Chapter 23: My Alaskan Adventure Takes Shape

On August 2 (my 23rd birthday, for all of you interested in buying me lots and lots of presents), I will head to Portland, Oregon for my orientation with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. After a week there, meeting with all the Northwest volunteers and staff, learning about JVC as an organization, and bonding with my new community members, I will fly to Sitka, Alaska where I will spend the next year of my life.

I’ve had a lot of fun telling people I’m headed to Alaska, but sometimes I omit a few details, so here’s a run down of what I know of the place and how my time there will look:

I will be working for an organization called Sitkans Against Family Violence (SAFV) as a women’s advocate. SAFV has a 27 bed shelter. I know some of what my job will entail, but recognize that I have A LOT to learn. As I understand it, I will go through a pretty thorough training for several weeks (months?) before I do much on my own. My tasks will include intake, accompanying those who seek our shelter services, paperwork (as all social work does) and as far as I can tell basically doing whatever is needed to meet the immediate needs of the women and children who come there.

As a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) I will be living with 5 other JVs who will also be serving in Sitka for the same August 2010-August 2011 period. There is one other volunteer who will work at the same organization as me as the “children’s advocate,” but the other volunteers work with different organizations in town. So five lovely ladies from all around the U.S. will be my community. Most JVC houses are co-ed, but we happen to be an all-female house. All the girls and I have emailed, “introduced” ourselves, and started discussing our upcoming year together. My friend Ian from Gonzaga, who will be starting his second year of JVC in Juneau, AK, has already challenged us to become the best all-female house in JVC history. I mentioned this to the girls in an email and I think we are all up to taking the challenge!

I have really enjoyed hearing all the tidbits of advice/information that people feel the need to share with me when I tell them I am moving to Alaska. My favorite comment so far was from my Uncle Ray who said, “Oh, you know what they say about Alaska: For women, the odds are good. But the goods are odd!”

Sitka is the fourth largest town in Alaska at about 8500 people. In summer, I understand it’s packed with tourists from cruise ships; the rest of the year I hear it rains. To be more specific, about 86 inches of rain annually. Awesome. My grandma asked what I wanted for my birthday and I said a new raincoat. Seriously… I’m going to REI next week to get it. But, I did request to be in Alaska and I am VERY excited to go to a BEAUTIFUL place and soak it all up. Sitka is one of the biggest commercial fishing ports in Alaska and also has quite a lot of Russian and Native Alaskan history.

Besides my job, I hear the recreational opportunities are GREAT (sea-kayaking anyone?!). I will be doing as many outdoor things as possible and yes, you will read about this on this blog (if you keep checking that is!). I have also sent in my application to work as a mentor with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Alaska, where one of my community members will be working. As for what else will fill my time, well I’ll just have to wait and see 🙂

I have had many friends this first year out of college join JVC and they have had wonderful experiences. As a few of them are wrapping up their time as a JV, I’m just getting started. I’ve heard many great stories and listened to their triumphs and challenges throughout the year. JVC’s motto “Ruined for Life” sums up many of their experiences. I’m excited to have my own stories and also be “ruined.” Here is a reflection from my friend Emma who is finishing her year as a JV in Portland, Maine:

In the Hallway

“Miss Ackels, can I talk to you in the hallway?”

“Of course you can, Alex.”

My little 4th grade student led me into the hallway after school, and suddenly she started crying.
Amidst her tears and sobs, I caught only fragments of what she said.

“My teacher yelled at me… homework is too hard… they made fun of me… horrible day…”

I listened. Just listened. There wasn’t much I could say. I talked with her for a while, and then I
sent her to the bathroom to take care of herself.

“Take your time—take as long as you need,” I said. “Then come back when you’re ready.”

“Ok.”

Later that afternoon, she gave me a grateful hug as she left to go home.

Those moments in the hallway captured my heart. As a JV at Cathedral School in
Portland, Maine, I spent a lot of time in the school’s hallways. Although the school struggles
financially, it strives to provide a good education to its students—most of whom are immigrants
and refugees from war-torn countries in Africa. I taught Spanish, ran an after school program,
and assisted in various classrooms. Thus, as I moved from room to room, I spent a lot of time in
the hallway.

In the hallway 1st graders ran to me with hugs, and 3rd graders greeted me with jokes. It
was in the hallway that I told an 8th grader how proud I was that she raised her grades. And it
was in the hallway that I spoke seriously with a 7th grader about his behavior. A 4th grader taught
me, crying on the floor of the hallway, that children desperately need to know they are loved. A
7th grader taught me, through a humbling hallway conversation, that sometimes even a teacher
must ask a student for forgiveness. In the hallway I came to know my students, and they changed
me.

