All I can keep thinking is: I’m here!  Wow, it’s great to be here.  Wow.  It’s only day two of training and I have several new best friends and have fallen in love with this lush country.  The airplane ride was even great- the view as we got closer was a vibrant green, and the ocean lying next to it a bright blue.  Although, I did have to strain to lean over and see it from the isle seat.  Usually I pick the window seat no matter what.  I did, actually.  And then this kid and his dad sat next to me.  And the kid crept farther and farther over my lap,bouncing in his seat to see out the window; he looked so excited I couldn’t help it: I offered to trade. His eyes lit up and he bounced even more and then about three minutes later, before  we even got on the runway, he pulled down the shade and started playing his nintendo.  Great.  I stared at the kid for a while, his round features lit up by the little LED screen.  And then I turned back in my seat and closed my eyes and tried to focus on arriving.  Which of course, now I’m here and everything’s, just, well, great!

At the airport I was greeted by a tall bald man and two girls that looked to be about my age.  The man’s name is Richard, or Rick, he’s the program assistant.  He’s Scottish and has a hysterical accent when he speaks Spanish.  The girls are fellow volunteers, so that explains the big eyes and big smiles- fear and excitement covering their faces as if they had it slapped on with wet paintbrushes.  The one girl had about six bags- two of them big enough to fit all four of us in.  The other girl just had one (apparently stuffed) backpacking backpack, like me.  I smiled at her as we helped heave all the luggage away.  I looked around the airport.  There were huge posters espousing the various tours and locations one should go to.  And absolutely the most enormous ads for a beer company I had ever seen in my life.  It was yellow and red with a medieval-looking dragon/bird.  Imperial.  For some reason, this does not connect with the images of rainforests and beaches and wild jungle animals.  As we passed the souvenir shop I saw the logo all over the t-shirts, mugs, etc.  Does a beer company run the airport or tourism department?  We walked outside into the warm humid air and a bus passed by with an ad for Imperial too.  Maybe they run the whole country.  The four of us got into a van and excitedly introduce ourselves.  The driver’s name is Esteban, and he refers to Rick as Ricardo.  We are told he is the driver/ maintenance/ fix it guy of the volunteer office.  The girl with a lot of bags is named Kailey, and the backpacker is named Jenn.  Jenn says she can’t wait to get out of Touristville and see the country.  Kailey looks wistful- like she’s ready to stay where half of the people speak English.

We were taken to the building that will be home for the next two weeks.  Inside there’s a lounge room complete with sagging green couches and a 1990’s tv set; a classroom full of chairs and a white board; a dining room that looks like something from elementary school; and two rooms full of bunk beds- one for girls, one for guys.  It’s like summer camp all over again, which makes me wonder: at the time it was such a big deal to be away from home (for a whole week!) without mom or dad and all these people I didn’t know.  In hindsight, summer camp was fun and passed by so quickly it’s but a blink in my past.  I am eager to discuss this idea with the other volunteers.  We put our stuff down and say Hi to the four or five other volunteers who are already here.  There were two more airport runs and a total of six more people coming.  Eleven of us total.  That night, when everyone was here, we sat in the lounge and had an informal introduction.  Rick said that tomorrow we will meet the director Shelley, and the two teachers Kris and Maria.  The first week is intense language immersion training, the second week is orientation to the area and some down time before we are each taken to different sites to start our assignments.  A couple of us squirmed at the word assignment.  I did because it makes me feel like a reporter or secret agent, which is kind of a bad frame to put on what I hope to be doing here.  But the faces on the others squirming showed a look of discomfort prior to vomiting.  Luckily, they didn’t.  That night, a few of us stayed up late talking about our projects and hopes for the year and the reason we came.  Jenn would be working on a community environmental education project in the same town as my orphanage! I immediately daydreamed about meeting up at the local bar to drink the national advertising beer.  Drunk with the joy of finding like-minded people in the world, we all felt the instant solidarity we were looking to create- and in subtle ways, we all promised each other support to visualize our ideals.  Phrases like “the hardest time of our lives” and “difficulties sure to arise” made no sense right now.  Life was opening it’s arms to us and we were vaulting to embrace it.  We all went to bed knowing sleep would be hard to find because we had charged ourselves up too much with anticipation and fervor.  Gnashing of teeth and ripping of clothes has never  made as much sense to me as it did now.  I felt like an atom bomb at the moment just before the protons split.  The potential energy was building like pent up kids with cabin fever.  I saw myself as a lion in those old school nature documentaries.  I crouch in the grass and the narrator’s voice is hushed and feverish.  And suddenly like a spring exploding, I bound and leap and chase- the release!  Through the grainy film, you see the lions eyes blazing like white holes.


