Filling up

Our first week here has been incredibly full and filling. My eyes can’t eat another bite of this lush scenery. I have two fast friends, instant soul mates; Jenna and Noah. Noah is going to be working on an urban project to promote art and music as a means for high school dropouts to make money. It’s meant to derail the rapidly growing drug selling and stealing trends. He’s one of those people who is so full of ideas and plans and projects, they spill out of him constantly. His clear eye for art and natural ability to befriend people is wonderful to watch. And he is constantly taking photos, bending on one knee or leaning at odd angles to get the shot his mind sees.

We all three sit side by side on buses and benches and curbs, trading stories and goals and beliefs. As we tour the area, we soak in a bit about the culture here. Tourism is a huge part of the economy, evident by the many guides and expeditions and transportation and accommodation businesses that have sprung up all over. The costa ricans are smiling and eager to use their english. They seem happy to see us, and it feels good to bring our business here. We visit a coffee plantation and learn about the process of growing and roasting and selling the beans. It’s so beautiful and colorful. And the rich coffees taste aromatic and luscious.

We have arrangements for a bike tour with the group, but we three decide the ditch the group, claiming we need to catch up on internet and the like. Instead, we seek some off-the-tourist-map fun. We take a long walk through some neighborhoods. There’s a lot of wrought iron fencing: separating yards from sidewalks, windows from yards, schools from streets. They all have gates and even some windows in them; for what? Passing food through? One woman is leaning through such a window and chatting animatedly with a friend. I try to catch some of what they are talking about. I get the words for husband, car, and not much else.

We find a little tiny store and walk in and buy cheap ice cream sandwiches. The store is completely packed with individually packaged foods, many of which have a fine layer of dust on them. They even sell individual eggs out of a carton. I awkwardly pay with the coins I am so unfamiliar with. It feels like a kid not knowing if a nickel is worth more than a dime. The coins are heavier and more solid in my pocket than american change. I like the feeling. The store clerk is incredibly patient with my bad spanish and points us in the direction of a park. He asks us where we are from and lights up when we tell him why we are here. Gracias! He says. Thanks for coming to my country. I love the people here.

We walk with our treats to a small park overlooking another neighborhood. There is very worn grass, a dirt field with soccer goals with no nets, and some gnarled trees. I stare at the ground and find a tiny maze of paths where ants have worn down the grass with their walking. It makes me feel so disconnected with what is really happening in the world.


The next day we go on a hike in one of several national parks, walking and talking with some conservationists and non-profit workers. We learn that preserving biodiversity and land conservation is a huge priority of Costa Rica. How incredible! If only more countries had this approach. We discuss it’s correlation to tourism, how more people come here if there’s a jungle full of birds to visit. I also learn that there is no military in this country. I am eager to settle down into some research about the history of the politics here. It seems so unique. Everyone finishes our group discussion jazzed and thrilled to be here, in such a progressive and beautiful place. We channel that energy into finding a small local bar. It’s called the Pavo Real (which apparently means Peacock). The sign for the bar is the name in simple lettering over the now-familiar Imperial beer symbol. As the red and orange sun sets, we dance on a concrete patio out back, buzzed with cheap beer, feet shuffling on the fine dirt, giddy with laughter.


Feliz Nada

Winter break is here and everyone makes excited plans to go home and open gifts and drink cocoa and go sledding and sing jingle bells. Well ho ho ho, I never did that growing up so I am feeling strangely separate from everyone. We went to a big end of the term party. There’s some catchy theme to it, but essentially they are all just variations in which girls get to dress as provocatively as possible and the boys wear whatever will get the most laughs. Kat finally hooked up with Jake and I have a million bad pictures of me online with lazy eyes looking sloppy. Classic. Life goes on.  I think briefly about taking up one of several invites to go home with friends for the holidays, but cringe at the thought of being some family’s poor temporary adopted sibling. So, after a few days of lounging around, I muster some pity for my family and call them. Mamá answers the phone in Spanish and immediately starts an endless stream of chattering and yelling and cooing and scolding. Cuando vas a regresar a la casa, mi’ja? I wince, knowing that she wouldn’t accept just a Feliz Navidad phone call. I make loose plans to come home for just two days, okay? It’s only a two hour drive but I exaggerate the distance and my need to do work. I can hear her smiling through the phone.

