone started to laugh at the wonderful absurdity of the situation, laughed with a joy and incaution uncharacteristic of people in their position. The Dalai Lama didn’t care about maintaining his image.  He saw a chance for fun, for deflating others’ expectations, and he took it.  And he just somehow knew whom to thank.  Wagging his finger at Sid, he took off the mask, still laughing.  Even His Holiness needs a little Groucho in his life.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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