Inner Bounds

It hasn’t even been a week since I’ve been back and it already feels like my trip to Cherokee was ages ago. This has been a long week in terms of assignments, and with NC Pride this weekend and classes grinding to a brief halt next week for fall break before I’m bombarded with another round of tests, I can’t but imagine this’ll be a long weekend. Indeed, like last weekend, I expect it will be over too quickly.

On Saturday night we all went to a buffet for some home-made southern cooking (and let me tell you, it was delicious). As we were leaving, it suddenly occurred to me that after morning came, we would be returning to the nonstop, chaotic world centered about N.C. State but extending throughout all Western civilization.

And when I realized that, I knew I’d miss being in Cherokee.

Let me start off by saying I hate spiders. When I was much younger and we lived in upstate New York, there were spiders everywhere. Some nights I’d quite literally fall asleep staring at a spider whose shadow was larger than my hand, too terrified to do anything about it. And walking through spiderwebs? Please–there could be no worse feeling in all of creation than trying to tear away invisible threads inherently tied to a monster.

So when we first stopped at our motel and walked around to the back of the building, it was no pleasant surprise to see the mass of spider webs adorning the entire overhang–and the corners of our doorway. I kid you not, that first time I walked in, I did walk through a spider’s web–and for the whole day if not longer, every time I went back inside, I ducked just to avoid them. I’m sure I looked foolish, but even the thought of walking through another spider web or much worse, having one on me, sends shudders through my spine and bumps across my flesh.

What’s worse was that, at night, you could actually see these ugly creatures spinning their webs and crawling from strand to strand. It was grotesque and unsettling and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why someone hadn’t come out with a broom, swept the webs aside, and stomped on each and every one of them.

It was a surprise, then, when I was walking into my bedroom one evening–spiders in full sight–and not only did I forget to duck, I also stopped and watched for a moment as one of the spiders lowered itself on a thread so thin I couldn’t see it and then crawled back up to continue weaving its web. I thought briefly of Arachne, of Greek myth, and then how spider silk, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel and about half as strong as Kevlar. Then I thought of the creation story and how it was the water spider who finally returned with fire.

So, alright, I don’t completely despise spiders, and in fact they can be quite interesting–although, honestly, these brown things were pretty ugly specimens. Nevertheless, to get too close was still unnerving, and I certainly didn’t want to walk through any more webs, but something about being so close to them for so long (however short that “long” may be) had made me stop feeling so afraid of them. At least for the duration of our trip.

In a similar manner, this story reflects my entire feelings for the trip.

As we walked to dinner on Friday night, a new friend and I were talking about whether or not we’d be able to live out here–in Cherokee, of course. She said she could; I said I couldn’t for an extended period of time. It was too spread out for me, and I missed the comforts of home, such as my own bed, friends and family, internet. Granted the obvious–that if I did live there, these things would follow me–I just sort of felt if I lived in such a beautiful place all the time, I’d in time forget how beautiful it was and living there would be no less mundane than living anywhere else–except without the convenience of stores like Walmart or Food Lion.

After learning more about the Cherokee, after going on more adventures through woods and into rivers and atop mountains, I began to feel more closely connected to the region than I had thought I would. Something about the river rushing past us right outside our rooms was relieving to come home to, and in the mornings, the sun scintillating across the moving surface was more amazing than I could describe. The open mountain air was the freshest I could imagine, and each breath filled my lungs with cool warmth that came unpolluted and free from all impurities. I was actually beginning to realize I could stay there and be happy.

Whether or not what I find fulfilling they could offer is besides the point: If I could live in a place so in tune with nature and so pure, I think I would be incredibly happy, and if not happy, at least relaxed and carefree.

Ultimately, though, the beauty and freshness of Cherokee were not what I’d realized I would miss the most: In watching our Cherokee guides as they interacted with the others there, greeting each of them as if old friends (for in many cases, they were), and in witnessing how generally kind and respectful everyone was to all things–to each other, to us, to the environment around them–I realized what I would miss most upon leaving would be losing the sense of community and respect we had been welcomed into.

There is, of course, another side to this story. When we began, most of us didn’t know each other, and those few exceptions were usually not close connections, even though some were. When we finished, we had done everything together–from hiking to swimming, to learning and listening, to sharing and seeding what became not only a group of friends, but a family in a way, a community of people who had become more than just fellow peers.

It takes a strong bond to speak of things like abortion and sexuality in the same conversation that spans hot dogs, pickles, and face masks. That’s not an everyday sort of thing–and I should know. I’ve had many everyday encounters, but these passing acquaintances don’t lend themselves to any appreciable depth of conversation. Here, we had that depth–that understanding and openness to speak of heavy-handed issues with complete honesty, without preaching, merely sharing our ideas in the company of individuals who we knew would neither belittle our views or try to change them. It’s not common to make friends like that, and here in Cherokee, we had.

But beyond the Boundary, I knew our standards of living would return to us–there would be internet and other friends and family, and let’s not forget jobs and classes and homework, all that lovely homework. I’ve been on many retreats like this, none exactly identical but similar in many regards, and I know that strong bonds are not always as strong when stretched over time and space. A rod of steel, if stretched too thinly, will snap with ease–yet a strand of spider silk, thin and gossamer, is strong even though small.

It is my hope the friends I made last weekend will not cease to be friends, will not devolve into mere waves as we pass each other and take notice of the sudden smiles we wear, and with a few of us already suggesting times to meet online, perhaps we’ll succeed this time where other times fell short. After all, we all live in the same housing village, so perhaps our inherent proximity will assist us–if only we can set aside school and work and all our other demands, all those other demands we had forgotten while in Cherokee.

Even if these attempts are fruitless, I feel we’ve all learned a wonderful lesson. Not about friendship, per se, but about community and respect. Thrust back into a world where “community” implies a gathering of people regardless of their connections to one another, where “respect” is an old disco song that sometimes drag queens sing, where diversity is just another mode of institutional bragging without any understanding of what it truly means to be diverse, we can now each appreciate just how much an impact community, respect, and diversity can have upon so many–for yourself, for your friends, for everyone–because all of these things make us who we are and define the world we live in.

Without them, we aren’t very much, and with them, we are amazing.

Now we must return to them–not by escaping to Cherokee or some other outstanding community where these things thrive, but by taking what we’ve learned and incorporating it wholly into our lives, by sharing it with others and slowly building a place where community, respect, and diversity are the values cherished by everyone.

I began this series of posts talking about no reservations–telling you how the tiniest risk can make the biggest change. Now I suggest this: Let’s live inside these boundaries, but let’s not settle upon them. Let’s instead push them as far as we can take them, expanding our boundaries until we are all truly part of one earth, one global community where everyone and everything is respected and diversity of all kinds is appreciated, valued, and allowed to flourish.

And should we fall short of all earth, we’ll still have changed the world.

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