I spend the next day at a coffee shop, trying to soak up my urban life as much as possible, reminding myself that I have escaped my past and am just going back to check in and refresh the fact that I am absolutely not a part of that life anymore. Driving down the main avenue in Flores is like seeing two worlds superimposed. Half the stores have words in English, the other half in Spanish. Actually, depending on the cross streets it’s mostly Spanish. Tiny carnecierias with huge animal body parts hanging in windows- their marbled muscles looking stiff and imposing. A man leans in the doorway of his tienda de verduras– noted by a hand painted sign with the letters getting smaller from left to right. Lopsided oranges, browning bananas, flat and de-spined cactus fruit all sit stagnantly in soft-sided boxes gathering tiny fruit flies. And several stores have so much lettering painted on them you can’t even see through the window. Screaming in neon orange and a blinding green: Cartas! Tarjetas! Envios de moneda a Mexico, Columbia, Nicaragua! I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told me I had accidentally driven too far and crossed the border into Mexico already; except for the fact that I knew where I was. I was home. That word feels very distant from me. That word conjures up images of smiling families with blonde hair and fireplaces and turkeys, even though home was something very different for me growing up. It’s as if the word home and the image of home don’t connect for me: an unbalanced math equation, a lopsided teeter-totter.

As I pull up to my parent’s house, I am at first flooded with memory and emotion, happy to see mom, dad, brothers, a familiar place.  But it quickly fades to irritation at their habits, their disapproval of me and my lifetsyle, my disapproval of them. After a strained dinner, we sit and watch a bad tv show not saying much.  I curl up on the couch (my upstairs bedroom has been given to my brother!), feeling displaced, uncomfortable on the scratchy couch, embarrassed by my slight disgust with the blankets that have dog hair on them.  I don’t sleep well.  In the morning, I help mom cook breakfast. She asks me to help with laundry too (What is this, the 1950s?) but instead I go for a run. I think it will be good to get out of the house, and a little exercise always makes me feel better.  But this run is not like on campus.  Not all the roads are paved.  There are few of the tall, dazzling palms I love.  No well-kept creek.  As I run, I am met with barking dogs, stares from everyone, and a few low whistles from older men on patios.  I cut the run short and head back.   That afternoon we all go to the park.  Kids swim, music blares, people laugh and drink gallons of coca cola. Is it always summer here?  (Yes, is the answer)  The next day we go to church (Dios primero siempre, m’ija.) I sit through it, mind blanks and numb and, frankly, bored. I am about to run away and never come back.  On the walk home,  dad whispers something about how important it is to connect with siblings. I look over at Manuel and Juanito and can hardly imagine they are related to me. Manuel looks a little tired, maybe I will chat with him for a bit about what he is up to. Wasn’t he starting a new business? Maybe he’s working long hours to get it off the ground. But, as soon as we all get back to the house, irritated by another request of mama’s to participate in household chores, I forgo conversation with mi hermanos to head back on the road early. She thinks she notices a shared glance between her brother and father, but ignores this as she closes the car door and waves out the window. Goodbye, she thinks, isn’t always so sad.

