What — and who — is Remote?

“Remote” is different now. I spent the weekend driving from Washington D.C. to Blacksburg, Virginia, and back, with my family and a friend in the car. There were lots of beautiful trees, long stretches of uninterrupted, leaf-lined highway, and countless cows who appeared to be contentedly munching on hillsides of grass. At some point, we got into a discussion about what it means to live in “a remote area,” these days – what does that even mean, anymore? In these days of many modes of travel, of online chat groups and videoconferencing, what (and who) is actually remote?

Simultaneously, as we drove to-and-from Blacksburg, the ramifications of a massive typhoon that pummeled the Philippines on Friday evening began to be discerned. There are 98 million people who live on the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines, and this was apparently the strongest, largest typhoon ever to make landfall in recorded human history. There is so much that we don’t yet know about the devastation that has occurred there, because communications are down throughout the country. I find myself stunned at the disaster and also angry about the lack of organized preparation that people in this regularly storm-struck area have had to live with. Please take the time to read the powerful statement by Philippines Lead Negotiator to the United Nations, Yeb Sano.

My family, friend and I were in Blacksburg to attend the installation service of a colleague and friend who has moved to Virginia from California to begin her ministry there. It was a beautiful service in an impressive, lovely facility, hosted by many, many kind and welcoming, friendly people. There were over 30 pies for the reception, spread out on a long table. One family that I talked with explained to me when I asked if they were from Blacksburg that “no one [they know] is from Blacksburg.” Another family I talked with shared that they thought 65-80% of the people in that congregation are associated either with Virginia Tech University right nearby or one of the other colleges in the surrounding region. People have sought out and found this place, and this community. They are connected. Our friend in the car observed that “though it felt like a long way to get there, and a long way to get back, while we were there it felt like we were right in the center of things.” While we were there, Blacksburg Virginia didn’t feel remote at all.

I try to imagine, even for a few moments, what it would be like to be in the Philippines today, to be struggling to find food for myself and my family if we had managed to survive the typhoon. The Philippines is the 7th most populated country in Asia. Every year, the people there are hit by storms. The government continues to struggle with corruption and the misuse of public funds. Consider some of the provocative questions posed by this article.

I remember a time when I was in a cabin in the woods in eastern Washington state, with no phone or internet access, and no one that I knew nearby. I had had a fight with my girlfriend at the time, and she had left with the car for the day. Physically, I was in a Swiss chalet-style lodge, in a beautiful place, by myself for a stretch of day — it still sounds to me like it should have been idyllic. Emotionally and psychologically however, I was stuck in an incredibly awful place, spiraling into depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and fear. I look back on that day often, as a foundational experience in my understanding of what “remote” can actually look like. Years later, I am still processing the understanding that our physical surroundings are only a part of where we actually are, what we are actually experiencing.

There are so many other factors that make up what our experience of life actually looks like: First and foremost, are our basic human needs being met? And then: what is our community rubric like? What is our socio-economic structure and support system like? What is the quality of our neighborhood’s social culture, safety, “neighborhood watch”-type systems – how much do neighbors look out for each other? What has been invested in the maintenance of the homes (can they withstand major storms)? Did we choose to be in that place – do we have a sense of choice about it? Do we have a say in how our community is managed? Do we have the resources to tap into support networks that expand far beyond our geographic locale? And on and on and on. I would enjoy hearing your questions about what factors in to what we experience as “remote.” My sense is that it has changed very much in recent decades, but that our descriptions of what is “a remote area” and who is “remote” have yet to catch up.

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