Wander Into –

A Collection of Journeys

What if October 29, 2012

Green 6 in front of a Redwood.

This week was full of sleepy eyes and fraying nerves. As our hearts became heavier with the yearning for home or some semblance of it, it took us depending on our team, and really examining our personal coping skills for us to survive. Almost 30 people have decided to leave the program in the two and a half weeks we have been here. It’s hard to say their reasons – other opportunities, inability to follow policy, a want for comfort in the midst of change – whatever it was, it has cut their time short in Sacramento. Maybe their journey was never supposed to lead them here. Whatever the case, people leaving often brings up the question of what we would be doing if we hadn’t joined NCCC. It has created a ‘what if’ culture on our campus. This week, my team learned that the ‘what ifs’ are the things that can hurt us the most.

Green 6 traveled to Camp Mendocino for three days this week, a 4 hour drive Northwest of Sacramento. It is affiliated with the Boys and Girls Club, and is considered to be “off the grid”. They are a self-sufficient operation, using generators for electricity and filtering their own water onsite. The camp is lost in a forest of giants. Mountains and old growth Redwoods surrounded us, dwarfing our sense of importance.

Challenge course

The trip there was meant to act as a mini spike (The term “spike” comes from the 1930s CCC, a model for our own program. It basically means our 6-8 week assignment). We practiced our driving skills, found out what housing for a project might look like, and got to help out with some trail maintenance. Of course, there was time to do some camp-like things as well: hiking, campfire, and challenge course.

Challenge courses are meant to shed light on both strengths and weaknesses as a team in terms of communication, leadership, and flexibility, among other things. A good challenge course facilitator lets you get frustrated or fail, which is exactly what our facilitator did. By the end of the day, we realized that we were so afraid of being wrong, that more than half the time, we didn’t event try. It wasn’t until the exercise was over that we understood our wasted potential. The reason we were so frustrated with each other was not because we were doing it wrong, but rather because we saw fear becoming a barrier. The facilitator left us with parting words that I hope our team will bring with us as we work and live together: You’re going to be afraid to fail, but you’re going to fail anyway. You will not always get it right, but accept that it will happen and keep moving forward. Never be afraid to try. Never be afraid of the what if.  

Challenge course

There is a marked difference between questioning and what ifs. Questions push a person to seek, and test their motivation to find the answer. Genuine questions are the ones that teach us the most. What ifs make us stagnant people, unable to move forward due to fear or anxiety. What ifs immobilize our sense of adventure and intuition.

Tree hugger

To a certain extent, each person on my team and in the NCCC program is a wanderer, a what if asker. It is not being content stagnant in our knowledge that leads us into the wild and forgotten places. Sometimes we are found in these places only to be lost in ourselves, in the what ifs. Through the fields and rose bushes; under the clouded, speckled sky, and into the deep forest we search for newness and answers. What if I changed my setting? What if I didn’t take this opportunity? What can we learn from the hum of the van tires below us? Each passing mile has the potential to scar us and heal us at the same time; what if either happened? What if…? It isn’t always in adventure we are searching; it is in the new serenity and potential of places. The land has a vastness to it so as the sky meets to kiss the horizon. Maybe these mountains in the distance will get us higher to the heavens where we will find the answers. There is an unquenchable spirit in our hearts, a longing for answers that will only be found once we have turned the world over.

My what if statements are the ones that rule my mind some days. It’s inevitable. I’ll spend too much time worrying about the thoughts or reactions of others. I’ll spend too much time worrying what a typical 23 year-old would or should be doing otherwise. I’ll spend too much time worrying what or if I’ll ever commit to a job, a person, or a place. The what ifs are creeping into our team as we explore, not only the state around us, but each other as friends, companions, and confidants, and I can only hope we grow out of this phase soon. I look forward to learning our first “spike” assignment tomorrow, which will, at the very least, help one of our what ifs pass – where we’ll be living and working for 6-8 weeks starting November 7.

I can’t seem to get a good grasp of what I learned this week because I feel as though neither my team nor I have quite come out the other side of it yet. We are still frozen in our what if for the moment. Sometimes life doesn’t pack our lessons into neat, scheduled packages. We are still attempting to hold the space for each other, giving one another time to figure out what we need to know about ourselves and the team. Given time, I am confident we will abolish the what if.

Photos courtesy of Rachel Thompson

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We are Whole People October 21, 2012

California sunset.