Simplicity and Quietude

He gets off the bus and walks through the misty morning air. Here, a glimpse of the mountain tops; even a peek leaves him yearning to chase the vision, to turn heel and move toward them like some magnetic pull- away from ruler straight streets to crooked trails.  Away from organized and orderly to the unpredictable and untouchable forces of nature.   Lately I feel like I’ve been turning my back on the rockies. They have their own way of moving, of displaying personality. They are constantly changing with the sun’s movement and cloud shadows. Every time you look at them, they are different, something new is highlighted; so whenever his eyes peel away he feels as if he is being slighted a chance to understand them more, to witness their beauty.  At the arboretum, he works methodically, following the same tried and true routine he’s become habituated to.  The only thing to distract him from the task that so consumes him, are his deep-seeded criticism for visitors.  Their bad habits, their noise, for their production of plastic and disposable waste. (Ignoring the fact or contradicting the fact that they are out to appreciate nature).  But of course, this criticism exists only in his thoughts.  He would never actually confront someone about this behavior; he’d rather quietly watch and pick up after them when they leave.

Back on the bus, a thin film of dirt along his limbs, he glowers at other passengers and keeps quiet. So consumed by their quest for acceptance and materialism, they are totally unaware of their surroundings!  That man on the phone has no idea there’s a red tailed hawk flying over his head.  That woman reading? Blissfully unaware of the sun glinting off the snow on the mountain peaks.  This is not a new thought.  He returns to it regularly- savoring the pain, much like a tongue running over a cold sore- almost subconscious and helpless.  But, he is right, in a way; as people drive their Hondas and draw money from bank machines, there are whales floating in the vast sea, predators chasing prey, tiny litters of wild dogs being born. They seem like different worlds, impossibly coexisting on one planet.

He steps off the metal steps, thanks the bus driver quietly, and walks to his cabin. He opens the door, pats Makea on the head, they perform their ritual walk in the woods.  Left behind, stoically and quietly waiting in his cabin are books, binoculars, camping gear, boots, and little else. Some photographs of mountains, climbing parties atop a summit. There is a picture of him and his family out camping: all of them sitting in a row along the lake shore line.  A great memory of a trip to the mountains in which everyone bickered and argued and battled the whole drive there, only to be healed, calmed, quieted and shushed by nature’s presence.  He returns to these items, turns on a yellow light, eats a simple supper as he reads a field guide or natural history book.  He cleans his one dish and one fork and one cup.   Afterwards, he walks outside, waters any plants that need it, puts his chickens into their coop for the night and stands for a moment before complete darkness envelops the yard. There’s a moment of gray silence in which everything melds in to the same color at varying shades as tree trunks become backlit by the simple acceptance of the day’s end. The light leaks out of the scene gently; gently but without pause.

I am graduating from high school soon. The spring time fever. Everyone is excited for the summer, for their travels onward. The animals perform rites of migration and mating. I watch the sanderlings toddling about getting ready to breed, the soft budding of elk antlers. Soon the trees will fill with nests of loud, hungry babies. This fever is paralleled by hormonal teenagers in pairs; they walk holding hands with ripped jeans and find quiet basements to push their tongues and hips into eachother. Inevitably several girls will get pregnant because the conception roulette was not on their side and they will bring the drama of abortion or teenage motherhood to the hallways. The way I see it, you either pair up like mating birds, group up like herding deer, or end up a loner, like me.

The plants push out bright healthy green shoots, stretching upward and outward. I wonder if I myself will grow at all this year. I stand and look at my reflection with no shirt on. Pretty worthless. Thin arms and a ribcage that expands noticably when I breathe. My hair is dark and messy, sideswept bangs over my forehead. My jeans are black and my converse shoes are scuffed to the point the white is a mottled brown. I picture the several tattoos I plan on getting once I turn 18. Several of them based on artwork I created, some of them based on native art. I imagine the needle dipping in and out of my thin stretched skin around my ribs, taut like a hide drum. Dark ink spreading like an oil spill into the deeper layers of my dermis. I turn away and back to my canvas.