There was a great story I read once about a man who had permanent short term memory loss- he literally could not keep an idea in his head from longer than two minutes. Which meant conversations, going for walks, cooking- anything that lasted longer than two minutes- became impossible because he would forget what he was doing and get confused. In the same story, representing the other extreme, was a woman who could never forget anything. If you mentioned any date or time her mind would paralyze her with memories, overriding her ability to stay focused on the present. I identify with that a lot more. Amnesia seems almost freeing by comparison- like you can’t ever be sad or get bogged down with a memory because it simply flushes away before you have a chance to take responsibility for yourself. But never forgetting…

I went to lunch with some friends a week ago. They all danced and jumped and sang for Mexican food. I rolled my eyes but didn’t want to be the stick in the mud. Carly claimed to have discovered this really authentic place, so we go. And the instant we walk in I am overtaken with memory. The smell of cilantro, the steam rising above a stack of hot tortillas, the over-the-top-cheesy rrrrrradio musica and rapid chatter of commericals en español. Carly is studying spanish so she’s all eager beaver about speaking spanish to everyone- the servers, the old men sitting at the counter. She nudges me to get involved but I smile weakly and order in english and walk to the table. She was right- the food is authentic. Menudo, queso fresco, tamales (only on the menu for special holidays), soda jarro. Memories memories memories. I try and turn the conversation to winter break, but then they all start getting this idea that we should go to Mexico to experience some culture and lay on beaches and eat mexican food all day. I try not to lash out about how dumb that is. Like every day in Mexico is always a party for everyone- no one experiences pain or sickness or loss. “Been there done that,” I say and promptly spill my coke all over the table due to an over-exaggerated sweeping hand motion. Not cool. As we wipe it up, Kat hisses at me, “What the hell is with you today? Just chill. We all know you’re Mexican and nobody cares.” I blush and flick my hair to the side and spend the rest of the afternoon nodding and smiling.

Nobody cares. Words like that never echo in my brain, like they do in movies. In stead they stamp themselves into my thoughts. I can hardly get through thinking a full sentence without being interrupted by nobody cares. I turn back to my research assignment.” The use of hyperbole and foreshadowing in combination—nobody cares—creates a sense for the reader….” The problem with the phrase nobody cares is it can be multi-interpreted. Does it mean they don’t mind who I am? Or does it mean they really don’t have a care for the issue that concerns me? I ask Kat later. She seems irritated- “Luce,” she tells me, (pronounced Loose, as in I should Loosen Up) “you just need to learn to let go of the things that bother you. Who the hell cares about their past? It’s passed. Groovy? Life is about the present moment and right now, life rocks. You’re smart, you’re independent, you’ve got killer dance moves and a sense of adventure. Go with the flow. We are your friends, we love you. The Lucia Gutierrez-Alvala we know is proud of herself and ready to tackle anything. Mmmkay? If you don’t like your family history, erase it and move on. But don’t keep turning your head back and forth like some owl. Owls are ugly.” I sit on her bed as she tells me this, and watch her curl her hair in front of a mirror. She really is the sister I never had. I just had two brothers- complete with strange macho haircuts and an unhealthy obsession with cars and WWF wrestling. So they’ve grown up a little since then. But I’m sure they’re still the same- punching as a way of showing affection, doting on mamá like she’s god because she cooks her chicken with lard. I thank Kat and head back to my laptop, but before I cross the threshold of her room she stops me and makes me take a shot with her. We giggle and she says You don’t find yourself. You create who you are, girl. And she turns up the music and picks up a tube of lipstick.

-AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks for the poll responses!  As the writing progresses, I have many new thoughts about formatting and the overall layout of the novel.  Things might change up a little bit here and there, as I settle in to the tone and direction of the stories.  Thanks for your patience!  And for those of you who are interested, I have simultaneously started writing about the writing process as I do this.  Feel free to read alongside! http://theblankpagedwriter.wordpress.com/  Cheers!-

He came home, opened the door, as if he knew (and he did know) that the dog was right behind the door, tirelessly wriggling his whole body in anticipation of that door.  They didn’t skip a beat; after a jolly reunion they headed straight for the thin but well-worn footpath.  

            What a particularly annoying day at work, and an extra loud day on the bus.  Thank god for this walk, just two minutes in and my heart starts to beat faster in happy exhilaration from moving my legs, from breathing crisp air, from escaping the squeeze of man-made things.  I’ve got to get a new doctor- that shmuck doesn’t even know what’s good for me.  High blood pressure. Bah. 

The afternoon sun is lower on the horizon.  The nights are producing more and more dew, until one morning we will wake up to white-edged frost painting every jagged leaf and pine.  Makea runs to the right somewhere, her wet nose just barely skimming the surface of the padded ground.  Shafts of sunlight stand tilted between trunks of douglas firs and pasty aspensThe trees have mostly dropped all their cones, as if they were women tossing handkerchiefs at a military parade.  Clay looks at them, and lost in recounting the day, the leaf litter blurs behind his thoughts.

