IN THE HEARTLAND
A Snapshot of Nomad Life
I’ve been homeless for the past 45 days. Except I haven’t really been homeless.
As I’ve been traveling as a nomad for LiNK, amazing people all around the country have opened up their doors for me and my teammates. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had to sleep in the van, and that’s been quite nice, because this it’s been the cold portion of our route.
The road through southern Illinois has one advantage over the north… no toll roads. We worked our way from Indianapolis to St. Louis, cutting through the state. Elaine drove, and typically I would’ve taken the opportunity to grab three hours of precious sleep, but thanks to very kind hosts in Indy, I didn’t need it. Instead I buried myself in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy.
Being on tour is demanding. It’s easy to notice the fun parts- dancing in front of state signs and going out to eat with the coolest people and that’s definitely the part I’m inclined to focus on. Behind it all, though, I’m practically working a 24-hour job, and there is always work to be done- running a screening, booking future screenings, driving, sending emails, tabling and selling shirts, and so forth. It definitely gives back energy as it takes- the things I do on tour, travel, eat, meet people, speak to crowds about North Korea, are all things I Love. But yeah, in terms of what it asks from you, it’s pretty beastly.
But we’ve truly been spoiled by the people we’ve met along the way. Whether it was Mr. and Mrs. Pahl who gave us a much needed day of sleeping in and let me play with his awesome dog while we were in Chicago, Nicky who let me sleep in the green pastures of his Scotland-themed room, or Robin and Ken who made me some amazing chili tonight, I’ve really been blessed by many, many hosts.
I feel like I’m constantly leaving a little bit of your heart in one place while taking a little bit of that place with me. In a strange sense, by giving up a home, I’ve gained many. I’ve been fed more in this span of time than I probably would’ve eaten otherwise. It’s this strange dynamic of giving things up but getting so much more in return. To quote Noah and the Whale, if you give a little Love, you’ll get a little Love of your own.
Such is the life of a nomad. As much planning goes into a tour, it is still, by its very nature an immersion in unpredictability. You literally never know what each day may bring, and whether you’ll be ending that day in a bed, in the backseat, on a floor, a futon, or any of the other interesting places one could possibly spend a night.
Lest I get too romantic, there’s definitely a rough side to this adventure too.
People at screenings often ask me if I’ve ever gone on one of these rescue missions in China to bring North Korean refugees to safety. While I think that would be the coolest thing ever, I haven’t. My work has been in the U.S., in its heartland, raising awareness. I might not be evading border officials, but what I’m up against can be pretty daunting itself- apathy.
Being on the front lines of awareness raising means putting up with some things that can discourage you if you let them. When a screening just doesn’t bring a crowd, when playing catch-up with fundraising goals just doesn’t seem to end, it’s tough. One of the most frustrating experiences is having somebody try to “talk” to you about North Korea only to find that they hardly wait two seconds after asking their question before they launch into their often uninformed opinion. Some people just aren’t willing to let go of being hung up on the politics of the situation, or of hopelessness and fear. It gets irritating. With the amount of suffering going on in North Korea, you’ve gotta check –isms at the door.
Don’t get me wrong, the overwhelming majority of my screenings have been phenomenal, and people all over the country have been a huge source of encouragement. We’ve been welcomed into many homes, we’ve been blessed by so many people through our travels, and we’ve also really seen the impact of the work we’re doing.
Along the lines of 5-star books, I continued to entrench myself in the lives of the people of Nothing To Envy. It’s truly a great read. Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, encompassing Kim Il Sung’s death and the outbreak of the famine.
I read through the chapter The Good Die First. It’s the section focused on the crescendo of the North Korean famine, and it was a challenge. Demick relays the stories of a North Korean school teacher who had to cope with seeing her students’ bodies grow frailer and frailer, as she tried to look for ways to help sustain them with the little that was available. As many students stopped attending school, she could no longer bring herself to ask what happened to them, fearing and knowing the worst. Reading how the first to go in a famine are the good– those unwilling to steal, cheat, or break laws for survival just seemed unjust. In a sickening, tragic way, this chapter unveiled how a famine works, first claiming the youngest children, then the elderly.
It was so hard to read, and a part of me felt disgusted afterwards. I’m not one to feel the emotional impact of too many books I read, but this one took on a whole new level with it all being real. These weren’t characters. They were people who lived on the same earth I’ve inhabited at the same time. I was, simply put, moved.
I think I needed that. I guess God knew what challenges I might be facing at the midpoint of tour, and decided to call me back to the reason I got involved with this in the first place. I needed that reminder of why.
Why live out of a van and eat a haphazard diet without working out and often get four hours of sleep and limited communication with friends and family back home and put up with people’s apathy and cynicism? That chapter reminded me why.
For every person who feels entitled to voicing their cynicism, there are hundreds of others who, upon learning of this for the first time, want to give and get further involved. Just last night I met a guy who regularly gets to see inside North Korea, and he can verify just how remarkable the changes have been over the past couple years.
And that right there reminds me why I’m spending so much time going city to city and taking showers in Barnes & Nobles sinks on occasion. It’s because defining North Korea by its people who deal with such severe repression but show incredible resilience can open it up to the support of the globe.
Nomad Life. It’s become a bit of a playful saying. But Nomad Life is an experience too valuable and too unique to go without acknowledging all that it entails.
Nomad Life is hearing a student come up to you afterwards asking about other ways to get involved in LiNK after hearing about the crisis for the first time.
Nomad Life is realizing that the soy milk, half-and-half, mocha powder, and sugar on the counter at Starbucks are meant to spruce up a cup of coffee, but on their own are all the ingredients you need for a terrible chocolate milk.
Nomad Life is hugging a teary Korean War veteran after the screening who wants to see the liberation of the North Korean people.
En route towards Central Ohio right now, I realize Nomad Life is my life right now. And I’m really loving it.