I paint the springtime colors in bold, sure strokes. A cloud temporarily covers the sun, dampening the light coming in through the window. My mother opens the door. “What are you doing?” She asks with a bored inflection. I put my shirt back on. “I’m self-injecting a massive dose of opium into my veins and coordinating an international violent uprising. What are you doing?” She sighs and tells me I have to come help her do some yard work. “Why?” She doesn’t answer me but walks away with the door open. “Shut the door, Janine! The cops could arrest me for all this illegal activity!” I dump the paintbrushes into water and follow after her.

Our yard is ugly. No, wait. The whole neighborhood is ugly. The rain has left muddy puddles all over. The grass in most yards is patchy at best and non-existent at worst. Trash blows in alleys and gathers in huddles around fence corners like gang members on the prowl. A large, shiny black raven sits on a roof gutter and eyes us suspiciously. They act and move like bodyguards, staring from the corners of their eyes, stalking with exaggerated movements, loudly announcing their indignations. I grab a rake and poke at the soggy leaves. I look over at my mother.

She has given up on herself. The man she fell in love with in high school got her pregnant and left her. She found someone else, and he did the same thing. She tried on men like bad sweaters at a thrift store, endlessly trying to find someone to help raise us boys into strapping young men and to keep her company. What she found was a tattered string of abusive relationships. See, a lot of the men here either drink, hit their family, or both. Some academics refer to is as “group cultural trauma.” The oppression of an entire culture, much like the white oppression of native alaskans, will create a ripple effect of oppression in a community. The men have lost their power, so they in turn enforce their power over their wives and children. Or over their livers with a dose of whiskey or twenty. I ponder this as I watch my mom tuck her hair behind her ear and pull the dead iris leaves, jerking them in a backward thrust. “Janine. What are you looking for in a man?” She hates it when I call her by her first name; a sign of disrespect for an elder. Why is it so irresistible for me to do this to her? I of all people know the value of a respectful name. If I was smart, I would look at myself in the mirror, and open the door of my ribcage and look inside. I would find the age-old inherited wounds and poke at them until they bleed. Then I would be able to recognize my own need to assert power and control, cut it out of me, stitch up that hole and start healing. But instead, I poke and prod at anyone and everyone else.


I was really looking forward to this weekend. I had so much planned. I was going out to dinner, really going out and getting dressed up. I was meeting with a few chair members to discuss plans for a big fundraiser coming up this summer. And of course I had all the usual engagements: time with my personal trainer at the gym, my therapy session, some errands to run, a hair appointment, and always work to catch up on.  But. We had about 3 feet of snow come down all at once, faster than high speed wireless; accompanied by a huge drop in temperature creating a very heavy crust of ice over everything. It started coming down late yesterday afternoon and didn’t stop. The kind of snow where you look down and get involved in something and when you look up, you think you have time traveled to a different era.  One in which everything is varying shades of white and all living things have become statues.  Kids around town were cheering even more than the usual sugary Saturday morning.  But I can’t stop the frown that has formed at the corners of my mouth. Everything is down. Internet’s gone, phone lines gone, roads are impassible, power is out.  The world is closed for the day, come back later.

It’s at least a moment to reflect on how amazing the internet is.  A way to break down our false sense of isolation, of living on an island and instead to realize that Croatian farmers have as much in common with Japanese woodworkers as elderly hospice patients have in common with mural artists in Central America. Before, maybe no one I know has anything to say about, oh, the best way to prepare a cup of coffee. But then you go online and hundreds of people are sharing their methods, their recipes, their love for a particular style of coffee. It’s like traveling all over the globe to as thousands of people one question; you can simultaneously have a conversation with women in Nicaragua and France as if they were neighbors you could just walk over and ask any old afternoon. Maybe I am pushing the point to far, waxing too poetically the beauty of the world wide web. But think about the abstract shift in thinking this creates. Suddenly, you can be in two places at once. Our barriers to language are over because online translating requires just the click of a button. People who have never breathed the same air can have a conversation together. Our lines of separation are disappearing- there is literally a way to connect everyone together. History and the future come together in a place where time does not have to be linear. Our illusions about separation are crumbling as we realize the common threads we share. And the greatest part about it is that there is no one creator, dictator, leader organizing this web. The internet is not stored in some big warehouse with a lock and key. It is made up of all of us – all of our computers and cds and thumb drives contain more information than could possibly be contained and erased.   But at this moment, my access to this magic cloud is cut off and it’s as if my lungs are crushed by the weight of it.  I can hardly breathe.   I live outside town, a four mile walk to the nearest bus stop, gas station, local grocery store. Great. Well. I guess I will just have to re-arrange my schedule. I still have my iPhone. Errands can wait. If the internet comes back (it always comes back!) then I can have the meeting become a virtual conference; I can call and re-schedule our dinner date, and I can always get work done for next week. I sit and make notes and memos for a while. Clean out old e-notes and re-organize my apps and calendar. This isn’t so bad.