 Pine cones. That little kid kept asking me questions about pine cones today.  He just had to ditch the family outing and interrupt me while I was raking. Reaching into my piles of leaves and needles and holding up a cone, asking me what tree it was from.  Asking what they were for and why they were shaped that way and why some were different colors and why why why why until I shouted at him to go buy a book about pine cones.  His eyes got big and he looked like he might cry and then- I can’t believe it- he started asking more questions!  Where do you buy books about pine cones and do I have one he could borrow and do I like my job and…I mean, I guess the kid had some good questions.  But it was as if his parent’s had never shown him a tree before.  And I’m not about to give the kid a lesson in plant reproduction. 

            He continued hiking up to one of his favorite spots- a grove of aspens in the folded v of a valley.  It was almost perfectly hidden from the trail, and from where he sits, the buzz of the town has completely faded to silent.  He savors the quiet, as if it were a tangible thing to taste on his tongue. His fingers soak into the spongy moss; and he smiles at the sensation that the ground softly gives way to his weight.  The breeze pushes the leaves into making a shushing sound and  gently tumbles through his hair

              It’s amazing the things I miss even when just walking on the trail.  As soon as I stop moving I hear the chick-a-dee-dee-dee singing and I see a nuthatch hopping in curls around a thick branch. Alright, so a plane flies overhead, you can’t completely escape.  But this is where I fit.  Every living thing around me knows its place and purpose and the good sense not to ask why or try and take more than what they need.  No more, no less- this is my definition of equality. 

Pardon the interruption…

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The history of my name.

My mother had been working in the Sitka Hospital as a nurse. She had a patient come in named Steven James. When he was admitted, he was elderly, and very sad. She spoke with him at the bedside, Uncle why are you so sad? He told her, when I go I have no one to bring me back. No one will carry my name on for me. You see, in our culture there is a certain belief of reincarnation. My mom thought about this for a while. Having recently lost her husband, maybe she was looking for a hole to fill. She asked if she could name her first-born son after him. See, mom and Steven are from the same clan. Of course this made him very happy. He began telling everyone on the recovery floor that he was coming back. He passed away three days later. This was in 1991. I was born in 1993. When I was very young, we took a ferry ride to Haines. I remember being excited, and pointing out all the coves and bays that I thought would make the best fishing spots. We would find out later, through a friend of Steven James, that most of his favorite fishing spots were exactly along that route. It appears that his name was not the only part of him that came back.

A story and a history can change a name. A name for a person or an object is not just a word, a label, but a history. This is what I mean- our culture, our people have a name. You hear it and form an image in your mind about what that word means based on your experiences, what you see in the news, what your friends tell you. But if you never bother to ask the owner of the name, will you ever really know what or who they are?

When people would ask: What superpower would you want to have? I always think about having the ability to see people’s thoughts. Not read minds, I mean literally see the images that form in their heads. Like in a thought bubble floating above them. Imagine asking a theater full of people to think of home. One word- and if given a multiple choice test, everyone would be able to identify the same definition. Yet truly, no one has the same definition of home. Some people picture the houses of their parents at childhood. A man visualizes his family spending time together in the living room. Maybe a girl thinks of her entire hometown- all the streets and people evoke a familiar warm sense she names as home. You see? Words are not just a chain of letters, they don’t just symbolize some objective form of an idea. They do not just have definitions, they have meaning, often specific to the reader, the writer, the speaker, the listener. Do you see? What if you could see my thoughts? When I said my name you could see the history, the meaning, the depth behind the letters? Would that change how you see me?

