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living outside
an outsider's journal
by stella starr

It's not that I don't have a building or two in which to take shelter. I live in the city, in a couple of them. I haven't even camped in years, though the smell of woodsmoke is more enticing to me than the odor of various intoxicants, incense, tobacco or even clean linen.
Right now I'm living across state lines, commuting weekends from a good job to a good home. One of those people who have a cellphone, no home phone.
My life as an outsider has been marked by episodes of loneliness so deep, I understood why suicides kill themselves to end the pain. But most of the time, I'm at home alone, and prefer the company. A well-furnished brain and a few good friends anchor me to the world, and I don't need lots of psychological maintenance.
If there was a time that taught me being an outsider is better, it may have been the summer I was far too young to understand that yet.
A restless teenager, I was better out of the house, so my folks found a church camp that involved plenty of distance.
It was an ambitious expedition that couldn't have been cost-effective: a band of reliable adults would drive us from eastern South Dakota to Idaho to paint a small church. So several cars tracked lonely two-lane highways through the state picking up exactly the same number of white and Indian kids. It was to be Socially Redeeming, in an era far too early for Political Correctness.
Lots of the girls were from my own church...maybe it was a Presbyterian thing. But they clumped together and quickly formed a Cool Girls' Group. Not being a grouper, I didn't clot with them though I did strike up an interesting friendship with a big girl from the Black Hills. Laurie, too, was a smart shy girl with a rich sense of humor and no sense of fashion. We learned how to insult each other in Lakota Sioux ("tahika" = "no-mind") and endured a long hot ride across Montana in early July. I remember roasting in 90-degree heat in the cars and looking up to see snow blowing off a mountaintop: I'd never seen anything taller than the Corn Palace before. The perspective, the dimensions of it all, developed muscles in my powers of imagination.
By the time we got to our destination in a lovely valley, things were not going well. I vaguely understood that some kind of tribal politics had the Indian kids at odds with each other, since most were from the same small community in western South Dakota and everybody's related and the local political scene has always been argumentative and partisan. It was hard to understand why anybody would care what grownups were doing or whose cousin got who a job and cheated who out of their seat on the council. But the white girls (and I think some of the white boys) had socially circled their wagons and shut out the Indian kids, who were pretty offended.
All except me and Laurie: we listened to their boring stories of involved tribal politics, tried to learn more Sioux, especially swearwords, painted the church together with the kids who actually worked (the white clique was useless), joked together, ate together, made a few forays into romance of the intensely physical teenage kind, and bothered our counselors. There was a man actually named Hunter Keen. He wasn't Indian - I bet he changed his name to "Hunter Keen" from Ernie Dweebleman, but he clearly fancied himself a Bowie-knife kind of guy. He was kind, and immature in a grownup kind of way.
The valley was breathtaking: a river so big, the local industry was commercial fishing, surrounded by serious mountains. Foolish kids, we barely paid attention, though it still made an impression.
I think Catholic missionaries came through these parts earnest about saving people and claiming lots of parish territory. Episcopalians came to make sure no one was having fun, and Presbyterians came because someone has to organize Sunday potlucks and make out a church newsletter. They're nonthreatening, socially liberal, highly useful to old ladies and completely noncontroversial.
I think they must have fit in fine with the Nez Perce tribes up there, which pronounce their own name "nezz purse." The pioneering French named them after a local tribal fashion habit of nose piercing apparently but nobody was going to say it "nay pur-say" in that faggy french accent. They still don't.
We got the church painted ahead of schedule despite increasing social tension, a low-altitude scaffolding collapse, and a near-injurious incident involving a boy with a pocketful of kitchen matches who found out about friction and how fast you can remove blazing levis in front of a mixed-gender crowd of fascinated onlookers.
So for the 4th of July, they drove us a few miles more, up to the top of an honest-to-god mountain. It was a hunk of property owned by the Nez Perce tribe, and like a company resort, was jam-packed with members who'd come for the 4th of July holiday (I doubt they celebrated U.S. history, but all had the week off from work).
An interesting thing happened in the uneasy little group: all of a sudden instead of the Cool Girls and Outsiders, it was the small self-defined clique and HUNDREDS of tribal members! The cool girls were suddenly the outsiders, the whole minority propertion turned backwards, the racial balance 200-to-one in favor of American aboriginals. The people who belonged to this place were mostly friendly with each other, and the White Clique was shut off, isolated from it all thanks to their snotty treatment of the girls who were now definitely in the social majority. They went into shock and huddled miserably while everyone else mingled and had a wonderful time.
Geeky me and Laurie and our friends the Indian girls who knew some people there had an amazing time, watching old ladies smoke real deer jerky over smoky fires, eating fry bread (deep-fried wads of dough: a highly overrated "native" delicacy but great when you're real hungry) exploring the enormous pine forests, sleeping in canvas tents around fires and freezing our brains trying to shampoo in mountaintop spring water. The mountain was kind of level on top, but enormously high in altitude and cold: perfect for a summer holiday.
Even went to church, in a big tent. There were old ladies actually wrapped in blankets, with awful scruffy little slippers that were homemade skin moccasins. They didn't speak a word of English. And the preacher in the tent gave what sounded just like a church talk; a bit of sermon, a list of social notes, no doubt weddings and other announcements. Not a word was English, but it sounded the same as any service I'd ever attended, and the little old ladies nodded, murmered and sometimes giggled. This was mind-blowing for a midwestern kid who'd never heard anyone speak a foreign language outside of Spanish class, let alone been immersed in a complete foreign culture.
(Self: am I doing my children a disservice, raising them unchurched? They'll never know the melody to hymns as I did when I sang "O God Our Hope In Ages Past" to an old German woman whose hymn book contained only the words because everyone KNEW the melody...and what will they think of a casual reference to Lazarus, never having gone to Sunday school to learn it's an apocryphal tale of being raised from the dead?)
The nights were bitter cold and there were campfires and sleeping bags to draw us into circles of companionship. I'd never claim to have bonded with the native people, who all seemed to know each other, or at least offer each other instant acceptance. But grudgingly, slowly, kindly, they accepted the outsiders who were polite and appreciative. And it was a good place to be an outsider, with no affiliations, no demands, wandering into any campsite I passed with a smile, a friendly stranger content to be a friendly outsider.
I'd never heard wind sing in the trees, but in the great long-needled Rocky Mountain pines, there was always a deep, thrumming woodwind song playing if you stopped to listen, even when the wind seemed calm. I fingered brushy needles and half-dried seeps of tree sap, enjoying the perpetual pine perfume of the thin air. This was a lonely place, hard in a different way than the desolate Dakota prairies. The joke is: "It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here." This, like the prairie, was in its own way the end of the world.
It all wrapped up finally and after a quick drive west to cross the river so we could say we'd been in Washington State, too, we headed home. The cool white girls had mostly had an awful time. The rest of us swore to keep in touch with our new friends and did write a couple letters. It was one of those life experiences that are self-contained, and bound to end.
I don't just go around telling this to people, but there's always music in my head. Mozart plays to me alone on busy days, pop songs repeat endlessly in my mental Muzak, country melodies accompany my lonely times, and the wild woodwinds of the mountain sometimes remind me that there are very fine places to be an outsider.


I listen. I write. I'm a private pilot, an informed citizen of the world, a lover, a parent of lovely babies, a humorous cynic, and I tell stories because telling them wonderfully and with style is one's only revenge against a cruel, sad, tedious, amazing and potentially influenceable world.

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