During college, a fellow student once told me a story about one of his first days of class. His professor walked in that morning, and his first words to the students were, “You are all ugly.” There were a few gasps, and a lot of confused faces. He continued on to say, “You are all ugly because I don’t know you yet. It happens each semester. By showing me who you are throughout this class, in your uniqueness and diversity, I might change my opinion by the end.” Sure enough, the professor walked into the classroom on the last day of class and scanned the room. He smiled a little and said, “What a lovely looking bunch of people.”

Our lovely uniforms.

Ok, so our uniforms really are ugly. They were issued this week, complete with gray shirts with the Americorps emblem, and khaki cargo pants that are higher waisted than your grandmother’s. I must say, they are very attractive, making even the curviest woman look androgynous. While the uniforms made us all look the same, it was this week that we started to differ. The surface level knowledge of my team members’ story cracked, exposing both the beautiful and the harsh of our personalities, backgrounds, and aspirations. This week, we became whole people.

It takes time for preconceptions to melt, for us to let our guard down, and to let others see the person beyond the face in front of them. In our first weeks here, we have been challenged to peer deeper. We did a training this week called Hands of Peace, focused on active listening and communication.  It was one of those trainings that exemplifies the saying, “You only get out of it what you put in.” We had the chance to pour out our own stories if we trusted in the fact that someone would listen and take them seriously.

 

Part of knowing each other is having fun. Tool training. Looking good, Green 6!

We did a series of activities where we would have 2 minutes of uninterrupted time to talk to a partner. The other person was not allowed to say anything during this time, and it was only through non-verbal cues that they could respond. There was one span of 2 minutes that we could only fill with positive things about ourselves. There couldn’t be any qualifiers – no buts. For example, I couldn’t say, “I think I’m a good runner, but I’m not as fast as a lot of people.” I found that there was more trust in this activity than in any of the other trainings we’ve done. I hold humility close to my heart, finding it to be one of the most important traits a person can hold. I had to trust my partner not to judge me for the things I held as important, that I wasn’t bragging, and that I could trust enough to let my guard down; all the while, he had to trust that I was being honest. It is in situations such as these you can read people the best – they must consciously decide to be vulnerable. Walls came down, and I came out of it knowing much more about the people around me, finding out deeper things besides their favorite color or number of pets. We are becoming whole people.

Upon first meeting new people, I believe we are all caricatures of ourselves. Seeing things like compassion or loyalty in an individual takes time to expose. A shallow understanding is the first definition of these people. For example, I know his name is John and he is from Virgina. There is no fault in this, as I said, discovering truths takes time. Sharing a majority of my time with Green 6 in trainings and leisure time has sped up the process. I am beginning to see tics, the way a teammate kneads hands while talking, or seconds taken to gather thoughts before speaking. It’s in the way they ask those questions that aren’t prompted, or their reaction when I do, that I am seeing their truths. With their permission or not, I am finding out about my team through their sincere gestures – positive or otherwise.

It’s also the point in time where we begin to see each others’ faults and flaws. Perfection is no longer an option in opinion. This is a good thing. The longer someone believes you are perfect, the more they will be let down to know that you are not. Seeing someone as a whole person, mistakes and all, helps us to understand them, to be empathetic to their situation, and to interact in a more genuine and effective way. If there is anything I have learned thus far in my life, it is that we may not be perfect, but that does not make us less of a person. We are all beautifully and wonderfully made.

But, it’s not just in the unconscious ways of communication we define each other. Most thoroughly it is through genuine responses and honest conversation – those questions that go beyond where you’re from and what your major was. We are becoming more and more unafraid to seek those answers because we are beginning to truly care for one another. It’s a beautiful thing to watch progress, but sometimes it’s frightening as well. It’s scary to delve into others’ lives, knowing that I now hold the trust of that person, knowing that they too have to hold up their end of the bargain. Friendship is forming that delicate bond – carefully stepping, and sometimes mis-stepping.

Each team was asked to make a charter that would serve as their guidelines for their months of service. Like any friends should, we will be holding each other accountable to these things. Like any person, there will be times we will fail. Like any family, we will pick each other up when we do.

1. Respect

2. Clean Communication

3. Be Flexible

4. Accountability

5. No Judgement

6. Work as aTeam

7. Include Everyone

8. Ask for Help

9. Try

10. Have Fun

We are full of joy and love and faults and insecurities and life. We are whole people.

 

Strength in Difference October 14, 2012

Welcome to California.

Welcome to Sacramento.

Welcome to the next 10 months of travel and adventure found in the diversity of experience and ourselves.