Life is Like…

To me, this is the beauty of the united states: the glorious opportunity for a mismatched group of people to find peace together. For diversity and coexistence to come to life. There are so many beliefs, so many interests, so many personal ideals all living under one “roof.” Life is like a record store, Forrest: everyone’s vinyl is a different vintage. Some folks are jazzy, others full of metal rage. There are soft-spoken crooners and exploratory concept bands. And due to luck, fate, alphabetics, they might all be leaning against each other in the “C” box. Coltrane. Claw Finger. Crosby. Cooper. I discuss this concept with one of my favorite housemates, a grad student named Hank who does the New York Times crossword every morning. He disagrees. No man, life is like a fridge with magnetic words all over it. Sometimes they come together and make a sentence, and sometimes it’s just non-sense. But the point is, green and mother and moon are all on the same playing field. It’s just a matter of who will notice and put them together. It’s the divine spirit, the god and goddess writing a giant, ever-changing fridge poem. We contemplate this, as we drink fair trade organic coffee from chipped thrift store ceramic mugs.
“Hank. I know you have all the good mugs in your room, dude. Time to share or prepare for a raid.”
He smiles says, “Ten letters. Tom Cruise Mission.”
Impossible. I laugh as he walks away with a pen, newspaper, and yet another cup to his room. Jen and Lars come down from the attic in their pjs, which consist of a giant Steve Miller band T-shirt and a silk robe, respectively. I ask them what life is like. Lars slides next to me on the bench.He says, “It’s like some modern abstract painting: no one fucking knows what it means. Even the artist makes up some bullshit ethereal contemplation, but he doesn’t know, man. It’s all these colors and lines and shadows. Fucking beautiful.” Jen likes this because she’s the modern abstract artist. She slides onto the bench too, with two steaming cups of tea and honey. They sip gratefully, the warmth wet on their lips. Her eyes wander up and to the left, meaning she’s thinking of something good to say. Hmmmmmmm. Her eyes then close. She purrs, “Life is like a library.” She’s quiet again, as if she will keep her revelation to herself. And incredulous Lars comments that she probably hasn’t been in a library in years. She ignores him and explains: “There’s non-fiction and fiction separated into different rooms. Magazines and movies and newspapers get divided. Allende and Alcott make it so South American spirits sit next to young Victorian heiresses. Homeless men sleep in corners and yuppie kids play chase around bookshelves. Chaos and order in the same place all the time.” As she says this, Adam comes in and asks if she’s talking about our kitchen. And then he sighs because there are no more mugs in the cupboard. I stretch and pass him mine as I stand to face the day.

