I'm Going Home, But First...

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A ribbon of delicate smoke rises and then floats into invisibility from the weightless yucca. Like a dancer borne out of resisting friction, it dissipates as it escalates into its ambient surrounding. I find the familiar aroma of delicate smoldering black fibers comforting and nurturing, particularly on cold, dark nights in the Sonoran desert. A cup of hot lentils and rice and the accompanying fire soothes the body and soul after an oft physically and emotionally draining day.

I needed these moments while working for a youth wilderness therapy camp (non-punitive mind you) in central Arizona for almost a year after ending my Americorps service with an Oregon watershed council. I had decided to work in this demanding but personally transformative field before beginning graduate school. I found tremendous meaning in the work there. My days were filled with the challenges of trying to love sincerely without expectation, connect with young people, listen, model what I was trying to teach, and simply to live. The lessons from this time remain with me, reminding me that people and relationships are the most enduring things, a conviction that grounds me when my present world of academic minutiae begins to crowd out reality.

The unconventional schedule of eight continuous days around the clock and six days completely off allowed me to go to my mother and stepfather's home on the Navajo Reservation often. I was able to spend time with my grandmother learning more about her life and our family history, and I visited with her more in the past two years than I have my whole life. But I knew I needed to continue with my formal education even as alas, my mother's words from years before returned to my mind.

"When are you going to come back home? You're always running off to other places, other countries, but we need you here." Though I was often "home" in between weeks on the trail, I felt I was not ready to commit to a longer, more indefinite period of making meaningful contributions to my community. I knew that my formal education was not finished. "Our  professionals that do come back always leave after a few years," my stepfather adds. I wonder if there is ever hesitation to encourage the young people to pursue an education, as though a diploma is a one-way ticket off the reservation. "There's no economic development, the young people have no home to come back to, no jobs here. They pay more in the city. It's a brain drain." The lack of economic opportunity and lack of professional retention often finds its way into everyday conversation topics at home, though my parents still assume there is a place for me, and I hope that there is as well.

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Rachael Novak is a native of the Intermountain West and Southwest, an adoptee of the Pacific Northwest, a member of the Navajo Nation (Diné), and a sojourner of the South American continent. While a Krista Colleague (2004), she served as the Watershed Education Specialist for the South Santiam Watershed Council in Sweet Home, Oregon. She is a graduate of Oregon State University (B.S./B.A.). Presently, she is a graduate student at the University of Arizona in the geoscience department and is set to finish her M.S. in 2007.

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