I arrived in Sacramento 4 days ago in a haze of jet lag and excitement. I was surrounded by people who believed in the worth of doing the sometimes hard or monotonous work to serve others. It was one of the most inspirational things to realize. 285 of us, ages 18-24 settled into our dorms at the retired McClellan Air Force Base, ready to start the next chapter of our lives. We will be on this campus for the next month completing trainings on the heart of the mission of NCCC, and covering topics such as culture competency, potential projects for the coming year, and how to drive the dreaded 15 passenger van.

Green 6

Over the past 4 days, we were split up into teams of 10, plus a team leader. There are 4 units on this campus, identified by different colors: Gold, Blue, Silver, and Green; each with 7 teams of 10 on them. I am team Green 6, evenly split with 5 young women and 5 young men as Corps members, plus one team leader. These are the 10 people I will be working and living closely with during my time in Americorps NCCC. We come from different states and cultures, hailing from the far reaches of this country, to a couple states over; the oldest of us being 23, and the youngest just out of high school at age of 18. I am confident I will learn something from each of them; and though I feel like one of the old ladies of the group, I hope I can use the experiences I’ve already had to help others realize their worth as well.

I keep stressing that I don’t know where this journey will take me, but it seems that I won’t have the answer for months and months down the road. For now, each day here is unique, and every day I meet more and more people. Though most of our trainings so far have been about the Americorps NCCC policy, it has still given us a chance to socialize and grow together. I have never been somewhere where so many people are open to speaking with, playing with, and all around getting to genuinely know the people around them. It’s lovely. These first few days seem to be much more about self-exploration and satisfaction than service for others, but I think that’s ok. We are finding our purpose and place here, and I think that will help us to grasp more firmly to our mission when times get tough.

It’s 80 degrees here!

Last year, I struggled a lot with introversion, and overcoming my own prejudices with it. I viewed my quiet nature as a negative trait of my personality.  For the first half of my experience in New Hampshire, wished I was someone else – perhaps more confident or outspoken. It’s funny how you are shaped by the people you choose to let into your life. They can have such an impact on your view of the world, and either help you see your worth, or crush your spirits. Thankfully, I was surrounded, though not in terms of physical distance, by the former. A good friend sent me this message on a day that I was feeling of little worth in my quietness, and was highly envying a co-workers outspoken nature.  “You are such an inspiration to me just because of who you are. And who you are is not and cannot be ——. And I’m really glad because I need Chrissy Lynne in my life and not ——. ” She went on to remind me that it is only through who I am, completely unique from anyone else, that I was making an impact. By the end of last year, I came to realize how much of a gift my introversion was through the lessons I learned in moments of listening, in silence, and in reflection. It is in reading the quiet between the words that we can sometimes find the meaning behind them.This year, I am already finding that being truthful with who I am and what I need as an introvert is keeping me happier and more sane being around so many people all the time.

My duffle bag with all my possessions in it for the next 10 months.

We are always told that this isn’t going to be easy. I came into this thinking about the most obvious things that aren’t easy for people: mostly being away from home or being nervous that they wouldn’t fit in with the people around them. Being confident that I had already conquered these things in New Hampshire, I had no nervous spark coming into this experience. I was just anxious to learn. I am coming to see, however, that my reflection of “not going to be easy”, though not homesickness, will be creating new relationships while still treasuring and maintaining the ones already established. It’s going to be a delicate balance of finding trust in others’ listening ears, being present for the moments that will have the most impact on me, and creating my own future through the decisions I make. It is when I move to a new place that I know most that the support system I built before this adventure will still be behind me, no matter how far I roam. This is when I realize my life is beautifully dotted with the colors of others, and the enormous worth that comes with it. For that, I am so thankful.

I have come to California with the worth of my introversion already found, and the beauty of my support system already in place. Hopefully, others will find their worth in themselves through this experience, and be able to build up others from it. This is what it’s about – finding strengths and creating something truly amazing from it.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. ~ Leo F. Buscaglia

 

The Volunteer Life October 6, 2012

It helps to understand where a person has been, when one tries to see where that person is going. In 3 days, I will begin my newest adventure in California with the Americorps NCCC program – this is the ‘going’ part. 8 weeks ago, I ended my adventure in New Hampshire with the Americorps VISTA program – this is where I’ve been.