It was in the hallway that I decided to do a second year of JVC. After school one day, my
3rd grader Kevin asked, “Are you coming back next year?” I told him I didn’t know yet. “You
should,” he said, “You should come back.” And that was it. In that moment, I chose to do a
second year. He saw something good in me and told me what to do. So I did it.
Several months later, I finally decided to serve my second year in a new city, at a
new placement: Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, I will
coordinate after school programs for urban middle school students. My second year is for
them. In a society that tells them they aren’t smart, successful, or beautiful, I hope to show
them they are loved. In a world where they are pushed into the margins and into under-funded,
overpopulated schools, I hope to work toward offering them the opportunities and education they
deserve. In the end, I hope to give all I can to these beloved children, knowing in humility that
they will give more to me.

On the last day of school at Cathedral School in Portland, my little 4th grader Alex
came to me in the hallway. She gave me a hug, and she wouldn’t stop. I told her it was
time to say goodbye, but she still held on. It was about a minute before she finally let go.
What Alex doesn’t know is that I feel the same way. I am struggling to let go of this
experience and this place—my first year of JVC. But as I walk out the hallways of one school, I
walk into the hallways of another. I go toward my second year knowing that the moments when
I will make the most difference, learn the most insight, and be the most heartbroken will be the
unexpected moments in the hallway.

Please Laugh While Traveling

It is crucial while traveling that you have something great to read.

While on the road with Leslie and Caleb last month, we stopped at Barnes and Noble on our second day, mostly to enjoy air conditioning, but also to sit and be quiet with our respective books for a few hours. I picked up Anna Karenina and plowed through the introduction (I’m currently stuck somewhere around page 310, you know, the page when a normal novel finishes), Caleb found himself a graphic novel and got absolutely engrossed in it, and Leslie doodled, wrote letters, and glanced at a few selections from various shelves.

But what reunited us from our individual literary endeavors was the book “Stuff Christians Like.” It has a bright yellow cover and it (almost) literally jumped off the shelf at me. I brought it over to show them, we read the first page of the introduction, and we immediately designated it our official road trip book. The deal was that we could only read it out loud in the car when all three of us were traveling together. For the days when we were separate in the car, there was absolutely no reading ahead. Caleb STRICTLY enforced this rule. After four weeks of travel we arrived in Stoughton, Wisconsin at Caleb’s house and we had about forty pages remaining, which we very appropriately finished together reading it aloud in Caleb’s kitchen before I departed for my drive to Missouri.

The thing about this book is that 1) it’s hilarious 2) it’s 99.9% accurate and 3) it’s not funny to Catholics because it mostly just makes fun of the ridiculous things that Protestants do. Jon Acuff is the author, a member of a mega church in Atlanta, and he also maintains a blog at, predictably . . . stuffchristianslike.net (click on link at right if interested). For all of you wondering, yes it started as a take-off of “Stuff White People Like,” but it’s just as good, if not better. I don’t really think he needs for me to plug his book or his blog because based on the number of comments (approximately 200 times my amount of comments per post) he is wildly popular already. I have, however, been surprised by the number of people in the Northwest who I have mentioned him to who have never heard of him or his book. Mostly, I would like to thank Jon for causing me to laugh so hard that I cried by the time I was on page 15 (and many other times) and for helping the many many miles across the country go much faster than I thought possible (maybe Caleb’s driving had something to do with that as well :-p)

Reading hilarious books aloud is nothing new to me and my friends though. My friends and I were once the wild campers at Camp Ghormley who spent our cabin clean up time everyday after breakfast reading Bill Bryson’s I’m A Stranger Here Myself. We were heading into 9th grade in the fall; obviously we were the coolest campers there . . . We even tried to read one of his essays aloud instead of creating our own skit to share with the rest of camp. I can simply summarize how that situation played out by saying that we were the only ones laughing, on stage, in front of a silent/confused audience. Clearly we were just ahead of our time!

Since returning to Seattle, Stuff Christians Like has been read aloud at our family dinner table, shared during happy hour, and explained to many others. Please enjoy. And don’t forget to pick up a funny book next time you travel, because who doesn’t need a laugh when navigating America’s transit systems?!

Hey, What Building is That?