Ha, oh millions.  I really would.  Who wouldn’t?  Okay, well what busy adult wouldn’t?  It reminds me of this article I once read in the New Yorker…you know how kids can’t sit still and they fidget and whine about an hour taking f o r e v e r. . . there is a thought about time that explains why every year seems to pass by faster and faster: If you look at one year as a fraction of your life, then the older you get, each year the denominator gets bigger.  Thus, the fraction gets smaller; meaning that year is a smaller length of your relative experience of time.  So truly, time goes by faster as we age.  For example, a toddler feels like waiting for school to end is eternity because a year is 1/4th of his life. So according to his mom’s age, it’s as if one year is nine years.  One hour in waiting room is nine hours, one more day until Disneyland is nine days!  It makes so much sense.  And most people I know would say I would LOVE to have time work out that way for me.  A weekend becomes a week and lunch breaks last all day.   So maybe the question is not so much changing time, but our perception of it.  Or just becoming kids again. Although to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be a kid again.  I’d take an automatic coffee maker and a fresh martini over toys any day.  When I was growing up, my parent’s always said I was too serious.  I didn’t really like playing with other kids on the playground, I would have rather sat on the park bench and talked about books or what I wanted to be when I grew up.  At birthday parties I had an easier time talking with the moms than their children my age.  And it drove my brother and sister wild that I liked to clean my room.  At that point in my life, I couldn’t wait to be an adult, to complain about not having enough time, to say things like Let’s do lunch and I’ll look at my calendar and see if I can fit it in.  And years later, here I am, just as I had hoped and dreamed.  It is one of my biggest strengths- to be able to measure time.  Where others are late or waste the day, I can tell you:  Lunch can be as quick as 14 minutes if you eat something that doesn’t require a spoon, which leaves 36 minutes to run some errands.  Things like this mean I am terrific at quantifying my day- breaking it into squares of minutes and hours and then re-packing it in like tetris blocks stacked solid.  Maybe that’s what this all really comes down to: I always would have rather played tetris than let’s-pretend-to-be-princesses.   Funny, I haven’t thought of my younger self in a long time.  It’s nice to know I gave myself what I wanted.  And you know, I wouldn’t trade it.  I see all those girls I knew; the ones who played dolls and house now really do have babies and make dinner all day.  The ones who dreamed of princes and heart-throb boyfriends do spend all their time gushing and blushing about how beautiful love is, ignoring the idea that there could be anything else in the world besides one person.  No wonder they say “What a small world!”

Stereotypes of the Co-op

(I am sorry to say that in hearing the word co-op, and it’s description, I imagine a lifestyle similar to the kind depicted in a reality tv show- a la MTV.  Bad romances, wild partying, drama abound.  Please tell me you can dissuade me of this stereotype. )

Ugh. So many people think this.  But it’s not so much that they will ask (so thanks for your direct question!), but I can just see the slight repugnance and disapproval in their eyes. I’ll bet it prevents a lot of people from considering shared housing as a lifestyle, when the reality of it can be so much more rewarding.  In fact, when I spend time in other people’s houses, I often daydream about how it would change if it were a co-op.  The household is more efficient: one person doesn’t have to shoulder the cost of everything, so bulk foods, taking turns cooking, utility bills, all get shared- making it easier and cheaper!  The house is more alive: the rooms and shelves are all full, instead of seeing whole rooms go forgotten, unused, neglected because the house is too big for two people or whatever.  It always produces more well-balanced citizens: everyday is a chance to learn a different way of doing things.  Okay, so the picture I paint in my imagination is a little pie-in-the-sky…Of course, conflicts occur.  Sometimes not everyone wants a disco dance party at 2 am.  Sometimes a housemate of two will get irritated at the number of times they’ve eaten vegan casserole that week.  Sometimes a certain housemate will sweep their downstairs neighbor off their feet, in a very short-lived romance (due to the walk of awkwardness to the breakfast table the next morning).  But everyone’s life has challenges, and I think the result of struggle and strife in a communal and intentional setting results in much more considerate and capable citizens.  I really really do.

(How do you handle all the details and responsibilities of a home, shared between so many interests?)

We have a four hour long meeting every Sunday night.  It sounds intense (and it can get that way!) but generally, we eat dinner, we vote through any number of things, someone facilitates.  It’s like any board of directors; everyone has a different role in the house, we take turns doing chores, we take meeting notes and have an agenda.  That stuff usually goes pretty quickly.  It’s the New Proposals section that eats up the whole evening.  I find it fun and fascinating. Shayna proposes we host a GLBTQ movie night.  She’s a little shy and nervous because she never presents much to the group.  Most people nod, until she names the date and time and gets a few loud protests: Not the weekend before midterms!  How many people did you say you wanted to invite?  100?! And she quickly loses her shyness and her cheeks get flushed and she defends herself fiercely.  These are the moments people become leaders, become advocates, become nay-sayers, draw lines in the sand, get defensive, get offensive, find personal truths or find ways to tell lies for what they believe in.  It’s an amazing thing to watch people develop passion and beliefs.  It’s why I work in politics- because I see politics and government in everyday life.  We (human beings) are constantly forming groups, defining ourselves and others through exclusion and inclusion, asking for leaders to make decisions for us, making trades and rules and rewards and punishments and credos and mission statements.  Whether consciously or not, humanity will always magnetically move towards and with one another, and whether the result of that particular interaction is thriving or decay, we will work at working together tirelessly.  Every politician, economist, historian has a different idea of the best way for us to live together on this little planet.  To me, the point is not the methods or approach.  The point is, we are not like tigers in the jungle who live singularly and alone.  We are not even like bees who live in huge, organized colonies with one collaborative purpose.  We are this funny little species; we like to ask questions and share the answers with each other; we’d rather work together, for better or for worse; we form preferences for mates and friends based on inexplicable reasons; our whole history as a species is an inquisitive step towards each other, and a refusal to completely run away no matter what we see.  It’s illogical and beautiful.