Oh ho.  Thanksgiving is the best holiday if you ask me, even better than Christmas. We do sort of a “progressive dinner” for Thanksgiving, as they call it.  Since so many of us live close to each other, we each host a different part of the feast at different houses. So, we start at my Aunt Jean’s house. Appetizers and snacks and the parade and football on tv. It’s hard not to get too carried away with all the good hot artichoke dip and cheese on crackers and the like. All the kid cousins get together and play games and put black olives on their fingers and pretend to be frogs. Then, we bundle up, get in our caravan of cars and trucks, and head over to mom’s house for the main part of the dinner. The kids and adults alike lift their noses, the turkey smells fill the house. We stomp the snow or rain off our boots and hang up a hundred wet, cold jackets and hats and mittens and scarves and they hang all crooked and dripping in the now-abandoned entry way. Everyone is talking and hugging and laughing at once, even though we already did that, but it’s like we have started over again and are all happy to do so. The kitchen is a tornado of people stirring mashed potatoes and getting more forks and pouring wine and slicing bread. Most of us have the good sense to stay out of the way and watch, or talk about nothing in particular, as we all wait for the moment that golden-brown bird comes sizzling out of the oven. Dad has to cut it up, it’s tradition. And furthermore, we all have to stand and watch. Heck, tradition is the name of the whole day. It’s funny how we all get such a kick out of the idea of doing the same exact thing on the same day every year. As if we are all tired of the ups and downs of life, so we pick a time and place and say, ‘This day will never change.’ Weeks before, we get excited just thinking about eating the same dishes, having the same conversations with the same people, feeling the same way as last year. Anyways, the kids get their own table, and the adults take turns keeping an eye on them. As forks and napkins and plates and cups all migrate to the tables, we follow close behind, knowing that the moment is near. We all hold hands. Matt says a prayer. He starts off with the ever classic grace before dinner: Blessusourlordandthesethygiftswhichweareabouttorecievefromthybounty. (Either it just rolls off the tongue like water over a dam, or everyone says it as fast as possible to get to eating.) He then says the same prayer committed to memory- a psalm about giving thanks. Some of us hardly listen because we can’t wait to take that first bite of a forkful of turkey dipped in mashed potato and covered in gravy. I look sideways at Calvin squirming and licking his little red lips. We shout amen! and the quiet calm before the storm is over, as we rush the plates of food, a chorus of oh mys and this looks greats and I’ll have some more of thats. During the dinner, we usually go around and everyone says something they’re thankful for. Steph squeezes my hand anytime someone says ‘and a roof over my head…’

And we’re not even done yet because after everyone has gotten seconds and thirds and whined about eating too much; we clean up and prepare to make one more journey. We shove into the entry way and grab for our coats and fight over mis-matched gloves and shove into those old boots and we all slowly pour outside. It’s a shock to the system- the difference between inside and outside. Grandpapa gets a little quiet to listen to the snow fall off tree branches. Adam and Molly stand holding hands, marveling at how the white covered lawns reflect the soft window glow of the neighbors’ houses. Everyone in this neighborhood is still inside their homes, absorbed by good food and traditions. It feels illegal to be walking outside- like we are the only ones who know there’s a world out here. We only have to walk about six blocks to my sister’s house. It feels great to stretch and breathe in new air. We link arms or hold hands as the kids run a little ahead. When we arrive, folk’s glasses steam up as they cross the threshold. Kate’s dogs bark and jump, excited to see us. We beeline to the kitchen, to see many shiny pies lined up. Apple, cherry, pumpkin, cheesecake, mince meat, pecan, merengue. It’s better than a bakery. We take slices of our favorites, pour strong cups of coffee, and revel in the goodness of the day, with the pie being the icing on the thanksgiving cake. The youngest ones get sleepy and end up in a big pile of blankets and pillows and arms and legs and puppies on the living room floor. Everyone I love and the best food you can imagine, all in one day. It’s the best. Even better than Christmas if you ask me. When it’s my turn to say what I am thankful for, I often feel overwhelmed because I have so much to list off. I make sure to say thanks for the cooks, the dish washers, whoever invented tryptophan because it works better on kids than cough syrup, and the seamstress who made pants that will fit all our expanding bellies! I probably couldn’t say anything too serious anyways.