Being A Tourist, Learning the Dublin Map

Originally uploaded by lizpurdy05

I’ll be the first to admit that I would not have survived my semester abroad without the help of Rick Steves. Ok, I would have survived, but I would have learned a lot less. At one point in Siena, Italy while touring the Duomo there (yes, there is one in Florence and Siena), I put my Rick Steves Italy guidebook back in my bag because the American family standing next to me was reading aloud about three words in front of the word I was currently reading to myself in my identical guidebook. It wasn’t just in that moment that it hit me, but at that point it certainly became undeniable: I am like every other stupid tourist here right now.

When I toured around the Uffizi in Florence, Rick (yes, we are on a first name basis, have been for years) was my tour guide once again, literally telling me which rooms to walk into, what angle to look at the paintings from, and added his own comic tone to my historical art viewing. It was incredibly helpful, but I couldn’t help feeling like my travel experience wasn’t unique and perhaps not even very authentic. My good friend Lucas, who was studying in Florence at the time, and I got into a fairly lengthy discussion regarding traveling vs. tourism, how they differ and what the purposes are of each. We discussed it during his trip to London on a long walk through Hyde Park after visiting the wealthy neighborhood of Notting Hill, and we continued sharing our various thoughts during my visit to Italy and beyond since we both returned home over two years ago.

The other day, I was looking through the wonderful, very large scrapbook my mother put together of my semester abroad and in it I had quotes from various trips I took (mostly found on this blog actually from 2008 posts) one of which was a brief exchange between me, Lucas, and our friend Emma when we were all in Rome together:

Me: What building is that over there?

Lucas: I don’t know, but I feel like it’s a big deal.

Emma: I feel like you look around this city and there are like 50 big deals.

I’m pretty sure if I heard my 20-year old self having that conversation today, I would not like myself at all. We found it comical at the time, and it in a sense, it was, but it is also alarming how little I knew about my location and the history that surrounded me. So having come to no real conclusion on the topic (because after all you have to see the Duomo) and having continued to travel regularly since then I have had these ideas of 1) travel vs. tourism and 2) knowing a place by visiting vs. knowing a place by living there, in my mind for some time.

Just today I ran across someone who has obviously thought this one through, David Foster Wallace. Maybe everyone knows about this writer, but I just read his Consider the Lobster essay for the first time today and liked what he had to say. It reminded me not only of a few of my experiences in Europe, but definitely addresses exactly what I saw much of the time in Jackson Hole/Grand Teton when I encountered tourists (which is about every five seconds during July and August). For the record, he wrote an article in the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine on the Maine Lobster Festival, but besides just relaying his experiences there, he asks some bigger questions about, for example, the ethics of eating animals and this bit below appears as a footnote. I think it’s exceptional. So here’s Wallace’s two cents on American tourism:

“I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample the ‘local flavor’ that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists . . .

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part the my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

Ok, “an insect on a dead thing” is a bit harsh, but at least it gives you a visual of something you NEVER want to be. And now that I have that mental picture, I’m going to do everything I can not to become, or be one again.

Let’s Get Organized!

Disclaimer: This is not a post about an amazing adventure I have had or a crazy story about any service I have done. Sometimes you have to mention the ordinary and this is about the plain old everyday.

I’ve been home almost two weeks during which I have been learning numerous things about myself and my belongings. Most of these revelations have been prompted by the massive room clean out I have been attempting. After about three years of constantly running in and out of Seattle, a pretty serious box catastrophe has piled up in my room. I think the first wrong move I made was in the summer of 2007 when I came home from college for the summer and decided to repaint my room unaware of what that truly entailed. Turns out when you have to strip wallpaper first, the “painting” process becomes much longer. In an effort to make progress I boxed up everything in my room and then proceeded to sleep on the couch for the next two months while my room was in a state of disarray. (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Annie Mesaros and Mike Demmert for assisting me in this project. Without their enthusiasm I’m confident I would still be sleeping on the couch).

All to say that my room has never really recovered from the repainting of 2007 and my rapid returns and departures to and from my various nomadic adventures have only perpetuated the cycle of disorder. As I’m currently in Seattle for the longest amount of time since 2007, I am making an attempt to repair several years of organizational damage. After leaving Jubilee and preparing to join JVC, both organizations which focus on SIMPLE living, I’m trying to look at my chaotic collection of material possessions with a fresh perspective. Here’s what I think so far:

1) I must never purchase another pen in my life. Huge quantities of pens from random businesses and hotels appear in the most ridiculous locations–for instance, in my sunglasses case in the top drawer of my dresser. How? I have no idea. But it’s likely that we end up with so many because pens are perhaps the #1 most stealable item. Why buy when you’ve accumulated 20 in your purse in the past month?

