"It is okay to be an outsider, a recent arrival, new on the scene -- and not just okay, but something to be thankful for ... Because being an insider can so easily mean collapsing the horizons, can so easily mean accepting the presumptions of your province."
Here in Alaska, we have a word for the newly arrived: Cheechako.
It is derived from the Chinook word chee, meaning "just now" and chako, meaning "come."
Just now, come.
Think Gold Rush, think feverish wagon slog through waist-deep snow, think soaked cotton clothing, think new Pipeline hires and frozen metal zippers exploding off winter coats. Think unpreparedness. Think amazingly stupid ideas that turn out okay, or even great. Think trying to eat a PowerBar from your pack at -10 degrees and dislocating your jaw. Think cold, wet feet. Think masted ships trapped, then crushed in pack ice. Think bushwhacking through pushki and baring red angry scars on arms and legs for years afterwards. Think unsecured kayaks floating away in the middle of the night. Think unaware awe. Think, "Look -- a Mama moose and baby -- let's get closer!" Think, "If I spray myself with bear spray, it will repel bears!" Think rubber boots with high heels. Think Greenhorn. Think Tenderfoot. Think lost and needs rescuing.
Think lost and prefers it that way.
My husband and I left a robust coastal city of 2 million and came to Alaska in 2000. I'd worked in the fashion industry for 12 years (wait, I think I had a pair of rubber boots with heels ... what happened to those?) and sought major change, my husband found a job in Anchorage (but I thought you said you sent resumes to Seattle and San Francisco ...). My memory of arriving here that November after driving 2,195 miles, is of sitting at a stoplight in silence, staring at a plastic palm tree deflating in a snowy car lot, my new mittens filthy from changing a tire next to a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant, two howling cats on the bench seat between us and the sinking weight of knowing, clearly, we'd just made an enormous mistake.
But I also remember the first time I heard a raven's Kla-wock! from a street lamp above: a dropping, dripping sound, like water hitting the bottom of an empty barrel. A sound that still has me snap my head around until I can find that glossy black body.
And I remember filling my lungs and thinking, Oh, this is what it means to take a deep breath. This is what it means to look up and see something enormous -- a horizon, a sky, a raven -- something beckoning instead of crushing.
When do you stop being a Cheechako?
When bald eagles stop taking your breath away?
When you finally have the right gear for every weather condition? (Rain jackets -- drizzle, downpour, mud or going out to dinner in sleet? -- snow boots, rubber boots, hats, gloves, vests, puffy jacket, sappy-work-in-the-yard jacket, wool coat, wool coat, wool coat. Down. Synthetic. Lightweight cotton-why-did-I-buy-this-useless jacket, rain pants, rain bibs, snow pants, ski pants, wool socks, wool socks, wool socks. Then multiply for every member of the family).
When even the most familiar landscape stops divulging its secrets?
When the palette of emergent seasons stops blowing your mind?
I'd argue that it's the inner Cheechako that drives us. All stupid mistakes and blind luck and a willingness to experience and see what should be met with awe -- no matter how simple and small or enormous and insurmountable. When was the last time you were in awe?
What have you dragged through the slush lately? Where have you gone in your creative work where you really had no business going, were completely unprepared for and were lucky you emerged on the other side merely wringing out your socks, tummy rumbling?
It's deeper than risk taking -- it's naivety. And it's not merely asking "what if?" -- it's the work produced from the mindset of, "I am going to make this happen/do this thing/make this real/go to this place."
I don't think it matters where you live. You probably have your own word for Cheechako, your own set of stories surrounding the arrival of bumbling newcomers, but when was the last time you let yourself be one?
Stand in front of your work and say this: Just now, come.
Dig up the will to climb it.
Hold some awe.
Wander after stupid ideas that might turn out okay. Maybe even great.
I say this to myself, not just to you: quit hesitating, quit collapsing your horizons, because if there's one thing you can be an expert at it's the blundering arrival of not knowing.
If you, too, have accounts of blundering arrival, your own versions of Cheechako stories, I'd love to hear them. They always make me feel better (oh, and that bit above about the kayaks floating away? Mine. Same with the second-degree burns from crashing through photosensitive cow parsnip).
See, don't you feel better now, too?
For more posts on Alaska, check out: "What we found, 2," "The traveling eye 8: Fool's gold," or "Drive. A love story."