I started the VISTA program in Manchester, New Hampshire in August, 2011, about 3 months after I graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Like many college graduates, the two pieces of paper I was handed at the end of 4 years, full of coffee rings and mental meltdowns, didn’t quite seem a fitting end, nor was it suitable as the beginning to a ‘real-world’ transition. Unlike my friends planning on graduate school, neither of my two degrees (Exercise Science & English/Creative Writing…don’t worry, you and everyone else has already told me what an interesting combination this is.) promised much of a thrilling future beyond picking up sweaty towels in a gym, or being a starving artist on my parent’s couch.

The Americorps VISTA program was nothing more than a whim to satisfy both myself and society that I was looking for employment. I would have never guessed that 4 days after I submitted my resume and application, I would have landed a job at The Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, working toward, what I consider, a highlight of my young adult life.

The whole point of being a VISTA is to build sustainability in a program or event that somehow impacts low income residences in the community to which you are placed. “Fighting poverty” at its best, if you will. Basically, it’s a non-profit’s shot at a dream program with free labor to build it. In my case, I was the Race Director for a 5k fundraiser, and a Fitness Liaison to a healthy habits program for clients called In SHAPE. I spent my days on sponsorship calls or assisting with food logs. Week to week, it was never the same. In the end, the 5k made around $9,500 for charitable mental health services at MHCGM, and I had created diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle resources for the In SHAPE program.

It’s hard to describe the significance of the entire year in a short blog post. The most shocking, enlightening, and noteworthy experiences being the ones that were just part of living as a volunteer hovering on the poverty line. Personal life couldn’t but help mix with work as what I saw waiting in the food stamp line, running to the noise of gunshots, and meeting a person who only moments before had been brave enough to decide not to take her own life, made me work harder everyday to give the world a bit more hope. I have come to realize, however, that the experience would have broken me completely if I would not have had the support and love of others both near and hundreds of miles away. I’m working toward a novella on the subject, but until then, I suppose the numbers will have to do.

Some of the wonderful people I met in New Hampshire. They were my support system.

People don’t really understand volunteering as a job.  Going into my second year of it, I still find it difficult to describe. There were multiple times last year I was called a student, an intern, or just “kid”. Some people only saw me as a naive and optimistic youth, eager to impact a world that they’ve already tried to change, with their attitudes prevailing as cynical, and minds already made up on how the world has to be. However,  I also met people who felt like they empowered others and made some sort of change. Those I met like this, though often worn out, were encouraging, and willing to keep pouring out to made others’ lives better.  Last year, I found out that both make up the non-profit world, and, no matter how cynical or hopeful a person is, there were always going to be days that each of these attitudes come into play – it’s only human.

I spent a lot of time searching for fulfillment on the days I was a cynic -when I felt like I was spending a year working toward a purpose I was unsure of, for people I had never met, and a community I did not grow up in. I was looking for who the people around me needed me to be, and why my journey had led me to New Hampshire as a volunteer. As it happens in most good journeys, the answers find you. My last few weeks, I was able to write some of my findings:

View from Mt. Monadnock, NH

VISTA has been an experience in expectations, in melting preconceptions, in making mistakes. I came here with the general idea of serving people. I’m leaving wondering who exactly those people are. It has taught me that I have a lot more invested in instant gratification than I previously would have thought. Though I long to see the results of my race or the resources I helped build in In SHAPE, I probably won’t. Maybe my impact was meant more for the people around me – my service to friends and family instead of clients. My mother told me, near the middle of this process, when I was still searching for something and somewhere to grasp on to, that I wasn’t actually looking for something that tangible – I was looking for my heart. This year has helped me discover how much it lies in other people and their genuineness, compassion, and yearning for adventure. My dad told me at the beginning of all this, “You can do anything for a year, ” and so, it seems I have. I am realizing that if I can make my years as distinct and creative as this one, I will come out of this life with a whole lot of anythings, and maybe a bit knowledge to pass on as well. Live deliberately. Be present. Know that your anythings stack up in this beautiful experience called life. And so, New Hampshire, thank you for being my anything and teaching me a little about, well, everything. Where has this year of travel and adventure led me? Surely not the same place I started. Surely not as the same person I started. In this whirlwind as I arrive home, it’s hard to distinguish where I’ve been, who I’ve known, and what I should now call home. Knowing the truth in serving others still stands, I can hardly decipher the rest of experience, and only hope that I left myself enough annotations in this dog-eared chapter to figure out what I’ve learned.

So, now I am here – on the cusp of my next great adventure, hoping that the answers will find me again: waiting and listening, heart eager, eyes open. Ready to serve. Ready to love.