2) I cannot receive lotion as a gift anymore. I’m sorry, I just can’t. I have approximately 20 travel size bottles of various lotions from who knows where. I am, however, never able to locate these at the necessary time resulting in the purchase of a large bottle of Nivea at the drugstore.

3) It’s ok to throw away birthday cards from 1996. How long, really, do you have to keep personal notes and holiday/birthday cards? It was an awkward situation, but it was just time to let a few shoe boxes full of Hallmark cards go.

4) I have approximately one journal for every year of my life and almost all of them are empty. Or, the first fives pages are full, then I got distracted, didn’t follow through on recording my daily happenings and forgot about it. Until . . . I got another journal! And I wrote in the first five pages and then . . .

5) Magazines are the root of all clutter evil. If I didn’t read the Ski magazine when it arrived in November 2007, I’m certainly not going to read it in July 2010. Put that pile in the recycle right now!

So, is my room clean after all these revelations? Don’t be ridiculous, of course not. I have too many pens, bottles of lotion, and journals sitting around for it to be clean. At least I got rid of those magazines!

Classroom Learnings

Let me tell you a story about Sai Meh.

She’s a 30-year-old Karenni woman who left the refugee camp in Thailand to move to the United States one year ago with her three children and her 38-year-old husband who has throat cancer. They came to Jubilee in August 2009 and Sai Meh was in the English class I taught for my entire time at Jubilee. Not that I had favorites as a teacher . . . but she was my favorite. She worked hard everyday, even though everyday, without fail, she asked me how to spell the word “weather.” She laughed at herself (to the point of tears one time!) when she made mistakes and she remembered the most random words, like “lucky,” which she’d throw into a sentence just to surprise me sometimes. When I said goodbye to her (almost) six weeks ago, she burst into tears as I hugged her goodbye.

“Teacher, I very sad you leave,” she repeated. Tears streamed down my face and my chest hurt even more when I told her that I didn’t think I could come back to Georgia to visit within the next year, knowing that I was committed to my JVC year in Alaska.

As with all the refugees, pronunciation is a serious issue when they learn English. Sai Meh’s English had improved SO much since she arrived at Jubilee (I’m told) and there was a noticeable difference from my arrival in January to my departure in May. Despite being able to hold a decent conversation, the other teachers and I decided it would be a good idea to really work on pronunciation. So, I went to class a couple months ago prepared with a sheet which had two columns of words that rhymed, but had different beginning combo letter sounds (example: chair vs. share, chip vs. ship), for her to read aloud. The other students in class happened to be absent for medical appointments that day, so I knew we would make some serious progress as we repeated and practiced the ch, sh sounds.

As we went through the words, I tried to also make sure she was familiar with each of the definitions. When we arrived at the word “ship” she looked up and said, “Teacher, I don’t know.”

“Yeah you do, it’s like a boat. You know, ” I walked to the board, drew my finest two-dimensional sailboat and pointed, “a boat.”

“Oh yes, boat,” she replied making that “ah-ha!” head motion convincing me that she clearly knew what she was talking about. “Yes, boat, very scary.”

Feeling a little concerned that perhaps she wasn’t actually grasping what I was talking about after all, I pried further, “What? Why is a boat scary?”

And there began the explanation of her escape from Burma at age 16 when she left her family, climbed into an over-crowded boat attempting to successfully cross the river to Thailand where she hoped her life would no longer be threatened by the Burmese government. Other people, desperate to leave Burma, kept climbing on board, but they couldn’t take any more people. Not exactly in these words, but through hand motions and what descriptive words she knew, she explained how they threw materials overboard as water began coming into the boat, in an attempt to keep the boat from completely sinking. As the water rose many people lost many things along the crossing.

When she arrived in Thailand, she hiked for one month up a mountain to reach the refugee camp on the other side. She ate “cookies” along the way and asked people for food and help. Don’t ask me how, but she made it to the refugee camp, and at some point shortly after, reconnected with her family.

She finished her story and the small classroom was silent. Uhh… let’s just say, it was a little hard to return to the lesson plan at this point. Frankly, I didn’t really give a shit if she could say ship. I knew she knew what a boat was, and I knew she knew that a boat was scary because she had to risk her life getting in one in order to save her life.

During all those classes of her laughter and dedicated hard work, I had honestly forgotten that she had run for her life. I had forgotten she was hated by the Burmese government simply because of where she was born and the family she was born into. She had come to the United States hoping life was better than what she had experienced before. I learned that she persevered. I learned she is a refugee.