Friday, January 21, 2005

Too close for comfort

One of the things about living and working in a small college in a small town in a sparsely populated country is that you can't isolate yourself from people with different skills, experiences and lives. Professor Anders Johansen at the University of Bergen would, in memorable lectures, talk about the globalisation of communities, and how a scholar in Bergen has more in common with a scholar in San Diego than with his next door neighbour. Perhaps that is true of a scholar in Bergen.

In Volda, if you want to stick to your academic ghetto, your options are way too limited. Well, there are a few doctors from the hospital who have as much education as you, and some high school teachers. But if you try to stay within such circles you run out of topics of conversation as with everybody else after 10 years of close living.

That's when you discover the delight of people who have very different lives. Hairdressers, carpenters, engineers, gardeners, electricians - should their work mean I can't understand and even share their dreams and desires, their problems and pleasures? And sometimes you recognize your own trembling fear in their stories and experiences, or share their wild elation when something works. Yes, we are scholars, people comitted to intellectual pursuits, but we are also flesh and bone and breath and love and hate and hunger, and we like to keep it that way - like everybody else.

And today I had my forceful reminder from a story in the larger local newspaper. Two fishermen were saved as their sjark went down. According to the story they were pulling traps. One was stuck, and as it came loose the boat rebounded, then tipped back - and just continued leaning to that side. The guys got into their survival suits, released the safety raft, got into it - and saw their boat sink. The whole thing took about 5 minutes.

There are several points in this story that touches me. First: that people still fish in the fjords from such boats. I used to go out into the ocean with my father in an even smaller one, fishing for cod around this time, when I was a kid. Later, after he had a stroke, we'd take the boat out in summer nights, fishing for salmon - leave in the afternoon, move slowly among the most beautiful mountains you'll ever see, nap in turns, sleep in the boat at some hidden harbour, then return home just in time for me to get to school. The sound of a Saab diesel engine in silent summer nights is the sound of home - true home - moving sedately through the blue light of a Scandinavian summer, alone at the wheel while my father sleeps, with porpoises and eagles as my only company.

And then, the terror. The intense fear of what you know can happen, will happen if you do something stupid, something wrong, something unlucky. The wet wool of my father's sweater as he is pulled back into the boat by his companion, almost tipping over as the nets caught and tried to pull him under. Storms and water sloshing above the boards of the boat, and the sound of a struggling engine. Freezing cold, rain in your face, and the tiny nutshell of a rowing boat, rescuing nets too valuable and too vital for the family to lose. I have protected my children so well from such terror. Looking at the men smiling, thanking the ferry crew that picked them up, I wonder if I somehow have protected them from life.

Because there is that too. Life, relief, delight. To be safe and warm, to have food, to have worked for what is on your table. To sit down and think, consider: is this really worth it - is the struggle, the danger, the risk, really worth what I get back? And the options are so clear: risk, and live, stay safe, and see your life slowly lose taste and warmth. The fishermen just saved answered the question "what now" in typical fashion. "We'll have to think a little before we get a new boat." Scholars know about thinking. Very few of us, however, know about thinking thoughts that may save our lives. Even in medical research such thoughts are rare.

Perhaps Anders Johansen is right, and we don't have much in common with the plumber next door. Perhaps that's our loss.

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